Marj Leaming is a captivating communicator.
She’s discussing her January 2017 transition as systems privacy & security director at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Information Technology to her new role as chief privacy officer at the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s a rather straightforward experience, changing jobs, but she weaves an unusual amount of poetry into it.
Leaming starts at the beginning. Not just of her career, but about what privacy means to her.
“Privacy is about people,” she says. “Our job deals with the many adverse consequences to people’s identity, which could adversely affect their entire life.”
That viewpoint, rich with moral responsibility, has steered her career. She considers her new job at USDA to be, at its core, “building and fortifying a lot of protections for the next generation.”
Leaming acknowledges that that's a considerable amount of responsibility to put on oneself. But it doesn't scare her.
“There's lots of challenges,” she says. “We live in exciting times.”
She says it's become more important than ever to incorporate privacy into the very infrastructure of organizations. Doing so is almost akin to prepping for a storm on a sunny day; one may not see the clouds, but they’re coming, and having hurricane windows in place makes dealing with the weather all the easier.
“I think tomorrow there are other technologies we’ll have to grapple with,” she says. As such, “we'll have to know who and where to put privacy in the beginning.”
Her near 20-year career in privacy, which she describes with both affection and pride, began in 1996, when she joined the Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice's Office of Science & Technology as its technology assessment program manager. Since then, her resume chronicles a host of different roles including in training and acquisitions, as a privacy subject-matter expert, and a stint in the private sector as a consultant. These experiences taught her the importance of varied perspectives. “
You have to be a good listener, you have to ask a lot of questions,” she says. “You have to really understand what the other person is telling you and what the other person needs.”
Leaming’s professional experiences are populated with anecdotes using adjectives like “thrilling." And her enthusiasm extends to the people she's worked with.
“I see that it takes more than me to get all the answers,” she says. It was during her first job with the federal government, when she provided insight on a DNA testing case, that instilled that “it takes a village” viewpoint.
“Very early in my career I figured out the value of advisories,” she says. “Once you start digging a little bit deeper, there's different perspectives. The landscape is always evolving, so it's always a good idea to verify assumptions. Putting the right privacy controls at the right place is predicated on having an accurate assessment of the risk.”
It’s this belief that’s made her transition to USDA so easy. Beyond feeling she has achieved the most that she could in her DHS role, Leaming also acknowledged that there were strong, capable privacy professionals at DHS to whom she could pass the baton and who have unique, different takes on privacy.
Now, as USDA's newest CPO, she can’t comment on the specifics of her role, but she emphasized that meeting her staff in Washington and St. Louis was among the most important of her initial goals. It’s important to her to know the people she’s working with, “see them eyeball to eyeball” and generally establish strong modes of communications.
“Little problems can become big problems if you don't have the open communication or develop those work relationships,” she adds.
The secret to Leaming's best work? Keeping herself sharp with the right education amid fast-paced industry changes; knowing how to quickly diagnose an issue; being continually “stimulated” by others in the industry, and bringing in practitioners to pepper her understanding with outsider views.
And, of course, there’s navigating competing priorities.
“There's the creative tension between forecasting what's next and leading,” Leaming says. While getting it right is an ongoing endeavor, she loves doing it. “I have a passion for privacy."
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