DC’s Top 50 Women In Tech page 4

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Melinda RogersChief Information Security OfficerDepartment of Justice

"There is always a new and interesting project or challenge … and sometimes multiple ones on a given day, so perhaps I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie."

The Department of Justice houses some of the nation’s most sensitive criminal justice data, and Melinda Rogers is charged with leading a team of security professionals to help keep that data out of the wrong hands. Her staff is focused on providing 24/7 security for all divisions within the department, but she added that she also works “across the federal government on security matters” with agencies of “all shapes and sizes.” 

In the past year, she’s particularly proud of how her team has expanded their “incident forensics capabilities” and better implemented tools to “restrict the flow of sensitive information.” Rogers believes these varied responsibilities give her a chance to deal with a range of issues, from litigation to law enforcement.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?

I have faced a variety of challenges during my career, but I think the biggest one would be my move from the commercial sector to public service. Both deal with personnel, stakeholders, technology and processes, but the emphasis and mindset required moves from one of revenue generation to serving the country and satisfying the U.S. public. Whether it is answering to Congress, the Executive Office of the President, the Government Accountability Office, or internal DOJ stakeholders, I have learned that public service requires me to understand the different perspectives, then plan and act accordingly.

What advice do you have for young women pursuing a STEM career?

I think certainly having confidence is key. Be confident in your ability, be confident in your decisions and be confident in yourself. I think it’s important for all of us federal employees and women in the space to do our best to inspire those around us, build loyalty among our team and instill trust. That trust has to come from your leaders, your peers and those who support you, so they know what you’re doing. Be willing to admit mistakes. You want to be confident, but you don’t want to overdo it, so it’s a balance. Word hard, get to know your stuff, get to know your work, and be confident in the decisions you make, and if you make a mistake, learn from your mistake, recover from it, and do better next time.

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

I can’t say it’s one person, it’s actually a relatively new field … My background is primarily in business strategy and product management, and from there I was able to successfully parlay my previous experience working on identity fraud prevention products into what I currently do in the federal government. From there, my first position in the federal government was on the policy compliance side, and through that experience, I was able to continue to pick up and expand on additional responsibilities and eventually took on the position of staff director, which is also the chief information security officer for the department, and now my role not just encompasses policy but also security operations. So I’ve got the whole spectrum.

Dawn LeafChief Information OfficerDepartment of Labor

"I like being in the role of a change agent."

After working for two decades in the private sector, Dawn Leaf realized her career path would take her to a high-level position in marketing. But she wanted to work in technology.

Now, as CIO of the Department of Labor, she has been able to expand the agency’s IT initiatives — adding a disaster recovery capability program and developing data-sharing programs to support the Fair Pay Safe Workplaces executive order.

And, like other agencies, “we improved our cybersecurity posture and worked on data center consolidation,” she said.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?

The government still has a major responsibility for public trust in large systems that need to support a broad constituency, lots of stakeholders and important missions.

What advice do you have for young women pursuing a STEM career?

I think everyone plays to their strengths, and very often the strengths we have as technical people. What I like to think is that we’re not only competent in our profession, but I try to do the right thing, whether that’s really popular, and it’s not always popular. If you really are trying to do what you think is in the best interest of the taxpayer and the department and your staff, that holds up pretty well.

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

I enjoy change. I like being in the role of a change agent. So if you’re in technology, that’s a very good fit. Marketing was not a good fit for me, but technology was. Using technology to change the business, the mission, to make the place where you’re working more efficient and more effective. If you like doing that, then being in technology is a great place to do that.

Tonya Manning Director of Cybersecurity and CISODepartment of Labor

"It's kind of personal for me. I want to make sure that other people's identities are protected, and this is one of the ways to do that."

Tonya Manning runs the Department of Labor’s cybersecurity efforts and serves as its chief information security officer. Over the past year, Manning has focused on establishing, implementing and maintaining the department’s enterprise risk management framework — designed to allow the department to identify and respond to cyberthreats directly impacting the department’s environment.

In her role, Manning manages a hybrid team of federal employees and contractors, and oversees the department’s $9 million budget.

Over the last year, Manning has worked alongside her team to rapidly implement two-factor authentication across the enterprise, build out a mobility strategy and establish a continuous monitoring program on department networks.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?

I’d say that one of the biggest challenges was overcoming the resource constraints and meeting expectations, both federally through OMB and DHS, while managing internal management’s expectations. I learned to do more with less, and the biggest challenge was deploying a two-factor authentication program over the summer. The program was [initially] funded, and then funding was not there, so we had to reprioritize and pull from existing resources to make it happen. 

It was challenging from the funding perspective and also challenging to keep my staff motivated. We were working 10-12 hour days, seven days a week, to get this going. I had to work hard to keep myself motivated, keep the morale up and help us all see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s cliché, but that’s kind of what we had to do this summer. That was one of my greatest challenges — taking that program and implementing it in three months.

What advice do you have for young women pursuing a STEM career?

The first thing I would say to them is to always be prepared for an opportunity that’s going to come your way. Sometimes it’s through luck, and sometimes it’s just purely through skill, but always be prepared to accept that opportunity. But also, I would say to know your craft. Invest the time, and reap the rewards later, but when you invest your time and you know your craft, then you will be rewarded for with that opportunity when it presents itself.

