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06 9 2021

Meet Els Borkelmans, Network Engineer at the NCI Agency

Els Borkelmans began working as a Network Engineer in 1996 at NATO's Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

She was among the first female network engineers at NATO. In the traditionally male-dominated worlds of technology and the military, she joined the Information Systems Service (ISS) team at the Alliance's headquarters.

Meet Els Borkelmans, Network Engineer at the NCI Agency

Today, she is part of the networking section of the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCI Agency), which counts 11 in its ranks, and is taking on a growing number of projects and support requests.

Over the last 20 years, Borkelmans has made countless contributions to improving the network systems and platforms that the Alliance uses, from the technology used in standard desk offices to the connectivity powering NATO Summits.

Throughout her time at NATO, Borkelmans has demonstrated her exceptional leadership and problem-solving skills.

Recently, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg awarded Borkelmans with the NATO Meritorious Service Medal for her outstanding contributions to the Alliance.

We took the opportunity to ask Borkelmans a few questions.

How has your work as a network engineer supporting the Alliance evolved over the last 20 years?

Network engineering has changed a great deal. My first job was to come up with a system to keep track of all end-points, such as workstations and printers, which were at the time connected to the Divisional Local Area Networks.

As the staff relied ever more on information systems services, security became ever more important. Requests for internet access mushroomed, so we installed Long Reach Ethernet (LRE) for a very low cost at the old NATO Headquarters and we also took over telephone systems.

Soon, it became evident our users needed an up-to-date network service and could not wait for the move to the new NATO Headquarters. For that reason, in 2007 the NATO Realignment and Robustness Programme was born. This included 100 Mbps to the desktop over fibre-optic cabling and state-of-the-art redundant data centres.

Our small team now operates and maintains the networks, but the footprint has grown 10 times with the new headquarters, and with it, become a hundred times more complicated.

What do you do in order to deliver and succeed in technical projects of great complexity, like the ones you have worked on?

You need to keep track of where you are and where you want to go. You need to stay pragmatic, and break down complicated projects into manageable tasks. Informing management of any roadblocks is wise. No matter how well you plan, keep in mind that there will always be something you haven't thought of, planned for or calculated. Most importantly, I run ideas by my colleagues, who never stop surprising me with their insights, technical knowledge and can-do attitude. They have my back, they make me proud and they help me to succeed.

Can you explain how your work at NATO Headquarters helps the Alliance achieve its mission and improve collaboration?

I look at it this way - we are but a small cog in the machine that is NATO. No matter how trivial it may seem, I take every task or issue seriously. We operate and maintain complex IT networks and strive to ensure an up-time of 99.99 percent so that decision-makers can communicate and collaborate over our infrastructure. They need to have all of the data at their fingertips to make decisions, giving our soldiers and civilians in faraway places the advantage of information and safety.