My Information Technology Ministry

I recently became the Co-chair of the Federal CIO Council’s Architecture and Infrastructure Committee.  Though I’m new to the gig, I can see similarities between this role and leadership roles I’ve had at church.   Sure, some enterprise architects are zealots about what they do and what they believe in, but the real similarity comes in leading volunteers when you have no direct control or authority over them.  For this reason, when people ask me what’s the best way to get experience as a CIO, I always suggest that they volunteer for leadership in the Information Technology programs at their church or community. 

 

The true mark of successful leadership shows when people are able to gain followers over whom they have no leverage.  CIOs often find themselves responsible and accountable for things over which they have no control.  This is why there is often so much talk about what CIOs have “control” over.  But, this isn’t unusual in technical and professional jobs.  John Kotter confirms in Power and Influence that:

 

“Most of the power gap one finds in professional and technical jobs is associated with relationships outside the formal chain of command.”

 

The skills that one acquires to get results outside of their direct authority or chain of command are critical for getting desired business outcomes.  John C. Maxwell in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, he advises CEO’s to look for the best leaders in those that have successfully led volunteer organizations for at least six months.  He tells us that:

 

Followers in voluntary organizations cannot be forced to get on board. If the leader has no influence with them, then they won’t follow

 

While serving in my church’s IT Ministry, I found that if you can get a bunch of set-in-their-ways Baptist deacons and trustees to migrate to a new church membership system, you can implement an enterprise resource planning system.  In this case, I had to convince them that it would be Divine Will that we upgrade to a more modern system else we burn in the eternal hell of non-Y2K compliance.  It worked and we modernized our old church membership system. 

 

Another similar aspect is the need for a Ten Commandments or enterprise architecture.  The importance of enterprise architecture is that in its most useful form, it defines a clear, unambiguous set of principles that guide IT decisions in an organization.  Architecture you can use is not reams and volumes of useless dogma.  It looks something like this:

 

·         Thou shall consider cloud computing solutions first before buying a dedicated infrastructure for your application.

·         Thou shall not bare false witness to other IT investments and demonstrate value producing desired outcomes consistent with your business case else you risk termination and eternal damnation.

·         Thou shall run securely and not make wrongful use of any data entrusted to you so that thy days may be long.

 

And finally, people want to have hope for tomorrow and vision for a better future. My grandmother used to say that everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.  That means that we often want benefits without making a commensurate sacrifice.  In IT speak, that means we want to reduce the cost of what we spend on IT, but we don’t want to sacrifice value of the services and capabilities we get.  But in order to get to IT heaven, we need to die to duplicative infrastructures and “one-off” spending and believe in economies of scale and shared services. 

 

Of course an enterprise resource planning system is much more complex than a church membership product and an agency Web portal has more multifaceted considerations compared to a homeowner’s association newsletter, but the foundational leadership skills are the same.   These skills allow leaders to bring people together over whom they have no authority and align them along a common set of principles or beliefs by building a sense of community.  Leaders at all levels have to have these capabilities in order to turn vision, hope, and dreams into reality. 

 

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

The Leadership of the Horse Holder

We can learna lot about leadership from horse holders.   They show us the importance of leading frombehind.  Many associate leadershipsuccess with fame, fortune recognition, and scores of admiring followers.  But, we need to remember the inspirationalinstruction from these vital leaders who are often alone and nearlyundetectable. 

Horseholders perform essential duties in a battlefield.  During combat, the noise from cannons andguns would spook the hoofed infantry causing them to run away from their ridersto safety.  These loyal horsemen wouldstand in the rear dutifully clutching the reins preserving this most valuablebattle commodity. 

Leading frombehind describes a leadership style that puts others first.  It understands the value of nurturing andtaking care of followers.  Itaccomplishes much while taking credit for very little.  These leaders are dependable, trustworthy,and extremely competent.  They performlike the quarterback who throws the winning touchdown pass but acts like acheerleader encouraging and praising the victorious receiver. 

