D.C.'s Top 50 Women In Tech List 2016

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Susannah-Fox Beth-Killoran Margie-Graves Donna-Roy Sylvia-Burns
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Susannah FoxChief Technology OfficerDepartment of Health and Human Services

"I’m a new kind of billionaire: someone who wants to have a positive impact on a billion lives, not make a billion dollars."

As the chief technology officer of HHS, Susannah Fox oversees the IDEA Lab entrepreneurial hub and all things innovation for the department. Lately, Fox has placed her focus on embracing the maker movement to spur innovation around medical device development through an initiative called Invent Health. 

"We are at critical inflection point in our history where we are in a better position than ever before to leverage the American spirit of invention to create ways for people to live more independently, in better health, and with greater dignity," Fox told FedScoop. 

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

I have often played the role of being an ambassador from the future, and the changes I foretell have not always been welcome. The key is to find people within an organization who share my mission: to shine a light on the path forward.

Early in my career, in 1995, I helped U.S. News & World Report start their online division. I didn’t fit into any department they had at the time: [I wasn't a] reporter, editor, photographer or page layout designer. In a lucky break, the editors decided that I should sit in the U.S. News library, the only other people in the building who had access to the Internet. The librarians understood the point of putting the magazine — and most importantly, our college, graduate school and hospital rankings data — online. The point is to open access to information so that people can make better decisions, whether they see the data and analysis on paper or on a screen. That’s at the base of journalism and, by the way, at the base of everything we do at HHS. Reminding people of that mission has helped people understand that the changes happening in their industry because of technology are usually for the greater good, even if it means painful adjustments and power shifts.

Here’s the challenge my team and I face now: How might we reframe the collision of technology, health, and government to be less of a battle and more of an experiment we can learn from? How might we make it more like alchemy, creating something magical, not battling for control.

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

My advice applies to anyone, at any stage in their career: Every day is a job interview. Do your best on every task you take on, whether it is for pay or not.

Some of the breaks I’ve received (or given) came about thanks to volunteering within my community, both online and offline

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

I’m motivated by impact. I learned a new phrase this week — that I’m a new kind of billionaire: someone who wants to have a positive impact on a billion lives, not make a billion dollars


Beth KilloranActing Chief Information OfficerDepartment of Health and Human Services

"I always try to find a couple key things that will live on longer than I do to make that organization mature and grow."

Beth Killoran is acting as CIO at HHS, and she's held several of the top IT positions in the agency in recent years. She's responsible for establishing the strategic direction for IT within HHS as well as providing direct operational support to the secretary’s office, its 22 sub-organizations and 10,000 employees. Currently, cybersecurity, implementing FITARA, and improving the acquisition and retention of HHS' technological workforce are her biggest focuses. 

“Working to make sure everything we do has cyber built in; it’s not something that’s added on, it’s not something thought about after the fact," she told FedScoop.

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

I’ve had a very nontraditional federal career. For four jobs in a row now ... I have routinely started in one job, and within a year, including this one, I’ve been asked to move to another job, whether on a short or a long-term basis. Each one of those positions is kind of trial by fire. You’re learning on the job ... at the end of a spear.”

What I’ve tried to do is talk to people who have had the job, collaborate with people who know more than I do, lean on the individuals who have the skills ... and I always try to find a couple key things that will live on longer than I do to make that organization mature and grow

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

People always tell me I must have overcome something to be at the level I am in a federal organization in technology. I never felt disadvantaged or like I had to overcome anything. One of the big things I’d tell young ladies thinking about coming into the technology field is if you have the aptitude for it, and you have the desire to do it, you should.

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

When I was in high school was when they started doing programming at the high school level. ... It was really easy for me. I actually went to college for it and said, "No, it’s way too easy." So I went into psychology and did some other things, only to come out at the end of my four years, at the first sort of federal downturn, and accepted a position doing ergonomics. ... But they didn’t have time for someone to do ergonomics, so they put be in IT desk-side support, and, as they say, the rest is history.


Margie GravesPrincipal Deputy Chief Information OfficerDepartment of Homeland Security

"Don't ever be discouraged by the obstacles that are thrown in your path."

Margie Graves is the deputy CIO for the Department of Homeland Security, but will be soon begin serving temporarily as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

At DHS, Graves helps oversee an approximately $6 billion IT portfolio, including the OCIO budget of $300 million. Among her responsibilities are overseeing the agency's internal cybersecurity mission, delivering application portfolios at the enterprise level and finalizing plans for FITARA. 

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

Understanding and being able to effectively navigate politics as a “big P,” which is different from my private sector experience. There is always a political parameter with every kind of executive job, but I would say the challenge that DHS faces, which is different, is the sheer number of committees that were never consolidated and have oversight of DHS. Sometimes that leads to conflicting guidance. The way I overcame that is to understand the equities of the stakeholders involved and being able to constantly strive to the win-win. It's more of a negotiation than anything else.

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

Don't ever be discouraged by the obstacles that are thrown in your path. Understand who you are and your ability to add value. Do not let anyone deter you from that path. Understand also that you do not have to stay on a path that you chose when you were 21. There are multiple changes within the life of a career and you will end up doing things that you thought you would never end up doing, but have been completely rewarding along the way. Those would be generated by the fact that you provide your expertise and capability into the equation. Always take the challenge. Offer to take on more than is asked of you. Never be deterred by the fact that you haven't done something before. If you are a naturally intelligent person, there are a lot of things you can figure out.

