Monthly Archives: August 2009

In Search of the Lost Art of IT Management

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I get a steady trickle of “Friend” requests on Facebook.  As a rule, I don’t accept requests from people who I don’t know or with whom I have no mutual friends.  But, then I got such a request from Otto Adams.  The name didn’t even ring a bell.  A few clicks and I discovered he was in my graduating class at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC.

It may or may not be surprising to know that out of a graduating class of 141, I barely remember anyone.  Mostly, I remember the brass section of the band and a few clarinet players.  So, I looked at Otto’s friends to see who they were to get some clues.  Then I saw, Chris Belcher.  Humm…his photograph showed a 50-ish man with gray hair and an ever-so-slight beginning of male-pattern baldness.  But, the amazing thing was that the photograph, which was so good and it captured the essence of his personality, it caused me to remember a quiet blond teenage boy who always walked around by himself with his camera on his shoulder.  Yes, good photographs do that.  I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a string of visual arts students on Facebook, but that’s what I found. 

Next, I came to Francesca Scott.  She was obviously a professional photographer.  No picture of her, but I had a vague memory of a short girl with long beautiful hair that walked around by herself with a camera on her shoulder.  A browsed her gallery.   I hadn’t seen such beautiful pictures in years.  And quite frankly, had forgotten what beauty a talented photographer could produce.

And then I thought of what is going on today with Information Technology.

Today, just about everyone has a camera on their phone.  This along with the ease of use and popularity of digital cameras makes it easy for just about everyone to be a “photographer”.  Furthermore, with the video capabilities that exist now, just about anyone is able to record “what’s on the scene” of most newsworthy events that happen. Now everyone is a videographer.

Today, just anyone can have a blog.  It’s easy and it’s free.  Information is everywhere and anyone with a blog site can now become a “journalist”. 

The same situation exists with IT.  No one can deny that there is a proliferation of IT.  At NASA, we spend somewhere around $1.5 billion per year on it.  It’s everywhere.  And here, just like everywhere, the proliferation, the ubiquitous nature of it, and the increased ease of use forces IT, as well as cameras, to be considered merely tools.  It is because of the notion that IT is merely a tool, that we have lost the notion of a discipline that is actually associated with the management of IT – the artistry that is associated with the use of the mastery of tool.

Well, what does this “art” look like? And why is it important to find it again?

Truth.  Now that anyone with a blog, can be a journalist, what is left for the journalist to do? To, coin a phrase, information, information everywhere and nothing to think about.  The journalist’s role can add value by helping readers validate information and convert information into knowledge.  With IT, the CIO must now evolve from being the deliverer of IT, because now most people can get that, to helping organizations use that information to get the knowledge they need for mission success.

Beauty.  I don’t know if I can tell you what made Francesca’s photographs beautiful, but they were.  The beauty was not in the tool she used, but it was in the results that were produced.  And perhaps beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.  Similarly, the beauty in the successful management of IT will be in the eyes of those who are served by it.  There is no beauty in IT tools, but the beauty can be observed in the outcomes that are produced as perceived by the people who are served.

Love.  Love inspires passion which breathes life into what we do.  Long hours in a dark room, dancing until your feet were sore, or practicing your horn with a tired embouchure, require passion to fuel and sustain artists.  Similarly, the CIO, or any leader for that matter, must have passion about their work and about the mission to sustain execution of activities that can ultimately breed success.

Love, beauty, truth … What does that have to do with space exploration? Getting back to the moon? Or getting to Mars? I’m not sure how to really explain what that “looks like” relative to IT Management.  But, considering how important IT is to NASA’s mission and how much we spend on it, recapturing that lost art of IT Management is needed to use these mere tools as effectively and as efficiently as we can for the masterpiece of mission success.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The Betting CIO

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By some strange confluence in the universe, I found myself in a casino for two consecutive weekends. 

I played Texas Hold ‘Em and wagered on horse races both for the first time.  Now, I understood both from academic, technical, and statistical perspectives.  I had even played successfully in cash-free simulations.  But as that supportive Las Vegas dealer said to me, “Baby, you’ll learn better and faster if you play and risk some money.”  She was right.

I’ve always understood that I was a risk taker.  I learned early on in an exercise during a leadership development program at the Federal Executive Institute.  They presented a wine-making exercise that teaches aspiring executives how to use data that they’ve gathered and apply the results of experimentation to learn how the right amount of risk can be translated into organizational success and competitive advantage. 

Leadership competencies such as these are very important to an organization like NASA.  NASA’s heritage demonstrates the powerful effect of the Ying and Yang of risk management and innovation which continues to spawn discoveries in space, fuel the passion for exploration in human space flight, and launch breakthroughs in technology.  And as we continue on in our mission to inspire, discover, and explore, we will do so by balancing the sometimes competing forces of intellectual judgment and intuitive possibilities. 

Too much risk aversion yields little reward.  Too much innovation could be wasteful or even dangerous.  It’s amazing that we are so creative and innovative in our youth and as we mature and gain experience, life beats it out of us.  John Medina, in his book, Brain Rules, describes, in his Rule #12, how we are powerful and natural explorers and how babies model that behavior.  He goes on to explain:

“The desire to explore never leaves us despite the classrooms and cubicles we are stuffed into. Babies are the model of how we learn—not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. Babies methodically do experiments on objects, for example, to see what they will do.”

Well now let’s see what we can learn from babies.  First, they watch and observe an object; next thing you know, they want to taste it and put it in their mouths; and then they try to see what they can do with it, even try to break it.

First, the Betting CIO shouldn’t confuse luck with sound research and risk analysis.  Just because you run across a highway and don’t get killed, doesn’t mean you’re skilled; it could mean you’re just lucky.  For example, if you haven’t applied sound risk-based security management practices and nothing bad happened, that’s luck, not good management.

Second, the Betting CIO should follow the advice of the most successful gamblers, “Scared man can’t gamble”.  It takes courage to innovate and operate.  If your tolerance for risk is zero, well then it’s a non-starter.  A system with absolutely no security risks is one that is turned off or unusable.  Without risk, there is no fear; and without fear, there is no need for courage; and without courage, there can be no innovation. 

Finally, the Betting CIO won’t learn anything without risking something.  She must pick it up; play with it; and taste it.  If there are a lot of unknowns and the stakes are high, perhaps she should make a few observations and then take the plunge in a scenario where the risk is lower.  So, the Betting CIO should be observant, try some things, and set up safe sandboxes; but should not be reckless, scared, or paralyzed.

Oh, by the way, I lost just a little bit of money in horse racing and poker.  But, I learned a whole lot more in my loss than I ever learned in reading and computer games.  Leadership lessons in a casino?  You bet!

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center