Port Authority CTO Rallies His Team

“I like an environment where people discuss alternatives and pick the best

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 30, 2001

5 Min Read

As the World Trade Center's south tower started to fall, forcing out a dust-laden blast of air so violent it smacked Gregory Burnham to the ground, his first thought was how cruel he'd been to give his wife false hope. "I'd called her five minutes earlier and told her I was alive, and now I was dead," Burnham says. "I was sure I would be crushed by falling debris."

Burnham, chief technology officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, considers himself lucky. He escaped the north tower after the first hijacked plane hit on Sept. 11, joining other Port Authority IT employees in the walk down 70 fights of stairs. Burnham was outside, trying to get into the adjacent Marriott Hotel, site of the Port Authority's predesignated emergency command post, when the south tower collapsed and enveloped him in dust so thick he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. Amazingly, he wasn't injured.

Many people who survived the attack headed for the sanctuary of their homes. Not Burnham and his team. "It wasn't an option," Burnham says. The Port Authority, jointly controlled by New York and New Jersey, manages transportation at three airports, a midtown bus terminal, and the Path rapid-transit rail line, as well as bridges, tunnels, and marine ports. The agency built the World Trade Center, was headquartered there, and owns and leases the site. Even though its critical data was backed up at remote locations, Burnham knew that business would be interrupted unless IT acted immediately. "Our priorities were to pay our staff, pay our bills, and issue bills," he says.

Because of the surrounding chaos and downed phone lines, it was several hours before Burnham learned that a new command post had been set up at one of the agency's New Jersey offices. "Greg came in completely covered in dust and debris," says Ron Shiftan, then deputy executive director, and now acting executive director, of the Port Authority. "Our first reaction when we all saw each other was to throw our arms around each other and say, 'Thank God, you're alive.'"

Burnham would later learn that his boss, executive director Neil Levin, was having breakfast at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower that morning and didn't make it out.

In the two weeks that followed, Burnham and many of his 300 full-time and contract employees often worked 16-hour days, rebuilding servers to support backed-up data, replacing thousands of destroyed desktops and departmental servers, and rerouting networks to temporary locations in New York and New Jersey. "When I first got to the remote data center [in Staten Island, N.Y.], it looked like a construction site," Burnham says. "There were between 50 and 100 people there. Some were cutting conduit, others were rebuilding servers and reconnecting to the network." Many worked through the night. "It was an attitude and dedication I found astounding," he says.

As a result of that effort, the agency was able to make payroll for its 7,000 employees on Sept. 13 and resume accounts payable by the following Monday. "The IT department was absolutely vital and instrumental in making sure we weren't totally disabled," Shiftan says. The agency is in the process of moving into four new locations in New York and New Jersey.

The Port Authority lost 38 workers--three from IT--out of 2,000 who worked at the Trade Center, plus 37 of its police officers, who died during rescue efforts. Despite the impact the events of Sept. 11 had on agency employees, those who work for Burnham say his strong leadership and inclusive management style helped get things done. "For the first couple of days, people were running on adrenaline," says Luis Rocha, Burnham's executive adviser. "But at some point, nerves began to fray. One of Greg's strengths is his ability to work well with others, to build coalitions, and to get people working together despite the stress."

The Port Authority is a close-knit organization with many career employees. But Burnham, 54, came from the outside, having spent 20 years at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., most recently as head of research computing. He grew up in Queens, N.Y., earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Fordham University and a master's and doctorate in math from Northwestern University.

The challenge of solving IT problems for one of the region's biggest transportation agencies proved a big lure, and in 1998 Burnham was hired as CIO by former CTO Karen Antion. She left three months later, and Burnham was appointed the head of technology overseeing a $110 million annual operating and capital budget. "Greg was able to integrate himself into the agency in a relatively short time," Rocha says. "He doesn't have the long tenure that most people at his level have had, but he's formed relationships and bonds in a short period of time."

Infighting and power struggles are common at public-sector agencies, and Burnham's diplomatic approach has been invaluable when negotiating on technology direction for systems that span agencies, such as electronic fare systems. "The people who make it here have practiced the art of diplomacy and collegiality," Shiftan says. "Greg has become quite adept at bridging rivalries and promoting the Port Authority."

Burnham acknowledges that encouraging officials from various agencies to reach a consensus is one of his biggest challenges. His collaborative management philosophy serves him well both in this task and in motivating his own staff. "I like to encourage staff to be creative and assert themselves," he says. "I like an environment where people discuss alternatives and pick the best one. I think people feel empowered, and I want them to."

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