DISA’s First Diversity Chief Wants Tech and Data to Make a Difference

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Damien Terry briefed Nextgov on his vision and goals for the new role—including a potential request for information in the pipeline.

The Defense Information Systems Agency’s first-ever diversity chief is eager to use data and technology to break down barriers and pioneer nascent inclusion initiatives inside the federal government.

“With a research background, I know it is important to let the data tell the story of what’s going on in the organization,” Damien Terry told Nextgov last week.

Since assuming DISA’s newly-named chief diversity officer position, Terry’s made multiple moves to pinpoint gaps and mitigate challenges associated with attracting and supporting a highly diverse agency workforce. He entered the role with more than a decade of federal experience including in the National Institutes of Health and Homeland Security Department. Most recently, Terry served as a Coast Guard national diversity outreach and recruitment program officer and then as the Justice Department Inspector General Office’s diversity, inclusion and engagement director.

U.S. entities across sectors have invested in, developed and promoted efforts in recent years to prioritize equity and inclusion and place diversity at the forefront of their workforce initiatives. The Defense Department in 2020 directed all of its components to designate chief diversity officers—but at that point, DISA was already in the course of formally establishing that position.

October 12, 2021 marked Terry’s first day on duty.

“This challenge was calling my name,” he explained. “I know DISA has already generated some great efforts in diversity, inclusion, equity and engagement. I’m here to help take it to the next level, and be that centralized person to track the efforts, reevaluate what we have been doing and continue pressing forward.”

DISA’s employee resource groups, diversity and inclusion advisory council, cultural transformation team and others influenced the creation of this unit within the chief of staff’s office to lead the agency’s equity-centered pursuits. 

Not long after he was onboarded, Terry implemented what he deemed a “listening tour” to find out more about DISA, its culture and the current state of diversity and inclusion. 

“Although technically I’m a team of one, I consider the entire DISA workforce as my team,” he noted. “Anecdotal information is just as valuable as statements from surveys, reports and internal feedback loops.”

Having spoken with a range of DISA employees, Terry expressed confidence that DISA is ready to support the identification, reduction and elimination of any diversity-aligned issues limiting the organization internally and externally.

“My dream is when anyone thinks of an employer of choice, I want DISA to be at the top of the list above NASA, Apple, Google and Amazon,” he said. 

Terry’s responsibilities include ensuring DISA’s inclusivity-promoting endeavors are unfolding in alignment with existing and forthcoming DOD and White House initiatives. And as the new diversity chief, he said he is actively establishing and rekindling relationships with some department leaders and staff that he engaged with during his tenure in the Coast Guard. 

“It feels good to rejoin this prestigious group of individuals leading the way for DOD and all its components,” Terry said.

Data and technology will likely be at the heart of much of his efforts, he also confirmed. 

For instance, in collaboration with DISA’s human resources team and office of the chief of staff, among others, Terry said he is reviewing current information “to determine the gaps and accuracy, and address what needs to be done” to guarantee DISA is using the right data to direct its diversity priorities.

“We are always looking for the latest technology to improve our capabilities to meet our mission and connect our people,” he added. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was tough on everyone, Terry said, but in his view, it has also been “a major catalyst for innovation in communication technologies and how we conduct business within cyberspace.” New and modernized applications implemented during this time have improved DISA’s communication and enhanced the connectedness of its domestic and international workforce. 

Now, Terry said he is “looking forward to” releasing a request for information to learn about other, existing innovations to assist with mentoring, coaching and professional development. 

“Anything that reduces the feeling of isolation and increases engagement among peers is a major accomplishment, and we look forward to additional applications to continue these efforts,” he said. 

The diversity lead also shed light on his bigger near-term goals. 

In his first 2 years on the job, Terry intends to complete a diversity strategic plan for DISA, “to properly inform leadership and the workforce the way ahead for diversity, inclusion, engagement and equity.” From there, he wants to take a systemic approach to assess the agency’s policies and procedures—and then work with appropriate officials to plan and implement proper courses of action to streamline and improve those practices. 

“I know I cannot do this work alone. I need all of the DISA workforce’s support, their ideas, their ears and their voices to achieve our mission. I hope they will trust that I have their best interest as my motivation,” Terry said. “I know it’s never a perfect world, and everyone will not be happy at the same time, but I will do my best to make sure each DISA’s member’s voice is heard, validated and informed of all decisions, actions and outcomes.” 

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