A CIO’s Letter to Santa Claus 2010

Santa Claus
St. Nicholas
Santa’s Workshop
North Pole, Canada H0H 0H0

Dear Santa,

I’ve been a good girl this year.  I made very good progress filling vacancies on my staff and hired a very nice little boy for CTO for IT and the sweetest little girl in the world for Deputy CIO.  I have a hardworking tyke for Associate CIO and two others are working hard too and they want to make the good little boys and girls and NASA very, very happy. 

And Santa, as I said, I’ve been a very, very good girl this year.  I ate my vegetables, my proteins, and didn’t eat too many of those yucky carbohydrates and sweets.  But Santa, even though I got two speeding tickets this year and checked email on my smartphone way too much, I didn’t do them both at the same time!  So, I think that’s ok, right?

Anyway, Santa, I’d like it very, very much if you would grant my wishes this year because I’ve been a very, very, very good girl this year.  And I made my list short, so that you and the elves won’t have to work so hard.  Here it is:

·         I’d like a smartphone that can last all day without needing another charge.

·         I’d like to actually be selected from a waitlist for an upgrade on my next flight to one of the NASA Centers in California.

·         And Santa Baby, I’d sit on your lap for a shower cap in hotels because this little girl does not have wash-and-wear hair.

·         I’d like a local area Network for NASA – just one though.  Ok, maybe three.  Oh, Santa Dear, can it be secure and flexible – just like a metal Slinky, but better? And real big so it can stretch across the world. 

·         Oh, Santa, I need a ginormous amount of inexpensive, reliable storage so that the smart little girls and boys at NASA can store their science data. 

Santa, I know many of the little boys and girls ask for easy things like “peace on Earth” and “an end to poverty and hunger”, but I need to ask one last humongous (apparently) thing – please?  Pretty please? I’d give up the shower cap and take a dead smartphone if I had to … this is it …

·         Can I PLEASE have an Enterprise Calendaring solution that actually works? Not for me, but for the good little girls and boys at NASA.  Please?

Thanks Santa, I love you very, very, very, very much.  Just in case, I left you two fingers of Jack and Coke, neat and two of my homemade sweet potato rolls.

Linda Cureton

The Good Little CIO of NASA

Washington, DC 20546


Impossible Leadership

Have you ever seen anyone perform the impossible?  We’ve all heard stories about the impossible; about superhuman strength during time of duress; about Cinderella stories; and of course, leaders that accomplish the improbable and the impossible.  What can leaders learn from this? How do we harness this magic?

·         In 2006, a Quebec woman wrestled a large polar bear that she saw a coming towards her son and another boy while they played. She tackled the polar bear and fought it while the boys ran for help. While she suffered some wounds, the polar bear ultimately lost the fight when she fought the bear off long enough for someone to shot and kill it. 

·         In 2009, a Kansas man saw a car run over his neighbor’s 6 year old daughter.  Without thinking, he ran over to the girl and pushed the car off the injured girl. 

·         In Tucson, Arizona, a man witnesses an accident where a Chevy Camaro ran over a bicyclist.  He lifted the 3,500 pound car off of the injured cyclist and held it for nearly a minute while the biker was pulled to safety. 


Notwithstanding the extreme examples that are provided above, we can still learn lessons in impossible leadership.  Here are some:


Buster Douglas versus Mike Tyson


Buster Douglas faced a heavyweight fight with champion Mike Tyson.  Everyone presumed this would be a characteristic quick knockout victory for Tyson.  Douglas’ mother had died only 23 days earlier.  Amid his stress and grief, Douglas trained hard and was able to use the advantage of his 12-inch reach.  Douglas stood tall and his jabs landed relentlessly on Tyson causing the champion to back up.  By the 10th round, Douglas knocked Tyson down with a well-placed uppercut to become the new heavyweight champion. 


IBM – Lou Gerstner


Lou Gerstner was Chief Executive Officer for IBM from 1993-2002.  He is credited with doing the impossible task of saving the life the company.  The job was viewed as impossible.  In his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Gerstner made this observation before he made a decision to take the job:


“IBM sales and profits were declining at an alarming rate.  More important, its cash position was getting scary…I was convinced that …the odds were not better than one in five that IBM could be saved and that I should never take the position”


But Gerstner took the position anyway.  He reversed a decision to decentralize the company and create instead the various divisions to operate and manage themselves.  He relentlessly drove a strategy that was obsessed with the customer; encouraged innovation; committed to quality; and delivered performance and value to the customer.  His secret for accomplishing this impossible feat required being focused, being superb at execution, and using the full potential of personal leadership. 


Green Bay Packers – Vince Lombardi


Legendary Coach Vince Lombardi is regarded as one of the best coaches in history.  He became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers after they finished a season with one win and ten losses.  Believing in the importance of physical conditioning, he established a rigorous training camp program.   In his first season, the improved team finished with a 7-5 record.  At the end of his second year, he took the team to the championship and nearly won but saw his only post-season lost to the Philadelphia Eagles.  He went on for the next two seasons to lead Green Bay to NFL Championship. 


The examples above had three things in common:


·         They prepared.

·         They believed.

·         They executed. 


Impossible Leadership requires preparation.  You must study, do background work, perform analysis, and understand the context.  Lombardi was known to have a brutal training camp.  Yet, his players were always in the best condition to execute the game plan he put forward.


You have to believe that what you want to do can be done.  In Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill provides the following verse about the importance of belief:


“If you think you are beaten, you are,

If you think you dare not, you don’t

If you like to win, but you think you can’t,

It is almost certain that you won’t. “


And finally, you must perform some action and obtain a result.  Gerstner believed more in execution than in vision.  He believed that IBM needed to execute well and just skip the vision-thing. 


“So the most important strategic priority for IBM becomes, when you peel it to the core, to execute what it knows – and has known for years.  Execution will lead IBM back to success.”


So, yes, leaders can do the impossible.  But to do so, they must prepare themselves and their organizations; they must believe and create the sense of belief in the organizations they lead; and they must do more than give lip service to all of this.  They must act and produce results. 


Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA


Grateful Leadership

Grateful Leadership

As Thanksgiving approaches, this is the time of year when we reflect on the things that we want to be thankful for. 


The first Thanksgiving is attributed to a commemoration of the first harvest after the Pilgrims arrived in the new world.  Seeking religious freedom, they endured a cross Atlantic journey for which only half of them survived.  They were greeted warmly by Native Americans who taught them the skills that they needed to feed themselves and survive in this strange new world.  After their first corn harvest proved successful in 1621, the Pilgrims had what was believed to be the first Thanksgiving during a celebratory feast. 

They were extremely grateful for where they were and what happened.  Perhaps the magnitude of this gratitude is lost during these more modern times.  Before we consider such feats trivial consider that as we discover new exoplanets maybe a group of modern day pilgrims will survive a trek to one of these brave new worlds and some way … somehow, survive.  Imagine that the friendly inhabitants of this alien planet give us tips and tricks of surviving and we are able to endure through the unearned series of circumstances that follow.   As we reflect on Thanksgiving, I think it’s easy to forget the magnitude of the risk, danger, and loss that the Pilgrims endured as they reflected on the past with gratitude.   


Sometimes gratitude is expressed in relative terms.  In other words, it depends on where you are and where the giver is. 

My sister Loreen often talks about a wedding gift that she got.  It was a scant few dollars.  But, it was from the groom’s aunt who didn’t have much money.  She had only a few dollars, yet, she gave this young couple $5.  The spirit of sacrifice and love in which the gift was given was immeasurable.  We often forget about that and look at things in absolute terms and forget the context in which the gift is given.

I was talking to one of my piano students Lourdes about the meaning of the song, The Little Drummer Boy.  She played it without meaning or feeling.  I had enough and tried to explain to her that this poor little boy gave the best that he had to give – he played his drum.  He played the best he ever played; even the animals thought it was a hoot.  Lourdes got it.  She came back the next week playing that song with new found meaning and emotion.


The author, Wayne Dyer, challenges us to “… Develop an attitude of gratitude for all that manifests into your life. [and] … Be thankful and filled with awe and appreciation, even if what you desire hasn’t arrived yet. Even the darkest days of your life are to be looked on with gratitude.”  He further challenges us in The Power of Intention to “…go on a rampage of appreciation for all you have, all that you are, and all that you observe.”

As leaders, our attitude of gratitude has the supernatural power to inspire and motivate people to do amazing things.  DiAnne Arbour encourages us to “…Pick up the phone or send an email or a note, thanking those who help to keep your flame lighted. Your rewards are deeper relationships, improved morale, increased productivity and higher achievement.”  As I read this, I remembered that last week was a rough week physically for me.  Twice, two different people did small things to help me that were larger in magnitude than it seemed.  They gave me a drink of water.  These small acts were large in magnitude as it helped me battle my cold and endure a parched sore throat and get through some major milestones. 

Yeah, it was a really rough week last week.  My rental car broke down and I missed my flight from L.A. to Washington, DC.  I started to cry.  Then I thought of all the things I was grateful for: that drink of water, a chance to rest, Vanilla Latte, and a fully charged battery for my Blackberry hidden in the bowels of my rolling bag.  Missing my flight wasn’t so bad after all.  I had a few hours to reflect on all the things I was thankful for.  It was a very good day.    

Thank you.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

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

Leading Through the Tears

Here’s a secret…the last thing a female executive who works in a male-dominated field wants to do is cry in public.  So of course, I was mortified when I cried during a speech this week in front of a big crowd at the NASA IT Summit.  I thought I conquered presbyopia with 14-point font, but I didn’t have a plan for my inability to see through my tears.

I almost second guessed writing about this, but in my strategic planning meeting today with the other NASA CIOs, the facilitator played some music – The Baby Elephant Walk.  Oh, the memories we have and the things we try to forget.

I was 7 years old and we had a dance recital.  I was the lead dancer and we danced to the Baby Elephant Walk.  We had the cutest elephant ears that were attached to our heads with headbands.  It only took a few baby elephant hops before they fell on the floor.  I was leading, so mine fell first.  We all started crying, but I kept dancing because everyone had to follow me around the stage.  I remember not being able to see so I decided I better wait and cry later.

My most traumatic episode with tears came at age 16 (when the most traumatic things often happen).  I had to play a solo on my French Horn – a concerto by Mozart.   When I played, I did then what I still do now when I’m nervous … I forget to breathe.  This made my phrasing disastrous.  So, I got upset with myself and started crying.  This was embarrassing, so I just stopped playing and ran off the stage.

The band director told me that I did a good job and need to keep practicing and keep trying.  So, he put me on the program again.  Still forgot to breath.  I started crying again.  But, this time, I played through the tears.   

I end this with a leadership quote from someone who didn’t have any problems remembering to breath – Marian Anderson.

“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.”

My lesson had little to do with crying and more to do with the emotional state it left me in.  After the crying, I exited the stage shields down and defenseless.  A young man from NASA/Glenn Research Center came up to me.  He was in tears.  He thanked me and then asked me for a hug.  I had it to give and I gave it to him.  That hug made crying worth it.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA