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CBP's Wolf Tombe: Mobile, wearable technologies will advance mission

As the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's chief technology officer since 2003, Wolf Tombe has done much to modernize the agency's approach to IT. One of his biggest accomplishments: developing an Enterprise Technical Architecture to drive the agency toward common development capabilities and a common infrastructure. He also improved collaboration between the IT community and executives overseeing CBP's various missions. And he helped transition the agency to an agile IT development approach. Tombe told Federal Times Editor Steve Watkins in a recent interview that his sights now are set on finding ways to incorporate the new wave of mobile and wearable technologies coming to market to advance the CBP mission.

How will mobile technologies impact CBP over the next few years?

There are a lot of words that are used today that are just really overused and have become almost nonsensical, but I'm going to use one of them because it really applies to this and that's 'transformative.' Mobility is absolutely transformative from the mission perceptive.

Our legacy way of doing business would be to send officers out to containers, container ships and they would go along with printed sheets and check lists, and they would look at manifests and they'd write the numbers down and count what's in the actual containers themselves, and they'd make all their notes and they would do that all day long. Then they would go into the office at the end of the day and log in to an application and start entering all that data. When all of that was done, they'd click a release button to release a container and then move onto the next container. When you deal in a world of just-in-time delivery, that can be really problematic to our partners, because Dell is looking for those parts that just came in on that container ship from Europe; they can't wait for us to clear it two or three days later.

So what we did is, our targeting analytical systems program office worked with our cargo program office to create a mobile app that would actually allow an officer to go out and data-enter that stuff in the field on the mobile device and then click the release button while still on the ship. So, a couple of things: They can use barcode scanners to get a lot of that information so it reduces the data entry, increasing the officers' efficiency while also increasing their ability to live release cargo containers as they walk down from container to container on the ship. So that is transformative. Just a completely different way of doing business — far more accurate, far more efficient for the officers and a far better use of their time than having them sit at a terminal typing all that data in when they are tired at end of their shift.

Are these mobile apps being developed in-house, or are they coming from other sources?

A lot of them, because they're very government-centric or mission-centric, are being developed in-house. However, we're also looking at what are the publicly available apps out in the iTunes Store, the Google Play Store, that we're going to allow to come down onto our devices and our infrastructure. We're also networking the FBI and a couple other sources who are already doing this third-party app vetting to make sure that they're not opening up any kind of security concern in terms of the infrastructure and that they're not processing or storing data in a way that we wouldn't want. A part of that is automated and the FBI has done a brilliant job at this, so we're following their lead.

Wolf Tombe, Chief Technology Officer of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Jan. 30, 2015. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
Wolf Tombe, Chief Technology Officer of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Jan. 30, 2015. (Alan Lessig/Staff)

How are you addressing the challenge of consolidating data centers?

We have our own data center here in CBP and there's been a great consolidation in what's in that data center so we can reduce its footprint, which helps conserve costs in a number of ways. But we are also looking at two DHS data centers. We've already migrated or duplicated all of our data in storage at one of those two data centers, and we're looking at adding it to the other data center right now. And we do have applications now that we've transitioned from our data center to the DHS data centers to run on their infrastructure and those are working pretty well.

So I think the days of us all having separate data centers are probably coming to an end, and that's probably not a bad thing. It's a transition and it's another big culture change, but we're getting there. So I think there's a lot of opportunity to consolidate. If you were to ask me to predict something five or six years out, I think we'd probably have one large federal data center or maybe one large one for nonsensitive data, non-law enforcement data and one for law enforcement data.Maybe another, maybe not, for intelligence data. But I can see massive consolidations going on, and that's probably the right course of action. Canada's already doing this and they're doing it really well. So can we reuse what they're doing? Yep, we sure can, so it's going to happen.

Are there any discussion underway on this topic of consolidating to one or two or three federal data centers?

Not in terms of one or two or three data centers. I don't think that's happening. But certainly each agency is looking to consolidate internally in itself. So we're doing that in Homeland Security. I think Justice is doing the same thing. I do see the logical extension is really: Do I have to have my own? Again, there might community cloud capabilities. [For example] we're all going to get around a law enforcement cloud for this kind of data. NSA is already coming out with its intelligence cloud. Do I need to build my own infrastructure? No, I can go consume theirs. It's already secured, it's already rated at the highest levels of security for intelligence data. I'll use it. I don't need to rebuild it.

In 2008 you founded the federal CTO forum. What are the benefits that you are seeing?

Originally, there were 16 agencies that had CTOs. One, we found out that we were all doing some things the same or we all had responsibilities safer innovation and for that roadmap what's coming over the horizon in technology wise, what should be looking at, we all did that but after that there was a lot of variation. Some people owned their data center infrastructure as a CTO, which I thought was interesting. Some people owned architecture as a CTO. Others are in engineering as CTO and some had combinations of that. So a lot of diversity. The only thing we all agreed to though is this principle of if one of us has developed something first, whether it's an architecture, it's a application, it's a best practice, we agreed that we would share it freely with every other agency, every other federal agency out there. Again, it was that principle that if I spent money developing, spent taxpayer dollars developing this no other federal agency should have to spend a dime to develop the same thing. I'll just give it you and that's worked actually pretty. We've done a lot of cross agency sharing. I mentioned working with FBI, they're giving us a lot of their capabilities. I recently meant with on the DoD and they're giving us one of their large systems of capabilities. They're going to give us all the code, all the documentation on it so that we don't have recreate the same capability. Think about the impact of that from an American taxpayer perspective. It's huge. So, you know, I think that's a lot of potential we have in terms of CTO's.

Do you think it's a healthy thing that the role, the definition of the CTO varies as much as it does across the federal sector or do you think there should be a more standard definition?

Personally I think there should be more standard definitions but that's just my personal opinion. You talked to another CTO they may not agree with that but I think there should be standardization. I actually think we should go from an informal forum of CTO's cause now there's every agency has their own CTO's now. We should really look at: Do we need an actual council that has some statutory or OMB mandated authority? My opinion is we should look at that sharing innovation and sharing best practices cause that's something that's not innately occurring across federal agencies per chance. You know, two agencies that have similar missions may be doing some sharing, but we shouldn't isolate just to that. We should be sharing across all federal agencies. Frankly we should probably be sharing more if we can with federal and state as well because it's that city taxpayer money or state taxpayer money, taxpayers are still footing the bill.

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