The poem The General’s Mount: a Poem on GeneralForrest’s Horse describes a civil war general’s horse and in it we see thehorse holder’s bittersweet perspective of service and duty:

 


Stunned and trembling

From the shock andpain.

Jaded. Limping to theholders in the rear.


No bugles and nodrumbeats here,

Only fading soundsacross the field.

THE HOLDERS slipped thebridle


From his lowered head,

Wiped the sweat marks fromhis cheeks and neck.

Bathed the blood-redfoam from mouth and nostrils,

Sponged his wounds,


Applied a stingingointment.

They washed his knees andhocks and pasterns.

 

Ancient philosopherLao Tzu describes them as the besttype of leader who people do not notice and “… When the best leader’s work isdone, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’ To lead the people, walk behindthem.” Maybe what the world and the workplace need now are more horse holders –these unsung heroes who are critical in every victorious battle and standing inthe rear. 

 

Linda Y.Cureton, NASA CIO

IT Reform at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

 Note from Linda Cureton:

 I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the goals of President Obama’s administration as it relates to improving how IT is managed in the Federal Government.  We support the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) 25 Point Plan with many activities from NASA’s stellar IT program.   I also volunteered to Co-Chair the Architecture and Infrastructure Committee with Michael Carleton, the CIO from the Department of Health and Human Services focusing government-wide activities by supporting the creation of practical architectures. 

 Along with all of our CIOs, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center CIO, Adrian Gardner is also answering the call. 

 Today’s NASA CIO Blog is written by guest blogger John Hopkins, Chief of Staff in the NASA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer

I remember in high School one of the coaches used to tell us that when the going got tough, the tough got going. The CIO Council has certainly got going early and with vigor to undertake a reshaping of the Federal IT environment which is indeed tough going. The undertaking is sometimes daunting. I can almost hear Calvin and Hobbs cartoonist Bill Watterson saying his favorite quote, “God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I am so far behind that I will never die.”

The truth is that the “To-Be” vision of the Federal IT environment in our minds-eye is actually similar from one agency to another. No matter how hard the going gets, it is critical that we have a plan to get there. OMB’s 25-Point Plan and the TechStat reviews make participation a ‘no-brainer’. The activities in the plan and the TechStat reviews help propel us toward our goal of a more efficient and effective IT enterprise.  

NASA was an early adopter of a key element in the plan, the “cloud-first” approach. NASA became one of the first federal agencies to have a Cloud implementation. Tuesday, September 15, 2009, Vivek Kundra, the Federal Chief Information Officer, toured the NASA Nebula Container and the Security Operations Center (SOC) at NASA Ames Research Center in California.  He commented on the NASA Nebula Cloud project as he announced the launch of the Apps.gov platform, an online storefront for Federal agencies to browse and purchase cloud-based information technology (IT) services at a significantly lower cost to the Government. Nebula now serves dozens of customers with centralized services. In addition, NASA has expanded cloud availability with a second instance at Goddard Space Center in Maryland, and is actively adding new customers.  This “Cloud-First” philosophy is central to our department’s strategic plan.    

NASA held their first Tech Stat session on March 24, 2011 for the Integrated Collaborative Environment (ICE), a program that provides a common repository for authoritative data from the Exploration System Mission Directorate (ESMD). ICE is a web-centric environment designed for use by industry, academia and government for sharing, collaborating, integrating, NASA conducting a tech stat reviewaccessing and controlling management information and product data definitions for all ESMD products.

The key outcomes included requirements to develop performance metrics, consolidate applications.  It also included a discussion of investment opportunities, lifecycle costs, and customer usability. The next TechStat will review the Enterprise Service Desk (ESD), a major component of NASA’s IT Infrastructure Integration Program (I3P) which is designed to transform NASA’s IT Infrastructure services from a Center-based model to an enterprise-based management and provisioning model.  The scope of I3P is broad, entailing consolidation and central management of IT Services.

