What If The Great Karnak Were a CIO?

What If The Great Karnak Were a CIO?


One of my favorite people to work with is Mike Hecker, Associate CIO of Architecture, Futurist, and Humorist at NASA.  He joked about the NASA CIO, Jonathan Pettus and the Johnny Carson character “The Great Karnak”.  So, I thought … hum, what if CIOs could predict the answer to the question before it was asked? What if they could shape or manage demand for IT services?


That sounds like the “demand-side” of the CIO versus the “supply-side” of the CIO.  As a CIO, one of the “bad places” to be is solely on the supply-side.  What’s up with this new jargon supply-side and demand-side?  In English, supply-side is the CIO as a service provider and manager of IT services – with apologies to Janet Jackson, “What have you done for me lately?” demand-side is the CIO as a leader and strategist – “What IT investments do we need to deliver mission outcomes competitively?” This is a bar room discussion that we have had often at the Goddard Space Flight Center, regrettably, without benefit of a Cosmopolitan. 


CIO.COM discusses a relevant anecdote in “Federal IT Flunks Out”, May 15, 2006.  At the retirement ceremony of Dan Matthews, former CIO of Department of Transportation and current Lockheed Martin executive, a top-level executive mentioned how Dan always helped out with fixing Blackberry problems (the supply-side of the CIO).  Dan responds:


“Agency executives know that CIOs provide a vital resource to organizations—they just don’t know what it is.”


I suppose he knew the key to being a successful CIO was to also add noteworthy value through the demand-side – i.e., capturing and prioritizing requirements, assigning resources based on business and mission objectives and doing projects that deliver business and mission benefits.


In the IT Transformation that is going on at Goddard, some have suggested that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the supply-side role of a CIO and the demand-side.  Consider this thought by Ellen Kitzis, “CIOs must lead by setting expectations on the demand side and leading their IT team to deliver on that promise on the supply side.” The right balance of both the demand-side and the supply-side will optimize the mission value of IT in an organization.


So if The Great Karnak was a CIO, he would say “C-I, C-I, O”.  The question would be, “Who does Old MacDonald turns to for advice about how to get more value from his farm using information technology”.   Yep, maybe we should be like Karnak.

Linda Y. Cureton

Are You Smarter Than A CIO?

Are You Smarter Than A CIO?


I was having a particularly tough week when I had to give a presentation to my Center explaining exactly what a CIO does.  I managed to pull together a rather tongue-in-cheek power point presentation that was actually very therapeutic for me. I supplemented the presentation by inviting the group to take the “Are You Smarter Than A CIO Survey.” I will report some of the discoveries below.  But, it got me thinking, how does a CIO ever get herself smart enough about the mission she serves?


In an article about Future CIO Competencies in www.cio.com, three types of CIOs are described – the Function Head, the Transformational Leader, and the Business Strategist.  Pretty much, the role of the CIO as a Function Head is clearly understood … “Why don’t I see my meetings on my blackberry?” “Why do I have to have so many passwords?” “Where’s my email?” The goal of the Function Head is to be forgotten, like the Maytag Repairman. 


However, the Transformational Leader strives to partner with the mission and the Business Strategist seeks to focus on innovation and understand organizational differentiators.  Now here’s the paradox: as soon as you’ve transformed, things become status quo; as soon as you’ve innovated, things become old hat.  So as soon as a CIO reaches her “status” in those areas, she ceases to be successful in that space. 


So, that means I’m either forgotten or a failure.  Yeah, that really was a tough week.


This starts to touch on a notion suggested by one of the most powerful qualities of leadership – humility.  It’s not a skill you proudly develop; it’s something that you approach asymptotically – you can’t really get there because if you think you’re there, that proves you’re not there. 


“Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.”

    Ezra Taft Benson


This means that questions like “Who are you?”  and “What does a CIO do?” become less relevant than “What do we need to do in order to become a more competitive and innovative organization?”


So, here are some survey results:


What does CIO stand for?


    1.6% said Can’t Implement the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA

    11.5% said Career is Over

    86.9% said Chief Information Officer


What is the #1 Goal of the CIO?


    6.4% said it was to assimilate all technology

    6.4% said it was to insert fear, uncertainty, and doubt into our mission and business processes

    2.1% said it was to destroy all life, as we know it

    85.1% said it was advise the Goddard Space Flight Center Director on all IT matters


A CIO’s favorite people to talk to are:


    8.7% said ancient Romans

    60.9% said Center network engineers

    30.4% said people who are not listening.


