How I Got Here: Joyce Hunter’s path to federal tech

One might understandably assume people as experienced as Joyce Hunter simply enter high-level federal government positions and know exactly what to do. But that was not the case for Hunter, a noted expert on the intersection of agritech and cybersecurity.

In fact, she needed to ask a lot of questions when she started as the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) deputy CIO for policy and planning in 2013. In Hunter’s recollection, her boss — Cheryl Cook, the then-CIO of USDA who currently serves in the same position for the State of Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture — essentially introduced her to the job by saying, “Here’s your office, here’s your desk” and walking out.

“I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing,” said Hunter, who currently heads up the DC-based nonprofit Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), to Technical.ly. “So I went up to my executive assistant. I said, ‘Do I have people that report to me?’”

Hunter did find those direct reports, and before meeting with them, asked them to answer: “Who you are, what you do, why you do it that way [and] if you could change the process, what about it would you change?”

These might seem like strange questions from someone with sufficient experience to earn that high of a federal government post — and indeed, she said, it at least surprised her junior colleagues — but it reflects the fearless inquisitiveness that Hunter’s father, one of the United States’ first Black overseas servicemen during World War II, instilled in the West Philly native early on.

“Even though he did not have a college degree, he would always tell me, ‘You have eyes, two ears and one mouth. Use them appropriately,’” she recounted.

The path to a tech career

Hunter’s ICIT position, as well as her leadership of the advisory board for the Eastern Shore, Maryland-based CyberAg, builds on the expertise she developed at USDA (where she had also been an acting CIO). The journey to this place of authority took nearly as many twists and turns as there are in the Eastern Shore waterways and surrounding farmlands.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Villanova University, on partial scholarships in the pre-Title IX era, after struggles with chemistry derailed a planned nursing career. She instead pursued a career in market research through a job at Hallmark Cards, where an environment of managers tearing up cards they didn’t like helped harden her resolve in the face of rejection. Her plans to stay in this field were ultimately undercut when her husband was transferred to a job with the Digital Equipment Corporation, an early computer industry player, in Colorado; Hunter actually entered the tech industry as a software specialist for that now-defunct conglomerate.

Hunter grew this burgeoning tech career through the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s with increasingly senior managerial positions at companies like Lotus Development Corporation, Raytheon and Apptis Inc. These positions, among others, ultimately prepared her to start her own consultancy that focused on IT consulting for healthcare companies that wanted to work with the federal government.

The Obama administration calls

For all those professional accomplishments, though, she was not prepared for the call she got from the White House Presidential Personnel Office in 2012; she actually thought that it was her friend and college roommate, former Maryland State Delegate Karen Britto, pranking her. After clearing the confusion up, she underwent a federal appointment process for which she said she didn’t campaign.

“I wasn’t looking to be a presidential appointee,” Hunter said. “Somebody was noticing some of the volunteer work that I was doing when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) came out.”

Hunter had specifically been volunteering with the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education on ACA-related outreach to underserved communities and their peer healthcare providers. The appointment process involved her going around to different agencies before getting assigned to whatever agency the government decides makes most sense. Hunter, for her part, thought that “God has a sense of humor” since she — a city-bred person with no agricultural background — was assigned to the USDA. There, she was responsible for a $2.9 billion IT spend budget that grew $4.1 billion by the time she departed in 2017.

Through hard work and, again, asking the right questions, Hunter said she leveraged her prior federal government-adjacent experiences to essentially ensure that USDA didn’t encounter the public-facing application issues that HealthCare.gov did.

A cyber-(r)evolution — and how to get young people ready

The public importance of cybersecurity evolved tremendously throughout Hunter’s career, and even during her time at USDA. She still thinks that many people don’t understand why cybersecurity even matters to agriculture — an importance that Hunter said was pivotal to societal stability.

“One of my taglines recently is, ‘Do you eat? Then you should be concerned,’” she said. “This is why it’s important: If there’s no protection to the supply chain, you’re going to have shortages. And when you have shortages of food, fuel and [other critical resources], you have civil unrest.”

Hunter’s own approach is undoubtedly informed by a journey that required growing into roles, rather than coming to them fully formed. She believes that cybersecurity (and tech, generally) can be made similarly better by hiring people from varying educational and personal backgrounds. To that end, she created Data Science Camp Inc., a free two-week camp for high schoolers to learn how open data analyses and critical thinking can address key issues in agriculture and other fields. Nearing a decade of existence, the program has partnered with area universities and experts like current USDA Chief Scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young to teach data science to hundreds of young people from underserved backgrounds.

To anybody like these youth who might be interested in careers in cyber, agritech or both, Hunter has some advice: “Learn as much as you can. If at all possible, go to conferences, talk to people, call them up.”

“Everybody needs a mentor, nobody has arrived — no one has arrived,” she emphasized. “My cousin used to always say, ‘You’re not old until you’re cold.’”

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