Risky business

DARPA director is used to forging new ground for technology's sake

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."

The Frank Fernandez file

Position: Director of DARPA, the central research and development center

for the Defense Department. It has a fiscal 2001 budget of about $2 billion.

Hobby: Bicycling, mostly along the streets of Arlington, Va., near his

office.

Previous experience: Founder, president and chairman of AETC Inc.; founder,

president and chairman of Arete Associates; and member of the Navy's Chief

of Naval Operations executive panel.

Education: Bachelor of science and mechanical engineering and master

of science and applied mechanics from Stevens Institute of Technology, 1960-61;

and Ph.D in aeronautics, California Institute of Technology, 1969.

Most enduring life lesson: "The biggest limits you face are self-imposed."

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