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

I started out in what I would consider pure math and science: nuclear chemistry, primarily in environmental cleanup and restoration, understanding environmental systems and keeping incidents from happening in the first place. I did a lot of what I would consider big data analysis in a large fashion, based on aquifer flows and all  the other things that are associated with being able to ensure that the environment is safe. 

It always required the use of IT. I used it as a means to an end. Ultimately I recognized that it was essential to being able to do effective analysis. Once I got my MBA, I went on to [merges and acquisitions], and it became clear to me that post-merger integration and the use of IT to effectively bring two organizations together was one of the key factors to success. 

There is nothing we do today that does not involve technology. I’ve always been an engineer, so I've always been fascinated with how things work. If you say what's the underpinning of daily life, it really is technology. I am always fascinated by what's the next thing we can do with it.


Donna RoyExecutive Director of DHS' Information Sharing Environment OfficeDepartment of Homeland Security

"The people who stay and give me 150 percent to do what they are doing are keeping me motivated."

Donna Roy is responsible for delivering capabilities at the enterprise level for DHS. She's been working on identity services, record management, software libraries and human resources IT. All of those projects add up to a budget of somewhere between $75 million and $100 million. 

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

My biggest personal challenge is staying motivated, because there are a lot of moving parts. We're in a transformation, it's end of the administration and people are trying to leave. But what inspires me is the people I get to work with. The people who stay and give me 150 percent to do what they are doing are keeping me motivated. It’s hard to do while there is change going on.

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

I am worried we are not bringing enough women into STEM. What's more worrisome is the statistics on coming in at the entry level. Women are choosing to leave before [they reach] management. I don’t know if they are opting out because there is a perception that we can’t have a work-life balance and make a difference in STEM. But you can. I think there are more companies out there making that available. 

The government has a lot of options. I think whether you go government or you go to Silicon Valley, I’m worried that women feel like they have to choose. 

I think finding a mentor is important. If you are really serious about middle management, you really need to find a mentor that’s going to get you through that transition.

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

Grace Hopper. I recently watched "The Imitation Game," it reminded me a lot of the early days of computing and what it took to get through the naysayers. Grace Hopper was the female version of that. She was just a fortress of strength and ego. I was lucky enough to spend a little of time with her when she was still alive. To see that they had made someone like her an admiral, that is what pushed me. She still inspires me.


Sylvia BurnsCIODepartment of the Interior

“What inspires me is watching the mission happen.”

The Department of the Interior came under the microscope last summer when news broke about the Office of Personnel Management breaches that exposed the data of millions of federal workers. Using a OPM privileged username and password, the bad actor was also able to weasel into Interior’s data center that was storing OPM’s data. Burns impressed House oversight lawmakers with her resolve to boost her agency’s cybersecurity — even though the breach was not caused by a vulnerability in DOI’s systems.

“We have to all own this problem, and it will take all of us to fix the problem, and everybody has been taking it seriously,” she testified at the time. “So I'm very gratified by that.”

Now, still serving at the helm of Interior’s $1 billion IT portfolio, Burns is aggressively leading efforts to improve the agency’s cybersecurity, like significantly boosting its multifactor authentication.

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

I don’t know that I would say that I have conquered it, but it’s a challenge and it’s ongoing: It’s really keeping the business and mission side with the IT side and not having those be separate.

I think the tendency for a lot of people is to think about IT [in terms of your] desktop and mobile devices. But I think IT can be a strategic partner to the mission. For me, the challenge is to keep the mission people, the business side of the house, together with you — and not make them afraid to talk to you because they don’t understand technology. Because that can be daunting for some people. 

I think it’s keeping the conversations relevant to the mission and not just having it be about the geeky stuff that the IT people would talk about. 

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

Stay focused and keep just doing your thing. Especially if you love what you do. I think the passion that you have for the work is what sustains, irrespective of gender.

A lot of times I’ve found myself in male-dominated fields. But I think that if you’ve got the passion and the focus and the talent to actually do great things in the field that you’re in — any of the STEM fields — then I think that you can have a great time.

Who or what inspired you to get into your field?

In all the organizations I’ve worked in, the thing that makes me passionate is really seeing the mission.

I didn’t grow up in IT. And I, frankly, wasn’t aspiring to be the CIO of any organization. I’m more like a financial person than IT — my master’s degree is in business management and policy.  

I got into IT when I was at the International Trade Administration, and I was trying to promote U.S. products and services internationally. I was trying to find a better “mousetrap.” The Internet was taking off in the mid-90s, so there were just so many new ways we could reach the globe. Even at that early time, I think we saw the potential. That’s where my passion started.  

I ended up becoming the chief architect for the International Trade Administration. ... When I came to the [Office of the Chief Information Officer] at the International Trade Administration, the CIO who was my boss — [fellow honoree] Renee Macklin, who is at Commerce now — was excited to have me to come on board because I knew the business side. She just said, “You know that side, we can train you in everything else you need to know.”


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