In addition, NASA’s participation and performance under the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) has resulted in the closing of 13 data centers since February 2010 with plans to close one more by the end of calendar year 2011. The remaining 54 NASA data centers will be reduced to 25 by 2015, which actually exceeds the OMB requirement under FDCCI. NASA plans to continually assess data center requirements as these consolidations evolve and after current and future data center requirements become better understood.

We intend to not only meet, but to exceed our tasking to, “…drive business process improvement, investment management, and technical decisions.”  

John Hopkins, Chief of Staff, Office of the NASA Chief Information Officer

 

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

Women in History: Counting on Women in Mathematics

One of NASA’s2011 strategic goals is to promote the things that attract students into thescience, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.  I’d like take the opportunity in Women’s HistoryMonth to talk specifically about some great contributions from some women inmathematics and perhaps to shout for joy about being a woman, a mathematician,and a part of the NASA civil servant workforce. 

Hypatia of Alexandria lived approximately during the years370-415 AD.  She was the daughter ofTheon of Alexandria who was a teacher of mathematics at the Museum ofAlexandria in Egypt.  She studied withher father and taught in the Neoplatonist school of philosophy.  Though little historical evidence existsabout her, it is believed that she wrote on mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.  She was known to dress as a scholar orteacher instead of in women’s clothing. She drove her own chariot which was not considered a norm for women’sbehavior.  As a woman who did not knowher place and one who espoused heretical teachings in astronomy regarding themotion of planets and the heavenly bodies, the Christian Bishop Cyril incited amob to riot and they attacked her and murdered her. 

Alicia Boole Stott was the daughter of George Boole(well-known for Boolean logic).  She hada special intuition that helped her visualize objects in the fourth dimensiondeveloping a special interest in four-dimensional hypercubes also known astesseracts.  As a woman who lived1860-1940, she was not afforded a formal education in mathematics.  Married with two children, her husbandrecognized her talent and encouraged her to study with othermathematicians.  Eventually she publishedseveral papers and built many models representing four-dimensional figures withcardboard and wood. 

Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852, was known as the first computer programmer.  She met Charles Babbage, the so-called Father of the Computer, and becameinterested in a concept he had for a mechanical device to compute values ofquadratic functions. She also became interested in some of his ideas of anothermachine which would use punched cards to read instructions and data to solvemathematical problems.  She had a visionthat these machines, the future computers, could go beyond mere calculating ornumber-crunching.The beautiful Ada Lovelace the first computer programmer. 

In lookingat the sketch of the lives of these women, you can see the potential that womencan offer.  This sketch illustrates theability that women have to fit in a man’s world, see in different dimensions, andsee the possibilities of things only imagined. In a study titled Women in the ITby the National Center for Women in Information Technology, it describes thespecial magic that women bring to teams in increasing diversity and enablingcreative innovation. 

I chosemathematics in college because I loved figuring things out like Alicia, Iwanted to drive my own chariot like Hypatia, and like Ada, found these thingscalled computers lacked the humanity that made them useful to most people. 

I have agirlfriend that studied physics in college. I asked her why she chose physics for a major.  She said that she really wanted to major inpsychology, but the line was quite long and went out the door.  Not wanting to brave the elements she wentinto the physics line without even knowing what physics was.  The advisors told her don’t worry; we willhelp you and tell you what it is.  Shefound her opportunities to excel in the safety and warmth of science. 

To all theyoung women thinking about what line to get in, get in a line for science,technology, engineering, or mathematics. Dear ladies, the line is short, and the opportunities are many.  When you consider our study in thesediscipline areas along with our strength — skills in communication, intuition,and curiosity, WE women become people that you can truly count on. 

LindaCureton, NASA CIO

 

Leadership of the Owl

As autumn nights started to approach, the air conditioning was turned off and the windows were opened.  The smell of the fresh fall air filled the room with a wonderful fragrance.  But, as I laid in darkness in another extended bout of insomnia, I couldn’t figure out what strange animal sound kept grabbing my attention nightly.  Finally, as I looked out the window later that week, I saw a strange bird flying around with an impressive wingspan.  It was an Owl.

In mythology, literature, and many belief systems, the qualities and characteristics of animals are often personified.  The traits of the Owl are behaviors that are associated with successful leaders — vision, insight, and wisdom. 

Vision

In organizations, leaders see and provide the vision that inspires people to make the impossible possible and drives people to work together as a team to accomplish what no one could do as individuals.  That vision becomes substance and results through faith, work, and resilience. 

Insight

Insight is defined as an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, especially through intuitive understanding.  Author John C. Maxwell in The 21 Indispensible Qualities of a Leader describes this in the qualities of discernment and problem solving.  Harlan Cleveland said that leaders are problem solvers by choice, talent and temperament.   They don’t know all of the answers, but they know how to seek answers to the right questions and stay focused long enough to obtain the desired results. 

Wisdom

Wikipedia.org defines wisdom as “a deep understanding and realizing of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to choose or act to consistently to produce the optimum results with a minimum of time and energy.”  A wise person has self-knowledge, is sincere and direct with others, is asked for advice by others, and has actions that are consistent with their ethical beliefs.  Maxwell talks about this in his discussion on self-reliance, relationship, problem solving, and character. 

Andy Andrews in his book Mastering the Seven Decisions That Determine Personal Success asserts that wisdom is “an intuitive element, an insight gained from personal experience that serves us as we make choices in our lives.”  Wisdom should not be mistaken for education.  It’s the aggregation of discrete bits of incomplete knowledge that the wise man transforms into a deep understanding. 

The insight, vision, and wisdom of the Owl leader come in the darkness of the night, during a time when many of us slumber.  I think I will give up my losing battle with insomnia and listen to the soothing hoot of the Owl as I drift away dreaming a little dream of leadership.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

 

Life in IT Flatland

I’ve come to the conclusion that many of us in the field of Information Technology live in IT Flatland.  Flatland is a place, described here in this cute animated short by Dr. Quantum, as a two-dimensional place where:

“…beings have no concepts of “up” and “down,” only “forwards,” ”backwards,” ”left,” and “right.” Creatures that inhabit Flatland have no understanding of cubes, spheres, or any other 3D objects, to which we are accustomed – from their limited point of view, a finger simply looks like an ellipse.”

Those of us in IT Flatland deliver systems and capabilities from a limited point of view.  We are heads forward implementing products, policies, and solutions.  We often don’t think of looking “up” to understand the customer perspective or looking “down” to see how all these things fit together. 

In Flatland, if something comes from “above” or “below”, it seems to appear out of nowhere.  Cubes look like squares and spheres look like circles.  As a Flatlander, we are afraid of what we see when it comes from those strange dimensions.  It’s our preference to run and hide or pretend like these are ghosts or figments of someone’s imagination.  But all this is because of this limited perspective of a Flatlander.

The same thing occurs in IT Flatland.  Problems appear out of nowhere that we didn’t anticipate.  We tested things in Flatland, but never considered how things might work or not work if we went “up” or “down”.  So, how do we get out of IT Flatland?

Move your head in new directions and look “up” and “down”.  This means that we have to walk out of cubicles, listen to harsh criticism, be responsive to feedback, and not be afraid of this strange information from new dimensions.  These strange sounds from new dimensions will help us improve what we deliver and our customer satisfaction.  Don’t test your products with other Flatlanders, listen to those strange beings from the other dimension. 

Allow yourself to be picked “up” and moved around in new dimensions.  Don’t be afraid to walk in the shoes of those you serve.  Look at things from their perspective.    See how things look in Flatland when you are “above”?  You can see things you couldn’t see in Flatland.  It doesn’t look so good anymore does it?  Well, fix it … quick!

Improve the vision from your “IT third eye”.  With one eye, we are limited to two-dimensional sight; with two eyes, we are limited to three-dimensional sight; with our “third eye” we can see into the fourth-dimension.  In opening up our “IT third eye”, we are able to be more perceptive and attuned to the things we can’t normally see.  We are able to understand how our customers feel, what they think, and what they desire.  With this information, we can better translate our services and capabilities into dimensions higher than our own.

Now hold on, I am hardly the CIO has risen “above” this Flatland thinking.  It’s easy to live in IT Flatland.  I’m often asked about what was the biggest mistake of my career.  I like to remember it because, like the apostle Paul, it is the proverbial thorn in my side that reminds me that I am still an IT Flatlander just struggling to serve those in other dimensions. 

My biggest mistake was establishing the email convention while at Department of Justice.  It was firstname.middleinitial.lastname@usdoj.gov.  I liked that because it was easy to manage the directory and avoid name collisions.  Well that made it very difficult for someone to guess an email address unless you know the receiver’s middle initial.  So, it was easy for me to administer, but difficult for people to use.  It still exists today – what I established in the late 90s.  And every time I send an email to a colleague at the Department of Justice, I am reminded of my IT Flatland thinking. 

This thorn in my side reminds me to continue to develop my “IT third eye” and be more watchful of looking “up” to customer experiences and mission outcomes.  It also reminds me to look “down” making sure that things integrate together and work end-to-end.  This strange dimension should not be feared. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Yin and Yang Leadership

As I head into the fourth quarter of my first year as NASA CIO, I find myself in somewhat of a struggle between competing forces.  I have cried more in one month than I have in one year, but the tears are not bad tears, they are good tears actually. 

In a misguided way, we think that this leadership journey is supposed to be easy; that good leaders always have two choices – the right answers or the wrong answers; make the right decisions or make the wrong decisions; and do it with a smile and with courage like we all see in photographs and press releases.  But at the point of difficulty maybe right there in the tears and in the midst of the struggle, problems are solved…the impossible is made possible…and dreams become reality. Symbol of Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang describes opposing forces which flow in a natural way and always seek balance.  The two opposing forces flow in such a way that they become merely two aspects of a single reality.  Yin and Yang talks about extremes such as “dark” and “light”, “male” and “female”, “low” and “high”.    

From an organizational perspective, I see these opposing forces in issues like:

·         “being the best IT organization in Government” versus “just delivering service in an acceptable way”

·         “being innovative” versus “meeting expectations”

·         “delighting the customer” versus “meeting customer expectations”

·         “mission obsessed” versus “mission aligned”

In looking at these aspects of NASA’s IT strategy, folks on both sides have valid concerns.  Why should we strive to be the best when we can barely deliver email? Why should we think “out of the box” when we don’t have our box in order?  How can we delight our customers when we can’t even meet their expectations?

The management technique for bringing together such extremes and arriving at supernatural problem solving is called Force Field Analysis.  This management technique was developed by Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the field of social sciences, for diagnosing situations. The technique used a method of weighing pros and cons of a suggested plan of action. The pros and cons are called the Driving and Restraining forces.

This analysis is characterized by:

• clarifying and strengthening the “driving forces” for solution

• identifying obstacles or “restraining forces” to a solution

encouraging agreement on relative priority of factors on each side of the balance sheet

Driving forces are those forces affecting a situation that are pushing in a particular direction; they tend to initiate a change and keep it going. Examples of driving forces for implementing a plan include an identified business need, support from the leadership team or the availability of skilled resources.  Restraining forces are forces acting in opposition to and restraining the driving forces. Examples of restraining forces against implementing a plan include time pressures, lack of enthusiasm and competing demands.  Lewin says that equilibrium is reached when the sum of the driving forces equals the sum of the restraining forces. 

Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh describes how Winnie the Pooh takes similar but unconventional look at finding a solution by looking for the thing he didn’t want to find.  Here Pooh and Rabbit are trying to get home and keep ending up at a small sand-pit.  Pooh finally suggests:

“Well … we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we’d be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren’t looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really.”

