NASA CIO doubles as teacher, coach
Jonathan Pettus seeks to bring NASA’s centers together with a single focus
- By Wade-Hahn Chan
- May 16, 2008
When Jonathan Pettus graduated from college with a computer science degree, he got a teaching job, just as he had always envisioned.
He gave up teaching after just two years, but not before he learned some useful career skills: how to share ideas, be the diplomat and, if necessary, play the enforcer. These lessons have served him well in his current job as NASA’s chief information officer.
“Those couple of years I [taught high school], I learned everything I needed to know as a CIO in a lot of ways,” Pettus said.
Pettus’ brief detour into education seemed inevitable. His father was a math teacher, and his mother taught English. “My plan when I got out of college was to follow in their footsteps because I really like education,” Pettus said.
After studying computer science and math history at the University of North Alabama, he took a job at a high school teaching math and science and coaching the school’s basketball team.
However, as much as he enjoyed teaching, he realized he loved computer programming and wanted to see where that work might take him. So after two years, he joined McDonnell Douglas as a software developer and contractor for NASA, eventually moving to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Pettus said he has never regretted his choice. He is glad, though, for what his teaching days taught him. For example, his background helped prepare him to teach the value of information technology to stakeholders who are not IT savvy.
And when orchestrating high-level IT projects, Pettus sometimes must serve as a mediator, building consensus among individuals who want to implement different technologies for the same solution.
However, just like a coach or a teacher, Pettus occasionally must put his foot down because the CIO’s role is to ensure everyone adheres to an agencywide standard.
Pettus calls it playing the bad guy because he inevitably will have to tell one or both customers to adopt a different system. But he tries to finesse those situations to ensure that nobody feels slighted and that the overall mission isn’t affected.
This is tricky at NASA because the agency is full of brilliant people — including rocket scientists and engineers — who are passionate about IT to the point of clinging to technology they believe in, he said.
Pettus became familiar with those cultural differences during his days as a contractor at Marshall Space Flight Center, which is one of 10 space centers scattered across the country.
Until recently, NASA took a hands-off approach with IT policy, allowing the centers to develop their own infrastructures. But that is changing now as NASA plans for the return of manned space flight to the moon.
The agency, working with a smaller budget than it had during the Apollo era, is requiring the centers to drop some smaller individual projects so they can collaborate on the lunar mission.
To make that feasible, Pettus must work with the centers to standardize their infrastructure, he said.
Then comes the tough part: explaining the necessity of standardization to center employees. Some employees working on smaller projects in science and research divisions do not see the advantages of standardization, he said.
Pettus believes he can help sway them by sharing best practices from early adopters of the standard technology solutions. However, he must also sell them on the grand strategy. The work being done on the manned space flight mission is scattered across the centers, but NASA employees need to understand how their work fits into the big picture, Pettus said.
“You have to get people to play together,” he said. “Not everyone can shoot the ball. Somebody’s got to pass. Somebody’s got play defense. There are roles people have to play.”