Dr. Cedric Sims of Evermay Consulting Group spoke with WashingtonExec about big data and the need for the industry and academia to work together. He also reflects on his career at the Department of Homeland Security.
Dr. Sims also shares a bit of his Texas heritage in discussing his signature footwear.
WashingtonExec: Tell us a little about your role at Evermay Consulting Group and why did you chose to work at Evermay specifically?
Dr. Cedric Sims: The opportunity to work with several of the largest industry corporations supporting government was very attractive. Even more important to me is the integrity and the respect that is held for Evermay. It is an intentionally quiet but exceptionally affective partner supporting our clients who ultimately support the government. Those were important aspects of the opportunity with Evermay and it just harmonized well with my professional expectations.
WashingtonExec: You are the former head of the Office of Program Accountability and Risk Management (PARM) at the Department of Homeland Security. Can you tell us a little bit about your transition to the private sector and how that has been going?
Dr. Cedric Sims: I would say that the transition has been very good. I spent most of my federal career serving with DHS. I had been with DHS since its founding. Prior to DHS, I was with Secret Service when Secret Service was under Treasury and assisted with transition activities to move Secret Service into DHS; specifically around information technology and the integration of our services with the department as well as some of the early information sharing initiatives. In that respect, DHS is significant part of my professional life and it will continue to be. I see the transition to the private sector as an opportunity to help the private sector better understand why DHS functions the way that it functions and what leadership is trying to accomplish in key mission areas.
WashingtonExec: Did you achieve your goals at the PARM and what do you see as your greatest achievement?
Dr. Cedric Sims: My goals at PARM were goals that went far beyond my tenure. Did I achieve them? I think that some of that is yet to be seen. PARM was established to do two things; the first of those is to continue to mature practices while improving the successful execution of programs at the department, many of those we know well have had challenges in the past such as SBInet, ACE, and ASP. The second objective of PARM is to better understand risks that are inherent in programs and to use that risk perspective to help executives better balance the portfolio of investments at the department. This area is also a maturing practice. Regarding the latter, I feel especially proud – we were able to establish 15 core criteria by which we could evaluate widely disparate set of investments at the department. As we applied our methodology we were able to align programs against the model and it bore true. We found some programs that are operating exceptionally well and others that require deeper inspection and perhaps even sharing successful solutions with programs that are challenged.
Washington Exec: When you worked at DHS, what kept you up at night?
Dr. Cedric Sims: The thing that concerned me most, the thing that kept me up at night, was seeing the operational needs in the DHS mission space and the amount of time expected for these investments to come to fruition. Getting capability into the field took too long. That is the thing that disturbed me the most and that’s what gave me such energy to make sure that PARM was going to be successful in its objectives. I’m a technologist at heart and that’s how I like to apply my trade – technology should close the gap between conception and delivery. However, the actual program execution versus planned execution is large . . . I was really proud to establish PARM to make progress in this practice at DHS.
“Big data will allow us to get into some very deep, point-specific interests and this business need will require a workforce with diverse knowledge, capability, and awareness. Broadly defined workforce skills, such as database administration, are no longer sufficient.”
WashingtonExec: How do you think the need and demand for big data analytics has changed over the past five years?
Dr. Cedric Sims: It’s eclipsed what we thought we needed five years ago. I think that five years ago we knew we needed to manage large amounts of data. I think that what we didn’t appreciate then was how quickly data could begin to be linked and interrelated. Five years ago, we approached data from the standpoint of data that we owned, data that we controlled, and data that we decided to have access to. Now data is coming from all different directions. Some of the data is data that we need but we do not own. Some of the data is coming from sources that we did not know existed and now it is becoming critical to our mission. I have to tell you that I am convinced that we have consistently underestimated what we would need to handle. What we are seeing right now are some tremendous challenges and opportunities with big data.
WashingtonExec: Do you think that big data has the potential for job creation? What type of professionals will be needed, why?
