Duane Blackburn '96, '01
Class of ‘96, '01
S&T Policy Lead, Center for Data-Driven Policy at MITRE
After earning a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, I immediately embarked in a career in the federal government, serving as a research and development program manager at the Department of Defense’s Counterdrug Technology Development Program Office, the National Institute of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In these roles, I had to determine what research was needed, who would be best to perform it, how to set up the projects for success, and then oversee the research and transition of its outputs.
Each of these roles had significant interagency aspects, which was not the norm. I often spent more time with individuals from other agencies than my own. This proved to be beneficial in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as the Federal Aviation Administration, and later the Transportation Security Administration, asked me to help them establish and lead interagency teams to help design their new screening approaches.
A couple of years later, the White House asked me to join the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on a one-year detail to coordinate the federal government’s biometrics research enterprise. After arriving there, it didn't take them long to recognize the breadth of my technical experiences and insights on a variety of issues that were being addressed by multiple federal agencies. My one-year assignment thus ended up lasting eight, spanning two administrations, with me becoming OSTP's assistant director for identity management and homeland security.
My senior-level, non-political role can be described via two thrusts: to lead the coordination of the executive branch's science and technology (S&T) activities on multiple priority topics through the National Science and Technology Council; and to serve as the primary S&T policy official on operational policy activities of the White House on identity and homeland/national security matters.
Once I had reached the limits of my time at OSTP, I joined the MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit chartered to work in the public interest and with a mission to solve problems for a safer world. We operate multiple federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) on behalf of the federal government. These centers perform nationally critical research while also serving as a trusted third party and bridge between government and industry. I helped establish and co-lead our Center for Data-Driven Policy. The center leverages the data and insights gained from MITRE’s sponsored and independent projects to influence national-level policies and strategies so that they are evidence-based, actionable, and effective.
My fondest memory from my time in the college is…
Working on the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT) during its second and third year of existence. Most students on the team were there as part of their mechanical or electrical engineering coursework, but I started simply out of interest. My focus was on managing all the non-technical aspects of the project and its competitions.
In hindsight, it really foreshadowed my career approach of leveraging the insights and capabilities of a variety of sources to get the job done. For example, I persuaded professors in the communications department to have their students design our graphics and write our sponsor newsletters as part of their courses. I also got the athletic department to allow us to display our vehicles inside the gates of Lane Stadium on game days. Our vehicles used propane, so the HEVT team finagled a way to connect a barbecue stove and I persuaded a local grocery store to give us tons of free food each game. We gave the food we cooked to fans who stopped to chat with us on their way into the games.
We also had a ton of travel as we competed in (and won, of course!) multiple Department of Energy competitions in Texas, Detroit, and the Northeast. Those trips produced several fond memories. The team was also able to go to the Orange Bowl with the football team to help promote the university. Yes, we also grilled on-site before the game!
What is a guiding principle for your work?
The foremost guiding principle throughout my career has been patriotic stewardship – a commitment to the nation’s success and proper administration of its tax dollars. It's the epitome of Ut Prosim within my work. I feel fortunate that I have been able to focus entirely on that principle throughout my career rather than be swayed by other typical business or political objectives.
Other important principles have been lifelong learning; recognizing opportunities and understanding how to realize them; building and leveraging collaborative relationships; communicating to both technical and non-technical audiences; and always having scientific integrity.
What advice would you share with your college self?
The message that I needed to hear the first two years was that all this material you’re struggling with will eventually click! There were many times when I wondered if that would be the case.
There’s a concept called a “talent stack” on how to succeed in your career. The basic premise is that it’s nearly impossible to become the absolute best at any one skill, but, with work, anyone can become better than most at a handful of important skills. Choose those skills properly (note: one of them should be communication) and you’ve made yourself fairly unique and a valuable commodity for employers, thus setting yourself up for a productive and meaningful career.
Having the knowledge and skills to earn an engineering degree from Virginia Tech means you are well on your way to becoming ‘better than most’ at the technical aspects of your job. If you also enhance your communication skills, develop a couple other skills, and embrace Ut Prosim as a personal characteristic, you're going to do just fine!
How did the college equip you for the “real world”?
Virginia Tech’s engineering coursework provided the foundation I needed for my career. The fundamental knowledge provided through those courses, as well as understanding how concepts are interconnected, have enabled me to succeed in each of my jobs. But if I’m being honest, the knowledge and experiences obtained from external courses and student activities are what separated me from other young engineers early in my career.
Two electives made an impact on me as well. The first was a course on management science, which taught me how to plan projects while recognizing dependencies and planning activities across time. This is a major aspect for engineers in the workforce, and my understanding of how to do it was a huge bonus early in my career. The second was a course on leadership that was taught by the then university president. (Funny side note: I was the only student who took the course pass/fail. He took great pleasure in teasing me about that and regularly put me on the spot to ensure I earned that passing grade!) I was able to apply these concepts in actual practice while working on the college’s Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team, so I had already found my personal approach on management and leadership before entering the workforce.
Why is giving back to Virginia Tech important to you?
We all have a responsibility to help younger generations. None of us have gotten to our current stage in life without guidance and assistance from prior generations. The future of our nation depends on us similarly helping our next citizens and leaders.
I’ve realized this at Virginia Tech by serving on the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Advisory Board for several years. I have been exceptionally lucky to do so during a transformative time for the department and the nation. Early in my tenure, we helped the department fundamentally redesign the undergraduate curriculum by providing insights and recommendations from a variety of perspectives that were all different from the faculty’s. More recently, we have been working on the graduate degree programs, not only enhancing them for Blacksburg-based students but also crafting programs for working professionals in the Northern Virginia and D.C. region. I’ve also helped the department head understand national S&T trends so that he can proactively hire faculty and staff who will be driving impact on future priority topics.
B.S., Electrical Engineering, Virginia Tech, 1996
M.S., Electrical Engineering, Virginia Tech, 2001