Information Technology: Trick or Treat?

Information Technology: Trick or Treat?

There’s always lots of discussion about populations as they experience the migration from agrarian, through industrial, and to information societies.  The migration is typically precipitated by some technology trigger.  The steam engine is purported to be the trigger for the migration to the industrial society and information technology the trigger for the migration to the information society.  Clearly, we can see the economic and societal benefits of technology.  But, is it always a good thing? Sometimes there are unintended consequences.

As a technologist, I of course may have a bias that favors information technology.  But, as a CIO, one has to consider the value and benefit that information technology provides for an organization.  Just as with the Halloween tradition of trick or treat, we may anticipate the treat of technology candy, but without the requisite benefit and value, we may be tricked into something that proves detrimental to people, processes, and perhaps to society.

Luddites hated technology.  But, history suggests that their disdain had more to do with the political ramifications of those technology advancements.   In this case, technology was invented that put large masses of people out of work by automating their jobs with the weaving machine.  Many people were economically devastated and plunged into poverty, ruin and starvation because of this technology trigger.

Another example, whether fact, fiction, or folklore can be found in discussions surrounding the lost city of Atlantis.   Atlanteans were supposed to be a technologically advanced society.  Though the legend says those technological benefits provided the means of creating a utopian society, careless use of technology ultimately became the means that brought about the destruction that sent them to the ocean floor.

Some theories attribute ineffective use of technology as a factor that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.  The Romans had many technological advances particularly in weapons, engineering and medicine.  But, as they continued to grow and expand the empire, they failed to leverage their technology to feed and care for the people in the newly acquired territories. 

Today, with Web 2.0 technology such as Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter we are able to use technology to substitute for face-to-face interactions.  We send text messages and email in lieu of human interactions; we are avatars and not flesh and blood; and we have telecommuters and geographically dispersed workers who have minimal person-to-person interactions.  As humans, we experience things with all of our senses.  Overuse or over reliance on this technology tempts us to forget our humanity – sincerity, love, honesty … mercy – these feelings are not transmitted by mere emoticons.   And technology has not (yet) provided the means of smelling the sweet aroma of the rose or feeling the warmth of a loving embrace.

As a service provider, I had a major lapse in customer service that required a serious apology.  We were able to repair the situation and restore the faith of our customers, but it required getting on a plane, and facing the irate customers face-to-face with a simple message – I’m sorry.  Then and only then, were we able to rebuild trust to get us past our egregious mistake.

The trick or treat here is not that technology is bad or good.  But, if we ask for the treat from our technology “candy”, we might get tricked into some unintended consequences. Keeping an eye on those potential consequences and perhaps learning from history can help us understand limitations or dangers and avoid detrimental outcomes.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Leadership Versus Management

I threw the concept out at a recent All Hands Meeting that I had about the differences between leadership versus management.  I got this strange quizzical look from a few of the strong managers in the room.  I’ve seen that look many times over the past decade from some executives on my team. 

I’ve noticed that when we have these kinds of conversations, it ends up with the suggestion that strong management is equated with strong leadership.  Or that success is equivalent to strong leadership.  And sometimes there’s a little resentment because of a hint that maybe strong management is a bad thing.  But, hey, some of my best friends are strong managers and that’s not the point.  You can be successful if you’re strong in either one of them, but in times of change, you need the right amount of both.  To do so, you need to understand the difference and have the right amount of both to not just weather the storm, but come out of it better as a person or better as an organization. 

So, what is it the difference anyway?  John P. Kotter defines the differences as follows:

  • Management – makes systems of people and technology work well day after day, week after week, and year after year.
    • Planning,  budgeting, organizing and staffing
    • Controlling and problem solving
    • Taking complex systems of people and technology and making them run efficiently and effectively, hour after hour, day after day
  • Leadership –  creates the systems that managers manage and changes them in fundamental ways to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid hazards
    • Creating vision/strategy and communicating/setting direction
    • Motivating action and aligning people
    • Creating systems that managers can manage and transforming them when needed to allow for growth, evolution, opportunities and hazard avoidance

How do you know you’re a strong leader but a weak manager?  Well, typically, you’d be charismatic and perhaps very innovative and creative.  But, your career or the organizations you lead will be on the brink of chaos.  The same would hold true if your organization had a gracious plenty amount of leadership, but an insufficient amount of strong management competencies.  Oh, yeah, you’d have lots of ideas, but would seldom be able to get things done.

