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Eight Questions for Maria Roat Maria Roat is a public-sector…
March 31, 2022
Maria Roat is a public-sector pioneer, one of the longest-serving IT leaders in federal government. Now, 40 years after she began her career in public service, Maria is retiring.
From humble beginnings writing programs with computer punch cards, Maria has held a number of positions, including Chief Information Officer at the Small Business Administration. She served in technology leadership positions at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation. In 2007, Maria retired from the U.S. Navy, where she began her career as a Data Processing Technician. She’s stepping down from her post as Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of the Chief Information Officer.
AFCEA Bethesda recently spoke with Maria Roat about her exceptional career, the changes she’s witnessed, and what the future of government IT might look like.
AFCEA Bethesda: As a young woman in the early 1980s, what drew you to IT?
Maria Roat: I worked on my first computers in high school, in the late ‘70’s, key punching on an old Burroughs. I was probably 15. My cousin, who worked in a computer room, invited me over to see what he was doing – the blinking lights and the tapes mounted and all the activity. I thought it was kind of cool. Colleges were really not teaching computer related courses at the time, so I ended up joining the Navy, which was actually doing operational work with computers, something I hadn’t seen at the ripe age of 17. It was all mainframes at the time. I was a data processing technician and my first job in the Navy was a tape librarian.
AFCEA Bethesda:: Looking back on the last 40 years, what were the big milestones of IT change?
Maria: The move from mainframes to PCs, that was a big one. I got involved with PCs and network engineering. Government was an early adopter that moved with the technology. I joke about CDM (Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation) because I was doing global enterprise network management in the ‘90s. CDM came around and I rolled my eyes as I was thinking why it took so long and that it wasn’t forward leaning enough. Back then, I had to do a lot more manually to integrate the software applications whereas today capabilities are cloud-based, leverage AI and ML and are integrated to absorb the millions of alerts.
AFCEA Bethesda:: What aspect of digital progress or modernization has most helped agencies to fulfill their missions?
Maria: You’ve got some pretty smart CIOs in the federal sector. They’re savvy and they knew how to modernize and move agencies forward, despite obstacles. CIOs started using Agile methodologies more than ten years ago. FITARA and getting the CIOs a seat at the table strengthened the CIO’s oversight and governance that enabled progress. So it’s not necessarily about the technology; it’s about the CIO’s role of enabling the mission. I think that has really helped agencies to drive their missions using technology as an enabler.
AFCEA Bethesda:: Looking back, what are the lessons learned?
Maria: The need for continued IT investments. I’ve seen some really good solutions and innovations come out of agencies, where they would build a system or do something cool and great. But not having continued investment, two years later it’s a legacy system, right? Government could do better at continual, sustained investment in modern technologies and infrastructures, and leveraging the cloud for flexibility and scalability– the kinds of things that allow for rapid response like we had during the pandemic.
I’m glad to see that data has really come around over the last several years because investing in data is an accelerator. When you view the federal government as an enterprise, sharing information across agencies to respond to actions like the pandemic or disasters or whatever it is, you can get data-driven decisions and faster actions.
AFCEA Bethesda:: What do you see happening with cybersecurity?
Maria: There’s a lot of capabilities and tools that leverage machine learning and AI to be proactive in monitoring and managing security. Something simple like detecting impossible travel. If I log into a network from D.C., how is it that I could log in 30 minutes later from the West Coast? I think we’re going to see agencies taking advantage of those AI and ML capabilities to be proactive and respond faster than if it was only people monitoring and managing alerts and notifications.
When I was with the Small Business Administration, which is essentially a bank with billions of dollars in loans and grants, I had a threat hunt team that paid attention to cyber activity and threat indicators specifically targeting the financial sector, and this included monitoring social media. I think there’s going to be more proactive management, at the agency level, that requires a higher level of maturity.
AFCEA Bethesda:: There is a push to make the customer experience of people accessing government services more like the experience delivered by Amazon and other consumer-facing companies. Is that doable?
Maria: Sometimes the customer experience in the private sector is no better. There’s a culture transformation that needs to happen so that we are more customer focused. Technology is the easy part and we have to look at barriers like regulations, laws or OMB guidance that get in the way of providing exceptional customer experience at an enterprise level. You have to think about how the government operates, how it uses data, how it’s interconnected, agency to agency, and the dependencies that are there from one agency to another. It’s not simple. We want digital services, but we still have to meet users where they are. There are things my mother will not do online yet because it is not easy
AFCEA Bethesda:: What are you most proud of in your career?
Maria: I started my Navy career as an E-1 and retired as a Master Chief, and I started my [civilian] career as a GS-3 and now I’m the deputy federal CIO. Ten years ago I would have never imagined that I would be here considering I started at the bottom rungs of the ladder. It’s definitely humbling and I didn’t succeed on my own -it was the people that I worked with and for over the years that made my success possible. Being able to experience change in technology and serve the public over the years has been amazing. I am frequently asked about being a woman in tech – being a woman didn’t make a difference, I was focused on the work and getting the job done.
AFCEA Bethesda:: What advice would you give to people coming up behind you? How can they meet challenges and be successful?
Maria: The next big development in federal IT will be the federal government acting more like an enterprise instead of individual silos and individual agencies working independently. People should pay attention to that. I would tell people coming up behind me to take care of their employees and their teams – look out for their colleagues too, and be a mentor and a coach. I would tell my colleagues in federal service to celebrate successes no matter how small. During the pandemic, we were shouting from the rooftops about all the good response activities to distribute funding and provide services to the American public.
It’s been truly phenomenal working in the federal government with all the really cool, innovative work the government does that many people just don’t know about.
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