For her, retirement's just a beginning








After 29 years in the federal government, Belkis Leong-Hong retired in
January from her post as chief information officer of the Defense Security Service.


Leong-Hong began her government service at the National Institute of Standards and
Technology, and then worked at the National Bureau of Standards. In 1981, she joined the
Defense Department.


Her work in defining standard data elements in the Corporate Information Management
initiative of the early 1990s earned recognition throughout the information technology
community.


Her many DOD software development and management jobs have included a stint as deputy
commander of the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Joint Interoperability and
Engineering Organization. Before joining DSS, she was deputy assistant secretary of
Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence plans and resources.


She has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hunter College and a master’s
in public administration from American University. She also earned a degree from the
National and International Security School at Harvard University.


GCN assistant managing editor Sami Lais interviewed Leong-Hong at a Women in Technology
meeting in McLean, Va.


GCN: Judging from your nearly 30
years of experience, would you say there are issues specific to women in the federal
information technology field?


LEONG-HONG: I would say it was more general, more to do with everyone getting access to
IT. When I was at the National Bureau of Standards, we had access to Arpanet.


We took it for granted; I didn’t realize that it was a capability that others
didn’t have until I went to the Defense Department, and I didn’t have it. I
said, “What do you mean, you don’t have access to Arpanet?”


It seemed like a crazy situation—there I was in communications, asking for access
to the tools to communicate. It took me almost four months to get access, and then the
equipment didn’t support Arpanet access.


That took another two months. But it didn’t do any good because no one else had
it; there was no one to communicate with. This was in 1981. It had nothing to do with
being a woman, it was just the way things were.


GCN: Since your start in the federal government in 1970, have you seen the
opportunities in IT change for women?


LEONG-HONG: Definitely. DOD was a bit different than other agencies. Because of the
emphasis on creating equal opportunities for women in the military—on the
battlefield—there was also greater opportunity on the civilian side.


For example, when I started in the Senior Executive Service, there were only a handful
of senior professional women at the GS-13 or higher level. Between 1982 and 1991, that
number grew to several hundred.


GCN: What was your best—or
worst—experience as a woman in IT in the government?


LEONG-HONG: I prefer to talk about the positive. There was a lot more that was
positive. I got opportunities in DOD I probably wouldn’t have gotten in the private
sector.


I had good mentors. And I know a lot of women in DOD who had similar experiences. When
I first got there, I asked a peer if he would mentor me. I also had bosses who mentored
me—I can think of some off the top of my head—Cindy Kendall, who’s now at
Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, Emmett Paige, Lt. Gen. Al Edmonds.


GCN: What did they do to mentor
you?


LEONG-HONG: They wouldn’t let me say “I cannot do it.” One boss I
had, a general, told me he wanted me to do this report, and he explained what he wanted. I
said, fine, that will take about two weeks. And he said, “You’ve got until the
day after tomorrow.” I said, “I cannot do that.” And he said,
“Don’t tell me you cannot do it; just go and do it. You can do it.” And I
said to myself, “He’s right, I can do it.” And I did.


The second positive thing was I got the opportunity to build programs, to build whole
initiatives from scratch. It gave me a sense of accomplishment. I was given the freedom to
explore and create, and, when I delivered, I was given recognition for it.


GCN: Where do you see the new
opportunities for women in federal IT?


LEONG-HONG: Wherever there’s change, there are opportunities. Under the guise of
introducing new technology, at least in DOD, a lot of business processes are being
changed. That’s bringing a lot of new opportunities. The Corporate Information
Management initiative, which I worked on, was really the foundation it’s all built
on.


We found that we needed to change business processes before we automated, that we
needed to take a broader perspective. The systems that were developed reflected those
improved processes. We said, “We’re making a huge investment, let’s make
sure we’re doing it right.”


And the process is continuing. Electronic commerce is having a huge effect on
purchasing. Normal administrative functions are being positively affected by IT.
We’re working faster, making fewer errors; we’re more efficient. We can make a
purchase now at the drop of a hat, without lengthy formal requests for proposals. IT has
changed the way we work. We can get e-mail anywhere; we can pick up a cell phone and get
voice mail.


There are opportunities anywhere you can help government employees do things more
efficiently. For example, in privacy. Government is very sensitive to privacy issues.
Because it gets accused of being Big Brother, it’s more protective than business is.
It’s a cultural issue, like the syndrome of we’ve always done it this way, so
we’ll continue to do it this way; even if the new way is 100 times better, I
don’t want it because I’d have to learn how to do it all over again. It’s a
question of dealing with fear and ignorance.


You have to learn it’s OK to say, “I don’t know how to do it.” What
you cannot say is, “I cannot do it.”


GCN: What is your involvement
with the Women in Technology group?


LEONG-HONG: Within a month of its founding, they asked me to be on a panel of federal
women in IT. They were trying to recruit members. I liked what I saw and what I heard. In
fact, I felt so strongly that there was a need for this kind of organization that I wrote
a check while I was still sitting on the panel.


GCN: What role can WIT play in
helping women in federal IT in their careers?


LEONG-HONG: Networking. Federal women in technology tend to network only among our own
peer group—look, I’m still saying we; I still feel part of the community. We
need a group like this to meet other women in the field, successful businesswomen, our
equivalents in the private sector. It gives us the opportunity to learn from each other,
to share ideas. We cannot help but grow.


Through WIT, we can have advocates on issues that affect women in technology. We can
speak in a voice not often heard collectively. And by speaking out, we can become a force
that will affect our industry.


Through WIT, we’re again doing the mentoring program this year. It matches mentors
with mentees. There are training sessions; it’s very structured, and it’s free
to members.


We’ve also started a strategic partnerships program. Until we form alliances with
peer organizations and have the exchanges, we cannot realize our full impact.


We’re working with the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics
Association’s international diversity committee. We advertise each other’s
programs; AFCEA members can attend WIT events at the member price. In May, we’re
co-sponsoring a professional development event.


GCN: What’s next for
federal women in IT?


LEONG-HONG: The sky’s the limit. Women are really flowering in our field.
Companies are standing in line to get good technical folks.


GCN: What’s next for you?


LEONG-HONG: I’m going into business for myself. I am going to call my adventure
Knowledge Advantage Inc.


I kept being challenged by friends and family saying, “Why aren’t you doing
this?” So finally I decided, why not? My focus is going to be in helping businesses
set strategic directions. I’ll be doing program review and evaluation. I’ll be
doing business process re-engineering, knowledge management and information management.


I would like a mix of private industry and federal, state and local government clients,
but right now, all my clients are in the private sector. Actually, I’m already
responding to clients and working as fast as I can. I did take three whole weeks
off.   


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