How do you know you’re a strong manager but a weak leader?  Well, typically, you’d have a track record of success.  But, your career would fizzle out over time and the organizations you lead would have a very difficult adapting to most changes.  An organization with an insufficient amount of strong leadership competencies would be bureaucratic and controlling and would have a difficult time adapting to changes in the environment. 

CIOs or those who lead technical people or organizations would not be surprised to find an abundance of strong managers in their organizations.  Network, operations, and data center managers create a legacy of success based on their ability to manage technology effectively and deliver reliable, consistent, and available services to customers day after day.  Yet, these heroes of today often become the dinosaurs of tomorrow when they fail to navigate rough waters of the sea of changes in customer demand or in the technology environment.   

But, getting the right balance of management and leadership in technical organizations is a big leadership hill to climb.  Paul Glen in Leading Geeks, talks about the special challenge of leading these technical management superstars:

“Geeks’ independence combines with their tendency to make merciless judgments of leaders to make it difficult to earn their respect.  Things can be especially tough for leaders without a technical background, since geeks place a high value on technical prowess as a qualification for leadership.”

It’s no wonder that successful technical organizations have difficulty recognizing leadership competencies and their value.  But, failure to do so will ultimately end up in organizational demise.  In the public sector, this translates to lack of stakeholder support, lack of relevance, and ultimately to mission failures. 

Ending here on a quote that aptly describes the management versus leadership:

The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything or nothing. – Lady Nancy Astor

We avoid those dangers with the right balance of both management and leadership.


Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

Finding the Sweet Spot for Disruptive Innovation

I was having a healthy debate with my CTO for IT Chris C. Kemp (those who know both of us of course realize that “healthy debate” is an oxymoron).  At the core of our discourse was the notion of how innovation needed to be disruptive in nature.  The need for disruptive innovation is described by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. GSFC CIO Adrian Gardner and ARC CIO James Williams discussing NASA Cloud Services with NASA Administrator Bolden

Christensen’s discussion focuses on the premise that great companies don’t necessarily fail because they do things bad.  Some of the reasons they fail are because they (1) listen to their key customers; (2) invest in things with the highest return on investment; and (3) improve product quality.  The dilemma happens because these are all right things to do, but disruptive innovation can come from listening to the unimportant customers, investing where there’s little ROI, and sacrificing quality. He goes on to say that there is a point where these “right” things become the wrong thing to do.  Finding that point – the sweet spot – is where disruptive innovation has the greatest value.

Our healthy debate was on the topic of Cloud Services for NASA. 

The customers for cloud services are not the typical key customers for IT services with known requirements, set budgets, and tight schedules; they are the customers with no money and an uncertain budget.  They are working in labs and doing work with a significant amount of uncertainty.  Proving a return on investment is difficult if not impossible because the funding availability that it is in the institution that supports them consists of very small amounts of opportunity more than a fixed budget line item.  Finally, these poor struggling customers would sacrifice quality because they don’t need it at this point in the life cycle of their work. 

For many organizations and perhaps ours, it barely makes sense to put aside that which made us successful to do the things that seem wrong just for the sake of disruptive innovation.  The tenets of quality, safety, and program execution are often at odds with the very nature of disruptive innovation.  Yet, failure to seek the sweet spot for this innovation will ultimately lead to organizational demise.

I’m not sure who won the CTO v. CIO debate.  But, the true winner can be found somewhere in the sweet spot for disruptive innovation. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Coping with Reduced Resources: Lessons from a Thief

I remember running into a colleague who I hadn’t seen for a while.  He had taken a new position so I asked him how it was going.  “Terrible”, he said.  I asked why.  He said that if had enough budget and people, he’d be successful.  I thought to myself, “Who wouldn’t?”  Sadly but predictably, my colleague prematurely moved on to another position.   There’s never a time where a manager has all the time, people, and resources they want.  That relentless tension drives us to use the requisite creativity and resourcefulness that results in continuous improvement, learning, and success.

Ironically, an Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter (no acronym needed here, right?) took the opportunity to remind me of a lesson that all managers learn very early in their careers.  I have a glass chess set on my desk and have an ongoing game with Cliff.  We only make on average about one or two moves a day, but over nearly a year, we’ve had a chance to play three games.  In the middle of a game, the Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter snuck in my office and took my knight and Cliff’s rook. 

