The IT Man

Norwich University is the hub of a far-reaching effort to, among other things, find ways to fight terrorism and cyber-crime

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Phil Susmann says his boss, Rich Schneider, the president of Norwich University in Northfield, introduces him at large gatherings as "his entrepreneur/vice president of wheeling and dealing." There's a lot of truth in that introduction.

The affable Susmann is vice president of technology and strategic partnerships at Norwich and, since April 1, president of the National Center for the Study of Counterterrorism and Cyber-crime at Norwich. Of the center's lengthy name, Susmann quips, "We've dumped the stuff in the middle at the moment, and we're doing business as the National Center at Norwich University."

Phil Susmann, vice president of technology and strategic partnerships at Norwich University in Northfield, is also president of the National Center for the Study of Counterterrorism and Cyber-crime at Norwich.

The National Center is a nonprofit corporation that "serves a national public interest through the study of terrorism and cyber-crime and the development of related educational and training programs."

What some of this means from the standpoint of the business community can be summed up in grants awarded to companies developing technology of use to the military in the war on terrorism.

The most successful organization the center has worked with is Bill Parker's Diffraction Ltd., a Waitsfield company that Susmann says "has built a number of very interesting products in and around night vision for the military. "The role we performed was to identify potential technology and make sure Bill had the security components and other pieces in place to do this work for the Department of Defense."

The National Center also works for the Department of Homeland Security, an honor acquired by competing for contracts "to be able to look at cyber-threats to critical infrastructures and build exercises that will then identify potential vulnerabilities."

Because most of our country's critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector, says Susmann, the private sector needs to be included in this process.

Susmann was part of the National Center's founding group in 2002.

One might assume that, as a Norwich alumnus working closely with military organizations, Susmann would be a former military man. That would be wrong. Instead, he took a more winding path to his current position.

A southern New Hampshire native, Susmann moved with his parents to Rutland when he was in sixth grade. After graduating from Rutland High School, he attended Norwich, where, in 1981, he earned a bachelor of science in business administration. He continued on to Clarkson College of Technology (now called Clarkson University) in Potsdam, N.Y., to complete his master of business administration.

His first job out of school was with St. Joseph the Provider (now known as the College of St. Joseph), back home in Rutland. "I brought on their first automated administration information system and helped to build their first computer information systems majors," he says.

It wasn't long before Susmann heard the siren call of the private sector. In 1984, he headed out to Fort Collins, Colo., to work with his brother in a start-up venture called Process Automation of Colorado Inc. "We built computer control systems for a lot of industries," he says.

He laughs when asked what made him return to Vermont. "You could say a loss of cash flow."

The company had signed a contract to install a control system for the Fort Collins sewage treatment plant, but the venture capital company working with them couldn't bond the project. After that, he says, "we didn't have enough work to stay in the business. Eventually, the venture capitalists took ownership of the company.

Far from regretting the experience, Susmann looks at the bright side, a pattern he exhibits frequently. "It was absolutely an opportunity," he says. "I got to do about four years' worth of programming and design work in two years and learned a lot about business and the pricing of capital. The best way to learn a lot of things is hitting your head on the pipe in the cellar, then you remember to duck next time."

Twelve of the more than 50 people Susmann manages work for the National Center. From left are National Center personnel Eric Braman, vice president; Jane Bryant, a consultant and conference coordinator; Hugh Pierce, program manager; Jennifer Renaud, controller; and Larry Porter, grant developer.

He returned to Vermont, where he encountered Julie Jones, a woman he had dated in Potsdam. "We had separated, because I wanted to get married and she didn't," he recalls. Julie, a bartender, had moved to Hartford and was working in a Woodstock establishment.

"I looked her up and we eloped. I was unemployed. It must have been delusional, but we're still married 18 years later, so it wasn't too bad," he jokes.

Susmann hoped to find consulting work similar to what he had done in Colorado, but there was none in Vermont, and he did not want to work in Boston.

"I called on Bill Beatty, chairman of the business and management division at Norwich University. I asked if he had any adjunct teaching positions; he said he was short three sections of statistics and would I like to teach that. I said, 'Sure.'"

Susmann went home to tell Julie the good news. "She looked at me and said, 'How many would you have to teach to be full time?' I went back and asked, and he said four." Susmann was hired as a visiting professor of economics, a non–tenure track position.

Seeking solutions "of interest to the military," the center has awarded $50 million in grants to Vermont companies. Jane Swann is Phil Susmann's executive assistant.

"I like to say it's better to be lucky than smart," he says, "because that spring, almost the entire computer information systems department left for other opportunities. Based on my interaction with the students, Bill asked me if I'd like a tenure track position in computer information systems my background."

Susmann leapt at the chance, and from January 1987 to May of '94, he was a full-time faculty member. In 1994, he accepted the position as the university's first chief information officer.

Susmann built the staff, eventually bringing an outsourced information technology contract back in-house. "There were significant changes in technology at that time," he says, "from an administrative as well as a teaching standpoint."

Eventually, two of the trustees, Carl Guerreri, CEO of EWA, "which has a project in Montpelier for ASIC design," and Al Gray, former commandant of the Marine Corps, suggested that, based on its mission in history, Norwich should develop expertise in information assurance.

About the same time, Norwich began working with the Vermont Army National Guard to do information operations training "what you tell people inside and what you tell people outside and those other components, psychological operations and perception management."

"We in the Guard have had a great working relationship with Norwich," says Brig. Gen. William Noyes, the Guard's deputy adjutant general for Vermont, whose relationship with Susmann has grown into a friendship. The Guard's information operations center is housed in a building on the Norwich campus.

Because the school was working on information assurance and with the Guard, Susmann says, "Vermont got designated as the Army Schoolhouse for Information Operations by the National Security Agency. Norwich worked with the Guard to help deliver these concepts and to take some of the courses online."

Shortly thereafter, the university received a National Science Foundation grant for $2.5 million, a scholarship-for-service program. Norwich was the smallest institution to receive that award, which put the school in league with the likes of West Point, Purdue and Syracuse.

Susmann credits Sen. Patrick Leahy with obtaining the Department of Defense funding to create the National Center. He adds that a crucial partner was Dartmouth's Institute for Security Technology Studies.

Susmann divides his time between his two jobs. After his two daughters board the school bus at 7 a.m., he leaves for the office. He spends about one out of every three weeks on the road, often training faculties on other campuses. He also spends time in Washington, D.C., working closely with the staffs of Sens. Leahy and Jim Jeffords, who have been "phenomenally supportive in these efforts," he says.

The National Center is opening a D.C. office Aug. 1, the day its Northfield offices move to new, larger quarters.

"Along the way, I was lucky enough to be involved with the creation of the Vermont Environmental Consortium and served as its executive director until Secretary Dorn and Governor Douglas funded a full-time executive director position."

Reporting to Susmann are 32 IT staffers at the university, 12 employees at the National Center, an NSA employee on campus, four working on an Air National Guard contract, three who support General Dynamics and the Army Guard and do work for the Department of Justice, "and we can't forget Mr. Daniel Hecht, the executive director of the Vermont Environmental Consortium, because he's a Norwich University employee," says Susmann.

"The board sets the strategic direction, but his day-to-day manager, that's me. Or if the Vermont Environmental Consortium decides they don't like him, I get the enjoyable task of letting him go," he adds with a big guffaw.

Originally published in July 2005 Business People-Vermont