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Embassy Engineers: Supporting our nation’s foreign policy goals

by The 100 Companies
Embassy Engineers

John Fitzsimmons is an engineer, but he’s also a diplomat who has risen through the ranks to become a senior leader at the U.S. Department of State.

As deputy assistant secretary of State and assistant director for the countermeasures directorate of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, he’s the Department’s senior-most engineer, responsible for all technical security and countermeasures programs.

He started as a security engineer in 1988, and has since served in Greece, Cuba, the Philippines and Kenya. Fitzsimmons talked to E100 about how his engineers support our nation’s foreign policy goals at embassies and consulates around the globe.

– Donna Scaramastra Gorman, The Engineering 100

How did you, an engineer, end up working as a diplomat in the Foreign Service?

When I graduated from college in 1985, my hometown of Minneapolis was experiencing a severe downturn in one of its prime industries — mainframe computers. Univac, Honeywell, Control Data and others were laying off engineers, and the prospects locally were not good. My parents were avid international travelers, and I had a desire for adventure coupled with an interest in radio technology. This led me to apply for the security engineering officer position when I saw the State Department’s “Help Wanted” ad in the Washington Post in 1986. After traveling to Kansas City for the examination and countless delays, I finally began my career at the Department in September 1988. Every day since has been great, and I honestly cannot think of a more challenging, interesting and rewarding career as an engineer. I’m grateful now for all of those rejected resumes I sent out locally!

What do your engineers do on a day-to-day basis? Why does the State Department need them?

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is charged with the safety and security of all employees and activities in our embassies overseas, as well as protecting our many domestic facilities. There are many out there who wish to do us harm or steal our information. Security engineering officers design and implement methods to protect our people and facilities through technical countermeasures. These countermeasures span the gamut, from overt systems such as closed-circuit cameras and explosives detectors, to more subtle interior defenses. These are complex systems requiring careful design, implementation and maintenance, and it follows that such systems require application of sound engineering principles to meet — and anticipate — the growing threats facing the foreign affairs community. We possess a unique blend of expertise — unmatched in the federal government — of technical counterintelligence, cybersecurity, countermeasures against terrorist attacks and physical security. Many of these issues are complementary, and so our engineers must properly recognize the threats and design countermeasures accordingly.

What does your workday look like?

It varies widely, but here are a few examples: evaluating artificial intelligence software to support better situational awareness; investigating a cyberattack against the Department’s information infrastructure; blowing up a mock building to test construction methods to survive explosives attacks; engineering new ways to bring security information back to DS headquarters; designing communications systems to assist our special agent colleagues; or investigating and finding “bugs” that may have been installed by a foreign intelligence service in our buildings.

Why are engineers housed with law enforcement officers in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security?

The Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 established the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and set forth its mission, which includes “security technology development and implementation of technical and physical security programs,” including security-related construction, radio and personnel security communications, armored vehicles, computer and communications security, and research programs necessary to develop such measures.

What does “technical security countermeasures” mean?

Technical security countermeasures has a range of acceptable definitions, but here in the department we take it to mean the implementation of security features to counter a range of threats — technical, physical or otherwise — via technical means. The technical means could range from designing building construction methods, to countering threats, to cyber countermeasures such as intrusion detection, and/or access control and situational awareness equipment.

What are some of the toughest challenges you face as an engineer working side-by-side with law enforcement officers and other non-engineers in the State Department?

Our biggest challenge is explaining technical issues to colleagues who may not have the same level of technical expertise. They may not fully understand the complex issues and underlying physical principles, and we need to figure out ways to succinctly and convincingly explain them. Likewise, not every security challenge can be solved by more technical security equipment — often, a range of security measures must be applied to counter a threat.

Does the job change with the country in which you’re living? How?

Certainly, the threats to an embassy or facility vary with the country and region. One may face greater technical counterintelligence threats while another may be more subject to terrorist attacks. The equipment we design, maintain and install is largely standardized, but customized to varying degrees based upon the size and composition of the building, to effectively counter the threats.

What could a young engineer expect if (s)he chose a career in Diplomatic Security?

You’ll never be financially wealthy, but you will reap huge job satisfaction in serving the American people and protecting your colleagues. It is richly rewarding, and you will have unique experiences living and working in different cultures, and working for an organization that truly views its employees as family. You cannot find another career like this anywhere. That said, living and working overseas is not for everyone, sometimes we are posted in locations where living and working is unpleasant. The “hands-on” nature of our work does not appeal to every engineer. And overseas life can pose challenges with our employees’ families.

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