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


Getting Over Your Jitters @ Twitter

With the sustained explosive growth in the use of Twitter, it seems we can’t just view it as a fad that will pass soon.   According to a study by Edison Research:

·         Awareness of Twitter has exploded from 5% of Americans 12+ in 2008 to 87% in 2010 (by comparison, Facebook’s awareness is 88%)

·         51% of active Twitter users follow companies, brands or products on social networks

It’s going to be difficult if not impossible to develop a credible and effective organizational strategy that uses Twitter until we can, as individual leaders get over our jitters about Twitter.

I just had a conversation with someone about the importance and difficulty in exemplifying the principles of Open Government but, I have to admit, I just blocked my first person on Twitter.  This made me question the sincerity of my own advice.  But, the paradox just shows the leadership challenges that surround the usage of social media in organizations.

Charlene Li, in her book Open Leadership describes the difficulty:

“It isn’t enough to be a good communicator.  You must be comfortable sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships.  Negative online comments can’t be avoided or ignored.  Instead, you must come to embrace each openness-enabled encounter as an opportunity to learn.”

I drew the line with comfortable information sharing and developing closer relationships when someone (who I blocked) crossed my invisible line by wanting to become a fritter (a friend on Twitter).  While I do believe that sharing personal information can help develop relationships, I feel that true personal friendships require more than 140 characters per interaction.  Furthermore, communications in this media are only an @ away from sharing information from 2,243 of my closest friends.

Nevertheless, Twitter provides a powerful way of adding richness to conversations and interactions.  This Washington Post article by Susan Kinzie discusses usage of Twitter in higher education.  Professors are using Twitter to extend the academic conversation beyond the classroom.  Furthermore, students can be more engaged and benefit from ongoing Socratic dialog. 

Gartner analyst, Michael Maoz suggests an increase in the effective usage of Twitter in customer service.  There are many ideas developing which will spawn new tools for early adopters that will be valuable for customer service.  So, get over your jitters and watch the early adopters, there’s a strong potential for significant benefit.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Information Technology Trenz

At the NASA IT Summit, Gartner Analyst David Cearley announced that it is 1981 again and the PC era is over! What an amazing declaration.  Well, I loved David’s statement.  In 1981, I was on my first short tour at NASA.  I also met my beloved friend Stephanie and a beloved piece of technology – the IBM mainframe. 

Now, I’m not a highly regarded expert on technology trends; nor am I a world-renowned expert on information technology – I’m just a poor strugglin’ CIO just trying to get a few little procurements done and somehow get information technology to help NASA satisfy its mission better.  So, maybe I won’t talk about technology trends or maybe I shouldn’t.  But, I’m sure no one would object to a discussion about something else – maybe technology trenz!

The 3270 is back! When personal computers entered the environment, 3270’s were viewed as a thing of the past.  Pictured here is an IBM 3279. From www.wikipedia.org and IBM 3279 terminal I thought I was cute because I used one.  I had special needs because I was working on graphics software.  But, now, with web-delivered application capability, we return to the old days when girls were girls, men were men, and clients were thin.  From Wikipedia:

Applications development has in many ways returned to the 3270 approach. In the 3270 era, all application functionality was provided centrally. With the advent of the PC, the idea was to invoke central systems only when absolutely unavoidable, and to do all application processing with local software on the personal computer. Now in the Web era (and with Wikis in particular), the application again is strongly centrally controlled, with only technical functionality distributed to the PC.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard the comment that there is no requirement for iPADs or similar tablet devices in the workplace, I’d …well … I’d have my own iPAD.  Well, people knew better and the market is exploding.  And even now, as I gaze at my ODIN-delivered iPAD, I don’t know what I need it for, but I’m absolutely sure that I need it! CIO Update says this is the “…year of the tablet”.  But, I like to think of these things as really, really small thin 3270s. 

The Data Center is back! Now hold on.  People who used to live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  Now, with cloud computing, the Data Center isn’t limited by raised floors and glass houses.  Today’s Data Center can be accessed through web technologies in the cloud or rolled up in a trailer and moved to where it’s needed.  The new trailer park data center even brings its own environmental needs with it.  Now, floor tile pullers are replaced with trailer hitches.  In the press release Gartner Identifies the Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2010 we hear:

“Newly-built data centers often opened with huge areas of white floor space, fully powered and backed by a uninterruptible power supply (UPS), water-and air-cooled and mostly empty. However, costs are actually lower if enterprises adopt a pod-based approach to data center construction and expansion. If 9,000 square feet is expected to be needed during the life of a data center, then design the site to support it, but only build what’s needed for five to seven years. Cutting operating expenses, which are a nontrivial part of the overall IT spend for most clients, frees up money to apply to other projects or investments either in IT or in the business itself.”

