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Balancing Military Service and a Civilian Career Pays Off for These IT Professionals

These IT professionals cite their ongoing and past military obligations as a key to their success.

by / February 28, 2012
Greg Franklin, deputy director of health information technology for the California Technology Agency (left) and Col. Keith Tresh, director of the Office of Information Security for the California Technology Agency. Jessica Mulholland

Juggling part-time military service with a demanding civilian career may not seem like the ideal way to rise through the ranks in public-sector IT, given the increased out-of-office demands on a person’s time. But some technology professionals in public service would beg to differ, citing their armed forces experience as a primary factor in their success.

A small band of state and local government IT professionals, lace up boots, press uniforms and head off to serve the country as military reservists — often picking up leadership qualities along the way that push their management abilities to the next level.

Greg Franklin
, deputy director of health information technology for the California Technology Agency, has worked in California government for 23 years — and he served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve the entire time. Prior to that, he was on active duty with the Air Force for eight years. Currently at the rank of lieutenant colonel, Franklin is an officer with the Medical Service Corps office of the Air Force.

Franklin said his state government and Air Force responsibilities are similar, but his military duties are done on a larger scale. Still, skills and knowledge gained in uniform often translate to his state job.

When California entered discussions on health-care reform in 2007, for example, Franklin said an electronic health records system also was being developed in the military. With those same efforts now under way in California, he has valuable experience, even if the approach is different because of the setting.

“From purchasing health care to IT to project management, all of the political and administrative pieces are pretty much the same in the reserves, but [they’re] at a Department of Defense and federal level,” Franklin said. “A lot of the training and necessary skill sets that you need to be successful in both environments are the same.”

Corey Cush, assistant vice president of corporate networking services for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC), a municipal health-care organization, agreed. A former active-duty soldier with the U.S. Army and currently at the rank of command sergeant major in the Army National Guard, Cush said his dual experiences complement each other.

Anyone who serves in the armed forces benefits from collaborating with people outside of their comfort zone, Cush said. He called the armed forces a “melting pot” where you learn to relate to people with varying beliefs and different backgrounds, ultimately becoming a better soldier and manager.

“When I served in Afghanistan, I was in charge of a NATO force where I had to work with our counterparts in Australia, England, France, Canada — and they all have different ways of conducting business and different styles,” Cush said. “You learn to adapt to those styles and you have to find different ways of managing people and projects to get things done.”

On the other hand, IT management experience with the HHC gives Cush civilian business skills that make him a better decision-maker in his military career.

While the increased training may be useful, maintaining the busy schedule is not easy. Bill Schrier, CTO of Seattle, was a reservist with the U.S. Army from 1973 to 1995. The 22-year stint included 13 years of overlap while working with the city. The toughest part about the experience, he said, was working his regular five-day week, doing his service for two days, and then doing his normal five-day shift again.

With no downtime and a family to think about, those weeks were rough hauls for the Schrier family. In addition, he explained that the two-week military service obligation during the summer that reservists must fulfill added to the difficulty of juggling the workload and making project due dates.

“I was an officer and, as a leader in the Army Reserve unit, was also going in every Tuesday night for an administrative drill,” Schrier recalled. “Most months, I had one or two additional weekend days [of service] when I had a command staff or another event that I attended, so that complicated the time commitment.”

Modern technology makes it easier to stay connected during those times, he said, but the military work — particularly as an officer — runs much deeper than weekends and the annual two-week stretch.

Franklin and Cush confirmed that managing the home front is a bit more convenient these days, thanks to mobile devices and the boom of the Information Age. While serving, Franklin said his evenings are typically free, so that’s when he checks emails and deals with urgent issues from the office.

That’s also the plan for Col. Keith Tresh of the California National Guard. Tresh, director of the Office of Information Security for the California Technology Agency, will be taking a leave from his public service post for a seven-day military commitment in late February or early March.

Tresh is taking command of one of the California National Guard’s brigades and as a prerequisite, has to take a “pre-command” course. Although he won’t be on the ground at the state Capitol, he’ll remain a part of state affairs. While away, Tresh will be armed with a cellphone, iPad and laptop to stay in the loop on daily activities at his office back home.

“When you get to this level, you didn’t get there because you are one of those folks who really doesn’t have the drive and/or the need to stay in touch,” Tresh said. “So it almost goes without saying that we will be checking in daily.”

So how do busy IT professionals handle it all? Cush says the balancing act between military and civilian life demands commitment and organization.

“I think you have to have a love and passion [for it]. You’re going to sacrifice a lot of your private and family time because a lot of time has to be devoted to both,” he said. “What I do typically is allocate a certain amount of time during the week to do some military business. On the weekends, I [set aside] some time for HHC business that I have to do to meet my responsibilities in the corporation. It’s all about time management.”

Tresh’s career with the state of California started on Aug. 22, 2011, so this is the first time he’ll be leaving to attend to military duties. Tresh says he’s a “110 percent guy” when it comes to making sure his responsibilities are met; he’s made it a point over the last few months to avoid any overlap between his military duty and his day job.

That dedication means handling California National Guard business before he begins his workday at the state, during lunch meetings and through nightly conversations with the guardsmen with whom he serves. Although Tresh is trying to make sure the two jobs don’t interfere with each other, the reality is, the paths will meet at some point.

“I have all these different periods of time where I am going to have to go and be with my soldiers, so I am going to have to plan it out,” Tresh said. “Luckily, most of the training is planned a year out and [while] there are always last-minute changes here and there … I plan to be as proactive as possible.”

Although their busy schedules and sacrifices may look one-sided on the surface, military training delivers a wide array of benefits for public-sector IT personnel who serve in the armed forces.

For Franklin, his time in the Air Force has taught him to be more flexible, both in his military career and as a public-sector professional, when it comes to handling stressful situations. He said in an age of limited budgets and personnel resources, the ability to quickly adapt to challenges is more critical than ever.

“Everyone is doing two or three jobs, and you really have to be flexible and understand your limitations, but also be able to recognize strength and leverage those strengths wherever you can,” Franklin said. “That’s something that is taught vigorously in the Air Force.”

Schrier said the main takeaway from his time as an Army reservist was the notion of how to be a better leader and the development of his management style. It may sound cliché, but the first principle of military leaders is to never ask troops to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, he said. That mantra has served Schrier well in heading up Seattle’s technology department.

In addition, military service instilled a sense of humanity into Schrier’s leadership style. A commander has to know and be accountable for all the troops in a unit, he said, and the best way to do that is to spend time getting to know those individuals.

Schrier applied that philosophy to his work, first as a systems analyst in Seattle and now as CTO; he knows the names of the 200 people working for him, what those employees are working on and a bit about their families. He said that approach is responsible for his success as a manager.

Schrier explained that while the tactic shows workers that their boss has a personal interest in them, it also has practical benefits when it comes to managing the IT interests of the city during a crisis. By developing those relationships, it makes tracking where your people are and managing resources more efficient.

Hortensia Ruiz, information system analyst for Culver City, Calif., knows a thing or two about resource management. While serving in the Air National Guard, she and her team were dropped in the middle of a field and had to assemble an entire computer network on limited resources.

While her crossover time with public-sector IT work was only a few months long, the military experience has helped define Ruiz’s work mentality. One thing she learned in the military is to be aware of the time needed to perform a task and quickly make the decision to do what it takes to complete it.

“Ultimately the goal of anything you go into is the mission and getting it accomplished,” Ruiz said, “which is different than colleagues of mine who don’t come in with that mentality.”

Still in his “rookie year” working for the California Technology Agency, Tresh is in the midst of his own management style transition. He said that in the military, decision-makers are trained to take the best information available, make a decision and execute that plan quickly and efficiently.

But as the IT information security czar of the Golden State has found out, working in a large state bureaucracy carries additional challenges of budget and resource constraints —  and a slower process for implementing ideas. Tresh credited his deputy director, Michele Robinson, for helping him ease back the throttle during his first few months with the state.

“It is a different style to doing business, so I’ve had to adapt my management style to realize that not everybody is going to run and jump and make decisions because of all the different, competing priorities in the state process, along with the budget crisis,” Tresh said. “Slowing down and … taking more time to do a much more thorough in-depth analysis of what we want to do and how we want to do it before we move forward is probably the biggest change I’ve made.”

When military duty calls, inevitably, these citizen soldiers will need to spend time away from the office. To that end, Schrier and Tresh said one of the key traits of a military reservist is the ability to confidently delegate work to staff members.

Delegation may not have been a big issue when Schrier was a systems analyst. But when he made the leap to management, his military training prepared him to effectively assign certain projects to individuals that he knew could handle things while he was gone.

Those skills were tested in the early 1990s, when Schrier was in charge of creating the Seattle government’s first data communication network that linked all the city’s computers. It was a huge undertaking, and as luck would have it, Schrier had to leave for two weeks in the middle of the project to fulfill his yearly commitment to the Army.

Aside from an occasional phone call, Schrier had to completely delegate the project’s set-up work to his staff.

“That’s something that came out of the military — as an [officer], you depend on your sergeants to actually carry out the mission and do the work,” Schrier said. “You set the general guidance and mission parameters, but you delegate the work and getting it done to them.”

Tresh is now experiencing similar circumstances when it comes to IT security for California. He explained that given the “hacktivism” going on by groups such as Anonymous, he is ensuring that a communication plan is in place if the state is subjected to any major incidents while he’s gone. In Tresh’s absence, if an incident happens, making sure all appropriate state officials are up to speed is a duty that will fall to Robinson.

In addition, prior to Tresh leaving for his National Guard “pre-command” course, he and his staff are putting together the details for a subcommittee meeting that will reform the IT security program across all state agencies. But Tresh has to let others take on much of the responsibility so he can leave to meet his military commitments.

“Prepping for that is a little bit hairy because we don’t want it to go bad, and we want everybody to know that it’s a team effort,” Tresh said of the reworked IT security program that will be discussed at the meeting.

“That whole prep and research piece is something I’m handing off to Michele right before I leave — that’s the biggest thing I’m really concerned about,” Tresh added. “I’m not concerned because I think it will fail, but because I want to make sure it goes well.”

Cush can relate. In 2007, he was deployed to Afghanistan for 18 months while the HHC was in the midst of data center consolidation, which reduced the organization’s data centers from 11 to two. Cush built the plan for executing the consolidation, but had to rely on his staff of 56 people to move it forward while he was gone.

When he returned in 2009, the project was well under way and Cush credited his staff for holding the fort down and making good decisions during his absence. He explained that while in Afghanistan, his “battle rhythm” was almost 20 hours of work per day. Generally, Cush woke up at 4:30 a.m. and if he didn’t go “outside the wire” — on patrol beyond the base — he spent time doing mission operations until 11:30 p.m. That process was repeated daily.

Not surprisingly, returning to work after a long period away under a grinding schedule took some adjusting. Cush admitted it took him awhile to slow down after always being on the go. He had about a month off between his service and returning to work at the HHC, but the time away didn’t affect his IT abilities.

“We were in the 25 percent stage of consolidating the corporate data center and moving services and functions into our alternate data center in New Jersey,” Cush recalled. “I just picked up running.”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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