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Caitlin Durkovich PPS'94 Safeguards America's Infrastructure

December 2, 2015

By Adam Beyer

There is no typical day for Caitlin Durkovich PPS’94. As Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she oversees the nation’s efforts to protect America’s infrastructure -- the assets, systems and networks that enable the American way of life -- from outside threats.

And the potential threats are many: ISIL’s call for attacks on iconic venues, a hack that compromises cybersecurity, a storm that knocks out power to large swaths of people, or a disruption at a high-risk chemical facility.

Of rising importance are threats posed by our increasing reliance on GPS for timing and position  Any disruption of the ubiquitous technology could have far-reaching effects..

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  • Caitlin Durkovich PPS'94 (center) on a port police boat at the Port of Long Beach

    Caitlin Durkovich PPS'94 (center) on a port police boat at the Port of Long Beach. Ports are just one of the kinds of facilities Durkovich works to protect as the assistant secretary for infrastructure profection at DHS.

“My schedule may start one way and it could change seven times during the day because of unfolding incident, having to talk to the Hill, meetings at the White House, or other things that may arise,” Durkovich said. “My chief of staff said working in infrastructure protection is like getting a PhD because you need to know about a wide range of topics that could disrupt critical infrastructure.”

Much of her work happens at the intersection of the public and private sectors. The federal government operates only 20 percent of America’s critical infrastructure, so she coordinates with private companies and municipalities to ensure best practices are shared. This relationship is largely voluntary and built on trust, as her department has direct regulatory authority over only the chemical industry.

The voluntary partnerships have proven effective, she said. Owners and operators often invite her to tour projects such as rail tunnels in New York City or new water management facilities. Her office provides infrastructure owners and operators training on a variety of threats, helps them to identify risks, and shares best practices among leaders in the field. The increasing interdependencies of critical infrastructure add to the complexity of her job.

“There is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes than the average American realizes, in terms of ensuring when you walk into somewhere that that environment is safe,” she said.

Journey to Assistant Secretary

Durkovich’s interests as a Sanford student didn’t suggest she’d end up with a leadership role in the security field.

While at Sanford, she focused on communications, interning for WTVD and the Democratic Leadership Council.

Her time at Sanford allowed her to develop written communications skills and understand the complexity of policymaking in Washington, D.C. Professors Marie Lynn Miranda—now provost at Rice University—and Bob Korstad influenced her while at Duke.

“Overall, having a degree from Duke and the Sanford School and a public policy major is recognized as an important part of my resume,” she said.

Her first job after graduation was at the Democratic Leadership Council —  a driving force behind much of the early Clinton Administration policies. There, she pioneered the use of digital technologies and helped launch one of the first Democratic websites.

She left to work for a start-up that sought to become “the Yahoo of the policy world,” learning many valuable digital and management skills along the way. Later, she worked for iDefense, a company that identified firms’ cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Subsequently, she worked with former congressman Dave McCurdy on the Internet Security Alliance, which helped Fortune 500 companies manage cybersecurity threats.

She felt compelled to do more related to physical security and business resilience, and joined the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and, later, Abrams Learning & Information Systems. There, she advised clients on cybersecurity and pandemic preparedness.

After 9/11, the field changed, and the Department of Homeland Security was created.

“Part of the reason my office was established was the recognition that terrorists flew critical infrastructure into critical infrastructure,” Durkovich noted.

In 2009, she was appointed Chief of Staff to the National Protection and Programs Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. It was a big change. She was in her first government job and overseeing 2,000 people.

“I was afraid of what I didn’t know, but I had a willingness to learn. Six to eight months in, I had a pretty good feeling about what I was doing,” she said.

In 2012, after three years as Chief of Staff, President Obama appointed her to her current role.

More women have joined the field in recent years, she said. Although she is used to being the only woman in the room during meetings, an increase in academic programs leading to national security jobs, along with role models such as Janet Napolitano, Susan Rice and Lisa Monaco, has helped.

Her path to assistant secretary has been winding, but she sees value in it.

“I mentor a lot of people. I tell them first of all, there is no bad job you can have in your 20s and 30s,” Durkovich explained. “Every job is an opportunity both to learn good practices and acquire skills, but also to learn what you don’t want to be.”

Durkovich’s department has set up a website to educate the public about the importance of infrastructure protection for our modern lives.