Inspire or Expire

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center got an inspiring first visit from our new Administrator Charlie Bolden.  I am always fascinated by how executives manage their transition into leadership.  Clearly, with a resume like Charlie Bolden has, he’s no stranger to transition.  We got clues about the man, his mission, and perhaps about his modus operandi.

One thing that stuck in my mind and in my heart was a charge that NASA should inspire the world.  He may have said nation, but I heard – the world.  I’m sure of it, actually.  As leaders, we are constantly honing our leadership competencies so that we can inspire a workforce.  The key issue, however, is that leaders need to do that plus create organizations that inspire.

The derivation of the word inspire comes from the Latin verb spirare meaning to breathe.  Inspiration literally means to breathe into.  How does an organization breathe into the nation or the world? Four other words come to mind that are relevant to this discussion.  Transpire, respire, perspire, or expire.

Inspiring organizations would have to transpire or emerge.  They have to come outside of themselves and find out what’s going on.  Look at the environment and develop an understanding of their external surroundings.

Inspiring organizations would need to respire or breathe.  Breath sustains life.  It is the process of bringing into an organization, the things that are needed to sustain it.  It is also the process of shedding the things that are noxious. 

Finally, inspiring organizations would need to perspire or sweat.   Some of that sweat will come from hard work and some of it will come from reacting and managing risk.  Regardless, you don’t get very far without doing the things that produce sweat.

And if organizations are not able to do these things, there is a strong possibility that organizations may expire.  Many doubt that a government institution can meet organizational demise.  But, organizational demise shows up in many forms: failure to meet mission, failure to satisfy stakeholders, or inability to meet their constituents’ needs are some possible outcomes.

Just like the Apostle Paul, who appreciated the proverbial thorn in his side, I appreciate the comments that I might get that say “what does inspiration have to do with getting a man to the moon?” or “what does inspiration have to do with being a CIO?”

Well, there’s this thing called the Constitution that talks about things like promoting general welfare, and pursuit of happiness.  Who knows, maybe inspiration from an organization like NASA can contribute to that. 

For a CIO, who supports the inspiring organization, it may look like providing and promoting enabling technologies that help with collaboration.  It may look like reducing costs so that we can better utilize the scarce resources that we have.  Finally, it may look like understanding the work that needs to be done and giving advice about how can be technology can be applied to the effort.

In a smaller group of Goddard’s Executive Council, Charlie Bolden gave me some good-spirited poking about why I was not smiling.  I must have known in advance what he might say and what it may mean.  I shouldn’t have been worried though.  I realize now that all I have to do is get out, take deep breaths, and get ready for hard work.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Footprints in the Sand: Innovation at Goddard's White Sands Complex

Innovation is all the rage these days.  Ironically, we talk about innovation like it’s never been done before.  Innovation can be many things: it can mean doing new things you’ve never done before; or it can mean doing things you’ve done before in new ways.  I had the pleasure of visiting Goddard Space Flight Center’s White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  I made an interesting observation about innovation – and that was — innovation also included getting new life out of old things. Second TDRSS Ground Terminal

As we entered the secure facility, it seemed strange, that I had to leave all of my personal innovation behind – 2 PDAs, a cell phone,  my laptop, and two iPods (primary and backup, come on, after all, I’m a CIO and it’s a long flight to El Paso). However, I was about to see firsthand how these heroes of technology maintain and support a very mature infrastructure with scarce resources.

The White Sands Complex includes two functionally identical satellite ground terminals. These terminals are known as the White Sands Ground Terminal (WSGT) and the Second TDRSS Ground Terminal (STGT), respectively. The ground terminals provide the hardware and software necessary to ensure uninterrupted communications between the customer spacecraft and the NASA Integrated Services Network (NISN) interface to the customer control center.

Don Shinners, Station Director, gave a great overview of the amazing work that is done there.  They have been able to provide secure, well-managed services supporting human spaceflight and science research for nearly three decades.  I was fascinated about how they mixed old-school skills such as soldering with new-school skills such in software development, architecture, and security and configuration management.

They harvest spare parts, build what they need, and create software solutions for hardware requirements.  Their resourcefulness reminded me of the fictional television secret agent Angus MacGyver, who used his resourcefulness and his knowledge of chemistry, physics, technology, and outdoorsman ship to resolve what are often life-or-death crises with only a Swiss army knife and duct tape.