And finally, being the CIO of the Goddard Space Flight Center is better then:


    2.5% said being a French horn player with no gig

    5.0% said being a trumpet player with no chops

    5.0% said being a left-handed cartographer using pen and ink

    12.% said cleaning out test tubes in an infectious diseases lab

    60.0% said nothing is better


The survey results clearly show that my stakeholders are “smarter than a CIO”.  How humbling. So, I guess nothing is better than being the CIO of the Goddard Space Flight Center. 


Linda Cureton


The Great CIO Organization: Building the Right Team

The Great CIO Organization: Building the Right Team


I passed Tonjua in the hall one day.  She is one of my up-and-coming young leaders and is leading a team planning the administrative activities required to implement our IT reorganization.  It had been a particularly difficult day for her dealing with team issues.  She asked me, “What kind of science project do you have me on?”


I have no doubt that Tonjua and her teammates will meet their goals.  The team is a very diverse team with strong skills in this particular area.  Their shared thinking will yield products that will be better than they would have without their contributions.  This is no doubt a tough gig for Tonjua, and maybe tough for some to watch.  But, these are the right people to create the right product for the organization with the right leadership.


For a CIO, creating the right senior leadership team to create a “great” CIO organization is critical.  Jim Collins implores us to first get the right people on the bus, to build the superior team.   After this is done, a CIO and her team can figure out the path to greatness.


In the book “Senior Leadership Teams” (by Ruth Wageman, et. al.), the authors identify essential conditions that senior leaders should establish for their leadership teams:


(1)   Create a real team, rather than one that is a team in name only,

(2)   Provide the team with a clear and compelling purpose, and

(3)   Ensure that the team consists of members who have the knowledge, skill and experience required for the team’s work.


Perhaps my first lesson in the importance of this was as a young French horn player at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC.  My best friend Donna and I were both experienced seniors and very capable horn players.  Our band director wanted us to have the best chance of winning a band competition after coming in second place the year before.  He added two beginner horn players to fill out our section.  Donna and I thought they were awful and since we wanted to win too, we told the two of them to hold their horn but don’t play — ever.  When we were playing our award winning performance, I heard the most beautiful sounds from the French horn section.  The two newbies decided to practice on their own – honing their skills.  And practice they did.  On performance day, the “four” of us sounded so good, the judges made a special note of the beautiful French horn section – the lovely French horn team.


Ironically, one the songs we played beautifully was “People”:


“People who need people, are the luckiest people, in the world”


Great organizations are built with great people.  And CIOs who know this are indeed the luckiest people in the world.


Linda Y. Cureton

Technology Anytime,Anyplace,Anywhere: A Network That Doesn?t Depend on a Single Power Cord

Technology Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere: A Network That Doesn?t Depend on a Single Power Cord


This week, I am in Chicago attending the NASA Integrated Services Network (NISN) Forum.  Amid discussions of bandwidth, jitter, reliability, and availability, I thought about the staff meeting I had earlier this week. My ops guy Joe was there.   He was smiling.  As you know, ops people never smile.  Something has crashed, is about to crash, or might crash ? always.  So, being worried about his mental health, I asked him why he was smiling.  He said things were going very well and he was happy. 


I was cruising with my husband and my family.  I do like to cruise.  When I went on my first cruise almost 10 years ago, I liked the isolation.  No news, new email, nothing.  But, here lately my favorite cruise line implemented a wireless network on board.  Ooh, access to everything, even in the middle of an ocean.  So, last year, I checked my email, misguided soul that I am.  I had an email from my boss.  He was on a rant about the email issues du jour.  I replied back, ?Ed, I?m sorry about the problems, but I can?t do much as I am somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean.  I have absolutely no clue where.?  Well, Ed thought that was funny.  I?ll put aside any observations of his wry sense of humor, but he was tickled that I was reading email at some unknown latitude and longitude.  It really wasn?t funny.


I am pictured here on my last cruise.  Goddard CIO in St. Thomas holding blackberry while talking on cellphoneMy anniversary in fact; 16 wonderful years with a retired ops guy.  I am in St. Thomas and am downright giddy because both my blackberry AND cell phone worked!!!  At last, I am the connected CIO again.  Life was good. What a great vacation.  I?ve convinced myself that I?m not really obsessed.  I?m used to being connected ? all the time, anywhere I go, globally.   And as the NASA Goddard CIO, and in the backdrop of this NISN Forum, we are connected anywhere in the solar system or even the universe. 


