WASHINGTON — Mass telework brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has made 2020 a busy year for the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Throughout the year, the Pentagon’s top IT organization has had a hand in the department’s Commercial Virtual Remote Environment, which provides collaboration tools for more than 1 million users. DISA has also helped set up IT capabilities for the Navy’s two hospital ships as they docked in New York City and Los Angeles to assist with the COVID-19 response.

As a result, it has also been a busy year for Debra Daniels, DISA’s vice procurement services executive and deputy director of the Defense Information Technology Contracting Organization. Daniels started at DISA in March, right as workers were being sent home. She joined from the Small Business Administration after about 30 years with the Army and now helps oversee a $17 billion portfolio at DISA.

C4ISRNET interviewed Daniels about her new position, the unexpected tool she uses to communicate and meeting small business goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it like to take over a massive IT portfolio during a pandemic?

It makes you think differently and do things differently. It definitely increases communication as DISA provides IT and cybersecurity support. One of the most basic things that I use to make sure to communicate and get on board is the telephone. It works well on picking up and introducing yourself to not only the workforce but the mission partners themselves, stakeholders, small business, in order to do the job. It just makes you reach out more.

But I’m going to tell you: DISA has all of the tools in place that allow us to stay in and keep connected so far. DISA never shut down during the pandemic. We just moved from a federal workspace to our own home workspaces and kept going. And what I can say about the contracting force is they never lost momentum, they never lost focus on the priorities at all in doing that.

How have your first six months gone?

As our contracting operations moved to a home space, it never shut down, never closed, it never lost a beat. I would say probably the momentum increased with the contracting force on just what they were doing in reaching out, making sure that the war fighter had the capability.

I’m proud of the fact that, again, we definitely met or exceeded our small business goals. [Specifically], there’s about five new records that were [recently] set that continue to build the small business industrial base. This fiscal year, we did $7.6 billion in obligations, which was about a billion dollars more than they did in FY19, I would say just with increasing requirements in the need for the IT and cyber solutions across the Department of Defense but also probably related to some of the pandemic-related urgent and emerging requirements that we provided in that.

This is a very difficult time for small business. What should small businesses expect when interacting with your office?

What I would want small businesses to know is they’re definitely vital to us meeting our goals and our demands and capabilities for the war fighter. And they help us meet those demands. More often, as you know, we get great support — even greater support from them. We could not do it without them.

So for industry I would like to say they always want to know how can they participate in the request for information. I would definitely say to continue to reach out, but I would ask them [to] definitely do [your] homework [related to] whatever product or solution they’re seeking to provide to make sure that it fits within DISA’s capability and its needs. We also partner right now in contracting; definitely a key member at the table at the beginning of acquisition planning is our Office of Small Business Programs here in DISA. Definitely reach out to them, I would say, particularly if [you] want to partner with us to be invited to one of the DISA one-on-one small business orientation offerings that says how you can partner with us.

I’ll also say that as we get ready in this season to prepare for the DISA Forecast to Industry virtual conference, we will give our industry partners, particularly to include small business, our forecasts. I would say if you want to, you can probably see on the DISA website the forecast from fiscal 2019, and we actually updated that forecast of offerings for the upcoming years. We posted that earlier this summer. So you get an indication of what we’re looking for.

I would also say a biggie for industry to participate with us is answer requests for information and attend the industry days so you can definitely learn about DISA’s mission and what it’s seeking, particularly war fighter-specific [needs] and the capability we’re looking for.

What do small businesses need to know about the cybersecurity requirements at DISA?

That is one of the main focuses of DISA as the premier IT support agency and [a trusted provider that] connects and protects the war fighter in cyberspace. So cybersecurity is very important to us, and also should be important to our industry and our small business partners. I think they want to protect their intellectual property and capital just as much as we do. So if you’re wanting to work with DISA and the DoD, be accountable also for cybersecurity throughout the life cycle of the capability you’re providing.

What is DISA doing in relation to the new Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification — the new cybersecurity audit standards?

As we’re tracking right now, we do have new requirements that are coming out [because of] the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification in the DoD. So as that starts in its implementation process, the Procurement Services Directorate is definitely working to understand these new interim rules — and following [those rules] so we can implement that cybersecurity process once we have the application and accreditation requirements. So we definitely know it will impact all of our industry partners. It will not impact or affect our cybersecurity posture. So if you’re going to work with us, cybersecurity is definitely a key.

There’s a perception that we want to prioritize speed of delivery in deployment over cybersecurity. No. In DISA, in the department — again, I can’t harp on [enough] — cybersecurity is one of our utmost priorities, and that is something that we will not diminish or lower the standard on. So it’s important that while we deliver with speed and relevance to meet the needs, we’re also maintaining our cybersecurity.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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