A Career in Federal Systems Acquisition
The Department of Homeland Security is among the federal government's largest purchasers of equipment, facilities, services, and technology. This includes everything from ships and aircraft to computers and all-terrain vehicles. MITRE's Dennis Copeland leads a team working with DHS experts to make these acquisition processes more uniform and efficient, saving the agency money and helping it achieve its mission.
For Copeland, a 40-year veteran of various positions in federal systems operations and development, the work is especially rewarding because it directly helps the government improve its services to the public.
"The work that my team does is at the epicenter of these acquisitions," says Copeland, a principal information systems engineer in MITRE's Homeland Security Center, which manages and operates the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute (HS SEDI™). "We see the impact of what we do every week, in helping our sponsor provide governance and oversight for many major programs. It's truly the biggest and most exciting challenge of my career."
The HS SEDI federally funded research and development center (FFRDC), awarded through competitive bid to MITRE in early 2009, builds on MITRE's previous six years of work for DHS. The HS SEDI provides systems engineering and acquisition expertise coupled with strategic management across the homeland security mission space. Its teams inform policy, innovate to improve enterprise processes and tools, and recommend actions to more efficiently and effectively acquire and deliver integrated mission capabilities. In his current role, Copeland says he draws on lessons learned from his early experience in advanced systems development for the intelligence community, along with many years collaborating with sponsors on the evolution of other complex government systems.
Although these work programs were varied and involved a variety of sponsors, such as the General Services Administration and the Social Security Administration, he says the challenges facing the DHS today are similar. "How do you develop acquisition policies that help the organization to be effective across all these many areas? That's what the DHS is grappling with," he says.
"We deal with acquisition and integration issues involving IT systems, Coast Guard vessels, the fence down on the southwest border, student visas, processing 40 to 50 million foreign visitors each year—you name it," he adds. "This job really does involve a lot of everything. That is the absolute best part about it. You don't have a chance to get bored."
As leader of a team helping the DHS to re-engineer its acquisition and investment review processes, he is using skills that range across a wide variety of disciplines, from large-scale architecture development to business strategy re-engineering to advanced systems engineering.
"This is the culmination of my career in terms of impact, complexity, and the dynamic nature and prominence of the work, and a great relationship with the sponsor," Copeland says. "The stuff I'm working on is in the news every day."
An Ability to Find Solutions
Through his team's work, the DHS is also improving its processes for deploying the technologies that support homeland security operations such as immigration processes, land border crossings, cyber-security and infrastructure protection and DHS enterprise IT systems. One of the more interesting aspects of the job is the opportunity to help sponsors apply emerging technologies in new ways, Copeland notes.
"I've been around for awhile—I remember the pre-PC days," he says. "When the personal computer came along, that opened up a whole new world of the possible. Then the CD-ROM brought the potential for portable databases. Every new increment of technology development gives you an opportunity to implement that technology into the problem space."
Finding such solutions to technological and business issues, even when the "problem space" is significant and continually evolving, is among Copeland's greatest strengths, according to David L. Harvey, Copeland's MITRE department head.
"Dennis has a somewhat unique ability to focus on the needs of the entire enterprise," Harvey says. "He has the knowledge to connect various pieces from various programs to bring a full solution to the sponsor. And he can motivate a team towards a common goal. We're always looking for people with these kinds of strengths—people who can become the customer's trusted advisor on technical, organizational, and political issues.
"The work he's doing will help make DHS a more efficient organization, and the systems it acquires will have much lower failure rates, giving those programs the optimal opportunity to succeed," he adds.
Copeland's work makes strides toward fulfilling one of the HS SEDI's primary strategic objectives, which is to serve as an integrating agent across DHS and the homeland security mission space. Further, it embodies the vision of MITRE's Center for Connected Government (CCG)—which operates our Homeland Security Center—to apply systems thinking to enable government effectiveness.
Copeland's capabilities are recognized both inside and outside MITRE. He contributed to the technical proposal that resulted in MITRE being awarded the HS SEDI FFRDC. Also, earlier this year, he was honored at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards ceremony held during the annual Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Global Competitiveness Conference sponsored by the Benjamin Banneker Institute for Science and Technology. Established in 1986, this national award program recognizes African-Americans who demonstrate excellence in engineering or science and leadership in the workplace and community.
For Copeland, the main reward is the work itself. "The environment is fast-paced and we're dealing with a complex mission space and a complex organization," he says. "There's always a new challenge."
—by Maria S. Lee
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