“Rest assured I have taken great care of [them].  But a game of chess [can] be akin to a project…  And much like a project, you may not have all the resources that you need, but the project must go forward.  How do you complete the project when you are missing critical resources?  How resourceful can you be without the proper resources? “- Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter

NASA offers us an amazing lesson of resourcefulness.  Consider NASA and the Apollo 13 crew whose ingenuity helped to solve a life-threatening problem in orbit using duct tape. 

“There was, of course, a fix; and it came in the form of an ingenious combination of suit hoses, cardboard, plastic stowage bags, and CSM canisters – all held together with a liberal application of gray duct tape. As was usual whenever the Apollo team had to improvise, engineers and astronauts on the ground got busy devising ways around the problem and then checked out the new procedures.”   Eric M. Jones, Apollo 13 Lunar Surface Journal

When facing a situation where we cannot fail, we are able to reach deep and deliver solutions to problems that seem impossible to solve.

Another lesson comes from the Washington Redskins Super Bowl XXII champions.  The team loss key resources during the 1987 NFL season due to a players strike.  The “replacement” Redskins put the team on a trajectory that resulted in a remarkable come back from behind victory against the Denver Broncos. 

“While some clubs chose not to assemble decent rosters of fill-ins, the Redskins carefully put together a solid group. The Redskins went 3-0 with the subs and scrubs and it made a difference, as they won the NFC East with an 11-4 record.” – Larry Weisman, Flashback: Redskins Dominate Denver In Super Bowl XXII

Well, I coped with the loss of my stolen chess pieces.  Furthermore, I ended up winning the game with replacement pieces and a key move made by rookie player and Administrative Officer, Jason:

“I don’t really know how to play well.  This is a knight right? I move it two squares one way and one square another way right? Can I make just one move?  I think it’s good.” – Jason Gillis, Administrative Officer and Future CIO

I close with a thought from the Rookless Cliff:

“The Mystery is solved….. 🙂  The answer … as a project manager you replace resources and move the project forward! Paradigms in thinking must often be changed to achieve new and old goals when resources are reduced, removed, or changed. How we look at resources and incorporate new resources to fit our need [helps us move] the project forward to the end state! All resources are that, they are resources to be used, the question is how flexible are we at using those resources to achieve the project goals.” – Clifton W. Ward III, Service Integration Manager

So, dear Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter, silly rabbit, tricks are for kids.  No big mystery here.  Coping with reduced resources requires flexibility, ingenuity, and the courage to leverage opportunity. 

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

P.S. Good luck getting past the Secretaries this time!

Our Insecurities or: How to Stop Worrying and Love Compromised Cyber Environments

My Deputy CIO for IT Security, Jerry Davis recently asked if I thought he was paranoid.  I assured him that he wasn’t really paranoid if we really are operating in a compromised environment. 

Some pop psychologists refer to the BAR Cycle when advising clients dealing with our emotional insecurities or personality challenges.  The BAR Cycle – belief, action, result – says that what we believe leads to how we act and thus produces certain results in our lives.  To produce different results, we have to change our beliefs.  We need to do the same thing for our cyber insecurities. 

We have struggled in the area of cyber security because of our belief that we are able to obtain this ideal state called – secure.  This belief leads us to think for example, that simply by implementing policies we will generate the appropriate actions by users of technology and will have as a result a secure environment.  This is hardly the truth.  Not to say that policies are worthless, but just as the 55 mph speed limit has value though it does not eliminate traffic fatalities, the policies in and of themselves do not eliminate cyber security compromises.   

Army General Keith Alexander, the nation’s first military cyber commander, described situational awareness as simply knowing what systems’ hackers are up to.  He goes on to say that with real-time situational awareness, we are able to know what is going on in our networks and can take immediate action. 

In addition to knowing our real-time state, we need to understand our risks and our threat environment.   Chinese General Sun Tzu said that, “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”  It is through an understanding of the state of our specific environment and the particular risks and threats we face where we can take the right actions to produce the results that we need. 

Those results need to be mission relevant, however.  Data leakage or unauthorized access, for example, may be acceptable for scientific data that is readily open and available to the public.  However, integrity of the same data must be trusted in order to prevent inaccuracies and maintain confidence in conclusions. 

I suppose that agency computer security executives face the same dilemma as Jerry – worry and be hopelessly paranoid; or worry and face the certainty of a cyber security doomsday.  Either way, the path forward to different results will start with changing our beliefs about our current state. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA