Hard job, soft sell

Ahmed builds relationships through communication, trust to improve Pentagon IT

SAJEEL AHMED: Defense Department

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

1989 Joined U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command as an engineering intern

1991 Assigned as a systems engineer responsible for the consolidation at Pentagon headquarters of Army's many e-mail systems

1993 Joined Pentagon Renovation Program as a systems engineer responsible for the modernization of the IT infrastructure

1999 Promoted to the USAISEC'Pentagon director of engineering and IT technical director, PenRen

2001 After Sept. 11 attacks, provided engineering leadership to restore communications

2002 Provided oversight of two major IT programs to enhance the Pentagon's survivability and continuity postures

2004 Appointed to the Senior Executive Service with responsibility for the PenRen IT mission.

If [team members] all feel they are contributing and are valuable to the team, then they don't need any more motivation than that.'

Rick Steele

Someone once described the mission of the Pentagon Renovation and Construction Program Office, known as PenRen, as trying to convert an old black-and-white television to color while it's being watched by viewers who expect no interruption in programming.

Clearly, technical expertise is key in such an effort. But Sajeel Ahmed, deputy director for IT at PenRen, said he believes 'soft skills''such as effective communication, building trust and forging a working relationship with the 25,000-strong customer base at the Pentagon'also are crucial.

PenRen is charged not only with the physical reconstruction of the Pentagon but also with the complete modernization of the agency's IT infrastructure. Ahmed said his 13-year tenure at PenRen has shown him that the most effective approach to strategic IT modernization is customer-based. 'Active listening' to customer concerns is paramount, he added.

Different perspective

'You try to understand things from their view, and not just try to push a solution on them,' Ahmed said.

Integrating the customer into the process early on'by soliciting input on systems design and implementation issues'is another key working principle. 'We try to get customer involvement right from the beginning,' Ahmed said.

Neal Shelley, director of operations for the Information Technology Agency, described Ahmed as a hands-on leader with 'an overriding customer focus.'

'When bad things happen'as they inevitably do in a construction environment'he points no fingers,' said Shelley, whose agency operates and maintains the systems Ahmed helps build. '[He] gets service back on line as expeditiously as possible.'

The task faced by PenRen, and Ahmed, is daunting. The physical work involves, among other things, renovating more than 1.4 million square feet of agency space, including the replacement of more than 100,000 miles of copper and fiber-optic cabling.

Ahmed oversees the architecture, engineering, implementation and testing of the Pentagon's technology infrastructure. His ultimate goal is to make these systems more secure and flexible, and provide better overall service to their users.

And all this modernization is being done while the Pentagon is fighting a war. 'Any break in service would be unacceptable,' Shelley said.

Despite all the challenges, progress has been substantial. The renovation of Wedge 1 was completed in 2004; Wedge 2 was finished at the end of 2005. Wedge 3 is still on schedule for an estimated completion date of October 2007.

In this massive modernization effort, Ahmed said his greatest contribution comes from supervising a diverse team that includes federal employees and private-sector contractors, construction managers and systems specialists. In this, Ahmed's leadership philosophy is to treat the team as a unified body of equals: Each member is heard and all contributions recognized.

'If they all feel they are contributing and are valuable to the team, then they don't need any more motivation than that,' Ahmed said.

Being proactive also is essential, Ahmed said. He spends a considerable amount of time meeting with other PenRen leaders, trying to anticipate potential system glitches.

Managing stress

'We'll talk about what things are going to come back and bite us if we don't have a handle on them,' he said.

Of course, serving 25,000 customers leaves no shortage of problems. 'There's always someone mad at us for doing something,' he joked.

Thus, stress management is important. Rule Number One: Maintain a healthy life-work balance.

'Don't get married to your job,' Ahmed said. 'Family'that comes first.'

An electrical engineer by training, Ahmed said he found it a challenge to make the 'big jump' from a relatively narrow technical focus to the broader perspective that management and leadership require.

'You have to start thinking in a different way,' he said.

But he deems himself fortunate to have had opportunities to cultivate his soft skills from the beginning of his career, when he joined the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., as an engineering intern shortly after college graduation in 1989.

For example, Ahmed said, mediating the often conflictual relationship between software developers and installers let him develop conflict resolution skills. Frequent business travel to Washington afforded opportunities 'to see how senior leaders worked' up close.

Lessons learned from these experiences? Successful leaders, Ahmed said, always keep their long-term vision at the fore. At PenRen, this means completing the renovation of all five Pentagon wedges by the end of 2010.

'If we keep going the way we are now, we'll make it,' Ahmed said.

Others tend to agree. 'He has always delivered what he promises,' Shelley said. n

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