Cita Furlani wants to get the questions right
New director of NIST’s IT Lab mixes technical smarts with management savvy
Cita Furlani has been director of the Information Technology Lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology for only three months, barely a nanosecond in a 25-year career in which Furlani has had time to acquire deep technical knowledge and expert managerial skills.
She served as acting director of ITL since the beginning of the year and worked with the lab in various cross-agency capacities. “I know a lot of the people,” she said. “Everyone in the ITL does good work.”
The lab has 330 full- and part-time permanent staff members and 122 guest researchers and contractors.
Furlani’s technical background includes a master’s degree in electronics and computer engineering. She gained managerial experience in a variety of positions. She served as chief information officer at NIST and director of the National Coordination Office for Information Technology Research and Development. In the latter capacity, she reported directly to White House officials.
“I’ve been bouncing around, but it’s been good [with] the different opportunities,” Furlani said.
Furlani’s career at NIST began in 1981 after she left a job at the Army Research Laboratory. “I was doing the research that supported building bombs,” she said. The opening at NIST gave her an opportunity to work with industry in using IT to improve manufacturing operations.
ITL provides IT measurements and standards for industry, government and academia. Standards increase productivity and trade and improve safety and quality of life, she said.
The value of standards lies not in solving a specific problem in a particular application area, she added. Instead, ITL researchers try to create standards that apply beyond the single application that the lab might be working on. If they didn’t do that, she said, “we’d be fighting bears all the time.”
Furlani said ITL’s main research focus in coming months will be interoperability between complex systems and identity management technologies such as personal identity verification cards and biometrics — both areas in which the lab already has extensive experience.
ITL researchers have worked on standards for implementing Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 and the Federal Information Security Management Act. In June, ITL’s FISMA team earned a Leadership Award from the Association for Federal Information Resources Management.
Furlani said her biggest challenge in her new role at NIST will be to cut through an extraordinarily broad range of identity management applications and topics to focus on standards. A lab director cannot be “working in the weeds,” she said. “You’re really looking for the strategic value and [to] help everyone who works for you to get to a place where you’re sure you’re doing the right things.”
NIST employees are intent on getting the right answer. That attitude explains why they often use the noun NIST as a verb, as in “We NIST things to death,” Furlani said. “When you’re looking for the nineteenth decimal point on the latest measurement of the kilogram or whatever, it’s got to be right.”
In her new role, Furlani has to be a step ahead in asking the right questions. “NIST is very good at doing things right,” Furlani said. “But trying to get people to ask, ‘Are we doing the right things?’ is the critical piece a manager is always struggling with.”
Richard Kayser, director of the Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory, was acting deputy director of NIST and worked with Furlani when she was the agency’s CIO.
“I got to know Cita pretty well,” he said. “She put the programs in the Office of the CIO — essentially all of NIST’s IT infrastructure — on a solid footing.” She did it, he said, by creating a capable management team and establishing processes that have enabled the office to keep improving those programs.
During the past weekend, NIST shut down its central computing facilities to install an auxiliary power and cooling system. Because of a business proposal that Furlani pushed through two years ago, the installation went without a hitch, Kayser said.
“That’s just one example of many, many things Cita has done,” he said.