Girl Power for CIOs

I had the good fortune of being asked to speak on a panel for Women in Technology.  The panel was called Government Leaders at the Helm.  Like with any other discussion focused for women in leadership, we are asked typically to answer these questions:

·         How do you break through the glass ceiling?

·         How do you get work-life balance?

·         What’s it like being a woman in a male dominated field?

This was the third year that I did this panel.  As each year passes, there has been an increase in the number of men who attend.  I’m not surprised.  Perhaps posed in a slightly different manner, these are questions that any leader should ask himself or herself as they manage their lives and their careers.

Glass ceiling. It’s difficult talking about this.  Acknowledgement may not cast your organization in the most positive light; yet ignoring it may be reacting like putting your proverbial head in the sand.  Rebecca Shambaugh, in her book “It’s Not a Glass Ceiling It’s a Sticky Floor”, acknowledges the existence of the glass ceiling, but challenges her readers to focus on those things that make your feet stick to the floor.  Some of the things we learned as girls in Kindergarten may be some of the traits that hold us back in our leadership careers.  She goes on to say:

The strengths and traits that got you to where you are, such as getting results, being detail oriented, being process focused, or a team player, are more of a recipe for being a good middle manager than an executive-suite executive.  In contrast, executive-level leaders need to think strategically, have a vision for their organization and people, lead complex change, and build strategic and collaborative relationships inside and outside the organization.

Focusing instead on these executive skills, is the key to getting “unstuck” on the floor.  Focusing on the wrong thing causes you to overlook your strengths.

Focus … there must be a golf story coming.  I was playing golf in Hilton Head, SC. I finally got to the point where I could drive the ball and not go into the water by NOT focusing on the water.  But, at Hilton Head, there were alligators at every hole – plus, I’m hitting from the forward tees which are closer to the alligator.  I did not lose my focus on the alligators and every single drive with an alligator went straight for the alligator.  Focus.  It works.

Work-life balance.  This question always drives me nuts.  It’s not like I am 33 1/3% wife, 33 1/3% friend, and 33 1/3% CIO! How can you not be 100% wife? Or 100% friend?  Focus and priorities make this a non-linear problem.  Einstein says it best:

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master.  For this reason, mastery demands all of a person.

There are times when folks will ask my husband, how does it feel to have your wife blog? He says, almost always, that it’s ok except when I blog on “his time”.  So then I thought what part of MY time is not HIS time? Then, I came up with it: while he’s sleep, working outside, shopping, or fixing something.  So, if I focus and write faster … and chose the appropriate time, then everybody’s happy.

What’s it like?  I like to answer this question like this … how does it feel? Well, today, I’m at a conference with a bunch Java developers.  A whole bunch of men.  A WHOLE BUNCH!  Imagine, you are late (ok, ok, no wisecracks), you are wearing a flashy silver and white metallic jacket in a sea of blue jeans, and you haven’t seen a woman yet. Then everyone turns and looks at you when you get a shout-out from the stage.  It feels like that.

Many of the executive traits that Shambaugh described are associated with Right-brained thinking.  And some studies have shown that right-brained thinking is often associated with women.  Some of those attributes are: big-picture thinking, seeing both present and future, appreciating, presents possibilities, and taking risks. 

Dan Pink, in his blog, Too Many Left-Brained Thinkers Spoil the Pot, suggests that left-brained thinking prevented some companies from seeing financial disaster coming.  He goes on to blog:

I have a theory that people who find themselves running major-league companies are real organization-management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget. They are somewhat impatient, and focused on the present. Seeing these things requires more people with a historical perspective who are more thoughtful and more right-brained — but we end up with an army of left-brained immediate doers.

So, I guess the conclusion is whether you are a male or female executive; or a CIO or regular person, you should focus on your strengths, be prepared to stand out in a crowd, and watch out for alligators.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Launches Spacebook



I’ve often said that this NASA CIO gig is pretty tough. But, there are many times … like now … where I am proud to be the CIO of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. We launched Spacebook this week. Woo-hoo!

We took a leap of faith and rocketed into social networking this week with the launch of Spacebook, an employee intranet that features user profiles, group collaboration spaces and social bookmarking. This is similar to Facebook, except that it is restricted to NASA’s secure internal network. It’s open to every employee of NASA.

I need to tell you that this whole Web 2.0 thing gives people the willies. We delayed the launch one week to make sure we addressed the very valid concerns raised by our stakeholders. Our legal folks wanted to make sure that we met our policy and regulatory obligations; our IT security folks wanted to make sure that we didn’t expose NASA data or NASA networks to any additional risks; and finally our Office of Human Capital people wanted to make sure that we were all well-behaved and personally accountable.

