DARPA director is used to forging new ground for technology's sake
- By George I. Seffers
- Nov 12, 2000
As director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Frank Fernandez
would rather see someone try and fail than never try at all.
Risk is par for the course at DARPA. The agency is an incubator for
revolutionary technologies considered too risky for the individual services
to develop on their own. The list of ongoing projects includes everything
from an artificial dog nose for sniffing out land mines to quantum computers
designed to solve problems too complex for conventional computers to handle.
Interesting research projects — combined with a unique DARPA formula
that attracts highly talented people and gives them the resources and freedom
to either succeed or fail — is what makes his job so exciting, Fernandez
said. "[I have] the best job for a technical person in the Department of
Defense," he said. "Within DOD, head of DARPA is the best job around."
Witty, demanding and impatient, Fernandez encourages DARPA employees
to try, even at the risk of failure. "I do let people do things; the problem
is we do hold people accountable. I really don't mind people failing. I'd
rather see somebody jump real far and not quite make it than to take little
bitty steps," he said.
What Fernandez describes as impatience, however, is viewed by others
as an effective management technique worth emulating.
"When Dr. Fernandez meets with a program manager, he has a list of about
10 questions he wants answered within the first five or 10 minutes of that
discussion," said Lt. Col. Gary Sauer, special assistant for operations
and program manager for the Future Combat System. "If the program manager
doesn't touch on some of those very quickly, Dr. Fernandez will redirect
that program manager to answer those questions.
"I've worked with a lot of generals, and they were all brilliant men,
but Dr. Fernandez has that special blend of technical knowledge and business
savvy," Sauer said.
Fernandez has been director of DARPA since 1998 and has enjoyed working
for a "constantly morphing" agency where "you might think you know what
your program offices are doing, but in six months everything will change."
His term of service officially ends in May, but because the director
is appointed by the secretary of Defense and approved by the president,
Fernandez said he could lose his job in January.
However, leaving the post doesn't necessarily mean he won't be involved.
Regardless of where he and his wife live next year, former DARPA employees
tend to keep in touch on DARPA issues.
"The most interesting story about DARPA is the incredible network of
alumni who are now all over the place — in industry, the military, academia — who believe a DARPA concept is important and who protect DARPA in incredibly
subtle but important ways," Fernandez said. "There are a lot of ex-directors,
ex-office managers and ex-program managers who care about this place maintaining
its level of quality, and they enforce that very, very informally. It's
something you don't really understand until you work here."
For example, when the agency agreed to develop critical technologies
for the Army's Future Combat System, former DARPA employees pointed out
some holes in the agency's plan and "helped a great deal," Fernandez said.
These connections are important. "The wisdom of the people who created
DARPA and who have allowed it to remain an independent agency with access
to the secretary [of Defense] is just fascinating. It's a very, very powerful
idea," Fernandez said. "I will always care about DARPA."