The evidence of the resourcefulness of these unsung heroes of the desert is seen the footprints in the sand of the folks who tirelessly provide 7x24x365 sustainment and support for critical mission essential infrastructure.  One quote from the TV CIO's shoes and footprints in sandseries MacGyver seems fitting:

I know, I know … stay out of trouble, keep the expenses down and don’t get killed.

How fitting and appropriate. 

As I left the building and gathered all my CIO gear, I thought, gee, it’s easy to innovate with all of these toys often called innovative technology.  But, it is an amazing accomplishment to innovate with the equivalent of only a Swiss army knife and duct tape.

Linda Cureton, CIO Goddard Space Flight Center

Problem Solving and Personal Leadership

I had a rare opportunity to sit in on NASA’s Senior Management Council Meeting last week.  It was worth coming in from the flu and missing Michael Jackson’s funeral to take what was for me a glimpse into how an organization like NASA approaches problem-solving.  Acting Administrator, Chris Scolese moved methodically from issue to issue …What problem are we trying to solve? Do we have a plan? Did we solve the problem?

As individuals and as leaders, do we apply the same rigor and approach to problem solving?  Back in the good ole days, as a technician and systems programmer, problem determination was an important skill.  I recall one situation, in pulling an all-nighter, I had to wait for my colleague and good pal GJB to “do his thing” before I could do mine.  However, his stuff didn’t work.  So what did he do? He just kept trying over, and over, and over, again.  It was four o’clock in the morning. S o sleep deprived with patience exhausted, I yelled, “For crying out loud, Dude … just do something different! ANYTHING!”

Not surprisingly, some of the same characteristics of a good problem-solver can be found in a good leader.   Courage, creativity, focus, tenacity. 

Chuck Musciano, in his blog, Shaking the Mouse, relates a story about one woman’s approach to problem determination.  When a sales rep of a major IT company began to experience … “the demon of demos” … she began to shake the mouse to get things to start working.

Now, it was true that the [optical] mouse driver did hang every so often, but it was due to a small input buffer being overrun with too many mouse events.  If you waited a few seconds, the buffer would drain and the mouse would recover no shaking necessary.  This woman, however, believed that mouse was clogged and that shaking was required to fix it.  It clearly worked: every time she shook the mouse, it started working again.

My pal David is a digital image technician.  Printers and copiers … ugh … are the bane of my existence.  Here’s my problem solving technique — when I get a paper jam, I just open doors and slam them shut until it clears; if my print doesn’t come out right, I just go through all the permutations and combinations of inserting the paper; by now, I’m sweating and crying and then email document to someone else to print.  But, David is good at problem solving.  First, you show it who is boss.  Then, don’t be afraid of a little electrical shock and don’t be afraid to take it apart and try stuff, you can shake that off  that shock it just wakes you up.  Then you wrestle with the little devil until it gives up and works.    

Ok, David.  I think those reflect sound personal leadership principles.  Here’s a quote that gets pretty close to his technique:

Why don’t we just take the safety labels off of everything and let the problem solve itself?

This suggests that courage is better than process.  But perhaps leaders of organizations should make risk-based decisions about taking those safety labels off, nurture an environment for creativity, and ensure that they have enough energy and focus to wrestle the problems until they just give in and allow themselves to be resolved.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center



The Poor Strugglin’ CIO

Sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days.  There are two things about those bad days.  First, bad days make good days seem even better!  Second, they are trials that prepare you for things that happen in life – they make you better.  As you look backwards on bad days, these lessons always seem clear.  Wouldn’t be great if we could look forward to them or at least learn these lessons in real time?  It would make you almost embrace these so-called bad days. 

I was in Boston this week, attending the NASA Integrated Services Network (NISN) Forum.  I was having a leadership conversation with Tereda.  I’m not sure if she realized it, but we were having a discussion about one of the executive core competencies of the Federal Government Senior Executive Service: Resilience.  Resilience deals effectively with pressure; remains optimistic and persistent, even under adversity and recovers quickly from setbacks.  We discussed those setbacks and moments of adversity that make you a stronger and more effective leader.  Graph which has a minimum point annoted as the worst day of your life

I remember a day of adversity as a teenager – December 26, 1975 – I had what remains to be the worst day of my life. Now, realize, this is by teenage girl standards, but even as I have increased in age and experience, relatively speaking … this was pretty much still the worst day of my life.  Picture this: the Washington Redskins are playing the Philadelphia Eagles.  Teenaged Linda and trumpet player turned French Horn player gets a lead from recently dumped boyfriend on an opportunity to play trumpet at the half time game. Teenaged Linda gives the only answer that an up-and-coming Redskins fan could give.  Yes.  It snows; lips stick to mouthpiece; Redskins lose; cute under-dressed teenager needs to huddle under blanket with former boyfriend for survival.  I look in his eyes as he looks into mine, and I hope file this memory away for the rest of my life as the worst day of my life – my worst day ever.  Happily, this day continues to be a benchmark that helps to motivate some of my executive resilience.  I only wish that I could recognize those days sooner.  If I could, perhaps look forward to those bad days, and then they wouldn’t seem so bad. 

