Thank You from Interim Chair Rich DeMillo

Dear Members of the SCP Community and Friends,

On Wednesday, June 1, after a distinguished career in academia and industry, Professor Michael Bailey becomes the founding chair of the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy (SCP). It is hard to think of a better choice. Besides his deep knowledge of the field, he is steeped in the aspirations and culture of excellence. That’s an important quality at a place like Georgia Tech, which does not take lightly the job of creating a new academic unit, especially in the glare of the national spotlight that accompanies being a first mover. SCP was born wearing the mantle of the top-ranked cybersecurity program in the annual USN&WR Best Colleges survey and virtually overnight became the program to beat for our peers. A new department also faces challenges from internal stakeholders—some who thought it unwise to form it at all, others who wanted to be in charge, and still others who, unconvinced by plans, wear their skepticism in plain sight. Bailey (as he is known to friends, students, and colleagues) let it be known during the selection and interviews that led to his appointment that he knows how to navigate such terrain. His memorable recounting of the many jobs of a school chair should be required viewing by everyone who wants such a position. Even more importantly, he promises to lead a school that revolves around the problems of cybersecurity, not the minutiae of academic disciplines. Thanks to Dean Charles Isbell and the dedicated members of the chair search committee chaired by Prof. Mark Reidl for bringing us to this threshold.

My current role as Interim Chair also changes on June 1 as I transition back to the faculty after two decades in academic administration. People in my position sometimes use transition letters like this one as a valedictory as leadership is handed off to a successor. I had that in mind (actually, what I had in mind was avoiding such a letter)  when I first wrote to you in Fall 2020, at the height of a global pandemic, to tell you about the modest near-term goals of creating an executive committee to formulate a charter, operating units, and board of industrial advisors. Charles thought a new chair would be in place relatively quickly—maybe within six months. I thought it would take perhaps a year. What followed over the next twenty months was a conversation in thirty-eight installments about how things were going as the SCP building blocks were laid in place. The lines were not always straight, but as campus reopened, sharp elbows were thrown over matters that now seem inconsequential but must nevertheless be settled in a functioning department. The things I thought would be hard turned out not to be. It was not hard to convince professors to join the school. That often meant giving up comfortable roles and titles elsewhere at Georgia Tech. Exciting new PhDs looking for their first academic jobs also showed up in unexpectedly large numbers.

I was prepared to spend the Memorial Day weekend taking self-satisfied stock that the department Bailey will soon lead has been tied in a neat bundle waiting for his arrival. That mood evaporated last week as I made two lists to discuss with him during our weekly transition meeting. One list, called “Immediate Governance Actions,” was the twenty or so tasks he would inherit immediately that must be done to finish the academic year—jobs like scheduling elections, appointing new committee members, and a raft of HR-related activities. “Immediate Operations” was the other list.  It was even longer and included addressing the big deal decisions that no one wants interim chairs to make, engaging with student leadership, replacing key staff, and resolving high-stakes organizational impasses.  That comes from good planning. The irony is you also find out how much further you have fallen behind in achieving your original goals every time you check.

Through a fog of virtual meetings, closings, openings, and a nagging sense that SCP was not getting the attention we deserved as the new kids on the block, we begin our third year as a school. We interviewed for nearly twenty senior staff positions and twice that many faculty candidates. We have two associate chairs (Vlad Kolesnikov and Sasha Boldyreva) who have impressively embraced vague job descriptions to bring some order to our academic affairs.

None of that would have been possible without the personal sacrifices and dedication of the School’s Administrative Officer, Trinh Doan, and Sue Jean Chae, who jumped in to assist the chair after an unexpected departure. Director of industry collaborations Gloria Griessman became a lynchpin, selflessly taking on tasks and responsibilities large and small. The Dean, Associate Deans, and the college support staff put up with our growth spurts despite being stretched too thin. Student leaders persevered. My fellow chairs and colleagues from all over Georgia Tech gave private words of encouragement and advice when they thought I needed it. Those words were often the fuel that got us through rough patches.

Finally, I want to thank the nearly thirty SCP faculty members who have poured their hearts into building this school, often throwing caution to the wind and trusting their colleagues to do the right thing. We are a community of peers, but it would be wrong not to mention the contributions of the incomparable Mustaque Ahamad, Wenke Lee, and Sy Goodman. They spent decades building the vision that led to the formation of the school.  I add Vijay Madisetti and Peter Swire, who took on key responsibilities this year.

I usually reserve the closing paragraphs of my letters for announcements. This final letter is no exception:

The Georgia Cybersecurity Education Roadmap Taskforce, a statewide educational initiative of Georgia Tech, SCP, Augusta Cyber Center, and the University System of Georgia, completed its work this month and its report outlining a bold vision for statewide participation in advancing cybersecurity education across Georgia’s many industries and institutions of higher education will be released this month. I chaired the Taskforce, and Gloria Griessman oversaw workshops, meetings, and report preparation. SCP Postdoc Karl Grindle, SCP IAB Chair Dr. Phyllis Schneck, and several SCP faculty and board members also contributed their time and energy to the project. Stay tuned for the announcement of the report’s recommendations. 

I have no announcement of significant changes for myself beyond the obvious time I will regain not attending administrative meetings. I still have projects to complete and loose ends to tie up. The clock tells me I am much closer to the end of my career than I like to admit.  On the other hand, I tell myself I would be a lousy retiree. Everyone close to me nods in agreement, which sometimes worries me.  But health permitting, I will take that as advice to stick around for a while to see how this new experiment turns out.  I arrived on this campus as a student in 1968 and have seen Georgia Tech’s history being written as it happened. Forming this school and leading it for nearly two years has been the most exciting chapter. 

Thank you for that privilege.

Richard DeMillo  

Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren Professor of Computing and Chair, School of Cybersecurity and Privacy.