Garing changed the game at DISA
By engaging industry, he helped turn the agency into an IT thought leader
- By Brian Robinson
- Oct 18, 2010
John Garing started as a college history major with no aspirations to do anything technical but left a big imprint on government IT by the time he retired as the Defense Information Systems Agency’s director for strategic planning and information earlier this year.
When he arrived at DISA in 1997, the agency was a fairly minor player in IT. More than a decade later, it’s seen as an innovative developer of IT applications and services and a thought leader in developing areas such as cloud computing.
It wasn’t all Garing’s doing, of course. But he laid the foundation that enabled a number of high-impact successes.
- From 1998 to 2003, he led a consolidation and modernization of the Defense Enterprise Computing Centers (DECCs), cutting the workforce at the the Defense Department’s data centers by almost two-thirds and reducing operating costs by $300 million, while at the same time increasing data processing capacity 500 percent and storage capacity fifteenfold.
- He led the switch to the military’s use of data processing and storage as on-demand, commodity-based managed services rather than expensive capital assets.
- He developed the concept of highly available and secure, assured computing.
- He promoted a vision of extensive contact and collaboration with private industry, which led to a total overhaul of DISA’s relationship with the private sector and to groundbreaking innovations in technology and acquisition.
John Garing, Hall of Fame Awardee
Garing was able to reach beyond military boundaries and into the wider world for better ways of doing IT, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, former DISA director and now vice president of Cyber Security Solutions at Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Services.
“During my tenure at DISA, many of the things people credited me for I actually stole from visits to Silicon Valley and other places,” he said. “And the whole idea of stealing, begging and borrowing from industry was John’s.”
Garing, who is a 27-year veteran of the Air Force, was Croom’s boss for a time in the 1980s. Garing retired as an Air Force colonel in 1989.
However, his accomplishments seemed improbable when Garing entered the Air Force in 1965 and received an assignment to the basic communication electronic officer corps. The corps gave an entry exam, and the history major who hadn’t taken any math or science courses since he was a sophomore didn’t do very well.
“They put me in what almost amounted to the dummies class,” he said. “I did OK there.”
He did well enough that the Air Force continued to give him more assignments with increasing levels of responsibility. He moved from tactical units in the Philippines that supported deployments in southeast Asia, Korea, Japan and Taiwan to squadron commander at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., then to a base in Oklahoma City, then to Brussels and finally to Air Force headquarters before he retired.
In the middle of all of that, Garing served a four-year stint at the White House Communications Agency. His experience in the Philippines introduced him to the importance of IT to the war effort, but it was at the White House where lightning really struck.
“The emphasis in the Air Force was always to reduce the number of access lines you had to the telephone and DOD network and to reduce the number of messages you sent to the communications center, because that all added to the cost,” he said. “When I got to the WHCA, the attitude there was 180-degrees different.”
Cost was still a factor, but the overriding concern was using communications to make the life of the president, Secret Service and White House staff easier. It was all about the success of the mission, and that’s the philosophy that Garing took with him through the rest of his career.
Before going back into government service, Garing spent more than eight years in the private sector, where he learned other valuable lessons, such as the importance of cost when it comes to making a profit from selling services and how to sit at a table opposite a client and sell them something. And along with that, he learned about software licensing and costs of hardware, software and labor.
“I think that most people would advocate that senior executives in government do what I did and go get some hard experience in the outside world,” he said. “There’s plenty going in the other direction, with retired generals and colonels being hired by defense companies all the time. It needs to go both ways.”
Even though his hands-on transformation of DECCs ranks as a major accomplishment, his elevation to the CIO position in 2003 — and the strategic vision he brought to that job — will likely be his lasting legacy.
“He changed people's idea of what the position of CIO means,” said Tony Montemarano, DISA’s component acquisition executive. “So many of us are happy in our little world and our place in the bureaucracy, but John was the one who showed how important it was to get out and aggressively engage with industry.”
That vision, aimed at making sure DISA adopts the latest and most effective technologies, led directly to the agency’s efforts to integrate its enterprise infrastructure and move toward a single, huge data cloud approach to sharing information among the military services.
The surprise was how readily industry executives seemed to welcome DISA's overtures, Garing said.
“It was hard at first,” he said, “because when you’re sitting on the inside of the glass house, then people are invariably nice to you, and you can get smoke blown up your skirt pretty easily. But I think they enjoyed it.”
DISA discovered that industry executives were more than willing to talk about how they did business, not just what they sold. And that, Garing said, was an objective for DISA because the agency's executives were interested in learning how to run their own $8 billion business better.
The idea was for the DISA director to be on first-name terms with CEOs at major companies and for the agency's senior executives to have similar relationships with the people who ran those companies’ business units. And it worked. DISA executives can now “pretty much talk to any company at that level,” Garing said.
Perhaps the most visible example of that close relationship with industry is DISA’s annual customer partnership conference, which attracts about 4,000 attendees and is universally recognized as a world-class meeting of government and industry talent.
Garing has taken his passion and dot-connecting expertise to the private sector again, this time as a principal consultant at Suss Consulting. Looking back, he said he feels mostly satisfaction about what he accomplished, though he has a few regrets. He never figured out how to fund common services on the network, for example, mostly because in his last few years at DISA, “there was just too much going on.”
“I just didn’t have the cycles,” he said. “One of the things most senior executives in government will tell you, especially those in DISA, is that they don’t have the time to think, and without that, it’s very hard to get things done.”
At least now he thinks he’ll have time to think. He finds that he’s busier than he thought he would be, but at least he gets to work on things that are fun — though the consulting business also has its downsides.
“It’s hard thinking about something, putting time into writing about it, and then going to talk to people and finding out you are absolutely wrong,” he said, laughing. “It’s a humbling experience.”
See more of the 2010 GCN Awards winners.