Air Force Maj Gen Sarah E. Zabel assumed the role of Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) vice director in August 12, 2015, and has played a pivotal role in leading the global organization with nearly 8,000 military and civilian personnel and an $11 billion annual budget.
She reflected on her accomplishments and the agency’s future prior to her Aug. 21 departure to serve as the director of information technology acquisition process development in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.
“It has been truly an honor to serve at DISA,” she said, noting that when she first joined the agency, she had a limited understanding of the full-scope of operations that DISA conducts day-to-day. “It was not the real complete character of what DISA does and what DISA brings to the warfighter. Within the first week, my eyes were opened and I saw the extent of what we do.”
Shortly before the general arrived at DISA in 2015, the agency completed a sprawling reorganization intended to make it more capable of fulfilling its vision and mission, and to be more agile in adapting to changes in technology and changes in funding.
Since she wasn’t part of the initial planning and execution of the reorganization, one of Zabel’s initial priorities was to objectively analyze the results of that reorganization and understand DISA’s requirements and the products, services, and capabilities it needed to provide to warfighters.
“Following the reorganization, we set up capability portfolios so that the different services DISA needed to provide could be planned and programmed and actually carried out in a way that was going to trace all the way from the idea down to the warfighter or operator who’s using it,” said Zabel. “So I think helping DISA move past the reorganization, take advantage of the reorganization to do better at delivering products and services - that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.”
Throughout her time at DISA, Zabel was an advocate for development opportunities for the workforce, including the Civilian Workforce Agility, Mobility, and Development Program, which she said, “focuses on broadening and increasing capabilities across the workforce, so that [DISA] can remain relevant and better serve the warfighter.”
Zabel also promoted new and improved competitive education programs, and the cyber excepted service — a hiring authority that can be used to attract and retain the best and brightest talent and could boost pay and promotion prospects for current employees who switch from the competitive service system to the Cyber Excepted Service Personnel System.
“Those were ways in which we are able to give new opportunities to the workforce and I think it’s going to be a long-term developmental impact for the DISA workforce,” she said.
Zabel also takes pride in her contributions toward helping DISA become transparent with its mission partners.
“We reinvigorated our drum beats, we really put an effort on being transparent and responding to mission partners and communicating with them more and very openly,” said Zabel. “That’s something that was a high priority and I think that’s something that I think we advanced while I was here.”
When it comes to the future of the agency, the general said she expects to see more and more of the military branches and the government agencies closing down their data centers and beginning to use DISA as either their pathway to get to commercial solutions or as their hosting provider.
Zabel also believes DISA will begin increasing the number and variety of applications it has on mobile devices, and will continue to assure the integrity of DOD’s communications infrastructure.
“I think DISA is stepping out as a pioneer [in terms of mobility],” she said. “Everybody at DISA is starting to think about mobility and I see DISA as a leader in that, and I also see DISA as being recognized as running the thin line of survivable communications for the warfighters. I think we’re addressing single points of failure and we’re making infrastructure more robust. It’s going to pay off by providing much more reliability for the warfighters. And I think that mission partners will recognize that.”
Zabel acknowledged that her many accomplishments as vice director would not have been possible without the support of and motivation from the agency’s workforce.
“There are so many people who are really excited about what DISA is doing, what it’s doing for the warfighter, and the talents the workforce brings to work every day. It really makes me feel like in the last two years we’ve contributed and I’ve contributed to making the nation better and that is because of the ‘get-it-done’ attitude and the imagination of the DISA workforce,” she said. “I will always be a friend of DISA.”
Editor’s Note: Navy Rear Admiral Nancy A. Norton is now the Vice Director of the Defense Information Systems Agency.