How a ‘weather geek’ became CIO

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Barry West, CIO at PBGC. Barry West, CIO at PBGC.

Many high school students are unsure of their career trajectory, but Barry West never had any doubts.

A 30-year government veteran and now chief information officer at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, West knew from a young age exactly what his professional calling was.

“I’m a technologist from the get-go; I call myself homegrown,” he said. “I came up through the ranks as a real IT person and knew when I was in high school and college that I wanted to be a computer geek, and if something appealing came along, I’d jump on that bandwagon.”

As a teenager, West decided he would go to community college and major in data processing. It was a relatively new field at the time — personal computers hadn’t yet been invented — and students were using a mainframe computer system.

“That’s how I learned,” West said. “It was huge — bigger than this office,” he added, looking around his current downtown Washington, D.C., office of about 250 square feet.

West said he enjoyed his college program and did so well, he decided to stay in data processing. In addition to taking a full courseload, West also put in hours at the publishing house Tab Book. The Pennsylvania-based company — since absorbed by McGraw-Hill — was looking to automate processes and asked West to join a new data processing department.

And without much hesitation, West accepted the new challenge, spearheading the automation effort. At age 19, he had been tasked with heading up all the end-of-month processing.

“I got exposure not only to programming, but systems analysis work, supervising all the operators, and it turned into being a 24/7 hour operation,” West said.

Although the experience was great, West began to feel the strain of working 60-70-hour weeks. He wanted to do something different — and decided to continue his education in computers. A military career seemed appealing, but when talking to the Air Force, West discovered the branch didn’t offer a computer program.

What it needed, however, was another type of geek.

The Air Force had a shortage in the meteorology field, which relies heavily on computers. West thought he would give it a shot. Part of that enlistment also meant going back to school and becoming a “weather guy,” as West put it.

That schooling wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. The Illinois-based meteorology school had the highest dropout rate of all the professions in the Air Force because of the field’s complex nature.

“They teach you how to be a meteorologist in a very short period of time, so they weed people out very quickly,” West said. “It did fascinate me, and I became a weather geek.”

In fact, West played the role of a weather geek so well he was named “Weatherman of the Year” for the entire Air Force one year. His position entailed putting out hourly forecasts to the pilots and briefing the flight crew.

The stint in the Air Force lasted four years, with the last assignment taking place at Andrews Air Force Base, supporting Air Force One when President Ronald Reagan held office.

Then, Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 was passed to slash the federal budget deficit. The legislation triggered a budget sequestration, and with those cutbacks targeting the military, West faced a choice.

He applied for various jobs, inside and outside the federal government. What ultimately intrigued him the most was the Census Bureau. That job meant being involved in all aspects of IT, West was told.

“They said, ‘you’re going to do everything: from being a network administrator to database manager managing large 24/7 data centers,’ and I was like, ‘wow, that’s exactly what I want to do!’” West recalled.

After accepting the job, West not only set up the Baltimore office but was sent to other locations nationwide, including San Diego, Calif. He stayed in that role for two years, and then was handpicked to come to the Census headquarters in Suitland, Md., where he, among other accomplishments, headed up the software development group and launched the research group, Computer Assisted Survey Information Collection.

His eight years at the Census Bureau “really rounded me out in every aspect and gave me a really deep understanding of IT,” West said.

At the time, his academic career was also advancing. His time in the Air Force had allowed him to finish his bachelor’s degree at Northern Michigan University, and while at Andrews Air Force Base, West had begun his first master’s degree. At the Census Bureau, he was able to wrap up that degree.

It wasn’t enough to keep West busy, however, and he snagged a part-time teaching gig. He taught seven years at Bowie State University and Arundel Community College; the past decade, West has been an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College, teaching the CIO courses in the CIO certificate program.

West left the Census Bureau in 1996, heading to the National Technical Information Service, which is part of the Commerce Department. The agency needed someone who was well-versed in technology and could automate its systems and streamline its processes. West turned out to be just the right man for the job.

After four years, he was ready for a new challenge, setting his eyes on being a CIO. What he lacked on his resume was policy, a critical component of the CIO job. To get that experience, West accepted a job at the General Services Administration’s Office of Governmentwide Policy, working closely with the Office of Management and Budget and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But after writing policy for two years, he was itching to do something else. “Being a technologist, I was ready — it was time,” West said.

The National Weather Service had a CIO vacancy, and with West’s meteorology background and tech savvy, “I was a perfect match,” he said. “It couldn’t have been any more perfect.”

A year into that job and “out of the blue one day,” West received a call from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about a CIO job. He considered his options: At NWS, his budget had been around $30 million and 125 employees. In contrast, FEMA’s budget was $95 million, with around 700 workers.

Taking the FEMA job would be a step up, West concluded.

He was hired on the spot, by then-FEMA head Michael Brown. That sophomore year at FEMA, one of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history ravaged the eastern U.S., incinerating lives, property and nature.

Being CIO during Hurricane Katrina was “quite an experience; it was very painful,” West said.

“The good thing was that the IT did very well,” he continued. “FEMA took a bad rap because of the response and everything, but my organization really did well.”

A year after Katrina, West was figuring out his next move. He had already finished his second master’s degree, and wanted to do a doctorate. But he also was eyeing a cabinet-level CIO position at the Commerce Department. He applied at the 11th hour — and got the job.

“Six interviews and four months later, I got picked out of 130 some candidates,” West said.

But the department-level job “was basically herding cats,” West said, adding he simply wasn’t having fun. He looked to the private sector, and what caught his attention was a small company that had been in business for roughly five years. SE Solutions focused on the homeland security market, as an IT services company. West came on board as a partner, and became involved in all aspects of the business — from operations and business development to corporate development.

Five and half years in, West wanted to either run a company or an agency and be involved in something he hadn’t done before. Again, at the 11th hour, West got a call from the administration; several CIOs had recommended him for a job at PGBC. The agency, which works to protect pension benefits in private-sector defined benefit plans, was seeking to hire a CIO with industry and government experience; someone who knew the security aspect as well.

“Someone who knew the community well; a true leader,” as West put it.

It was a no-brainer — and West took the job. He was also in the process of finishing his Ph.D, something West said had long been on his bucket list. He had started his doctorate while at SE Solutions, picking cloud computing as his research topic.

For three years, West took three classes per semester, and finally defended his dissertation Dec. 12, 2013. Now, all that is left to do is post the research and he’s done, finally reaching the pinnacle of his academic career.

But the prospect of having any spare time hasn’t really hit him.

“But eventually, it will,” West said. “I will probably go back to teaching to fill that void!”

That bucket list, is there anything left he hasn’t done? There might be one last thing, but unsurprisingly for West, it entails aiming high — literally

“I’m not a pilot, and my eyes were never good enough when I was in the Air Force to become a pilot — that’s a possibility,” West said, with a laughter. “I drive boats, and I do scuba dive and I do ride Harleys. I’ve accomplished a lot; there’s not a whole lot left. I’ve lived a really good life. No regrets.”

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