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

When I was in college, I started in education. I wanted to be a teacher. When I was going through some of my classes, I absolutely was intrigued by IT. I just found myself wanting to use the computer and wanting to know what this Internet thing was about, and so I changed my major and I majored in computer science. But then, as I started to work as a programmer, I started to get involved in secure coding and then that just kind of piqued my curiosity. 

Where it really happened was my identity was stolen, and I went through years of trying to get my identity back. So, just naturally, I was looking for ways to help other people not experience the same thing. I was already a federal employee and understood that we’re dealing with people’s information all the time. So that’s when I decided that I wanted to do cybersecurity. It’s kind of personal for me. I wanted to try to help other people. I want to make sure that other people’s identities are protected, and this is one of the ways to do that, I’m a public citizen, I’m a public servant and I can reach more people this way.

Maria RoatCTODepartment of Transportation

"Stick with it, step outside your comfort zone and learn something else."

As chief technology officer for the Transportation Department, Roat is making strategic decisions about the agency’s future. 

She has been working on standing up a data service and exploring new uses for geospatial data. She is also driving innovation and getting people to think differently across the department, partly by establishing an isolated computing environment where people can come in and experiment with tools to determine if they can find new ways of doing things inside the department. 

What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?

I have always taken on roles outside my comfort zone. When I came on board FedRAMP, it was in initial operations. There were lots of things going on, lots of people wanting to do really great things. My charge was to get it to full operation. I was on detail there from DHS for 20 months. I got to figure it out. When I was chief of staff for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO, I was there a week and then became CISO. I helped them move their FISMA [Federal Information Security Modernization Act] 4 scorecard from an F to a B. It was ugly. I got them there in 10 months.

What advice do you have for young women pursuing a STEM career?

Stick with it, step outside your comfort zone and learn something else. I have been in IT for a very long time. I’ve always had a technical background. I don’t know that I have had the same exact job twice in my career. I’ve never been a CTO before this job. 

My experience is different than people you hear in the news, complaining about organizations with men, because I’ve been in it for so long. When I joined the Navy, it was not abnormal to have women in leadership positions. We all had to know who Grace Hopper was. How cool was that?

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

I started working on computers in high school. I joined the Navy because they had programs in computers. I think there was a lot of encouragement along the way. 

I was a tape librarian my first job. There were always women in that operation. They were the operators, they were the shift supervisors. They were the programmers, they were the schedulers. There were a ton of women in this environment. I saw the change over time where there were less women as things moved into PCs. A lot of the women that I knew were retiring out of it. There was this movement into networking and into PCs and LANs. I was part of that. I stuck with it. It was encouragement along the way.

LaVerne CouncilChief Information Officer Department of Veterans Affairs

"I never ever thought that I would be in government … but when the call came, I just felt maybe this is what everything else was preparing me for. "

Less than a year into her job as CIO of the VA, LaVerne Council is already running out of time. A political appointee with just months left in this administration, she may be ushered out of office in January. 

“As a presidential appointee coming in, I couldn’t do one or two projects. I really had to leave this organization better than I found it and in a place where it could really run itself,” she told FedScoop. 

That’s why her biggest initiative since confirmation as VA CIO, where she exercises a $4.2 billion budget to serve veterans, has been laying out an IT strategy that will last well beyond her tenure. Within that, she’s pioneered cybersecurity and digital health pathways not just for the near term, but for decades beyond.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?

I’ve had a lot of those. But one thing always sticks out. And it relates to the nature of “the story.” I’ve had many times when people have not given me an opportunity I thought would have been fair or looked at me with a balanced scorecard. And there are times when we can build a story that makes us comfortable with something, or make us assume we have the right answer. 

As a much younger consultant, I was in a situation where I felt I was not being treated fairly and someone was making the assumption about something I could not do, and I just felt they were wrong. And what I learned in the process was I was wrong.

Sometimes we create a story based on the input we have and believe instead of fact. It’s hard sometimes to be honest with yourself. But I remember stepping back and being very, very honest with myself and understanding the power of story and asking myself if I was creating a story I was comfortable with, or was I standing in my truth? And I found I was much more likable to myself in my truth.

That changed me more than anything in my career, how I look at things, how I look at situations, my ability to be empathetic, but also my ability to feel comfortable with the facts.

What advice do you have for young women pursuing a STEM career?

I always tell people it’s about work-life choice, not balance. We make choices every day. And it’s not to feel guilty about any choice you make. I think women walk around with way too much guilt in the decisions they make, and they need to be comfortable in the decisions they make because they need to make them for the time they’re making them.

As a mom myself who’s had to be away from my family longer than I’d choose to, the guilt is hard, and it is gruesome. And I think it’s really important to know that as long as you’re keeping your promises and the choices that you make, those significant others that matter to you, they’ll take care of you, because they know who you really are. 

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

I’m a true Capricorn. Capricorns will keep going up the hill just to see what’s at the top of it, for no apparent reason but to get there. I think the sense of mastery is a big part of why I do what I do. And I want to feel like I’m utilizing everything I’ve ever learned to help someone else.

I never, ever thought that I would be in any kind of governmental service, but when the call came, I just felt maybe this is what everything else was preparing me for. 

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