It was in high school that Grimt Habtemariam first began tinkering with programming languages, the often arcane but powerful bits of code that keep software programs running.
From a young age, she’d been fascinated with technology and figuring out the way things worked — as well as how to make them better.
Now, as Cisco’s market strategy leader for the U.S. public sector, Habtemariam is tasked with doing much the same thing at a significantly larger scale: helping government agencies of all stripes rewire — and rethink — their IT operations.
As more federal agencies look to modernize their IT infrastructures, cloud computing has emerged as a key element in the digital transformation push.
For years, the value proposition of cloud has been wrapped up almost entirely in realizing cost savings. But, more and more, cloud is seen not only as a cost-saver, but as the necessary foundation for the adoption of a host of emerging technologies and the driving force behind a wholesale reevaluation of agencies’ IT networks — what Habtemariam calls their “central nervous systems.”
In other words, to fully realize the potential of cloud adoption, agencies’ digital transformation efforts must be coupled with an IT infrastructure modernization, Habtemariam says.
Making an Impact
Habtemariam is responsible for the go-to-market of Cisco’s portfolio of products and services that support U.S. state and local governments, federal agencies and educational institutions.
Understanding what makes things — and people — tick has driven Habtemarian much of her career, which has been focused on helping organizations improve their competitive edge, deliver new value and leverage technology to transform their operation.
She parlayed her early love of coding into an undergraduate degree in computer science from Meredith College, a liberal arts college in Raleigh, North Carolina.
As she explored career paths in the real world, she quickly realized the importance of identifying the direct impact of one’s work and the value of a career that fosters social interactions.
So, she pivoted, taking a role that allowed her to leverage her technical background to consult with different organizations as they were trying to solve real business needs.
Habtemariam, who once considered studying psychology because she was fascinated by the science of behavior and decision-making, became intrigued by the idea of diving into the dynamics of what drives an organization’s needs and requirements.
Eventually, her interests led to her pursuing an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina, which she completed in 2012.
“And here I am,” adds Habtemariam, who’s been with Cisco since April 2017.
In her role, Habtemariam sees cloud as both an innovation driver, which can modernize agencies’ IT environments in the here and now, as well as a way to clear the path for an even more ambitious future.
But, to do so, the government as a whole must get much more agile.
To Habtemariam, that means agencies must not only have insight into their environments and the ability to act on that insight rapidly, they also have to be able to pivot based on shifting mission needs or disruption trends — responding to newly emerging threats and innovative breakthroughs in the market, alike.
Habtemariam sees cloud as both an innovation driver, which can modernize agencies’ IT environments in the here and now, as well as a way to clear the path for an even more ambitious future.
The Great Disruptors
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are two emerging technologies that have the power to disrupt the old ways of doing businesses.
The promise of AI and ML is to help agencies transform all the data coursing through an agency’s networks into intelligence and, eventually, action, she explains.
First, consider the network. Habtemariam considers it the central nervous system of an agency’s IT infrastructure.
Cisco has pioneered the concept of the intent-based network, which describes the concept of reconfiguring a network using an automatic systemwide approach based on business needs as opposed to reconfiguring a network piece by piece. The approach is a paradigm shift in how networks are designed and operated and aims to bridge the gap between the business side of an organization and its IT shop.
Deploying AI and ML in the context of the network and, more specifically, an intent-based network, could enable what Habtemariam calls edge-to-cloud visibility with embedded analytics, AI and ML.
“Bringing all of that together can help agencies make informed decisions on things like detecting threats, correcting issues and identifying vulnerabilities,” she said.
“Bringing all of that together can help agencies make informed decisions on things like detecting threats, correcting issues and identifying vulnerabilities.”
At The Edge
In recent years, there’s been an explosion of data generated at the edge — by applications, internet of things sensors and data analytics. Even AI and ML engines are increasingly being deployed at the edge. That, in turn, has pushed for a need to process that data at speed — at the edge — to meet mission needs.
The cloud provides an environment where relevant data generated at the edge can be stored, shared and analyzed through AI and ML applications.
“But the increasingly crowded edge also means agencies may have to consider there will be many cases where their data collected at the edge won’t be directly sent to the cloud for storage and further processing because of time, resource or security constraints,” Habtemariam said.
That, in turn, drives the need to accelerate new hybrid cloud deployment footprints. These deployments then need to function as an extension of the agency’s cloud environment.
“But the increasingly crowded edge also means agencies may have to consider there will be many cases where their data collected at the edge won’t be directly sent to the cloud for storage and further processing because of time, resource or security constraints.”
Laying the Groundwork
“Using cloud to lay the groundwork for the future starts with a few steps,” Habtemariam explains.
First, agencies have to recognize that in the absence of a comprehensive cloud adoption strategy, the adoption of multiple cloud services from various providers can introduce operational complexity. Moreover, this complexity can inadvertently increase security risks.
To circumvent that, agencies must develop a cloud strategy with a common approach to connect, protect and consume cloud services across their multicloud environment. What’s equally important is the need for their cloud strategy to align with their networking, security, analytics, management and infrastructure plans.
Second, keeping up with continuous digital transformation requires a steady pace of innovation. To achieve that, agencies will need to create an intrapreneurial environment that embraces the process of learning from failure and celebrates risk-taking — an environment that looks more like that of a Silicon Valley startup.
“But in all reality, creating such an environment and expending tax dollars on high-risk pursuits can be very challenging for government agencies,” Habtemariam says.
A smarter alternative, she says, is to leverage public-private partnerships to drive and gain access to innovation and an innovation ecosystem. That approach can help agencies identify solutions being developed by the private sector.
“I would argue that this is the most effective way government can keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change,” Habtemariam says.
Successful adoption of cloud is rife with benefits: It can enable safe and secure services to all stakeholders, and it can positively contribute toward enabling business agility. However, it’s important for government IT leaders to remember an organization can only be as agile as the infrastructure that supports it.
“Adopting cloud to support emerging technologies can’t happen without a transition to a more agile, self-optimizing, self-healing, cloud-ready network,” Habtemariam cautions.
Doing so will accelerate cloud adoption, while at the same time also enable greater business agility and deliver mission outcomes, “not just for today, but in the future as well,” Habtemariam says.
“Adopting cloud to support emerging technologies can’t happen without a transition to a more agile, self-optimizing, self-healing, cloud-ready network.”