How a social worker became the Defense Logistics Agency's first chief data and analytics officer

Nancy Benecki/DLA

Under her leadership the agency is ‘just starting’ to really understand what it means to apply data as a strategic asset.

This summer will mark Dr. Lindsey Saul’s one-year anniversary as the first-ever chief data and analytics officer at the Defense Logistics Agency, where a fresh and palpable cultural shift in how data is managed, perceived and used is gaining momentum.

“We have tons of data. I think a use case that we put forth recently didn't include all of the data at DLA and it was already talking about a petabyte of data,” she explained. “The volume is huge and just really tapping into it and leveraging it, we're not able to do to the fullest extent [yet].”

In a recent conversation with Nextgov, Saul reflected on her initial year in this new-of-a-kind federal role driving a modern, technology-centered transition within the agency. Among multiple topics, she discussed data-related obstacles her team is working to help the enterprise overcome, current initiatives to develop and mature data policies, and new pursuits and positions she’s introduced to help further DLA’s application of data as a strategic asset.

Plenty of Firsts

Up to this point, Saul’s professional journey has been shaped by many “firsts” and lots of “new.”

“So I have a tendency, it seems like, to be part of the first cohort of lots of things,” she noted during the interview in late March, adding that “it was not a linear path to get to this position.”

That tendency goes beyond being DLA’s first CDAO, or in the first cohort of Carnegie Mellon University's chief data officer certificate program, or CDataO, in 2021, as she was taking on the novel federal position. The certificate’s curriculum bills itself as providing “current and future CDOs with the critical strategic insight, management techniques, and analytical capabilities” needed to stand up a “21st-century data governance program.”

Before all this, Saul studied cognitive psychology at Duke University for her undergraduate degree and forensic science and behavioral analysis for her Master’s. After that, she went back to South Florida, where she grew up, and started a job in social work, ensuring senior citizens received the proper public assistance from programs like Meals on Wheels, Medicare and Medicaid. 

“That started me thinking, you know, I really loved the work, but I wanted to be able to have more of an impact in the policy space as it related to public health,” she noted. “So that was a great experience and then another opportunity presented itself shortly thereafter, which was a doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University—the first cohort of Ph.D. students for Social and Behavioral Health at VCU.”

The courses and skills she said she learned through that experience, including writing a dissertation on the public's attitudes toward tissue donation, laid a foundation built around research, statistical analysis, and “just sort of critical thinking and analytical skills” that opened up doors for her future career as a federal official. 

“I mean, I always knew that I wanted to work in the federal government space. I didn't know what agency it would be for, but I was pretty determined,” Saul said. “For as long as I can remember, that was where I wanted to end up.”

For a short amount of time around early 2014 she worked as a contractor in the public health space at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, and went on to be a project director for audiology, speech pathology research there. Her segue into the government as a civilian came when she was selected for the Presidential Management Fellowship program. That two-year training and leadership development initiative provides Americans who have recent graduate degrees with unique experience inside federal agencies—as Saul put it, “it kind of catapults you to the top tiers of government where you're sitting with senior leaders.” 

Sometimes it can be challenging to get a foot in the door. I applied twice. The first time I did not get it, the second time I did,” she noted. “It’s a competitive process. I mean, tens of thousands of people apply and they only accept like a few hundred.” 

As part of the PMF program, fellows are required to participate in a months-long developmental assignment in another federal office or at an external federal government agency from the one they are placed at. “So I did a number of rotations—I think, like, seven rotations. I did more than the average as I was trying to get my hands in as many things as possible, and see what I wanted to do,” Saul said.

That experience offered her the opportunity to work in the Pentagon, engage with senior executive service members in boardrooms and gain a range of knowledge about DOD and its vast enterprise. The Defense Health Agency was her “home agency” as a PMF. 

“That's where I started, in the Chief Innovation Office. That was a new office as well, where they just first brought in PMFs, and so I was part of the first round of people coming in as well,” she confirmed.

