Peggy and Carlene C. Ileto, executive director, products and services delivery management office, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, and also a Women of M2M/IoT Award winner, talk about women in IT and the importance of failure. She also digs into how service centers are going high-tech today and that the efforts of reducing paper was a major effort at the IRS, but provided incredible value. They also address issues of cybersecurity, how to inspire the next generation, mentorship, and the need to focus on the job at hand.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, log onto www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 08/20/19 from the archives.
Do you know what? I’m really excited because when we talk about your journey, we talk about the next generation and all the things that we have to do. You’ve led a wonderful career so far. It’s exciting to get women and the next generation of men and women into the excitement about STEM. Talk about that because it’s not everybody that wants to get into IT and understand it. But you love what you do.
I absolutely do love what I do. Let me just give you a little bit of my background that you’ve already shared a little bit of, but math is my major and my minor is computer science. So, I have always loved that scientific area mainly because it was intriguing to me. It was something that I really got excited about. Of course, I don’t believe I was very similar to any of my classmates who loved sports, who loved more the arts, or business. I was certainly into technology and trying to be innovative. For young women who are coming up the ranks or even young girls who are going through school, if they truly have a knack for wanting to be a part of information technology, I take my hat off to them because I think that this is something that not many women are in.
They feel as though this is not the field for them because it has always been stereotyped as something for men to do. Systems engineering is so exciting. Building systems for this country is even more exciting. Or you’re building systems for other citizens or other companies. This is what makes us great. We have such great innovators that we have had in our history as a country. To now have women come in and do so much to impact the lives of this country is so important. So, I want to inspire them. I want them to see that there are women out here that can do these things and they can do them well.
Can I ask you, do you think part of the stereotype goes back to when, and I’m going to date myself and help you along with me in dating ourselves together, that you have these stereotypes when we show a Barbie doll that says, “Math is hard.” You said you were a math major. So what? Math is hard, but something that’s hard is worth having and failure is okay. And look at what you’re focusing on today. You’re focusing on continuous diagnostics and mitigation and security, that’s hard. I mean, those are the kinds of things, CDM, when you look at things like that, that is not easy to look at, right? I mean, those things are tough.
It is tough. If you have a desire to do this, if you have a knack for it, if you really feel passionate about it, these things are not a hard job to us. They become a way of life for us. We’re always looking for new things to improve what we do today. I mean, you think about Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, I’m going to date myself now, think about the fact that we had rotaries. We had phone booths out on the sidewalk. We now have cellphones. We can not only use the cellphones and go anywhere we want to but we can actually text. We can actually look at our email because now we have iPhones. We have come a long way from a 25 or 10-cent telephone booth to what we have today.
And believe me, not one man did that. There were many people, and that includes women, that have come up with great ideas to get us from point A to where we are today. And there’s still more to come. There’s smart people, smart women out there who are going to make this happen. So, I’m excited to know. I want them to understand also that failure is all right. I mean, there are great people like Thomas Edison who have failed and multiple times. He invented that light bulb after an estimated 25 failures and he was successful. So, we learn from those failures just so that we can make sure that we don’t repeat that again. In my mind, failure is a pivotal moment in time that forces you and I to take a different path, a path to a better place. I’ll always hold onto that because we have to remember that many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. So, if there is nothing else, remember that quitters never win.
When you look at all of these things right now, are there initiatives right now that you say to yourself, “I’m working on things that have led to where I am today?” That these are initiatives that we are particularly proud of, that we want this next generation or older generation, younger generation to see, “Look, it takes failures to get us and to get you where you are today.” 35 years into your career now and you say, “Look, I’m proud of what maybe I didn’t succeed in the past but now I’m very pleased in the projects I’m working on today.”
I can tell you about a couple of those, both at IRS and at DHS. Let me start with IRS. I became one of, let’s say, many program managers or program support managers for the electronic filing. I love to be on big programs that impact this nation and it changes the way we do business. And if we look at the many paper forms that we have had to use in the past. You would go to the post office and you would get a booklet on IRS guidelines on how you’re supposed to fill out your taxes and so forth. Now, you can get online if you have a computer and if you don’t, there are cafe shops that will get you a computer so that you could log on and do your taxes. And when you do your taxes now, it’s all asking you questions specifically and it calculates everything for you. So you don’t have to sit there and think, “Oh, did I add this right? I need to go to a CPA.”
