Essye Miller: The exit interview

Essye Miller, DOD's outgoing principal deputy CIO, talks about COVID, the state of the tech workforce and the hard conversations DOD has to have to prepare personnel for the future.

Essye Miller, Director at Defense Information Management, speaks during the Breaking the Gender Barrier panel at the Air Space, Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 19, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Chad Trujillo)

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Chad Trujillo/USAF

After a career spanning almost four decades, Essye Miller, the Defense Department's first black female principal deputy CIO is retiring. And while there's no immediate pivot to industry planned, one thing is certain: developing the next generation of tech workers will be a part of her next chapter.

"Just like I turn around and talk to the youth of today, folks did that for me over the years. To sit in the acting CIO chair, or even sit in the CISO chair -- it's a tremendous opportunity for some ladies somewhere to say, you know what, I can do it because I can see me in that," Miller said.

"The cyber workforce has so many skills in it. So I don't have to be an engineer to be a part of the cyber workforce. I could be a data scientist, I could be a programmer, I could be a budget person. It all goes back to the mission set and where we're focused. And those are the kinds of conversations I think we've got to have," she said.

Miller herself has enjoyed a long and varied career, starting out as an IT specialist at Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama and rising into leadership roles in technology and communication in that service, eventually becoming director of cybersecurity for the Army CIO/G-6 before moving to the DOD CIO shop.

Miller said she thinks opportunities to bolster DOD's tech workforce, particularly from within, are available across the department, "but what the rest of us have to do is shine a light on the opportunities that are there."

The Defense Department, such as big tech companies like Google and Facebook, has struggled with recruiting and retention in its tech workforce, along with racial and gender diversity and inclusion. It's a problem that will persist as Miller leaves her role June 30, unless the department changes the way it educates its force.

"I look at this as a total force issue, much broader than the department," Miller said. "I think the challenge will be the education side -- education with regard to the opportunities that are available. Making sure that programs like our cyber scholarship program are out there and visible and that we continue to recruit the right type of talent."

DOD's Cyber Scholarship Program provides scholarships to college students at designated universities, who are not current government employees but who can work for DOD full-time after they graduate. Current DOD civilian and military personnel are also eligible if they pursue a cyber-related degree at certain schools.

But a key part of that "education" is letting people know that programs, like the Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy, which offers cyber training for federal workers, exist and that employees can pivot, even if they aren't very technical. Twelve DOD workers finished the program in 2019 to get training in IT, at least half of whom did not previously work in the field.

"Some folks have it from an aptitude aspect, and we have to tap into that," Miller said.

Since fiscal year 2019, DOD has lost 100 civilian cyber personnel as of March. That's largely due to retirements and resignations.

Congress has pushed the Defense Department to keep better track of their cyber workforce initiatives -- and their effectiveness – and increase its recruiting of people of color. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act mandated DOD assess the skills required for, and the diversity of, its STEM and research and engineering workforce.

DOD also must evaluate the "existing hiring, recruitment, and retention incentives for women and minorities in the research and engineering workforce" and its effectiveness in recruiting women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in STEM programs.

Miller said DOD CIO Dana Deasy and her successor John Sherman, CIO for the intelligence community who starts as DOD's principal deputy CIO June 8, are also focused on professional development and building the next generation of tech workers at the department.

That's where mentoring, which Miller plans to continue in her retirement, can make an impact.

"There are folks that are interested in doing something different but don't know how to make that change. And that's where leaders have to come into play and shepherd them through the process," Miller said, adding that each of the services has a mentoring program.

Miller took advantage of the Air Force's mentoring program after graduating college and currently mentors two Air Force staffers.

Those relationships are particularly important when it comes to diversity and inclusion. "There was always someone to help me along the way," she said, "feeding into me, investing into me, and helping me understand the environmental piece and how I played in that."

Miller said that personally, and on an organizational level, understanding people and forging partnerships are foundational to delivering on the Pentagon's tech objectives.

"An organization recognizing what they need, the talent and skill set they need, matched with an individual who knows and understands what they bring makes a huge difference," she said.

Over her 35-year career, Miller has seen DOD evolve from using punch cards and mainframes to a cloud-focused, and now largely remote, workforce thanks to the department's coronavirus response.

"You compare 1985 to now, 2020, where we're looking at enterprise capability for just about everything, not just across the department but globally," Miller said. "And with that, the conversation has changed -- how we share data, how we expose data across functional lines, how we focus on authoritative data sources and make that available so that we're not recreating data sources as we create systems."

She said the DOD CIO office is "focused on all of the right things" from cyber, cloud and artificial intelligence to command, control and communications.

"There was a time when we'd focus on bringing IT to the table for the sake of IT," Miller said. "Even as we talk about post-COVID and our resiliency plan, my message to folks is that we need to look at the business and the mission needs of the organization. And understand how technology fits and enables that versus looking for technology to drive the way we do business."

While the COVID-19 pandemic has generated problems -- increased attempts to phish emails and penetrate networks, problems with user equipment, network capacity, supply chain and fiscal worries -- it was also a forceful reason to look at and use commercially available technology and consider new ways to work.

"You never waste a crisis and an opportunity to shift," she said. 

Miller said she's still trying to figure out what's next, taking time with to spend with family and to decompress, but workforce development will be a mainstay in whatever comes.

"So much has been invested in me. I have a responsibility to make sure I pay that forward and bring up the next generation. I love having those kinds of conversations. I have no doubt that I'll continue to do something with the youth, and from there I don't know. It really is wide open."