As I checked the flight status of my return trip from Boston Logan to BWI.  It was foggy and stormy in Baltimore and Boston.  Our flight was delayed.  I have a pretty bad cold and feel bad.  Hum…I think I am getting ready to look forward to one of those bad days.   So, I was jazzed up … nothing but “better” stuff could happen after a “bad” day.  When I finally got home in my own bed at nearly 2:00 am, I reflected that this turned out to be an amazing day with the most wonderful experiences.  Let me share a few.

Beautiful Sunset.  I met Dean.  He works on the NASA/Goddard’s James Webb Telescope project.  He introduced himself and offered me a flat chocolate pancake.  He said to me that he met me before, but I probably don’t remember him.  I told him it didn’t matter because we were about to have a fun evening together and I wouldn’t forget him.  He was leaving on a flight the next morning at 5:40 am heading to Orlando to catch a cruise.  I was so happy for his great day because he would make his cruise and even with no sleep, he had a good 10 hours of slack in his schedule to make his launch.

Spectacular Sunrise. Then my Deputy Dennis was talking to someone who seemed to be a delightful NASA veteran.  He had been with NASA since 1961.  Dennis was happy that they had a lively conversation.  I think that by the time we took off, their conversation may have been up to the 1980s.  I never knew the man’s name.  But he had a hair full of gray hair.  He lives in Ocean Pines, MD.  I pretty long drive from BWI Airport.  He’s getting ready to have one of those bad days.  Then, he talks to himself and makes a decision.  He will stay at Kent Island and wake up to watch a beautiful sunrise over the Chesapeake Bay, then drive the rest of the way home.  He was getting ready to have a great day.

The Moon and the Stars. Finally, our plane arrived.  A plane load of full of people broke into spontaneous applause.  Yes, this was indeed a great day.  We boarded and I had the prophetic insight to upgrade to business class, so I looked forward to a very comfortable pleasant flight. 

I sat next to this old man with a familiar spirit.  He reminded me of my grandfather.  He ordered a Tanqueray and ginger ale.  I ordered a chardonnay.  I made sure that my bag didn’t take up his leg room and gave him some advice about his tray table.  Later, I put on my headset and turned up the volume on my iPod and looked out the window.  There was heavy cloud cover and the reflected moonlight was beautiful; the starry night was enchanting.  I always loved the moon and the stars. What a stunning night.

As we landed and prepared to leave the plane, I smiled at the familiar grandfatherly spirit that kept me company.  He took down his roll-aboard and I spied his name tag – Kumar.  Wow!  Could it be my old Astronomy Professor? I seized the moment and excused myself and asked him if he was a physics professor.  He said, he used to be one but he is retired.  I asked him if he taught at Howard University.  He smiled and said yes.  And I told him that he was my Astronomy Professor at Howard University.  He left the plane and he waited for me.  As I managed myself off the plane, I remembered another close call for the “worst day of my life”.  He was in it.

When I caught up with him, I told him I had to tell him a story.  In his Astronomy class, he asked the class if we understood the movement of the tides and the relevance of the position of the moon, sun, and Earth.  Everyone nodded with feigned understanding.   Then, to my terror, he gave me the chalk and said, “Young lady, explain it to the class.” I said ok, and then shocked him with an explanation that was almost as good as his.  My classmates came up to me and said, “Girl, you did good! Glad it was you and not me!” I didn’t expect him to remember, I just wanted him to know I did.  Well, he said he remembered. This was 33 years ago. 

Then he said to me, somewhat apologetically, but not really, that they were intentionally hard on the science and math students at Howard University because the pressure and the trials would make them better in their life and their careers.  I survived that bad day and came away from his class loving the moon, stars, sun, tides, and our Earth.  But, I never knew how great that day was until last night. 

I finally got home at almost 2:00 am.  Congested, feverish, and tired, I lay in bed and said my CIO prayers.  I think this bad day may have been one of the best days of my life.  I look forward to my next bad day.  I had sweet dreams that night.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center