3 Questions for Karen Evans

You think you got it tough, having to brief a department deputy secretary, an agency director or the CEO of a company? Karen Evans, the one-time administrator of e-government and IT in the White House Office of Management and Budget, had to explain technology initiatives to the president of the United States.

"You have to know how to communicate the technical issues in a way that's understandable to many audiences," Evans, national director of the U.S. Cyber Challenge, said in an interview with GovInfoSecurity.com (transcript below).

How did she prepare for those presentations? "You have a short amount of time to make a clear point and there's nothing wrong with practice, practice, practice so that when you're in that situation and you get asked a question, you don't get frazzled and drop down into technical jargon but that you can answer the question very clearly in a short answer to the president of your company or, in my case, it was the president of the United States," said Evans, who worked for George W. Bush.

In the interview with Eric Chabrow of the Information Security Media Group, Evans answered three questions about her illustrious career:

  • What was the most memorable moment of her career?
  • What mistakes did she make, and what did she learn from them?
  • What advice would she give others pursuing government leadership roles.

Before joining the White House in 2003, Evans served as chief information officer of the Department of Energy, and director of the Information Resources Management Division, Office of Justice Programs in the Justice Department. She also worked with the National Park Service, the Office of Personnel Management and the Farmers Home Administration.

Evans holds a bachelor's in chemistry and an MBA degree, both from West Virginia University.

Evans also blogs for GovInfoSecurity.com. Here are some of her contributions:

ERIC CHABROW: What was your most memorable moment in your career?

KAREN EVANS: That's really easy for me to talk about is because of the work that I did after September 11th and that was when I was at the Office of Justice Programs and I was given the opportunity to work directly with the fire department up in New York City, the police department and the port authority and there were benefit programs that OJP had available. They were under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program and so we had the opportunity to work directly with them.

And in an aftermath of that, it's really very interesting because they weren't letting a whole lot of people help them. They wanted to take care of themselves. You can imagine how fire departments, police departments and things like that, and they were very open to our programs. I'm still friends today with several of the people who I worked with that had to administer those benefit programs for the fire department. It really was a very moving, emotional experience. It was something that really helped me to be able to explain to my family what I do for a living because it was very real, because every day I would be late and tell them I'm working on something and he could see direct impact because they were talking about it on TV about how the federal government was helping the city of New York recover.

CHABROW: You've had a very successful career as a chief information officer and, of course, your work in the White House, but mistakes get made. Can you think of a mistake that you made and what you learned from it?

EVANS: There's a lot of mistakes that we make in the IT field, I think. I like to re-characterize the mistakes into learning experiences, whether the glass is half full or half empty. But, I will tell you that there was a transition time where it made more sense that when you had a performance issue or you have some kind of problem with a software application, instead of really trying to dive down into it and figure out what it is, you could throw more hardware at it. I learned that the hard way, that it was cheaper to throw more hardware at it when you were analyzing the application. It's something that you kind of learn as you go and that you have to go back and really figure out what's wrong with it. But, in the meantime, you still have to be able to provide the service.

I had some interesting events happen in my life. We were the team that was involved when the Justice Department's website got hacked and that could have been handled a lot of different ways. I'd like to think that I had a good relationship with my management so that when I had these career enhancing opportunities along the way that I learned from them and that they afforded me that ability to learn from them so that then I could apply it going forward.

There are several inflection points along the IT type of evolvement that directly reflected to anybody who's been in this profession will know. It's what you do with that afterward and then how you apply it and then improve yourself after you've had one of those types of experience.

CHABROW: And finally, what advice can you give to government leaders to be successful in their roles today?

EVANS: One of the biggest things is that you have to know how to communicate the technical issues in a way that's understandable to many audiences. What's understandable to us in the technical community and it's easy for us to talk about and we can go back and forth and everybody gets it, you have to find ways in order to be able to communicate it to a deputy secretary, or in my case, there were times when I was briefing the president of the United States. You have a short amount of time to make a clear point and there's nothing wrong with practice, practice, practice so that when you're in that situation and you get asked a question you don't get frazzled and drop down into technical jargon but that you can answer the question very clearly in a short answer to the president of your company or, in my case, it was the president of the United States.




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