 Perhaps said in a non-Pooh way, driving forces by themselves don’t always yield a desired outcome.  Certainly, restraining forces which move you away from the outcome isn’t the place to be either.  It’s the equilibrium of the competing actions – the place where the tears often fall — where the problems get solved, where the impossible becomes possible and you can find your way home. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

No Stupid Ideas

I had a wonderful opportunity to be shadowed by Anthony who was in a leadership development program from another agency.  He and I talked a lot about innovation and the whole notion of how to get good ideas.  At the end of the conversation he said he got the feeling that I didn’t think any idea was stupid.   After I thought about it I agreed.  I told him that I think there really are no stupid ideas, just stupid people. 

Before I continue too far, I have to say that I hate using the word stupid – it’s judgmental and arrogant.   I try to limit myself to only one “stupid” per day.  And I find as I get older and learn more, I know less.  So, the whole notion of “stupid” is pretty … well… stupid sometimes.  Nevertheless, this word seemed appropriate in the context of the world of innovation and creative thinking.

Sometimes ideas that sound stupid turn out to be examples of the kind of out of the box thinking that produces amazing results.  I read a pretty interesting article on several ideas that seemed stupid, but ended up making millions of dollars.  Examples of this are: doggie goggles, antenna balls, and personalized letters to Santa.   

Sometimes ideas that initially seem to be stupid failures end up being learning opportunities that ultimately yield to amazing results.  Thomas Edison had many failed ideas before he was able to learn through trial and error what was needed to invent the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera.  As George Santayana is often quoted, “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Stupid people are not those who lack education or intellect.  Very intelligent people can be stupid.  Similarly, people with low intellect or education can come up with ideas that produce great results.  But most stupid people have some characteristics in common as it relates to ideas.

They don’t seek diversity.  Often stupid people will ask other stupid people if their idea is a good idea.  In other words, they seek advice from people who are just like themselves or in their own inner circle.  They also only look for opinions that confirm what they want to hear. 

They don’t care about results.  Whether it’s from being delusional, experiencing cognitive dissonance, or being overly righteous or arrogant, stupid people just want to defend their original ideas without listening to advise that could produce desired results. 

They don’t learn from mistakes.  Personal righteousness and arrogance can prevent stupid people from learning and allow them to stumble into this ditch.  In addition, very successful people can be stupid because they have so much experience in creating good results from their former good ideas.  They don’t get into the disciplined habit of learning from mistakes because they simply have not made a lot of mistakes.  They are haunted by the enemy of past successes. 

If an idea fails, that doesn’t make it a bad idea.  Likewise, if an idea is good idea, it can get botched through thoughtless implementation.  So, after giving this more thought Anthony, I still think there is no such thing as a stupid idea.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Managing Your Online Reputation

Concern about reputation is a barrier for many organizations and individuals preventing them from fully harnessing the power of Web 2.0 technologies.  Consider the Oscar Wilde quote that says:

“One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down anything, except a good reputation.”

So clearly having your personal reputation or your organization’s reputation blemished is a serious matter to be reckoned with.  Many organizations are struggling with how to develop policy around rules of conduct for when disgruntled employees inflict damage on their reputation.  Because of this, there’s a cottage industry of businesses that have popped up to repair what turned out to be damaged company reputations.  Here, I will speak to what you can do an individual to take responsibility to manage your own online reputation.

Perhaps you think this isn’t important to you.  Perhaps you are even unaware that this is a problem to be reckoned with.  Any Ostrich with his head in the sandexecutive or leader reading this should get their head out of the sand and wake up to the urgency that demands that we become proactive about our reputation. Furthermore, the carefree youth today may want to take an opportunity to NOT learn the hard way, by losing professional opportunities due to the apathy experienced in early life.