People are back and never left! As a young mathematician at NASA, I discovered the value of one friend named Stephanie who helped me realize my capabilities as a freshly minted programmer.  Now, with social media, technology allows us to harness the power of “friends” in ways that extend our capabilities beyond physical limitations.  Tom Soderstrom, CTO for IT at NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab gave a captivating presentation at the NASA IT Summit on technology trends.  He presented a collage of predictions from experts across the space.  What trend they all had in common was about – people.  Tom told us that:

“The mega trend that drives the other… trends is the need for people to be able to work with anyone from anywhere with any data using any device. … In the near future, IT will be redefined from “Information Technology” to “Innovating Together”, where the traditional IT organization provides the technology and the IT consumers (e.g. Missions) decide how it will be used most effectively. “

Thanks to Jonathan Pettus, CIO of NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center whose interest in information technology and history uncovered the fact that it may even be 1961 again.  He uncovered this tidbit from Wernher von Braun Weekly Notes” about the Burroughs 205 with advanced hardware and software:

“A review of the computing services performed by the decentralized digital computing centers strongly suggest that these facilities could be improved.  New products and developments in the computer field suggest also that this could be done with considerable economy to MSFC. “

Whether it’s 2011, 1981 or 1961, I think the trend that remains the same is probably people.  At least one expert believes that people and our human brains are finite and limited.  I’m glad I’m not an expert, because I believe that we the people who use IT can continue to drive these trenz ultimately and infinitely. 

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

Women in History: The IT Legacy Grace Hopper

I just finished my 2011 IT Workforce Capability Assessment Survey sponsored by the Federal CIO Council and the Office of Personnel Management.  The purpose of the survey is to make an assessment of various competencies in the Federal workforce and identify opportunities going forward.  Being a seasoned veteran of IT and CIO, my technical competencies were mostly in the category of legacy.   What the heck?  I checked off that I was an expert in FORTRAN.  One of our NASA CIOs, Mike and I joked that it must be a relevant competency because FORTRAN 77 helped us get this far, right?

I started thinking about the good old days when I was a happy systems programmer – a programmer’s programmer.  One of my early assignments was to install new versions of the COBOL and FORTRAN compilers.  So, with my mind recalling things like compilers, assemblers, and machine code and with March being Women’s History Month, it is more than appropriate to discuss the life and legacy of Vice Admiral Grace Hopper.

Born in 1902, she was a pioneer in computer science with accomplishments stay relevant decades after her death.  She earned a PhD and began teaching mathematics at Vassar University but left her position as an Associate Professor to join the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES).  After being commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944, she joined the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University.  She was the third person to join the research team that worked on the IBM Mark I – the computer hat heralded the age of the modern computer.  Her first assignment was to compute the coefficients of the arctangent series in a relatively short period of time. 

She was best known for her contributions that led to the invention of the compiler.  The compiler allowed use of English-like instructions to computers rather than the complex numeric machine code.  It is reported that she said that she did this because she was lazy – preferring to do the real work of the mathematician rather than programming in machine code.   Her work strongly influenced much of what we still see today in the area of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the link loader, code optimization, and symbolic manipulation. 

I had the pleasure of seeing her many times early in my career.  As a mathematician and systems programmer, I noticed that there were few women in either field and even fewer who were in both.  Her diminutive stature was in stark contrast to the heights she reached with her sassy irreverence.  One of my favorite quotes, widely reported to be about her invention of COBOL, is “but Grace, then anyone would be able to write programs!”  Exactly! She helped make the mysterious extremely technical world of the early computers more accessible to regular folk.  To help people like generals and admirals understand why satellite communications took so long, she would hand out pieces of wire just less than one foot long – the distance that light would travel in one nanosecond.  She would also present a coil of wire nearly one thousand feet long which represented a microsecond.  Later, she passed out packets of pepper which she called picoseconds. 

She passed away on New Year’s Day in 1992 – I’m sure I was programming in REXX then.   Vice Admiral Hopper left a legacy that paved a path for many women and men to follow.  In 1969, she won the first “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association.   I appreciate the opportunity to pause for a few nanoseconds during Women’s History Month to acknowledge her contributions.  

