Linda Cureton: IT innovator plans her next mission

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

Linda Cureton never orbited the Earth or designed a rocket engine, but her work at NASA was as vital to the agency's mission. (FCW photo)

NASA was innovative enough to put a man on the moon, but just a few years ago, its IT department "couldn’t install Adobe on your desktop," retiring CIO Linda Cureton said.

That’s "retiring" as in leaving government service, not as in "shy." Never one to hold back, Cureton told FCW that although innovation was always central to NASA’s overall mission, its CIO office was mostly known for handling tech complaints and developing security policies before she became CIO in September 2009. That is not the case anymore.

Cureton’s drive to innovate pushed the agency to integrate its IT infrastructure, save millions of dollars by eliminating bad contracts and boldly go where few agencies had before by adopting an open-source cloud computing environment called Nebula in 2010.

When Cureton retires from the government on April 1 after a 34-year career as a civil servant, she will leave behind a legacy of innovation and strategic thinking.

What she accomplished at NASA

Before Cureton took over as NASA’s agencywide CIO in 2009, she had already blogged regularly for more than a year, blazing a trail in social media that some federal executives have yet to follow.

Under Cureton, NASA was light-years ahead of many agencies in cloud computing. In 2010, the agency installed Nebula, an infrastructure-as-a-service solution that helped NASA cut costs by improving resource use and reducing energy consumption and labor.

The platform also provided an environment for the computation and storage of the agency’s scientific data and Web-based applications and improved how NASA shares complex datasets with the public and its partners in academia and business.

"It was a very tenuous time in cloud computing," Cureton said. "People really didn’t believe in it or in Nebula, and we had a hard time getting funding for it. It’s taken off like wildfire."

Cureton also created the position of chief technology officer for IT at NASA to lead the agency’s technology and innovation efforts. Previously occupied by Nebula founder Chris Kemp and now by Sasi Pillay, the position is charged with providing NASA personnel with the most innovative IT in the world — exactly what you would expect from the agency that explores other planets and maps the universe.

Cureton said the position ensures that NASA’s IT department will never again lack the initiative to innovate. "It might be what I’m most proud of during my tenure," she said.

While Cureton was in charge, NASA’s IT budget decreased sharply from a high of $2.2 billion. Yet the agency is in good shape moving forward thanks in part to smarter contracting, Cureton said.  She noted that the agency's contract with Hewlett-Packard -- to modernize and manage NASA's end-user infrastructure, including desktop computing and other devices -- would save at least $60 million. 

The agency also insourced its call center by creating an enterprise service desk to act as a central hub to answer questions, thereby building on its efforts to be "customer obsessed." Before that, response times were measured in hours, not seconds, which is not good for customer satisfaction, Cureton said.

"There is a delicate balance between innovating and maintaining," she said. "Any organization that focuses only on what it is supposed to do and nothing else will ultimately fail. But if you’re not doing your bread-and-butter stuff well, people don’t want to look to you for anything else, especially innovation."

Each of those efforts is a microcosm of NASA’s broad plan to become more efficient in its IT infrastructure spending, which was solidified through the agency’s IT Infrastructure Integration Program (I3P). The goal of the program, which Cureton called "tremendously risky and daunting," was to integrate IT across the agency "into something cohesive and central" by consolidating services.

I3P has boosted IT efficiency, improved IT security and revamped the agency’s procurement processes. Some of the steps were difficult and fraught with terror, Cureton said, but they helped pave the way for an innovative future at NASA long after she is gone.

"Do we have more to do?" she asked. "Yes, but we’re going to continue making those improvements."

What’s next for Cureton

Before her time at NASA — first as CIO of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, then as agencywide CIO — Cureton worked at the departments of Energy and Justice, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

cover of the muse

Cureton's book "The Leadership Muse" provides insights and tips for managers drawn from her experience.

She has made many connections in the IT community during her career, and though she plans to vacation on a warm beach somewhere for a few weeks after her official retirement, Cureton does not intend to stay away from work for long. She is already planning to write another book to follow "The Leadership Muse," a sort of how-to guide for leaders.

"I don’t feel so much like I’m leaving the government; I feel more like I’m going to some different place," Cureton said. "I don’t want to turn into a pillar of salt. I want to leverage what I’ve learned. There is a lot I can give. I don’t see myself sitting in a rocking chair."

A native of Washington, D.C., Cureton attended public schools in the area before enrolling at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she played the piano, trumpet and French horn. She still plays music on occasion and would like to do it more often. She credits the connection between music and mathematics for her success in science and technology.

Many are calling Cureton’s retirement a loss not only for NASA but for the public sector as a whole. "Linda brought a humanistic perspective to all she did in her CIO role at NASA and her involvement in the federal CIO Council," said Richard Spires, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security. "She pushed hard on how to more effectively lead, manage and develop people. I want to thank her for her leadership of the Strategy and Planning Committee of the CIO Council and her years of service to this government. She will certainly be missed."

Cureton was successful in her NASA CIO role "because she thinks differently and not like everyone else," said Robert Bruce, senior executive officer at GTI Federal and a longtime friend of Cureton’s. Those traits stand out in government, he said, adding, "I was aware of who she was before I ever met her." Cureton has not yet accepted any job offers, though she will likely have plenty of options.

Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group, said he hopes she lands on the industry side. He considers Cureton a friend and said he has long been impressed by her candidness and social-media savvy. He believes she has much more insight to share with the IT world.

Richard Spires

Cureton 'pushed hard
on how to more effectively
lead, manage and develop
people.' -- DHS CIO Richard Spires

"I think Linda’s going to have a number of options of things she could do," he said. "Now the question is pulling the trigger on which way she’ll go. I’m hoping she’ll come back on the other side and support a lot of the same issues from the industry side. She’ll have to decide how much she wants to work much she plays."

What’s next for NASA

Cureton is in the process of turning her duties over to subordinates, and because much of her work was focused on IT reform, many of her responsibilities will fall to Gary Cox, NASA’s deputy CIO for IT reform. Cox is one of three deputy CIOs Cureton handpicked during her tenure who are now likely candidates for her job. Deborah Diaz, NASA’s deputy CIO, and Valarie Burks, deputy CIO for IT security, round out a potential list of internal candidates. However, it remains unclear whom NASA’s leaders will select to replace Cureton.

"NASA would need someone who can keep the momentum going," Bruce said. "The transformation going on is difficult. Hopefully, they won’t regress to the risk aversion that’s not unusual in engineering organizations."

Cureton declined to say who she believes is the best fit for the position. "I have some thoughts, but the agency will ultimately make its own decisions," she said.

Bruce threw some other names into the mix: Mike Bolger, acting deputy director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, and Larry Sweet, IT director and CIO at the Johnson Space Center.

"NASA is a difficult culture, so having someone who understands [it] is a plus," Bruce said. "The deputy for IT reform [Cox] would be most knowledgeable and experienced on I3P [and] would be a good choice also." "Linda won’t be easy to replace," said Darren Ash, CIO at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and president of the American Council for Technology. "Her replacement will need to be a strong partner to the programmatic and space flight center leaders...[a] strong strategic thinker and a trusted adviser to the NASA administrator."

Whoever takes over will have big shoes to fill, and though the IT department has taken a giant leap forward in recent years, many challenges remain and it will not be easy to keep the momentum going.

"There are some things I will miss certainly with an agency like NASA and its fabulous mission," Cureton said before letting out a deep breath. "And there will be some things I will not miss."


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