In an August 2009 article, New York Times reported that employers are starting to use Social Networking to check out job applicants.   The article reports the results of a June 2009 survey that Harris Interactive did on behalf of CareerBuilder.com:

§  Forty-five percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates

§  Eleven percent plan to use these techniques for screening

§  Industries that specialize in technology and sensitive information are most likely to screen job candidates via social networking sites or online search engines

 

The survey results also reported that when employers did NOT chose a candidate for a job, the reasons were most likely as follows when the potential employee:

·         Posted inappropriate photographs or information – 53%

·         Posted content about them drinking or using drugs – 44%

·         Bad-mouthed previous employer, co-workers or clients – 35%

·         Showed poor communication skills – 29%

·         Made discriminatory comments – 26%

·         Lied about qualifications – 24%

·         Shared confidential info from previous employer – 20%

 

You still don’t think this blog is about you? Do you? Let me bust some myths.

 

Myth (1): I don’t even use this social networking junk, that’s for kids.  So, I don’t have a problem.

 

I did a search on the name of one of my 10 favorite NASA CIOs “Chris Kemp” … the first hit? Mug shots! How does one cope with this? Well, there’s a comedy bit out there where a spouse gets caught in a compromising situation face-to-face with their spouse.  They simply insist “Baby, that wasn’t me!” Well, you can try that because it may work.  Or you can do what Chris does and use his middle initial.  There’s lots of good content about “Chris C. Kemp.”

 

Myth (2): Look, I am a seasoned user of this technology; I have enough sense to know what to say and what not to say?

 

I have a wonderful tech-savvy geezer colleague who truly understands these things.  He hooked up with the wrong “intelligent” application on a popular social networking site.  So, I sent him a message that went something like this:

 

Diva: “Dude? XXX movies??”

Geezer: “Huh?”

 

Diva:”Can you just take that stuff down?”

Geezer:”Ok I took it down, but that wasn’t me!!”

 

Myth (3): See, that’s why I have personal and private accounts … I keep it separate!

 

NY Times reported a case of a police officer who had a little fun talking trash on MySpace.  Well, that locker room banter crept into his professional life and affected the outcome of the cases he worked on.  The fact that it was a separate private account, didn’t affect his outcome professionally.

 

So, what’s person to do?  Here are three tips:

 

(1)   Defend against any possibility of bad content by overwhelming it with good content.

 

Use the superpowers of Web 2.0 for good.  Even though what’s out there is more or less permanent, overwhelm the bad content with intentional good content.  Use professional sites to do networking in your field.  If you wondered about the advantages of doing a professional blog, here’s one for sure.  You can also comment on other people’s blog.  Another possibility is to use micro blogging sites like Twitter to establish a professional reputation.  Be careful not to overdo it.  Too much content casts doubt about what your professional priorities are.

 

(2)   Actively monitor content about yourself.

 

You can set options in various search engines to alert you when there is new content posted with your name.  Ignorance can be bliss, but in this environment, it’s not. You need to at a minimum be aware of what is out there.

 

(3)   Private is private, but there is no personal.  Everything is public on the information super highway!

 

Many social networking sites are increasing their functionality to provide more privacy.  Leverage these capabilities.  It won’t hurt to initially be an observer on the side line before you jump in.  You can learn from others. 

 

Now just in case you think this blog isn’t about you, here are some final results of the Harris Interactive survey.  Eighteen percent of employers reported they have found content on social networking sites that caused them to hire the candidate:

 

·         Candidate’s profile provided a good feel for the candidate’s personality and fit – 50%

·         Candidate’s profile supported their professional qualifications – 39%

·         Candidate was creative – 38%

·         Candidate showed solid communication skills – 35%

·         Candidate was well-rounded – 33%

·         Candidate had a good reputation as indicated by other people who posted good references – 1%

·         Candidate received awards and accolades – 15%

 

Final words

 

·         Be professional at all times and be careful with sarcasm.  Think before you publish. 

·         Contribute and interact on a professional basis.

·         Maintain content about yourself and ensure that it is kept up-to-date.

·         Respect copyright laws, financial disclosure laws, and any policy that your employer may have.

 

Warren Buffet is quoted as saying that, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Start now, and build YOUR online reputation.

 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA