Alumna Ann Dunkin's Journey to CIO of the U.S. Department of Energy
Ann Dunkin’s (BSIE 1986, MSIE 1988) impressive career spans leadership in both the public and private technology sectors. She is used to facing challenges with resilience, tackling the difficulties of leading during the Covid-19 pandemic while balancing two jobs at the same time. Now, she’s the CIO for the U.S. Department of Energy – the result of an incredible journey.
After finishing her master’s degree in manufacturing systems engineering from the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), Dunkin worked for many years at Hewlett-Packard (HP), mostly in the areas of manufacturing, research and development, and IT. After leaving HP, she held several public service roles, including CIO for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, she always had the intention of someday returning to the private sector.
At the end of February 2020, Dunkin started a new role as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Dell. To kick off her first day at work, she facilitated a panel at the RSA conference, a prominent international conference series on IT security. However, the first Covid-19 lockdown began just two weeks later, and her main focus quickly became tackling the hurdles of going virtual. Suddenly, millions of people working and learning remotely needed laptops.
“The lesson for the world is that immobile devices are something that should be a part of our past,” said Dunkin. “In our world today, there is no reason for a device not to be mobile.” Even before Covid-19, she was already pushing for organizations to make the switch from desktops to laptops.
For the first few months of the pandemic, vendors did not have enough inventory to go around. With so many orders in the queue, the supply chain was disrupted, and they could not provide as many devices as anticipated. Dunkin facilitated difficult conversations with the public sector to explain the situation and help leaders find alternative solutions in the absence of equipment. The virtual transition impacted K-12 education the most due to the huge complexity of educating young children online.
As a CTO at Dell, Dunkin’s position was originally meant to be heavily shaped by in-person interaction with CIOs and talking to people at events and conferences – opportunities that came to a halt with Covid-19. Though she still worked with CIOs across the U.S. and Canada, the virtual nature of the job meant a loss in depth of interaction. As many companies continue to offer remote and hybrid options, she stresses the importance of face-to-face collaboration in the workplace.
“I think there is real value to seeing people in person,” said Dunkin. “No matter how much you let people work remotely, there needs to be time when people get together.”
One silver lining to the pandemic, however, was that it created the perfect environment for writing. While speaking at an event, Dunkin had received an invitation to co-author a book, which she ended up working on during the first six months of lockdown. Titled Industrial Digital Transformation, the book provides a framework for people trying to lead the effort to integrate digital technology into an organization, including the necessary cultural transformation.
“I think that the easy part about digital transformation is technology,” said Dunkin. “People, process, and policy – those are the hard things.” The book contains case studies that outline how to implement the strategies presented.
Later that year, Dunkin was presented with another opportunity: joining the Biden-Harris transition team, which prepared for President Joe Biden to take over administration of the U.S. government. She started working on the team with just a few days’ notice, but she needed to simultaneously fulfill her responsibilities at Dell. Between 14-hour workdays, sometimes seven days a week, and working through the winter holidays, she managed to make her hectic schedule work.
On the Biden-Harris transition team, Dunkin served as the technology lead for the EPA transition team and was also a member of the transition-wide technology group. Being a former CIO of the EPA gave her years of preparation, but since four years had passed, she also had a lot to catch up on.
Working with the transition team made Dunkin realize that she was more inspired by her work in public service. After engaging in discussions with different departments, she was offered her role as CIO the Department of Energy (DOE), a natural progression from her time at the EPA.
Though only a few months into her position as CIO, Dunkin has many goals to accomplish. This includes tackling cybersecurity, which is a tremendous challenge across the government, as well as supporting the transition to clean energy and continuing the journey of moving the DOE’s data centers into the cloud. Her team is also working on Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which ensures that at least 40% of the benefits of relevant federal projects go to disadvantaged and underserved communities.
Furthermore, the DOE is a unique organization in terms of its relationships with the 17 national laboratories, which are a system of research and development centers overseen by the DOE, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. These labs are federally funded, but they function relatively independently within their management and operations contracts. One of Dunkin’s focus areas as CIO will be to grow and develop relationships with lab leaders.
As a long-time leader, Dunkin has years of experience in the technology sector successfully managing large organizations and high-budget projects. But does she believe in the phrase “natural born leader”?
“I think some people are more inclined to leadership than others, but almost anyone can learn the skills they need to lead,” said Dunkin. “I am just as uncomfortable in a roomful of total strangers as anyone else – I've learned how to do these things, and anyone can learn how to do them, too.”
Even at her level, Dunkin feels that she must continue to prove herself in new roles, though she says this is something all leaders face. However, she believes there remains a lot of skepticism toward women in leadership, and they still face a higher bar in business and technology.
Looking back on her career, Dunkin stands by her choice to attend Georgia Tech and maintains that it is one of the best decisions she has ever made, saying, “ISyE is a broad technical education that teaches students how to manage people, processes, and technology, providing an amazing foundation to be successful leaders.”
Dunkin will always be a proud Yellow Jacket, and there’s undeniable proof: One of her cats is affectionately named “Buzz.”
You can read more about Ann Dunkin, including how she started her career at Hewlett-Packard, here.