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The Grill: NASA's Adrian R. Gardner works to manage cybersecurity challenges

The CIO at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center looks to risk mitigation to manage cybersecurity challenges.

September 10, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Every year, Temple University's Fox School of Business chooses an IT executive for its Information Technology Leader Award, in recognition of the individual's leadership in the use and development of IT in business. The 2012 recipient was Adrian R. Gardner, director of the Information Technology and Communications Directorate, CIO at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the federal government's Senior Executive Service. Gardner is also an Air Force veteran and has held high-level IT positions at the National Weather Service and the Department of Energy. Here, he talks about what it takes to lead IT at one of the most famous government organizations.

Adrian R. Gardner

What are your hobbies? Running, martial arts

What has been your biggest career accomplishment? Data.gov

What professional ambition would you like to accomplish? Leading an agency IT organization and eventually starting my own business.

What's the best advice you've received? In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

What's the best advice you've given? Guide your own career path and recognize it's OK to be different.

What's your favorite science fiction movie or book? Minority Report, because of all the IT. Also A Beautiful Mind. It isn't science fiction, but it is about a scientist.

Why do you think you earned the Fox award? For the work we've been doing recently -- I say "we" because it's really been a team effort -- with Data.gov and around openness and innovation. Data.gov is a website used to host government data from the majority of agencies, where we've decided as government to make data more open and transparent. It can be leveraged to stimulate business and give our citizens and stakeholders more visibility into what we're doing and to create more apps using government data.

How did you get into technology and the CIO role, considering that none of your academic degrees is in IT? I was always interested in science, and then I went into the Air Force and was a launch control officer for a nuclear weapons facility [where] my role was communications. That was my first foray into IT. When I got out of the Air Force, I was recruited by the Department of Energy and looked at large nuclear facilities and the technologies they had. So I had to get conversant in IT, and when the position of CIO was established in the federal government, I was asked if I'd be interested in filling the role. So I ended up in the cybersecurity area, and I worked my way up.

What are the unique challenges of working in IT within the federal government? We have a fiduciary duty to ensure that we're protecting our citizens and delivering to the stakeholders. We had this little thing recently called the Venus Transverse. Venus crossed over the sun, and we had to put in place a very robust infrastructure to accommodate the number of folks who were going to view the event. So one challenge is having to be very agile and meeting the needs of the customer base. [Another challenge is] the scale of the things we work on. I run the mission network for NASA, so anytime there's a spacecraft that leaves the atmosphere of the Earth from the U.S. perspective, my folks track that. When you see the president talking to the space station, that goes over my lines.

What can others learn from your challenges? We are on the leading edge of adopting a number of technologies and adopting them to meet our mission needs. For example, there's a Facebook page for the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and this is the capability we used to view the Venus Transverse. There are agencies that can learn how to apply those technologies so they have a mission benefit and have a return on the investment.

You spent part of your career focused on cybersecurity. What do you see as the biggest threat today? That's probably my No. 1 priority today. Because NASA is an information-sharing organization, the challenge we have is, How do you have this need to share and then have a need to protect those assets? Cybersecurity is going to continue to be a huge challenge, and as things go more mobile, that will bring in more threats, but also more opportunities. There will always be this tension between creative collaboration and security. I don't think there are quick solutions. There are quick measures that mitigate the risk. I don't think you can get to 100% security. You can get to a point where you're comfortable with the risk posture and you have enough visibility to accept that risk and put in the controls to address that.

How do you prioritize your time and resources? I prioritize along the needs of the customer, and then I prioritize my staff's time and resources accordingly. We can't be all things to all people. Our budget will not allow that. My normal challenge is to fit 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound sack, but there are ways to do that. So we figure out not only operation and maintenance today, but also what are the innovations that will help.

How do you build opportunities for innovation into your organization? In terms of looking at maintaining what we have, that's around 80% of my budget, and the other 20% is sustained engineering. What I've done now is to really get to 60% [operations and management], 10% sustained engineering, and the other 30% on innovation. I established a position, associate director for innovation, about a year and a half ago that reports to me to incorporate innovation into our day-to-day activities. You might have to spend very little, but hopefully you're able to identify an innovative project that will take the place of something you're spending a lot of money on. So portfolio management is one area I'm using to take advantage of that.

Do you have any dreams or plans to go into space? I would love it. I think it will happen in my lifetime. The price of space travel will hopefully decrease where we mere mortals can get a ticket and actually go into space.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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