Dr. Cedric Sims: We have more segmentation of skills than we have ever had before. You can explore the most niche areas that deal with very specific interests or concerns and I promise you there is a forum for that interest, somewhere. Our ability to connect through social networks allows us to find more specific, deep, and focused interests and in some respects less broad communities. What does that mean? I think the same segmentation exists within big data. Big data will allow us to get into some very deep, point-specific interests and this business need will require a workforce with diverse knowledge, capability, and awareness. Broadly defined workforce skills, such as database administration, are no longer sufficient. Just being an IT specialist is no longer sufficient. I think that big data requires levels of specialization that go beyond the training that our traditional academic and professional environments provide to the workforce.
WashingtonExec: Do you think we have a shortage of talented people who can process this kind of data mining, data analytics when compared to all of the new structured and unstructured data being out in the world today?
Dr. Cedric Sims: There are challenges ahead with big data. The most significant challenge is more of a people issue than a technology issue. The gap begins with academia. Those that are responsible for professional education are often at the forefront of research. However, there are moments in time when industry begins to outpace where academia is headed with research. As a profession, we still have not structured the problem sufficiently to adequately train our professionals on how best to address big data. My concern is that most of those that are practitioners in this area are doing on-the-job training and that means that they are without the benefit of mentors, without the benefit of cohorts, without the benefit of professional societies- all of these are opportunities to share best practices. We need communities to practice the most in emerging areas like big data.
WashingtonExec: You mentioned the idea that in regards to big data, the industry is outpacing the academic work on the subject…is there any way we can remedy this issue?
Dr. Cedric Sims: Sure. The solution can be found in partnership. Industry needs to better understand academia, academia needs to better embrace industry. It is a Venus and Mars problem. They need each other, but often communicate poorly. They need to understand each others’ value in this pursuit. Industry and customers will push the envelope. Applied research should provide continuity and a safe harbor to exchange ideas and improve practice for all stakeholders.
WashingtonExec: What’s on your summer reading list?
Dr. Cedric Sims: I’m very fortunate and blessed to have four wonderful children; one has just entered into her teen years. As a father, I’m very concerned about making sure that she has the beneficial aspects of the internet and few of its negatives. There is a great book that has recently been released by a person that I respect greatly and the book is called Protecting Your Identity: Are You Naked Online? It was written by Theresa Payton who is a fantastic security executive. Even more importantly, the book is written in plain English and it has relevance to those in this industry and those that are not. I highly recommend it. After you read it, you will want to give it to your family and your coworker, alike.
WashingtonExec: You discussed a book about protecting your identity online…what are the biggest threats to the individual posed by cyberspace?
Dr. Cedric Sims: Complacently and expectations of anonymity. We all know the dangers of the internet. We have passwords for all our accounts, whether they are Facebook, Twitter, email or financial systems. However, recent breaches and the public display of captured passwords show that the message is still not getting through to our community. In the case of the Yahoo breach, one of the most common passwords is ‘123456.’ Fortunately, most financial institutions force the use of complex passwords. Which brings me to my next point. Our youngest users of the Internet do not understand the life-long, permanent trail of pictures, thoughts, and deeds that are being amassed every minute, every day. There is limited anonymity in cyberspace. If you do not take explicit action to protect your private information, consider it public. Sometimes, even our best efforts are not enough.
WashingtonExec: What is something most people might not know about you?
Dr. Cedric Sims: I wear cowboy boots just about every day. I don’t run in them, but I wear them to work and I wear them oftentimes when I am relaxing. I find them to be the most comfortable shoes that I have ever worn. I have people that I’ve known professionally for years that just happen to notice. ‘Hey, you are wearing cowboy boots.’ It’s something that I do and it’s part of my Texas heritage. I love living here in the DC Metro area. I think it’s one of the best places to contribute to this great nation that I love so much. But I’ve got to bring a little Texas with me and the boots are here to stay.