The Five People You Meet in CIO Leadership Heaven

The movie of a similar title is about an old man who dies and meets five people in heaven who affected his life though he didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.  In our personal and professional lives, we meet these people all the time.  Here are some of mine from an IT perspective – names have been fictionalized.

The Value of Enterprise Architecture from Jim – He was sort of a nutty guy.  But back in the day when Enterprise Architecture was all the rage, folks were spending millions of dollars to create thousands of pages that filled scores of notebooks for little or no value.  When I was totally fed up with spending all that money for nothing, I was ready to zero out the budget.  Jim helped me understand how I could get more value for much less money if we focused more on things that help people better plan and manage IT projects along a thoughtful strategy.  For example, a relatively small number of principles are more actionable than pages of analyses of alternatives. 

For NASA now, a principle that incorporates OMB IT reform guidance with the agency strategy would say, “We have a preference for cost effective cloud technologies”.  But, because the service providers’ landscape is changing so fast right now, by the time we developed a full blown technical reference model which defines service standards and available technologies, the information becomes out of date and useless. 

The Virtue of Resilience from Liz – She was really the boss from hell.  Working for her reminded me of when I worked in an infectious diseases lab – the job stunk and you had to be careful what you opened up because it could kill you. It was something new every day and I hated every single day working for her.  But, just as I was an inexperienced teenager working as a lab assistant, I needed to learn how to face the unknown and do risky, but important things. 

People in organizations face change in ways that feel like death.  Budgets get cut, programs end, and life goes on.  No one is ever grateful for these hellish experiences, but as we learn how to adapt and recover from the stresses and strains that we encounter in our lives, these experiences become invaluable.  In CIO heaven, I’ve learned not feigned appreciation for the hardships, but sincere gratitude for the opportunity to develop and grow and the humility to express heartfelt thanks to people like Liz.

The True Meaning of Customer Service from Dave the Helpdesk Guy – It was a dark and stormy night – it was really.  And I had just returned home from the airport after being on travel.  It was about 10:30 pm and I had to approve time sheets so folks could get paid and I needed to do it by midnight.  Exhausted and extremely stressed, I couldn’t remember my password or all the arcane steps to access the system securely via virtual private network (VPN).  We didn’t have a 24-hour helpdesk, but the service provider insisted that on-call support was just as good and cheaper.  Dave asked me for my name.  I didn’t want to give him my title of Deputy CIO; I just wanted to be a regular customer.  He needed me to spell my name – C-U-R-E-T-O-N.  His kids were screaming and he yelled at them to be quiet.  He repeated B-U-R-E-T-O-N? I said no, it starts with “C”.  He sarcastically said, well, that’s a good start.  I said, “What?” He said, “Does your name have more than one letter”.  I took a deep breath and got berated for forgetting my password, for the fact that he was in his car with his kids and I disturbed him. 

As we now deploy the Enterprise Service Desk at the NASA Shared Service Center, I rewind the tape and try to keep in my mind the perspective of the customer.  Sometimes helpdesks care more about closing a ticket to meet the resolution response time, than about customer care and fulfillment.  Dave cared more about himself and his situation than about mine.  The company he worked for cared more about response time than about the efficacy of being able to resolve problems from the front seat of a car.  Customer service isn’t the same as being self-serving.

The Real Meaning of Quality from Kathy – Kathy worked for a large company that manufactured computers.  They finally released a version of the operating system that gave us much-needed capability.  It removed an architectural limit that made it possible to use more memory and run bigger programs faster.  She was proud of the fact that they dropped a new release early and at lower cost.  Her quality product haunted me for weeks.  There was a bug in the code that caused me to work several nights of at least 24-hours straight sifting through 32 megabytes of hexadecimal machine code trying to figure out what was wrong with this quality. 

Her perspective of quality and mine were out of sync.  I expected something that actually worked.  She expected something that simply booted up and did so quickly.  Quality is in the eye of the beholder.  An anonymous quote says that, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after low pricing is forgotten.” Yes, it was cheap.  But, that cheap product was so costly, I couldn’t afford it.  And I will still remember the poor quality in CIO heaven.

The Genuine Significance of People You Lead from Luke – Luke is the kind of employee that you dream about.  He would do anything for you.  Well, I needed him for this particular assignment.  Yes, it meant that he would leave his spouse and son.  Yes, he would have to maintain two households and commute.  Yes, he would endure financial hardship and yes, he would do it willingly. 

We always say people are number one!  But, we actually treat them like they are number two – the mission first, then the people second.  Just because Luke was willing to do what I absolutely needed him to do, doesn’t mean I should ask him to do it. 

So these are my five people. I didn’t have to wait to get to heaven to understand how they and others had a positive effect on my life as a CIO.

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

When Failure is an Option

I shared with a girlfriend, who happens to be a NASA engineer, about some lively discussions at NASA’s executive summit on how we need to balance our risk aversion in order to be more innovative.  She disagreed pointing to legacies of mission success and excellence in project execution.  I argued that good was the enemy of great and we would only get the same outcomes if we executed the same way consistent with our heritage.  Perhaps it was the sign of a very stressful week, but I found myself arguing about the curse of a long legacy of success and the blessings that failures can bring. 

Life is a lot like this.  Everywhere we look in these tough times it seems that things are so tough when we see failure all around us — jobs lost, houses in foreclosure, bankruptcies, failed marriages, and hearts broken.  But, we won’t grow as individuals unless we are willing to take risks, face disappointments, and yet maintain our resilience enough to learn and advance.

In Mental Resilience: The Power of Clarity, author Kamal Sarma states:

“To some degree, we continually search for certainty in our careers, relationships, health, and finances.  This craving for certainty stops us from living a life full of courage and freedom.  This desire of stability or certainty stops us from looking for a more satisfying career or taking chances in a new or long-term relationship and make us cling to our youth or bemoan getting older.  All this fear can rob us of our passion. “

A broken heart or a failed marriage means that we experienced joy and love.  Perhaps an engineering example would have been better for this philosophical conversation with my girlfriend.  After all, it’s much safer than love, life, and relationships. 

With the invention of the brakes, the automobile was able to get beyond the novelty and impracticality associated with this innovation.  Some folks think that the purpose of the braking system was to prevent the car from going too fast, but it actually allows the car to go faster and stop safely and higher speeds.  In looking at the risks associated with the automobile, using risk management as a learning process and not a hindrance is what enabled the critical innovation provided by the invention of the brakes.

Proper risk management is a learning process not a hindrance.  In looking at the risks associated with the speed of automobiles, inventors learned better ways to decelerate and stop.  The United Kingdom, however, looked at risk in a different way in 1865.  They outlawed the use of automobiles unless a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn preceded the vehicle.  This discouraged inventors and engineers on working on the challenge of increasing speed while maintaining safety. 

As a programmer, there were many situations where I needed a failure in my software code, just so I could get to the point of finally debugging it and solving the problem.  I needed to learn from the failure.  This doesn’t mean that we are cavalier about failure, but we perform tests, simulations, and experimentations in safe environments so that we can learn about potential failures.

A life devoid of failure lacks passion.  We never cried unless we tried.  Likewise, organizations devoid of failure or effective management of failure prevention will lack the passion and will to innovate, learn, and grow.

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO