Llewellyn “Don” Means Jr. (EE ’89) saw the rewards of a life of service from an early age. He says that the power that he gained from watching his parents give back to their community has carried him throughout his career.
“It’s easy to see the value when you bring people together to do good things,” Means says. “It’s satisfactory in and of itself.”
Means says it wasn’t uncommon for him to see his parents reading books to schoolchildren, volunteering with United Way, or helping at a local clothing drive. Both of Means’s parents also made their careers in service. His father, Llewellyn Means Sr., served in the United States Navy. His mother, Sandra Means, served on the Rochester, Minnesota, City Council for 13 years.
Seeing his parents incorporate service into their careers inspired him to do the same.
“I didn’t have to look any further than my parents for any heroes or mentors or leaders,” he says. “Throughout my parents’ careers in public service, the common thread that continues to inspire me is being connected to something bigger than yourself.”
As senior executive and director of the Defense Information Systems Agency’s (DISA) Operations and Infrastructure Center, Means oversees tens of thousands of miles of fiber optics infrastructure that serves as the main communications service for U.S. military combat operations from the White House to the foxhole.
He began his association with DISA while he was serving in the Navy. He was stationed in the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, and was assigned to DISA.
“It was an amazing experience, supporting the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he says.
He later worked with DISA as a contractor with Raytheon Technologies. In 2000 he had the opportunity to join DISA, where he has risen through the ranks. Means began his career as an officer in the Navy, which he entered after completing the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Illinois Institute of Technology.
“I always had an affinity for the Navy,” Means says. “My father served in the Navy, and my uncle served in the Merchant Marines. Illinois Tech ROTC was a great way for me to start my military career.”
During each step of his career, Means says he has seen the effect of his service grow.
“As a youth, I saw the local impact of service,” Means says. “In the Navy, that expanded. I was working with a band of fellow warfighters, providing a service to the nation. Now, with DISA, I am not only supporting the nation, but also our allies on a global scale.”
“It’s easy to see the value when you bring people together to do good things. It’s satisfactory in and of itself.” —Don Means Jr.
“It’s all been an expansion of service,” he continued. “It’s a continuation to have an impact—pulling people together to see the greater impact.”
Means also is working to recruit new cybersecurity talent, including with Illinois Tech to provide educational opportunities for current students who could help DISA accomplish its mission.
Calvin Nobles, chair of Illinois Tech’s Department of Information Technology and Management, says Means has been instrumental in developing an educational partnership agreement between the university and DISA. The partnership will provide internship opportunities for Illinois Tech students, as well as employment paths with DISA and other federal agencies.
“Internship programs are key to preparing the next generation of the tech and cyber workforce,” Means says. “If we want to get them ready to hit the ground running, there is no better way than through internships and partnerships.”
Nobles says the partnership not only provides DISA with tech talent, but also grants the organization access to the expertise and research capabilities at Illinois Tech.
“This partnership allows us the opportunity to see where we fit in with other federal institutions,” Nobles says. “This could help us develop better partnerships with other federal agencies.”
Means’s work with Illinois Tech is an extension of the work he does on a daily basis to pull people together to make sure that DISA’s combat communications network operates continuously, is properly maintained, and is secure. Means says that the network fends off hundreds of millions of cyberattacks a day, and just one successful attack can affect the ability of soldiers on the battlefield to carry out their missions.
The attackers themselves come from a variety of backgrounds. Some attackers are state-sponsored. Some are from the criminal element or terrorist organizations. Others are hackers looking to make a name for themselves.
“They are not idle,” Means says of the attackers. “They have refined their attacks, and will push to find a vulnerability. They aggressively attack, gather data, and threaten our way of life.”
Means says the biggest challenge to keeping the network secure is having an understanding of the different methods that the variety of attackers use, as attackers are always looking for new ways to gain access to their targets. In his center, Means stresses the importance of being proactive and preventative to stay ahead of the adversaries.
“First, you’ve got to take care of the known knowns,” Means says. “From there you start to work to find the unknowns, or nuanced attacks.”
Overseeing the DISA communications network means that every level of combat command has to be disciplined in cybersecurity. The network must be designed with cybersecurity in mind. Means says that the cybersecurity team extends to the designers and coders who build it.
Each person who relies on the network has a cybersecurity role to play to ensure it is safeguarded. It’s another way Means works to bring people together to make a greater impact.
“The closer to battlefield, the more keenly aware they are of cyber discipline,” Means says. “Their lives are at stake. Their partners’ lives are at stake.”