Editor’s note: The winner of the Chief Officer Awards Government CTO Award announced June 17 is Robert Brown of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS.
On June 17, WashingtonExec will be virtually celebrating the most impactful and innovative C-suite executives in government and industry. These chief officers work in technology, security, data, operations, finance, business and more, excelling on both sides of the government contracting sector. Our team of judges have chosen the finalists for the inaugural Chief Officer Awards, so before we announce the winners during the event, we wanted to get to know those in the running a bit better. This Q&A series highlights their careers, successes, proud professional moments and notable risks.
C. Melonie Cannon is division chief, Enterprise Server Operations Center O&M at the State Department and a finalist in the Government CTO Award category.
What key achievements did you have in 2019?
Key achievements in 2019 included the historical sunset of our first enterprise data center on leased property. This achievement not only allowed the Department of State to align with newly released federal mandates, it also afforded DOS other benefits such as returning core IT assets to government owned and managed property, a cost avoidance of nearly $10 million annually and more.
As our first enterprise data center outside of the “blast zone,” this 11,000-square-feet location housed over 10,000 pieces of DOS-owned hardware and infrastructure. Orchestrating the physical transition of all assets in a secure and safe manner along with the logistical administrative activities was a major effort.
There’s more: In 2019, we were also able to see another major project come to fruition, birthing a new cloud platform from pilot to an official Authority To Operate. The intense and purpose-driven efforts of our team officially rolled out a new cloud environment, thus providing more optimized IT options to our system owners. The achievements here reached beyond the department doors as it also allowed DOS to further align with the government’s Cloud Smart mandate among others.
Since I cannot name and claim it all, I will end with this last professional achievement that was personally key to me. I officially launched a mentoring and coaching platform for women in IT and other groups that are so often victims of conscious and unconscious bias. Although I have officially and unofficially participated at various levels throughout my career, taking the opportunity to launch my own platform was amazing and has catapulted me into a forever journey. Through this platform, I am able to bring like-minded individuals together not only discuss but to create plans designed to break down barriers that so often detour, delay, or sometime deny opportunities because of one’s race, color, gender or similar.
What has made you successful in your current role?
I would say that relationships, determination and the sense of responsibility are among some of the top things that have aided in my success. Of course, my skills, gifts and talents, too, play a key factor. However, I recognize that I am not an island unto myself. I am blessed to be surrounded by a village of intelligent and resourceful people. I am nothing without those that aid and support me, without the push, or without knowing that there’s a greater purpose and duty beyond me.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
A major turning point for me was when I faced blatant discrimination, outside of my organization, and a male colleague spoke up on my behalf. His impact added an extra spark to my drive and gave me the boost that was needed to take a firm stand, professionally. I was reminded that I am more than enough, I have a seat at the table for a reason, a right to be heard and that I am the difference.
I was intended to be that bridge that others would use to advance in their careers without fear of their voices being silenced or discounted because of what they look like, e.g., gender, race or other potential biases.
What are your primary focuses areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Beyond my assigned day-to-day duties, my next primary focus is coaching and mentoring those that desire professional and personal assistance. The platform to do so has been presented therefore I capture the opportunity to speak up in support of and help to advance women in IT, those that struggle with diversity and inclusion and similar areas. It is evident in today’s climate why these areas are so important.
How do you help shape the next-generation of government leaders/industry leaders?
First, I understand that I am an example. As such, I have a responsibility to set the right example from skillsets to attitude and beyond. I have to be truthful in my delivery, yet demonstrate empathy in my delivery. I foster relationships to learn from their seat and to share from mine. I recognize that I am one of many blueprints that people can draw from. I, too, understand that there are many ways to achieve the right answer: I may use 9+1 and they may use 5+5, however, the final answer, 10, is still the same.
One of my most proliferating passions is to cultivate and plant seeds of positivity and creativity. A key message that I have shared with the next generation is that when we combine their ingenuity with my wisdom, there’s nothing that we can’t achieve, together!
What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?
Failure isn’t always bad or negative. I look for the lessons learned from it and remind myself that, you tried, that’s the most important thing. Now, try again, apply the lessons learned and fix it!
Which rules do you think you should break more as a government/industry leader?
I would never suggest that we “break” rules, however, I do not hesitate to change them when I have the authority to do so or voice recommendations of change when needed. We must understand that breaking rules is usually followed by a negative consequence, even if you did it for the right reason. From my personal position, I do try to manage and lead through a “flexible” lens and am always open to listening. I, too, operate from the mindset that there is “usually” an exception to every rule!
What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?
Throughout my career, my struggles have changed based on the roles and positions that I have had. However, if I were to hashtag one specific struggle I would have to lean toward recognizing that I can’t forget self-care. I have often found myself so busy trying to help others that I forget to take care of myself. This can be true in the physical, academia, health, etc., form. Self-care is essential. Just as in a plane ride, we are always reminded to put on our mask”on first before helping others. I will usually help 10 others put on theirs before remembering to put on my own.
I am still learning to overcome this by being more intentional and deliberate with my time. Although I sometimes skip it, I schedule time to focus on personal and professional growth opportunities.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Not to follow my footsteps but to use the blueprint that I’ve created and design your goals based upon your individual passions, goals and desires. Don’t be afraid of the nos, but take time to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Always speak to be heard, not seen . . . know the difference! Lastly, never forget that you have a responsibility to give back.