I heard a talk at the Department of Energy CIO Conference from one of my predecessors —  Linda Wilbanks, now the CIO of National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).  In her talk, IT Toys, she discussed the outcomes of always connected employees.  They are constantly juggling, have no downtime, and are in constant communication.  This drives us to become dangerous drivers who text while driving and desperate and overworked people always in search of communication signals. Some may argue that being always connected is not a healthy thing, but as service providers, we need to understand that consumers and customers have the expectation of being always connected.  Anywhere, anytime.  


This week, I heard about no jitter, no packet drops, good throughput, high availability ? oh, and low cost and highly secure.  No wonder Joe never smiles.  He knows what we do is important ? businesses, customers, consumers, and CIOs expect it and lives depend on it.



Rules for Aging CIOs: A Wry and Witty Guide to IT Transformation

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center turns 50 next year and so do I.

CIOs struggle with vision and dealing with short-sightedness. Aging CIOs struggle with that plus presbyopia. My dear friend, Papa, gave me a book to read – Roger Rosenblatt’s Rules for Aging. It was a fun, quick read and I found so many principles applicable to my challenges as an aging CIO.

Rule # 24: Just because the person who criticizes you is an idiot, doesn’t make him wrong.

IT Governance establishes a process and a forum for informed decision making. IT investments are made because of (a) mission alignment; (b) return on investment; and (c) ability to reduce risks. CIOs may know more about IT than someone in the mission area or the CFO, but it takes more than knowledge of IT to make the right decisions about IT on behalf of the organization.

Rule # 16: Don’t go to your left.

This rule talks about playing to your strength side instead of playing to your weak side. I must say, for the record, I am left-handed. But, us lefties are used to reversing things. In the case of IT Transformation, the traditional “strength” of the CIO is in the role of service delivery. This side, also called the “supply side” needs have a critical mass of strength. If email is not working right, it’s hard to trust the CIO for something bigger.

Rule # 53: Never do it for the money.

Sometimes, you just can’t afford cheap, or free. Low cost isn’t always high value. I have a few cheapskate friends, who always end up paying more money for something, because they tried to get away with cheap. The CIO needs to balance the need for efficiency, to reduce costs, and the requirement for mission effectiveness … which is the whole point for IT … to support the mission. You can’t afford to be overly effective nor can you afford to be overly efficient.

Rule # 55: If you’re strange enough, they will come.

I’ve said it many times, this CIO leadership thing is a tough gig. Certainly there are tougher ones – and a CIO shouldn’t fool herself or feel sorry for herself. But leadership, and certainly strong leadership is pretty lonely. Game-changing strategies will set you apart from the crowd.

Rule # 45: Fast and steady win the race.

You just keep doing what you do. It’s got to be fast enough to create momentum; it’s got to be slow enough to produce the needed results. Establish governance; develop credible relationships; shake-off setbacks — oh, and learn from them; deliver results and deliver benefits.

Rule # 38: Push the wheel forward.

The author talks about young pilots who are tempted to pull the wheel back to avoid a nosedive, but create the thing they want to avoid. The courage to push the wheel forward is the right thing to do. This IT Transformation stuff is not for the feint of heart. But then it’s not for fools either.

Rule # 58: Apologize, reconcile, and give help.

All this requires a bit of tough love. Tough, because it’s not easy. Love, because you need to do the right thing for the mission that you love. Don’t ever forget that. If you make a mistake, admit it and apologize. And make it right. That is what love is all about.

This last rule is extremely important. A CIO needs to love her mission. And use her knowledge of IT to its success. Clearly, a half-century of living doesn’t boil down to a few witty rules, but it does give us an opportunity to pause and look at the reflection of what we hope is the fine patina of our leadership.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The New CIO Leadership Team: The Right Stuff

The New CIO Leadership Team: The Right Stuff

I just came back this afternoon from a very intense retreat with my leadership team. I think I’ve had 8 hours of sleep since Monday … and that counts the nap I took today during Judge Judy. It is both clear and scary that I can’t get anywhere without a strong and competent leadership team. And it’s up to me to nurture and develop that capability which will have the tall order of supporting the mission of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. So, what does it take to do that? This is what I told them – it takes the Right Stuff.