There are a lot of phobias associated with social networking. I addressed some of them in Time to Face Your Facebook Phobia. I’m sure that many of these concerns were raised about the social impact of the invention of the telephone. Somehow … someway … we worked through those issues. I’m sure that some of those serious issues may appear silly now. I expect that we will look back on the serious issues raised by Web 2.0 technologies in wonder and amazement.

As CIOs we are required to provide lead efforts to improve the competitive advantage our organizations need through implementation of collaborative technologies. Technologies like Facebook and Myspace gives us those capabilities. There are, however, some very valid barriers to entry. Launching capabilities like this on internal networks reduces those barriers of entry. IBM has done this with their internal social networking site, Beehive and MITRE has done this with their internal Twitter capability.

One of the most amazing things about these Web 2.0 technologies and the greatest value to NASA is the ability to help us create a culture of engagement and collaboration that makes each individual employee much more effective. Engaging the public, harnessing the power of crowds, and open and transparent government … as my friend Efrain and fav acquisition professional would say … it’s ALL good Poopsie.

What’s next for Spacebook? There are currently pilots at Ames Research Center and Kennedy Space Center on SharePoint so integrating these capabilities may be desirable. The ability to leverage use of widgets and have use mashable apps is something that we want. We would like to include blogs and a more seamless interface to NASA web capabilities including those potentially offered in the web services sourced by one of NASA’s I3P contracts.

NASA has a strong external presence on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace. Not too many people will “get” this … but back in my heyday, we use to say “IBM sells MVS but they use VM”. Well, now, we at NASA get a chance to actually use more securely and internally the capabilities that we use to communicate to the public. Perhaps these Web 2.0 technologies will make us the bionic agency … will be faster, stronger, better than before. Regardless of the hyperbole, I’m proud this week to be the CIO of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Quality in the Web 2.0 World

I took a road trip to NASA’s Independent Validation and Verification (IV&V) Facility this week.  It is nestled in the rolling hills of Fairmont, West Virginia.  Other than an unfortunate encounter with one of my Directorate’s Associate Directors, Carl Johnson … the van he was driving … and an unfortunate bunny rabbit … it was an inspiring and successful journey.

The mission of NASA’s IV&V Facility is to provide services that help provide increased assurance that software will operate dependently and reliably.  The Director of the Facility, Dr. Butch Caffall, took me on a marvelous journey with his pen and a legal-size yellow pad on how injecting quality processes and doing the right verifications in the right point in the software project lifecycle, can result in successful missions, lives saved, and reduced risk for catastrophic failures.  The work that Butch and his organization perform helped me understand NASA’s commitment to quality.   But, he got me thinking about quality in a Web 2.0 context.

Quality is something that many folks are struggling with.  But, what exactly is quality? 

“… quality cannot be defined. If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself”. – Robert M. Pirsig

I spend a lot of time thinking about this as a writer of a blog and as a CIO. As a CIO, I wonder about how we define quality in the Web 2.0 world? For example, how do I judge the quality of my blog?

Is it the number of visits? Well, not really.  In the nearly 3-hour drive to Fairmont, West Virginia from Greenbelt, Maryland, there was a lot of road kill along the way.  Just because this silly girl looked at every yucky thing on the side of the road, doesn’t mean it was interesting and worthwhile.

Is it the number of comments? I’m not really sure about that.  This seems to be more a function of controversy.  Is there life on Mars? Is that why we are emailing Mars?   I got the most comments in my post Email to MARS.  But, most of the comments had nothing to do with the content of the blog! This led me to doubt that number of comments were relevant.  Two other posts, IT Governance in Government and The Goddard CIO Blog: One Year Later probably drew the most “offline” comments (Twitter, Facebook, email, etc) – yet they both had zero comments.  Not quite sure what that means.  

Is it how often it gets quoted, or re-posted, or re-purposed? I think not.  This is what I call the “Joe-the-Plumber” effect.  Just because everyone is talking about you, doesn’t mean you’re worth talking about.

Alexander Wolfe, in his article, In A Web 2.0 World, Quality Is Irrelevant, notes that the best bloggers know nothing about the qualities of good journalism.  Yet, they create quality blogs.

Using Twitter, the goal is brevity, telling a story in 140 characters.  Here’s an example of poetry, in 140 characters or less in the poetic styling of Pam Baker in The Poetry of Changing Presidents.  Federal Computer Week ran a contest to create a 140-character job description in Rewrite Your Job Description as a Tweet (listen up HR Specialists!).

Crowdsourcing suggests quality is derived from collaboration and collective wisdom of the crowds.  It suggests that we can derive innovation from amateurs or volunteers as opposed to a team of experts.  This may be counterintuitive, but there seems to be evidence that this is true – Wikis are an excellent example.

Wolfe goes on to say that in the Web 2.0 world “…quality is now measured out more in engagement — videos, pictures, short and pithy commentary — than in llooooooonng, boring blocks of dense text. Which nobody reads anyway!”

Does this mean that quality in a Web 2.0 doesn’t really exist? I think quality exists, but it’s in the corner of your eye. If you look right at it, it goes away.  It exists in the periphery.   

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


The Goddard CIO Blog: One Year Later

One year today, I made my first blog post.  Today, I want to pause and discuss my experience, my learning, and my path forward.  This will not be a sterile reflection of the efficacy of this Web 2.0 technology, but rather, this will be an expression of what this experience meant to me as a CIO, a leader, and as an individual.

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

A friend (I will just call him K) convinced me to start blogging in October 2007.  He was passionate about it.  He told me I would absolutely love it. I said ok, but he said, “No, you have to promise!”  I said, “OK!”  I decided that I would make it my New Year’s Resolution.  It was on the list right before “stop procrastinating”.  Thus, I didn’t get to until May. 

I’ve had earlier posts discussing Why I Blog. Loved ones expressed concern that caused me to be just plain afraid of doing this in the discussion Is Web 2.0 Worth the Risk? One year later, my conclusions are yes, it is worth the risk.  You can’t get innovation or any significant return without any risk; you can’t have risk without uncertainty or doubt; and you can’t have courage without fear.

One of my favorite leadership books is The Leadership Moment, by Michael Useem.  Life is made up of an infinite amount of moments.  Some of those moments in a leader’s lifetime are significant and some of them are learning moments.  May 30, 2008 started what is to date a series of at least 50 monotonically increasing learning moments which converge on the lesson that the only way to truly embrace Transparency and Naked Leadership to be armed with the confidence of faith,  the audacity of courage, and the competence of experience.  Then, and only then, can you face with humility the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that transparent and authentic leadership truly requires.

Oh, The Pain … The Pain!

One of my favorite TV shows used to be Lost in Space.  One often-used quote from one of the characters Dr. Smith was, “oh the pain…the pain”.  There is pain associated with this. 

I am reminded of an incident that happened when I was in the 8th grade.  There was a girl down the street who I did NOT know – she told my sister that she couldn’t stand me.  It made me cry because I didn’t know her at all.  How could I have that effect on someone I don’t even know? My little pubescent feelings were hurt.

One commenter called what I thought was a cool post nonsensical dribble.  Another time, I got an anonymous letter from an employee informing me that I was the worse leader on the planet, an embarrassment to my directorate, and laughing stock among my fellow NASA CIOs. Boy, how quickly I reverted back to the 8th grade.

Pain is not necessarily a bad thing.  Pain helps us protect our fingers from a hot stove; it protects our soul, spirit, and character when we do the wrong things; and new life springs forward through the pain of childbirth.  The pain reminded me to be careful; it reminded me to be humble; it reminded me to learn; and it reminded me of my purpose in the nation’s space program, in this profession, and in this life.

The Final Conundrum

One of my blog readers, RT, likes to challenge me intellectually. One of his favorite quips is … “Oh, the questions we ask … the answers we seek”.  In life, sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking we find solutions in great answers when in fact, we find solutions in life’s great questions.

I gave a leadership talk to the Society of Information Management Regional Leadership Forum. I talked about Power, Passion, and Purpose.  One student asked me if I found my purpose.  I told him I wasn’t sure. He told me he thought he knew his purpose, until a traumatic divorce.  Then he realized he found his purpose only through continuously searching for purpose. He wrote this comment card, which I kept:

Purpose — you have it — keep on searching for it. Thank you … Tony

So, in my original purpose for this blog … I wanted to be relevant, to reflect my true self, to communicate, and to learn.  And in searching to satisfy this purpose I learned of puzzles to life’s great questions – to inspire is to BE inspired; communicating your ideas means listening; the teacher learns from her own instruction; you find your purpose by searching for it.

I once made a remark to my statistics teacher at Johns Hopkins.  Though I intellectually understood the concept of “random” and it’s foundation to statistics, I didn’t really believe in it.  He looked at me in a knowing way and said, “Of course you don’t.”  I will leave the rest of his comment unstated. But, he was right.

I find it no coincidence nor a random event that learning what I have from these past 12 months happened at this time of my life, at this agency, and in this manner. Perhaps Web 2.0 was created just to be critical in the implementation of this Administration’s technology agenda; perhaps it was created just to enable collaboration at NASA within the science and engineering community; perhaps it was created just for me. 

The last time I saw my friend K was November 2008.  We had the opportunity to speak a few weeks after that.  I was passionately recounting my 6 month’s worth of blogging experience.  He told me he noticed that I changed. I was more extroverted.  Well, he was sort of right.  But, I’m still the same shy little girl that doesn’t want to come out and play … but now, I’m outside in a world of discovery and learning that amazes me every day.

And that’s what I learned from 12 months of blogging.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center