TSA’s Dr. Emma: A Go-To Federal Executive

Dr. Emma Garrison-Alexander

Dr. Emma Garrison-Alexander

Author’s note: This profile is based on a combination of direct interviewing and e-mailed Q&A.

You won’t find grass growing under the feet of Dr. Emma Garrison-Alexander. The Transportation Security Administration’s CIO has worn many hats in nearly a quarter century of public service: hardware designer and software programmer, systems engineer, operations officer. She’s worked in foreign affairs, information assurance, acquisition, and counterterrorism. And lately she’s been a frequent guest on the panel circuit, talking about TSA and its approach to mobility, IT management, or cybersecurity.

Garrison-Alexander, who informally goes by Dr. Emma, spent the first 20 years of her career at the National Security Agency.

“I joined NSA first out of college. I was recruited as an EE.” That launched her on a diverse career that’s included not only electrical engineering but computer science, and the aforementioned variety of disciplines.

“One of the great things about working for the NSA is that it spans so many functions,” Garrison-Alexander said. She worked her way up to the Senior Executive Service. She performed stints as Senior Operations Officer for time sensitive missions, and “acted with the authority of the director [of NSA] nights and weekends.”

Why the move to TSA from such an exciting place? “Counterterrorism is a super-demanding place for two or three years. So I was looking for something different, and while looking, I was approached about becoming CIO of TSA.” Different as the organizations might be, Garrison-Alexander added that to some degree, “government is government.”

She quips that the biggest differences between NSA and TSA is that the former shuns publicity and the other realizes it needs good press because of how many U.S. citizens’ lives it touches daily – 1.7 million a day, as a matter of fact. She describes TSA, despite the often poor publicity it gets, as a “positively affirming organization.”

Among the top IT initiatives at TSA, Garrison-Alexander pointed to the governmentwide data center consolidation initiative. TSA was the first component to move its data center to the departmental-level data centers, specifically its St. Louis and headquarters data centers to a DHS center known as DC 2 in Clarksville, Va., and TSA’s test environment to DC 1. The second migration was completed last year. It included the physical relocation and migration of the enterprise production service, the Development and Test Environment (DTE) and the Integrated Test Environment (ITE). She added that the integration of the physical facilities also involved detailed and extensive logical migration.

“This project required the engagement of multiple IT integrators both within TSA and DHS,” she said. It encompassed relocating 32 enterprise applications and 26 production support systems, many of which supported the entire TSA population and mission critical functions.

Garrison-Alexander is a strong believer in the cloud computing initiative.

“The traditional IT model is not well positioned to reduce time to market for new services, or to provide transparency for operational expenses. It introduces higher risk from up-front capital expenditures. Customized applications hosted in traditional environments cannot scale fast enough to support urgent demand in real-time,” she said. By contrast, the cloud business model “provides readily available secure infrastructure-on-demand, enabling applications to scale rapidly, better supporting mission and business needs.” Plus, cloud drives efficiencies in delivery cycle times and in green IT.

An even newer technology initiative at TSA is secure mobile computing. Garrison Alexander said, “TSA has employees all over the country and around the world. Their duties often take them away from the traditional office space,” and some never do work in a traditional office space. TSA has more than 13,000 mobile devices mainly consisting of BlackBerries and standard cell phones. The mix has shifted toward smartphones. And now TSA is piloting a number of smartphones and tablets, Garrison-Alexander said, “since they have the potential to significantly improve support for our mobile workforce as we make more information available.”

She added, “An incredible variety of off-the-shelf applications exist that could potentially be used to support the TSA mission. These vary from command and control, to location and mapping, to communications and collaboration, to shipping and transportation data right down to law enforcement and government specific applications such as emergency response and hazmat databases.”

Using the new-generation devices and the applications is a matter of balancing the advantages with the cybersecurity risks, Garrison-Alexander said. Mitigating that risk will be key to our pursuit of any significant new mobile initiatives.

At a day-to-day level, Garrison-Alexander’s group oversees a considerable IT infrastructure supporting 70,000 government and contractor personnel. They work at 450 airports and at 22 international locations. She listed roughly:

  • 17,000 desktops
  • 16,000 laptops
  • 7,000 smartphones
  • 6,000 cell phones
  • 200 pagers
  • 13,000 Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones
  • 1,000voice/data circuits
  • 4,000 switches and 750 routers
  • 600 air cards and MiFis
  • 90,000 directory mail accounts
  • 2-plus petabytes of data storage and tapes.

Garrison-Alexander does have a life outside of her federal career. She is a mother of two minor children, one entering high school and one off to Drexel University next year. She describes her evenings and weekends as being heavily involved in their sports and other activities. She teaches cybersecurity and technology management as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University Campus. And she’s an active church member.

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About the author

Tom Temin has written 486 posts for Fedinsider.com

Thomas R. Temin - Editor in chief of FedInsider and brings 30 years of publishing experience in media and information technology. Tom is also co-host of The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris, a weekday morning news and talk program on WFED AM 1500 in Washington D.C.

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