Linda Cureton spent almost 34 years in government taking risks.
She wasn’t one of those chief information officers who was afraid to fail nor afraid to succeed.
And that’s both the lesson she imparts to other federal CIOs, but also the one she heeds as she launches Muse Technologies, a consulting firm focusing on IT project management, IT transformation and IT strategy planning.
“I looked at what I could do after deciding to retire, and I could be a CIO somewhere or work for contractor or integrator. I also considered starting my own company, but I knew starting my own company was risky because I wasn’t sure I could financially tolerate the risk and wasn’t sure I would be successful in getting contracts and business,” she said. “As I thought about what are the things I wanted to do in life that weren’t financial, my goals were to do the work that I love, to work with the people I love and have a passion about what I’m doing so it came back to starting my own company.”
Cureton said after meeting with some trusted advisers, she took the plunge despite sequestration, budget pressures and even an economy that was slow to fully recover.
“People usually want to do these types of things when the economy is good, but it seemed to me the need for transformation is bigger when money is tight,” she said. “It’s like when things are going poorly, it’s time to buy into the stock market, and not a time to sell. I wanted to buy into this market now when I think people really need it, and go against the grain and take a risk where many people wouldn’t take that risk.”
Going against the grain and taking risks were hallmarks of Cureton’s long-federal IT career.
For example, NASA took the leap into the cloud with the Nebula program, a private cloud infrastructure, before most agencies really understood the benefits of cloud computing.
She also led the creation of NASA’s Spacebook, an attempt to make a Facebook like application for agency employees.
While Nebula was a trend setter, Spacebook fell far short of expectations.
Cureton felt just as good about both efforts.
We had to overcome a lot of resistance to launch the Nebula cloud,” she said. “Innovation areas are very risky and a lot of us in government are risk adverse. We are often not rewarded for things that don’t go right and with innovation most things don’t go right. Nebula is now turned over to the open source community and it’s essentially open stack, and it’s definitely caught on in industry.”
Cureton said she received a lot of external and internal resistance for developing Nebula and turning it over to open source community.
“I believe doing things like that is what NASA has been doing for years, developing technology and once we learn from it or determine how NASA can use it, the commercialization of the technology is best done by the commercial world and not by the government,” she said.
As for Spacebook, she said NASA learned a lot about social media, how to apply it and its barriers.
Cureton said the biggest difference between government today and government of three decades ago is who is doing the day-to-day technical work.
She said the pendulum swung a little bit too far in letting contractors do too much of the technical work.
“If you really look at the demands on the government’s budget there isn’t a lot of budget for full time employees,” she said. “You can’t hire people. You can’t pay them what they get paid in private sector, and then training them also is difficult. To insource is a great idea, but can we afford to do that? Let’s not do it in halfway. The attempts early on in this administration to bring people back were not fully resourced.”
Cureton offered advice to both the next NASA CIO as well as current and future CIOs across the government.
To the NASA CIO, she said, “Don’t think you know NASA from looking from the outside in. People have more of an idealized perspective, but the NASA infrastructure needs to be modernized, and just like any federal agency, the budgets to do that just aren’t there. A lot of people when they come, they are just surprised that the infrastructure to provision some of the services we need to provision centrally, just aren’t there. Be prepared to provide IT services to some of the most brilliant minds on the planet that know more about technology than you do. You have to be humbled in delivering services to them.”
To the federal CIOs more generally, “Technology isn’t the biggest problem. It’s IT governance. A lot of the challenges that CIO have is in the area of governance. Where the strategy in the current administration could help is to realize IT governance is not a CIO’s problem to solve. It’s the agency’s head or deputy secretary’s problem to solve. What often happens is it gets relegated to the CIO, who is not empowered to do anything about IT governance, yet is held accountable for delivering solutions, for example security, where IT governance is insufficient to deliver a secure infrastructure.”