From there, she went on to serve as branch chief for data and analytics in the non-medical counseling program office, under the office of the Defense secretary. Then, after more than a year in that hub, she learned of an opportunity to join the growing team of the Defense Logistics Agency’s first Chief Data Officer, Teresa Smith. At the time, Smith was standing up a new data- and analytics-centered office within DLA’s “J6” information operations unit. Saul got on board as the agency’s lead analytics strategist. She spent almost four years working to develop a data strategy and implementation plan, as well as governance policies and procedures. She also became very involved with the data analytics community.

It was a huge learning experience, and just as she started to scratch the surface she said, Smith announced plans for retirement—and encouraged Saul to apply for her CDO position.

“I asked her a ton of different questions, because I think the biggest thing to me from learning from experience is that, you know, was I going to be in a position where I was going to be supported to do my job?” Saul explained. “And I’d already felt like a DLA was very different from the offices that I had been in, in other parts of OSD and the government, in terms of the data culture—now we have a ways to go, for sure. But there is a strong community and acknowledgment that data is important. So, that's really an important thing.”

Now, having served in the role for almost a year, she said she feels “100% supported” by leadership, DLA’s chief information officer and her peers. Saul and the other nine leads under the “J6” organization, like the cybersecurity director and infrastructure director, refer to themselves as “Team 10.”

“And, you know, they're getting to know me and I'm getting to know them. But I do feel supported, so that's really critical,” she said. 

Starting to Make Sense

Though she served as the logistics agency’s first chief data officer, Smith worked during her tenure with the CIO and others to add “the A, for analytics” to that title. 

“The meaning behind that is to expand the scope of the role and responsibility to include, not just data and laying the foundation for data management and data governance,” Saul explained, but also to expand the office to encompass a division for the analytics Center of Excellence, and really stand as “the central figure, if you will, for analytics.” 

That addition gave the office more authority associated with analytics and enabled it to grow. Not long after moving up to CDAO, Saul hired an artificial intelligence strategic officer, and just recently she brought on a data architect. 

“So, ‘data as a strategic asset’—we've been shouting that from the rooftops since when [Smith] was the chief data officer, five or six years ago when the office was stood up,” she noted. “However, I think we're just now starting to really understand the meaning of it. Data as a strategic asset means that data is treated and managed just like we would manage human resources or finance in an organization, right?”

Considered the nation’s combat logistics support agency, DLA manages the defense supply chain and procures more than $41.8 billion annually on behalf of DOD components. In her view, data now touches every aspect of the agency, “and should be treated as such.” 

But at this point within DLA, data management is typically being practiced on a program-by-program or more siloed basis, without a centralized or shared governance process. Saul and her team are aspiring to pull together all critical data elements across the enterprise, so that they can clean it at its roots—and then create a business data dictionary so that users and developers understand the data and can apply it quickly in unexpected scenarios.

“I really like what one of my colleagues has said here, that ‘data are the bullets in the DLA information technology weapons system,’” Saul said. “It sets us up to really be able to accomplish this vision that we set forth, which is for DLA to be ready at a moment's notice to make data-driven business decisions.”

Also being implemented under the CDAO’s purview is a new data and analytics strategic plan. 

One of its tenets, Saul emphasized, is partnerships—with both external and internal stakeholders. DLA is currently embarking on a huge transition that involves modernizing a bunch of tools and systems, migrating to the cloud, and moving workflows and processes to a single access point. Her team is working to align efforts with those leading that shift, to ultimately enable what she called a “data-driven, digital business transformation.” 

Among many other pursuits, she’s also pushing for new data governance resources and introducing new educational and training opportunities to DLA’s workforce, focused on data management and other topics.

“I wanted to add this one thing,” Saul said during the interview, “just to kind of tie a bow on the initial trajectory, and how I got here, and why I think I might have been chosen for the position.” 

While she is sensing that her technical skills are helpful, Saul is also learning that “you don't need to be a data scientist to be the chief data officer.” Her background in psychology and behavioral analysis—and the leadership skills and other expertise she gained in the PMF program, some of which involve “changing people's behaviors and attitudes”—have proven extremely critical. 

“So, in that sense, it is very pertinent. At first, I was like ‘Why was I chosen for this?’ Or, ‘why is this a good fit?’ And I know now, definitely, there are other things that do contribute—but that is a key part of this role,” Saul said.

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