You don’t have to worry about the service centers getting any of your information incorrect. They don’t have buckets of paper all over the service centers now to address your tax returns. Think of the millions of people we have here and the service centers that have to take care of and process those taxes because we had paper returns. So, the efforts of reducing paper was a major effort at the IRS and electronic filing. I know people don’t care for the IRS. Who does? No one pretty much likes them.
I could feel the tension when I would go out to visit some of our taxpayers. But it made a difference when this bus conductor and a train conductor came up to me and said, “Ma’am, I think you’re new in Boston.” I was visiting a service center. And I said, “Yes I am.” He says, “Where are you going?” And I told him I was going to one of the IRS service centers. He turned around and looked at me and said, “Thank you. Thank you to all of IRS for creating electronic filing.” That made the difference right there for me and I couldn’t be more proud of that situation, of what we did to make electronic filing successful.
The CDM from the DHS is also a key program. We haven’t even finished it yet but the possibilities of that program is going to touch the entire United States. Because it’s going to protect all of our government systems that we have here now. We have been breached, the private industry. Look at Citibank, breached. Every time you turn around, there is a breach somewhere. And the one that is more prevalent in my mind is OPM when they got breached. All of that employee private data that was exposed as a result of this breach and we’re now putting something in to protect us. Never have we ever even thought about cybersecurity. I don’t even think people could spell cybersecurity, not to mention know what it really was. Now it’s the hottest thing out there because we have advanced so much in information technology that we need somebody to oversee and protect us and our data.
It’s almost like the FAA. We don’t have stop signs in the air. We don’t have red lights in the air. So, they need the FAA guys that actually tell them what they need to do, to say you move in this airspace now or move in this quadrant of the airspace so that we can get you landed at this particular airport. We need somebody overseeing our information technology the same way so that we can protect ourselves and we can protect our data.
So what you’re doing right now, as I hear you, is that you want to inspire. Because I have to think you’re passionate about this and your passion comes through and I love to hear that. But when I look at that, that passion isn’t just something you had to have. So I have to think that you must’ve admired people, somebody who inspired you. You must’ve had some mentors along your journey. You said, “I had great mentors and that’s why I’m inspired to keep doing what I do.” Are there are those that did that for you?
Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’ve had a mentor in every job that I have had, whether it be in IRS, IBM, or even DHS. They have inspired me so much as to where I want to go next. To do that, I had to have some type of idea of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. What was my end state going to look like? And I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m still working toward that. But my end state is really to be a CIO of some department. I really want that. And to do that, I had a plan and I had mentors who led me. They knew I had a plan. I shared that with them. They inspired me and they motivated and encouraged me to do just that, to start looking at areas or fields of study that would lead me to where I want to be in the future.
So, if you look at it, the CIO needs to know about requirements management. They need to know strategically how they’re going to do their information technology, what’s coming up next, and stay abreast on the new technology. They have to understand operations development and testing and they have to understand all of the new guidelines and legislation that’s going to come out from the different governments that we have. And I would say OMB and others. So when I look at that, I started my career at IBM focused on requirements management and strategic planning. And that’s what I knew and I could plan like no other.
Could I implement? I wasn’t quite sure because I have never had an opportunity to do that. But as I got into the IRS, I had the opportunity to be exposed to software development, to testing, and to become a test manager of different systems and then become a program manager. That field had me really understand what program management and project management was all about. And I showed ownership. This is where I just soared. I took that to heart to the point where I was taking it home.
And if I had projects at home, I was using those same skillsets to deliver projects like redoing my bedroom or remodeling my bathroom. But it was always a major thing for me. I took in cost and schedule and making sure I had the appropriate funds. I also looked at the skillsets that I was looking for to actually get the job done.
So, it was really exciting for me when I got into that piece of it or that field of study and it soared for me, mainly because I became so good at it, I could do it with my eyes closed. And I started delivering systems at IRS like you wouldn’t believe, filing and payment compliance where they had people that were delinquent in paying their taxes. They had so many that they had to get debt collectors to come in and start calling folk and to set up that situation. And making sure that no privacy was breached as a result of having these debt collectors call was really key. And then communicating this to the citizens of the United States was even more important. And then understanding their situations so that we can accommodate every citizen that may be in that situation.
I delivered the accounts management system up at IRS. So, to me, delivering a system that’s going to impact this country is so key for me. And it makes me feel like, “Oh my goodness, I have value. I have contributed to the success and to the progression of this country.” That’s what’s important to me as a public servant of the United States, being a federal employee.
