Mary Dixon - Defense: Uncommon success

Mary Dixon - Defense: Uncommon success<@VM>Online Extra Q&A: Mary Dixon

Career highlights

1966: Begins career as a Navy employee.

1977: Appointed deputy assistant secretary of the Navy.

1998: After time off to raise a child, joins the Defense Manpower Data Center.

1999: Takes over as manager of the Common Access Card program.

'Getting the cards out there is important, but the use of the cards is even more important.' -- Mary Dixon

Olivier Douliery

Dixon's vision drives DOD's program to issue smart cards to 4 million users

As the daughter of an Air Force officer, Mary Dixon was born to high expectations.

'I am a driven person, so I am always trying to make things better,' said the program manager of the Defense Department's Common Access Card program.

When Dixon was assigned the project of developing the system in 1999, she barely knew what a smart card was. Five years later, she's leading the charge on federal smart-card use.

'Dixon doesn't oversee the program, she drives the program with personal dedication and unquestioned integrity,' said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance industry association.

'My word for her is 'visionary,' ' said Tim Dwyer, vice president of government solutions for EDS Corp. of Plano, Texas, an integrator supporting the Common Access Card program. 'When something goes wrong, she is not looking to try to make a bad process better, she is looking to reinvent process so that it is done right.'

ID smart cards

The CAC program, overseen by the Defense Manpower Data Center, has been a huge success. The program has issued more than 4 million ID smart cards to active and reserve military personnel and contractors, and all DOD personnel will have a card by the end of the year.

The cards, which contain public-key infrastructure certificates, provide authentication to a growing number of Defense applications, helping the military toward its goal of network-centric operations.

The program wasn't automatically a success. Dwyer recalled the early days of the CAC program, when the success rate in issuing the cards varied widely from base to base. Setting up the equipment was a complex process, one that few personnel were trained for.

Rather than settle for partial success, Dixon traveled to bases with high success rates, including those in far-flung locales such as South Korea, to gather information about what did work.

'Here she is, a two-star general equivalent, spending 30 minutes with an enlisted personnel getting his or her perspective,' Dwyer said. The lessons she and her team learned'some as detailed as cleaning the printer or properly bolting down equipment'were then passed on to other facilities, whose success rates subsequently improved.

The program involved bringing a lot of emerging technologies up to a production standard. DOD also did not want to rely on one source, so it encouraged vendors to adopt open standards wherever possible. Neither was an easy task, but both were challenges Dixon seemed suited to meeting.

Dixon has 'been especially effective at working with industry to communicate the DOD vision for the program and to identify new technical requirements that will need to be met,' Vanderhoof said. 'She's demonstrated an uncanny ability to get consensus in the support of new standards and ways of doing business.'

Toward open standards

The smart-card and biometrics industries are moving toward open standards, in part because of Dixon's persistence.

Dixon, now a member of the Senior Executive Service, started her career in the Navy in 1966. She came up through the ranks before landing a position as a senior analyst for program analysis and evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In 1977 she was appointed deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, where she oversaw military manpower, personnel and training policy, and issues within the department.

After taking time off to raise a child, she returned to government work in 1998, at the Defense Manpower Data Center. She has a master's degree in business administration and operations research from George Washington University.

Despite the success of the CAC program, Dixon isn't about to slow down. Many challenges await her, as the second-generation cards, possibly with additional biometric capabilities, are about to be issued.

'This is a start. Getting the cards out there is important, but the use of the cards is even more important,' Dixon said.Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to move up to the manager level?

Always do the best you can at your current job. Always look for ways to improve. Relish constructive criticism. Find managers who are successful and study them to learn what makes them successful. Become a valued but not indispensable employee or you will miss training and promotion opportunities. Look for bosses who give visibility to their employees with the organization's leadership and leadership in other organizations. Let it be known that you are interested in moving up. Ask a lot of 'why' questions.

Q: What's the best advice you received, and from whom?

(Paraphrased answer) Dixon said the best advice she received was from her father, and it was about being a good manager. He told her it is not enough to tell people what they have to do. One should convince them what you are asking them to do is worth doing, 'that it is something that they want to do,' even that it was their idea. The greatest proof that your persuasion works is if they continue to do the job in the way that you asked after you have left the room.

Q: Why government service?

I started working for the federal government because while I was in college, I was extremely critical of government and bureaucracy and someone challenged me to become a part of the government and fix the problems I thought I saw. I stayed with it because I discovered that the military and civil servants (for the most part) are exceptionally committed, very talented individuals, that the job challenges were exciting, complex and interesting, and that the management challenges are invigorating.

You cannot imagine the feeling of accomplishment when you see a major cultural change begin to take shape and people get excited about the change. To get there requires persistence, patience, team building and being unwilling to accept anything but success.

I'm sure that there are similar jobs outside the government, but this is an opportunity for me to provide service to my fellow citizens and do my very small part in keeping this country great.

Q: How important is mentoring in developing a good manager?

Although good managers can be self-developed with some help from some really effective supervisors along the way, this requires being in the right place at the right time. But a mentor is particularly useful for those individuals whose supervisors may not be willing or able to counsel them or when a view from higher up the management chain is needed.

It is equally important that the individual be open to counseling, suggestions and be willing to change. If that isn't happening, then neither effective supervision, training, nor mentoring will work. Remember, you are in charge of your career'it's your job to seek out the help you need to advance. Mentors can help you stay focused and help identify your developmental needs.

Q: What part does fun play in your work?

You have to have fun in your job. If you don't, you'll eventually lose your staff, your effectiveness. If people are having fun, it's amazing how much more work we get done far more effectively. As with almost everything, balance is essential.

Q: How do you balance work and home life?

Not anywhere near as well as I should. The technique that works for me is to schedule family, home and personal time and give it the same priority as anything else on my schedule. It works most of the time.


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