Three decades ago, feminism had barely made headway in terms of opening doors of opportunity for women. But that didn't stop Brenda Owens from becoming the first female to work in the traditionally male field of computer operator in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
"I started on the midnight shift," recalled Owens.
When she wasn't working the night shift, Owens attended classes at Florida State University, where she eventually got her degree. At the FDLE, Owens quickly moved up the ladder, holding various positions in operations, communications and development.
In 1999, Owens, the first woman to work in the FDLE's computer room, became CIO. Owens stepped into a quickly transitioning world, even for an industry that prides itself on change and innovation. The Internet was gathering strength, and Owens moved rapidly to take advantage of its benefits.
She rebuilt the state's enterprise network that serves all branches of law enforcement in Florida using the much more flexible IP network standard. This was no low-key rebuild. The statewide network hosts 1,000 sites and serves between 60,000 and 65,000 designated users. It had to be capable of handling traffic with virtually no downtime. The new CIO got the network up and running without a hitch.
Owens quickly grasped the Web's potential, and the FDLE became the first state law enforcement agency in the country to put information about sex offenders online, as well as to establish a Missing Children Information Clearinghouse. That sort of thinking led Owens to put information about reported stolen property, including automobiles, online. Now if a deal sounds too good to be true, a buyer can visit the FDLE's Web site to quickly determine if the property is stolen.
Perhaps the most far-reaching of Owens' accomplishments is the multiphased rollout of the department's Rapid ID system for registering sex offenders and predators. The system is the result of Florida legislation, known as the Jessica Lunsford Act. The two-finger identification authentication system positively establishes the identity of sex offenders within 10 minutes of registering themselves at a local police department.
The system is so reliable that it's been expanded to include the state's 185,000 ex-cons on probation and will eventually end up in squad cars, so that police officers will have the same capability for identification as headquarters. Deployment of Rapid ID led to the FDLE receiving the "IT Leader of the Year" award, presented annually by IT Florida to nonprofit and public-sector organizations conducting distinguished work in the field of technology.
Owens' philosophy on using technology is clear.
"Our approach was to be on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge," said Owens, explaining that any technology used had to be "industrial strength" and able to operate 24/7.
Owens said she loved working for the FDLE because the job was never routine. "There was always something new and exciting happening there. Working in public safety is so rewarding and fulfilling because it's one of the cornerstones of public service."