One of the things that you said resonated with me is that you had some longevity with some of your jobs and that’s something the younger generation might not know. They job-hop. You were with some of your jobs for more than a decade. You said, “How do I apply them to others and then bring them back to whether I’m doing it at DHS or the task that I’m doing at hand. And how can I then contribute so that now the next job I’m looking for, whether it’s in my current employment or where I want to be as the CIO, whatever my next eye of that prize is, I can apply it.” Is that the advice that you give that next generation?
Definitely, I just say: Know where you want to be, what your end state looks like to you. Nobody can define that but you, the individual. You talked about my basic beliefs, to have some principles so that carry you through. There are going to be days where this is not going to be easy. You’re going to feel so discouraged and you’re going to feel as though your back is up against the wall and things are just not going right. There’s never going to be a perfect day. But when you have those moral values and those beliefs to hold on to, you can elevate and empower yourself to be anything and to do anything you want.
When we see our politicians can’t seem to get along, and that’s that end state that you described, do we just have to say, “Look, we’re not going to listen to the noise. We just have to do the job at hand. Forget about all the other noise.” Just do the job, right?
Just do the job at hand. Focus on that because that’s what you’re hired to do. That’s what you’ve been asked to do. So focus on that and deliver. They can’t knock you for doing what you’ve been asked to do. So, I would say, keep your eyes on the prize and move forward. Do what you’ve been asked to do, even though they have no sense of understanding the direction in which they’re going. Yes, we’re all over the place now and I’m really hoping that we will pull it back in and get a direction of where this country wants to go. But in the meantime, we know things that need to be done and we know the right things that need to be done to make this country better. Let us do the things that we know we can do. Things that we can control, the things that we know will positively impact the lives of others.
Is it hard? And when you say that, when we look at these things right now, the younger generation needs to see that look, we’ve got nefarious characters constantly trying to penetrate and get data, create havoc on all of us. And it’s hard because, you know what? You’re trying to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m doing my job.” And corporations are saying, “You’re not doing it well enough.” It’s just so much and you see all negative press or all these negative things. And yet you hear all these things. How do you close that all out and say, “Look, my job is just to do what I got to do. I got to focus on making sure those nefarious guys stay home and I just do my thing.”
Well, you don’t want to actually do that. You don’t want to close that off. You need to know what’s happening because it could impact what you are trying to do. You don’t want to close that off. You want to always keep an ear to the ground to hear what else is going on around you. As I tell my kids: Be aware of your environment. Because that could possibly prevent you from that point and that end state in which you want to get to. But I’m going to tell you this is all about courageous people. And I know so many women who have started things, done things, and then they pulled back and they stopped and said, “No, it’s not working.”
Sometimes it’s the time and place in which we do it. The timing is not right. The place is not right. But I will tell you, courageous people to me move forward no matter what. And they have to strategically do that. They have to be aware of what’s going on. They have to know, based on their plan, whether they can still maneuver appropriately. And you don’t get from point A to point B by yourself. There’s always somebody, there’s always someone that is helping you. This is why mentorship is so important. So, don’t have a blind eye to what’s happening outside. Don’t put on blinders where you’re only focused on what you need to do. Because, when you get to that end state, that may have already been null and void or it may be that somebody has already done it. Keep your ear to the ground and continuously be innovative and creative so that what you do at your end state is so much better and much more powerful than what you had anticipated it to be.
So women face hurdles, they have to just say, look, they can overcome the hurdles. And that’s the idea. They can overcome the hurdles in technology, whatever industry they are in. Because the end state that you described, there’s great opportunities for them and men as well. As long as they want them.
What’s your best advice looking forward and seeing where the opportunities are in this wonderful world to which we live in?
Well, I will tell you that many of our opportunities now, from an IT perspective, is in cybersecurity. With all the things that are happening, it’s so important that we secure this country and we secure the people and the data that we have. I can share so many examples of where we have dodged that bullet of not being secure so many times that it really is probably one of the most important things that we need to focus on. But also, we need to look at our generation, our next generation and how we can help them innovate and to get rid of the bad guys and what they’re doing, and how we can make our lives a lot better. So if I look at any advice to any young or new generation on their careers, I have to say my advice to them is to stay focused on the end goal, stay strong, and stay fearless. Trust in your instincts and believe in yourself for nothing worth having is ever gained easily.