NASA’s Toughest Job?

The position of CIO is arguably the most demanding role in business today. It is even more so when the post is regularly buffeted by political winds and rides herd over some of the most accomplished scientific minds of our day. Linda Cureton is CIO of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center where the challenges are layered and complex, mirroring the pitfalls of the economy, the limits of technology, and the posturing of politics.

“Sometimes, you go in to a situation thinking you know the right thing,” said Cureton, “but you have to be humble enough to test whether or not you are meeting the needs of the mission and your customers; but be courageous enough to run through the fire of natural resistance to change.”

Despite her many responsibilities, Cureton’s most pressing concern is being “humble but not wimpy, and courageous but not foolish.”

Located in Maryland, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is a major U.S. laboratory for developing and operating unmanned scientific spacecraft. The Center manages many of NASA’s earth observation, astronomy, and space physics missions as well as maintains the Magnetic Test Facility and Propulsion Research site. Outlying sites under her purview include the Antenna Performance Measuring range, the Optical Tracking and Ground Plane Facilities and the Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Virginia.

Cureton is a remarkably open personality who is quick to share professional tips and personal highlights in her blog and on Twitter. While transparency is often clamored for by NASA constituents, it is rare in the C-level suite. Perhaps it is this transparency in Cureton’s work that has inspired her team and the public so. Goddard Space Flight Center has approximately 3,200 civil servants and about 5,000 contractors. Cureton’s IT department has a little over 100 civil servants and about 200 contractors.

The Turnaround

When Cureton first came to Goddard as CIO, she was told that IT security was the biggest problem with poor staff morale a close second. “The tempo and methods of security attacks continue to increase exponentially,” she said. “Issues such as privacy and identity theft continue to flavor the seriousness of the need for protective counter-measures. We need to react faster and faster.”

With this in mind she tackled security first. “There were many reports and audits outlining particular problems, but not the root cause,” she explained. “That turned out to be ineffective IT governance of the open collaboration of the scientific community.”

When you have ineffective IT governance with a fragmented and a difficult-to-manage infrastructure, collaborating securely becomes a challenge. To address this, Cureton focused on implementing IT governance, consolidating infrastructures, and nurturing a 21st Century workforce. Her goal was to understand technology assets and improve infrastructure management; implement consistent security practices enterprise wide; and make good decisions about balancing efficiency and effectiveness.

She cites her accomplishments to that end as:

  • Implemented IT governance
  • Developed a desktop management strategy
  • Developing a network re-architecture
  • Provided mission essential communications services for manned space flight and science missions
  • Completed security certification and accreditation for all systems
  • Created a Web portal to better communicate security information
  • Redesigned the internal Web portal for improved collaboration
  • Provided government-wide contract services for acquisition of scientific and technical solutions through NASA SEWP GWAC (Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement Government-Wide Acquisition Contract)
  • Implemented project management framework and began training certified project managers
  • Migrated 6500 users to agency email and calendaring services

Improving Morale

On the morale front, she found there was “a lack of definition of roles and responsibilities, insufficient communication both downward and upward, and a lack of buy-in for CIO strategic goals.”

To address this, Cureton designed a new organizational structure with better clarity of roles and responsibilities. “Using Wiki technology, we gave every employee the opportunity to read and comment on our new functional statements and structures,” she said. “We tried to understand each employee’s personal goals, and though we could not accommodate everyone’s desire, we tried to balance their wishes with the organization’s objectives.