At just 10 years old, Swarnali Haldar emigrated from India to the U.S. with her family, settling in Maryland. In India, Haldar’s family was middle class and her parents felt she and her sister may not have access to higher education and, consequently, better quality of life in India. With the help of relatives in the U.S. who sponsored their immigration, Haldar, her sister and her parents left behind their friends, family and culture for a country drastically different from their own.
Haldar had learned English in a British boarding school in India, but once in the U.S., she quickly realized the education standards in her home country were actually higher than the standards for the same grades in the U.S. In addition to frantically relearning the English language at school in Maryland, TV was also Haldar’s English teacher.
Growing up, Haldar aspired to become an architect and after graduating high school, she decided to major in mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her plans soon changed, however, when she took a course in FORTRAN programming, a high-level coding language aimed at numerical calculations.
As she took more technology courses, Haldar began to see the potential of what could be done with technology. She soon fell in love with the immediacy of results when writing and changing codes and decided to pursue a computer science major.
During her undergraduate years, Haldar had two internships at the very place she would land her first job after graduation: serving as a GS-7 computer specialist with the Agriculture Department’s Foreign Agricultural Service. She was also the first intern in the agency offered a permanent position under an accelerated promotion program aimed at interns post-college. And within two years, Haldar was a GS-12.
Since, Haldar has held various leadership roles in federal IT organization, including serving as the chief information officer of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and as the deputy CIO/director of operations at the National Archives and Records Administration.
In 2013, Haldar was appointed NARA’s deputy CIO and today continues to lead programs and projects that allow NARA customers — researchers, U.S. citizens, archivists, genealogists, members of Congress, federal agencies and records managers — to permanently preserve digitized information and tools. She also directs the development of strategies to enhance and support NARA’s records management capabilities.
In a recent interview with WashingtonExec, Haldar spoke about her passion for technology, her thoughts about the future of government IT and what she believes women bring to the field that men can’t.
What about IT excites you?
When I was programmer, I loved the instant results one gets from software programming or delivering any level of technology to an end user. Now that I’m in a leadership position in technology, I love how technology can enable and advance any business mission. Whether it’s the Department of Agriculture helping farmers or the National Archives preserving and making available the permanent records of the government, there are no limits to what technology can help advance or enable.
Technology is key to any business strategy and operation. Regardless of the business mission, technology delivers both tangible and intangible benefits to a business that help produce results that their stakeholders demand.
How has government IT changed over the course of your career?
The biggest change I’ve seen is that the IT organization has gone from being a support organization to being mission-critical in every program office of an organization of the business mission and helping deliver mission results. Being a part of the initial strategy allows IT to be the enabler of the agency rather than just supporting the technology commodities for the agency users.
Some of the other changes I’ve seen in the IT organization itself is the adoption of the cloud, a focus on cybersecurity and investments in modernization of the technology portfolio of systems and infrastructure to allow the business to innovate around sustainable business strategies.
When in your career did you realize you had “made it?”
I remember thinking “I made it” when I competed for and was selected as the CIO for the Foreign Agriculture Service in the Department of Agriculture. I started as an intern as a college student and now I’m serving in the top leadership role in that same organization.
What has been the biggest success and biggest challenge of your career so far as NARA’s CIO?
Some of the biggest successes I have had in NARA are based upon having a team with a results-oriented positive attitude. As we start to transform NARA into a digital agency, the partnerships we have with the other NARA organizations, like NARA’s acquisitions office, have allowed us to achieve the balance of delivering the core mission of the agency while looking forward to getting acquisition strategies that will allow us to advance the agency into a digital agency.
One of the biggest challenges that I, like other technology leaders, constantly am mindful of is the balance between security and information discovery/accessibility. The current-day challenges with security breaches and vulnerabilities make protecting our data assets a key strategy that my organization is always very aware of and works to stay on top of.
What advice would you give to young women and young women of color interested in pursuing a career in IT?
I would tell them that if a career in technology excites them, pursue it and compete with the best of them. I see more women in this field than ever, and I feel we bring a key perspective to technology that a male colleague may not bring to the table. I would tell them to trust their instincts and knowledge and reach for every opportunity that presents itself to them. There are so many opportunities to succeed in this field.