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How do you become a CIO? – Insights from outgoing NASA CIO Linda Cureton

Frequent DorobekINSIDER Live guest and federal rockstar Linda Cureton is retiring on Wednesday. It is a sad day for government.

But before she sails off we wanted to pick her brain on how she had such a successful career? And get her insights on how you can chart a similar journey?

Cureton was appointed as the NASA CIO in September 2009. Prior to this appointment, she served as the CIO of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and led the Information Technology and Communications Directorate.

Cureton told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that her 34 year government career started as a GS-2 as a student assistant photographer.

Humble Government Beginnings

“I didn’t start of my career with a plan to become a CIO. I started off a GS 2 as a student assistant photographer. I really didn’t know much about computers. I ended up being an assistance programmer because of my academic backgound in mathematics. I came up through those ranks. Eventually I got to be a manager and a team leader, then a branch chief. I worked almost every job at a federal data center. I eventually got to the executive branch as an associate CIO and it sort of went from there,” said Cureton.

A Senior Executive – Mentorship

“When I started as a senior executive I became much more intentional about my career path. Up until then, my career path was like walking on a beach picking up interesting sea shells. But once I had CIO in my title, I figured I should learn what exactly a CIO does. So I went to Gloria Parker, who at that time was the CIO at HUD. I said, ‘girl what is a CIO?’ she told me:

  • There is the technical component like the enterprise architecture delivery.
  • There is a leadership component. You have to learn to interface with the executive ranks of the agency and balancing the demands of OMB with the mission.
  • There is the people component. you need to develop people skills to persuade, cajole and begs with folks to accomplish your agenda.

CIO Pitfalls

“The CIO is accountable for everything but has the authority over hardly anything. IT is really important and the system in government is really stacked against CIOs. When something goes wrong it becomes the CIO’s fault. But when things go right it is a coincidence, or something the CIO didn’t know about. We need to do something about that,” said Cureton.

Top Down Approach

“The number one problem is IT governance. OMB is trying to help but the real issue is IT governance isn’t a CIO’s problem to fix, it is a problem of the agency head. But agency heads typically pass it down to the CIO. But they should in fact give the CIOs a plan to execute and unless that starts to happen it is still going to be like a hamster in a wheel spinning around until you get tired and quit,” said Cureton.

VA CIO Roger Baker has the Power of the Purse

“I think it is necessary but insufficient to have the power of the purse because to whom much is given much is expected. So if you are given the power of the purse strings than you need to have the staff that can deliver. You need to have support and buy-in from the department head. You still need to have the support and buy-in from the constituents. That doesn’t mean they have to say yes to everything you do, but you can’t keep fighting against them. It is only one aspect of a very complex thing that needs to happen,” said Cureton.

The CIO No

“CIOs need to say yes faster. We need to understand that we are diluting ourselves if we think that saying no means we are more secure. No is actually more risky than yes. Think of this example; if you are a parent and you have a high schooler who is going to prom, throw the after party at your house. Then at least you know what is going on. If you say they can’t go to the party, they are going to go anyways – sneak out – and you won’t be able to supervise. CIOs need to start having the party in their own house that way they can see what is going on,” said Cureton.

Cloud Computing

“Cloud computing is working and it is not just a buzzword. Because of cloud computing mobility is viable. That evolution is going to drive expectations quiet differently. Mobility gets things off our networks and makes it easier to secure the perimeter.

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. - ACT/IAC

“It comes down to protecting the data versus the end point,” said Cureton.

Blogs, Twitter, Becoming the Social CIO

When Meritalk ranked the best social media users in the executive suite, Linda Cureton ranked at the top.

“I started the blog because I wanted to learn about it. I wanted to leverage that in my leadership arsenal. As a leader people need to trust you and trust comes from knowing who you are. Through social media, blogging, twitter, facebook etc. people had a chance to find out who I am and what kind of leader I would be as a result,” said Cureton.

  • When you start blogging you think of it as a one-way type of communication. But in terms of getting information back you can learn a lot. There are a lot of whack-jobs out there and a lot of haters but social media makes you more open and transparent.

Leadership Muse

Even with her busy schedule, Cureton managed to write the Leadership Muse. Last year we talked with Cureton at length about her book, you can find that recap here.

But she said that her book is in many ways just an extension of her blogging.

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