The Right Future

A 21st century IT organization is needed to support a 21st century space agency. It is a tall order to support the high calling of advancing scientific knowledge. It takes a secure and reliable infrastructure. It takes a creative, thinking, leading workforce and a CIO that is not only a utility service provider, but is also a strategist and leader.

The Right Leader

The right leader is self-aware, self-motivating, and self-managing. She knows her strengths and weaknesses; she is trustworthy, innovative, and brave; and she is optimistic, committed, and drives for excellence.

The Right Leadership Team

The right leadership team has knowledge, experience, skills, functional and operational expertise; they understand the mission and their role in meeting the mission; and they have integrity and put mission needs above their own.

The Right Stuff

We started our retreat with the backdrop of the movie The Right Stuff. The tagline of this movie was as follows:

They were ordinary men and women who shared a common ambition and what they achieved together captured the imagination of the world

The ordinary men and women took risks to pioneer the early efforts of our space program. They were made of the right stuff.

The skills and competencies to do this need to be developed, nurtured, and demonstrated. Supporting an IT program that provides diverse capabilities to pioneers is a great challenge and may, in fact, require supernatural efforts.

I saw the right stuff this week. I saw supernatural stuff this week. We had the wisdom of Curt; the vision of Josh; the capability of Pam; and the compassion of Dennis. I began the week falling at the steps of building 8 in Greenbelt — I ended the week falling to my knees giving thanks for the outcomes of the week and for the blessing of being able to see the right stuff in my leadership team. Thanks team, thanks for a great week.

Linda Y. Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

IT Transformation at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 7-4 Time

IT Transformation at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 7/4 Time

After an intense week, I had a rare opportunity yesterday to sit down at the piano and play for a few hours. I was sight reading some holiday music and ran into God Rest You Merry Gentlemen. It was a jazzed up version in 7/4 time. For the musically challenged, that’s seven beats to each measure, or one hard foot tap followed by 6 others. So, being a pretty decent sight reader I got through it, but it sure sounded stupid.

Later that evening, we had a family gathering to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. My brother David was there. Of Harriette’s three children who went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC, this little boy was the only one who turned his passion and love for music into a way to feed himself and his family. As an aside, it’s worth noting that this former annoying baby brother has turned out to be a fine husband, father, and son. I told him about this goofy song. I said that ONE-two-three-four-ONE-two-three just didn’t work for this song. He said, “Wow, cool. You’ve got it all wrong! It’s ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa-ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa.”. Then he went on to scat it to the melody. After that, he started to sing it. I still didn’t get it, but it sure sounded good. And I listened.

As I laid in bed this morning, I reflected on my week and some of my challenges leading IT change and strengthening the role of the CIO. The CIOs at NASA are often accused of being disconnected from the mission. The supply-side of the CIO (deliver service) and the demand-side (partner with mission stakeholders) are two sides of the same CIO coin. The service delivery role of the CIO is clearly understood and often problematic. “Go away CIO, if, and only if you deliver service sufficiently, we will talk to you about partnership”. So as CIOs struggle to focus exclusively on going from 99.9% to 99.99% availability, we drift further and further away from partnering with and understanding those we serve, our mission. The only way to get through this is to focus on both – delivering service to the delight of customers AND listening to them to nurture the beginning of that critical demand-side partnership.

Well, enough thinking about work, after all, this was a Sunday morning where I had a chance to relax a bit and sleep in. Then I started hearing in my head … ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa-ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa. Then I got it. I was being a supply-side musician. I read very well, and each triplet, quarter note, crescendo were all executed accurately; but the song still sounded stupid. I was not using the right syncopation. I was out of sync with how the song was supposed to be played. Then I got it. Emphasis on the first, third, and sixth beat, not the first and fifth! I missed the whole point of the music and didn’t understand the intent.

Humm, this sounded a lot like what NASA CIOs struggle with. We not only need to understand and execute the tempo and rhythm of mission requirements; but we also have to use the syncopation that puts the right emphasis on mission risks; and we also have to produce the mellifluous melody of mission outcomes. This will take a whole lot of listening, and playing back, but I think I might have it. ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa-ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa -ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa-ONE-two-UM-pa-pa-UM-pa.

Linda Y. Cureton, CIO NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center