Note: This is my 100th blog.  Thanks for reading. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Be My Technology Valentine

I was recentlyinterviewed by a reporter who was writing an article about me.  She asked me why I love technology somuch.  I paused, to try to think of apolitically correct answer that was becoming of a Federal CIO.  After a deep breath, I started to answer butthen I remembered that I was the technology chief of an agency that is highlyregarded for technology and innovation. Finally, I remembered that I promised myself that this was the year forTruth so not wanting to make a liar out of myself, I answered.  I really didn’t like technology all thatmuch.  Maybe I hate it, I’m notsure.  

In general,Valentine’s Day isn’t my very favorite day – not bad, but not my favoriteeither (my favorite is probably April Fool’s Day thanks to my silly siblings).Maybe I have too many memories of being a geeky goofy little girl who went toschool with Valentine’s Day cards to give out and brought them all back plus a few from geeky goofylittle boys.  

It occurs tome that my experience then is a lot like my experience now.  As I little girl, as it related to Valentine’sDay wishes, I didn’t have what I needed, and didn’t need what I had.  Technology is a lot like that.  As I type this blog, I am looking at an iPad,2 laptops, a blackberry and an iPhone. It begs the question; do I have what I need?  Or do I really need what I have?

When I wasin graduate school, I was writing my thesis on clever ways to compute theeigenvalues of the hexagon (if you have to ask what that is, it doesn’tmatter).  I had a cool new desktop backthen with a math co-processor.  But, hellif couldn’t compute those numerical estimates in my lifetime.  I was so frustrated and I had a thesis tofinish!  But, then for Valentine’s Day Igot a wonderful present from my husband – 256M of memory.  That was a great gift when memory cost alittle over a dollar a megabyte.  I had afast processor, but what really needed was fast memory.

I ended lastweek talking to my favorite Luddite, Ed. He’s got a big old clunky blackberry brick on his waist.  I asked him when he was going get aniPad.  He came close to cussing me outand challenged me to a race in words per minute with him and his brick.  I promised him that the piece of crap hecarried around would break, and then he said the technician as a whole box ofold ones ready for him.  Yep, Ed had EXACTLYwhat he needed.

I’ll endthis with a wonderful technology love poem especially for Valentine’s Day:

Beta is dead,

Ed’s Blackberry is Blue,

Technology is sweet,

But not if it doesn’t help you.

 Love LindaCureton, NASA CIO

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


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

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

The Summit

I always loved mountains.  Not that there are many in Washington, DC.  But I do remember learning in Greek mythology of Atlas whose punishment was to hold up the sky from the Atlas Mountains.  As a dreamy elementary school student, I imagined that mountains must be pretty big and strong to hold up the sky.  I couldn’t envision anything so enormous; after all, the biggest mountain I saw as a youngster was Capitol Hill.  I couldn’t even imagine who would want to trouble a mean and angry Titan just to reach the Summit of a mighty mountain.  Then I grew up.  View of the Atlas Mountains by Christoph Hormann - http://earth.imagico.de/views/atlas_large.jpg

“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. … We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for. “– George Leigh Mallory, 1922

To obtain the happiness we were destined to experience in life, we must push ourselves to great heights in order to experience real joy.  As leaders, we push our organizations to do the impossible and the difficult so that we can feel delight of knowing that our mission was accomplished.  We want to do the things that no one has done, to set precedence and to plant a flag at the peak of a mountain that says … we made it to the top. 

I was talking to a girlfriend who is going through a bad spell. I tried to explain a feeling that I’m sure mountain climbers must feel.  We must experience pain to experience joy.  To avoid pain is to avoid joy.  Martha Beck in her book Finding Your Own North Star discusses that feeling:

“Anyone who … pushed past physical limits in some athletic event, or struggled to learn difficult but powerful truths understands that suffering can be an integral part of the most profound joy.  In fact, once the suffering has ended, having experienced it seems to magnify the capacity to feel pleasure and delight. “

Frostbite, oxygen deprivation, fatigue, fear, uncertainty, doubt – all of these painful aspects of mountain climbing give birth to the joyful moment when we have arrived at our Summit and returned safely. 

In 1995, David Breashears – the CIO’s mountain climber – led a team to test out the technology capabilities of the then new lightweight IMAX.   The effort took a lot of innovation and engineering effort – including the use of NASA-rated grease that wouldn’t freeze, stiffen up, or shatter.   During the expedition, a tragic storm hit that caused them to suspend their activities to rescue other endangered climbers.  He measured success not by the pictures he took, but by helping his team reach the top, save lives, and return safely.

We all need our summits … places we must climb, heights we must reach.  Furthermore, the purpose of leadership is to help others reach their summit. We must nurture within ourselves and our organizations the courage, confidence, and stamina needed to reach our peak and wrestle the mighty Titans of life.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA