A spy by luck: the case file on CIA's Jeanne Tisinger
CIA Chief Information Officer Jeanne Tisinger
May 25th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

A spy by luck: the case file on CIA's Jeanne Tisinger

Editor's note: In the Security Clearance "Case File" series, CNN national security producers profile key members of the intelligence community. As part of the series, Security Clearance is focusing on the roles women play in the U.S. intelligence community

By Pam Benson

You don't really expect to simply fall into the spy business, but for Jeanne Tisinger, that's pretty much how it happened.

She was a business major at George Mason University, looking for some experience in her field while continuing her studies. She joined the college's work-study program and, much to her amazement, her first interview was with the Central Intelligence Agency.

"I was surprised they were even hiring co-op students," she says. "Why would they want a college kid to come into their version of campus? I wasn't sure what they were going to do with me. Then there was, of course, a part of me that was. wow, the mystique of the CIA - what better place to start. It was just kind of a bit of a wide-eyed wonder."

That was nearly three decades ago.

"I'm the classic story of sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," Tisinger says.

She's still with the agency, rising through the ranks to become the CIA's first female chief information officer nearly two years ago. Her job is to oversee the CIA's vital information technology systems and coordinate information-sharing.

Managing IT may not be a traditional spy role, but don't say that to Tisinger. She pushes back on the notion that she's not a spook.

"My DNA is shaped as an intel officer first. So I actually don't see myself as a business major or a technologist, or I should say I don't define myself that way. I see myself as an intel officer. All of us are here to support the intel mission."

Even becoming a CIA technologist had a bit of luck involved. In the mid '80s, personal computers were hardly common place at work or home, but Tisinger was given an assignment to develop a workforce handbook, and one of her tools was this new piece of technology.

"They gave me this PC, I liked it, I was good at it and by the way (there was) no one else around me - there weren't a whole lot of people to compete against in that field."

Being in the right place at the right time led Tisinger down a new career path. "It's good to get in first, to get in early," she says.

It was a growth business with lots of opportunities for a technically proficient officer.

But it was also a male-dominated field.

Women were in a minority and as Tisinger looks back on the early days, she says the environment wasn't as friendly.

"I sometimes felt that there was a sense by some of my bosses that I was only here temporarily rather than in it for the long run."

She tells the story of an incident that occurred after she took her first leadership position.

"I was the chief and I think there was one other woman and, I think, probably five or six men that were on the program. They were all these big, tall guys, way over six feet. I'm like five-two. We were doing a program management review with this particular commercial company and we were in the company's space," she remembers.

"There's a big long conference table. The government (staff) comes walking in and the men are all sitting at the table and I come sit down. And the vendor program manager of the company was just addressing the men of the audience. I'm like, 'Hello, I would be the chief.'"

The lesson Tisinger learned from the incident: "Sometimes you have to assert yourself in more obvious and direct ways."

The CIA had two separate IT systems, one to support overseas posts and another to handle technology for the Washington metro area. In 2000, Tisinger was asked to participate on the team tasked with joining the systems.

"We needed to create one organization and one global network, and basically (create) a mesh community of technology providers that support everyone across the globe."

That meant battling an internal culture, especially among the overseas contingent that liked being separate.

Now that she is the CIO - a position she assumed in July 2010 - Tisinger will use that experience to help out the overall intelligence community.

The spy agencies are not immune to the budget constraints facing the U.S. government as it tries to dig itself out of massive deficits.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last fall he expects to make significant savings by integrating the community's IT infrastructure. Most of the 16 members of the intelligence community have separate systems.

Tisinger says the intelligence community has vast amounts of data to analyze, and integrating systems will make it easier for the collectors and the analysts to connect with their counterparts.

"It's about lowering the barriers for collaboration and knowledge across the (intelligence community). If you can unify the underlying foundation, that will help."

Tisinger says the CIA will be the principle provider for key portions of the new IT infrastructure.

"Collaborative to a point, and then I make a decision" is the way Tisinger describes her management style. "You can't study it to death. You have to set a direction, approve a plan, execute and adjust."

Tisinger also tries to focus her time on the most important issues not necessarily the most urgent.

"You can't get caught up in the tyranny of the inbox. If you only focus your personal time on the urgent, you'll be a gerbil in a cage. You've got to be able to lift your head up, look out a couple of years and say what are the most important things we need to get done."

Has she ever thought of leaving the organization she never expected to join in the first place? Tisinger says there were a couple of times she considered going to private industry, but didn't.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States became a defining moment for her.

"As I think about my job, as a CIO, it's all about the information we can bring to bear. I can directly tie what I do, what my people do, to keeping this country safe and keeping my family safe," Tisinger says.

"I believe we have a very noble purpose and I find that very motivational. It is something that I genuinely feel, and that is the kind of tugging at the heartstrings of my workforce to make them feel such a critical part of the intelligence mission. It's a good career."

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