Linda Cureton, NASA CIO, on Her Entrepreneurial Plans
The NextWomen Career Theme: Technology
For this month’s theme, we will be interviewing a number of women from around the globe who have reached the top of the world’s most prestigious and/or male dominated professions.
To celebrate the achievements of women everywhere, we are publishing this month's most high profile interview to coincide with International Women's Day. We are honoured to bring you the story of Linda Cureton, Chief Information Officer at NASA, a true female hero.
Linda Y. Cureton is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As NASA CIO, she provides the requisite leadership to transform the management of information technology (IT) capabilities and services to support and enable NASA's mission.
Linda 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.
Prior to her arrival at GSFC, Linda served as the Deputy Chief Information Officer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and led the Office of Science and Technology as Deputy Assistant Director. The Office of Science and Technology is responsible for providing leadership in the innovative and efficient application of science and technology used to collect, clarify, and communicate information needed to reduce violent crime, collect revenue and protect the public. Previously, Linda served in executive positions at the Department of Energy and the Department of Justice.
As a strong advocate for the practical application of technology, Linda has served as a member of organizations such as the Government Information Technology Investment Council, the American Council for Technology, and Women in Technology.
Linda earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from Howard University in 1980 graduating magna cum laude with a major in Mathematics and a minor in Latin. She also received a Master of Science Degree in Applied Mathematics from Johns Hopkins University in 1994, and a Post-Master's Advanced Certificate in Applied Mathematics from Johns Hopkins University in 1996. She performed extensive research in numerical analysis and has been published in the "Journal of Sound and Vibration."
We spoke to Linda about the challenges and highlights of her career; her advice for budding technologists; and her post-retirement entrepreneurial plans.
TNW: What are the main responsibilities of your current role as CIO at NASA?
LC: My main responsibilities are as a member of the NASA executive team advising the Administrator on all matters related to Information Technology. In addition, the NASA CIO provides centralized desktop and network services to the entire agency. I also serve on the Federal CIO Council supporting the White House in implementing government-wide strategies that promote increased efficiency and effectiveness.
TNW: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
LC: Being a part of the executive team enables me to have a front seat to some spectacular moments in NASA history, like being at Kennedy Space Center to see the Space Shuttle launch.
I really love solving problems and coming up with creative solutions.
TNW: What is the biggest challenge you face in your role and how do you tackle it?
The biggest challenge is being able to provide technology for the most brilliant minds in the universe.
The resistance to change is great, so coming up with ways to get them onboard with my vision for the agency is tantamount. In my organization, having technical credibility is required to even begin moving forth a change agenda. After that, I find that resilience coupled with courage is critical.
There will inevitably be setbacks and roadblocks. Resilience is needed to overcome those setbacks and to keep coming back to try again.
TNW: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone starting a career as a technologist?
LC: Keep a laser sharp focus on your initial vision and have the courage to stick with it.
Be fluid, and embrace changes that occur in your field. Be open to emerging strategies, and seek out new and innovative ideas.
Know your inner strengths and weaknesses.
TNW: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
LC: Well, I must say having the opportunity to help strengthen the technological infrastructure of one of the World’s greatest agencies is a highlight. But one of the biggest highlights is publishing my first book, The Leadership Muse.
TNW: Have you always aspired to a career in technology? If you hadn’t chosen tech, which other career paths might you have taken?
LC: I am a computer geek at heart. I have always aspired to utilize my mathematical background within the confines of my career. Teaching has always fascinated me, as has my love of music. I can easily see myself working in both fields.
TNW: Is your current role the result of a carefully planned career strategy, or have you made the most of opportunities as they have presented themselves?
LC: My current role is a hybrid of both. I have carefully planned my career path, but I have also had the opportunity of working with some exceptional people. Their advice has been invaluable to me both personally, and professionally.
The art of listening and observing my colleagues and mentors has helped shape me into the person I am today.
TNW: Who do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?
LC: Grace Hopper. She is a mathematician, and the mother of the COBOL programming language. She invented compilers enabling us to use English words to program computers. Her goal was to empower people as a collective, rather than herself as an individual. So she brought together a diverse team to create and design together, believing that ideas from the group would be stronger than hers alone. By bringing people together, understanding the needs of those she led, and subordinating her own glory and needs, she left a giant footprint on the world.
I had the pleasure of meeting Hopper several times and I know people who interacted with her personally. She was feisty, irreverent, and clearly able to hold her own, even in the presence of giants. In the ceremony where she was promoted to commodore, her nephew related a story about how she had ordered President Reagan around. Reagan reported to be tickled with this, and the two had a natural affinity for each other. She died in 1992, but she is my hero.
TNW: Tech is a notoriously male dominated field. How (and how much) does this affect your working life, both on a daily and a long-term basis?
LC: That is true.
But, I started out as a young girl in areas dominated by boys. I played trumpet in the band and then switched to French horn.
Girls generally stayed away from brass instruments, but it didn’t scare me off at all. I was attracted to French horn and I was less fearful of it because my best girlfriend was there.
The same situation occurred in choosing to study Mathematics. I was often the only girl in the class, but it really didn’t matter. You have to be willing to be different and more importantly, you have to be willing to stand alone.
Never apologize for being a woman. And never apologize for being an African-American woman. Women are exciting, loving, engaging, and smart – all the qualities that engage followers. Having followed my destiny, I can say that it was worth the challenges that I have, and continue to face.
Someone once said, “Persistence is your measure of faith in yourself.” I believe in myself, and my abilities. I would advise any young woman to believe in hers.
TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?
LC: Well, I’m retiring April 1 after 34 years of Federal Service. This doesn’t mean that I stop work and sit on a beach – though I was hopeful for a minute.
But, I’m starting a new chapter in my book of life. I am not ready to announce what my plans are, but I plan to do something entrepreneurial and risky.
I will get to that beach one day, though.
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