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What does it take to be a “data mastermind?”
On this week’s episode of Women of Washington, Gigi Schumm welcomed Caryl Brzymialkiewicz, who currently serves two roles within the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, as assistant inspector general and as the first chief data officer. For her tenacity and great ideas, Brzymialkiewicz was named on FCW’s Top 100 federal employees of 2019.
Brzymialkiewicz said over the past four years she has made it her goal to act as an executive champion, promoting the department to focus more on data-driven decisions and ultimately leveraging that data as an asset. One large example of her work was the agency’s Enterprise Dashboard, a tool that provides easy-access to the status of projects within the department and other monetary data.
Brzymialkiewicz and her team wanted all those working under HHS OIG to be able to visualize the ongoing work of the organization without relying on outdated data or legacy systems.
“[It’s] so that all 1,600 plus people in our organization could take a look at the same things across the organization about how many reports are we conducting? How many audits? How many evaluations? How many investigations? And so some of that’s the nitty gritty, behind the scenes work,” she said. “It’s been really fun building a team with passionate people that love working in these areas to grow the program.”
Her passion for data integration is clear now, but her path to where she is today wasn’t exactly straightforward.
Biomedical engineering to data engineering
Brzymialkiewicz studied biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. Originally from Texas, she said her steel-worker father and teacher mother supported her interest in STEM fields. Her husband too has always been a team player when it comes to making decisions and taking chances.
She moved on to Duke University to continue her medical aspirations and receive her doctorate degree. She said at first she did toy around with the idea of pursuing medical school and becoming a doctor, but she saw herself more as a behind-the-scenes person.
After Duke she became a research analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses and spent time in Afghanistan. She also worked for the Joint IED Defeat Organization. But as someone who loved statistics and math, she realized how important data could be and she wanted to be part of the conversation.
“I felt like I could make recommendations from the outside, but the folks making the decisions were actually in the government, and I wanted to help solve problems,” she said. “And I had mentors, and some other folks say, ‘are you sure that you want that job?’ … I thought, well, why not? This is where I want to try to make things better.”
She ended up moving up to higher positions very quickly and eventually moved on to join the federal workforce as an analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. Less than four years later, she moved into HHS.
Climbing the ladder as an introvert
“I like the notion of thinking about myself as a federal entrepreneur and building things, standing things up with really hard problems,” Brzymialkiewicz said. “When I left to come to Health and Human Services, it really was an exciting time. Just talking about it seemed really exciting to me to help build this… like how many times do you get to build something in the federal space?”
The OPEN Government Data Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on January 14, requires federal agencies to publish their government data in machine-readable and open formats. It also made it imperative for the federal agencies to put someone in place to develop best practices for their organizations and act as a chief data officer.
Brzymialkiewicz said as an introvert, she was okay not being in the spotlight. She just wanted to help people. Networking and partnering with the people around her was an important step in her career.
“There’s so many talented people out there, you can learn a lot from a lot of people if you’re open to it. Networking takes a little bit of work, but not a lot of work,” she said. “You just have to put yourself out there … Don’t be that person in the corner just not doing anything.”
She said she’s happy her team, full of what she calls “the best and brightest” data talent, are supportive of her ideas. Sometimes it’s not about what you’re doing, but about who you work with. You don’t have to have it all figured out right away.
“You’re going to continue to grow, you’re going to continue to learn new things. You’re going to have mentors throughout your life, whether you call them a mentor or not. You’re going to have to learn new opportunities from different training,” she said. “Be open. Trust your gut. If your gut tells you something, make sure that you’re listening no matter what. Then just more than anything, have fun.”
She said living life to the fullest is just as important as success.