Status Report

NASA Goddard CIO Blog Speaking Mission: When You’re Not Talking to Ancient Romans and Geeks

By SpaceRef Editor
July 19, 2008
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Politicians have debated the need for immigrants to be able to speak English. I don’t really want a piece of that debate, but, maybe CIOs need to be able to speak English – or more specifically, speak Mission. In other words, speak in terms our customers and stakeholders understand versus IT jargon and Geek-speak.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing a Gartner Analyst, Richard Hunter, talk about the merits of CIOs speaking and measuring their performance in terms that the business understands. I explained to him that at NASA, we would understand that to mean CIOs should speak and measure in terms that “the Mission” understands. And in a wonderful example of eating is own dog food, he easily made the translation to NASA-speak.

Speaking Mission has important implications for thinking about IT as a “cost” versus IT as an “investment”. Consider … “The Office of the CIO proposes spending $500,000 to upgrade and modernize the network backbone to provide 1G data rates” versus “The Office of the CIO proposes investing $500,000 to upgrade the science building infrastructure to promote collaboration and information sharing needed to create science products and exchange large amounts of data”.

I was talking to one of my colleagues at Goddard not too long ago; a very smart gentleman, Dr. J. I was telling him that one of the things that we need to do strategically is establish (and live in) a federated architecture to help us define and identify our “as-is” state, our “to-be” state, and develop our IT Capital Plan for how we are going to get to the “to-be” state in terms of our business, applications, data, and technology infrastructure. He nodded politely with approval and thus affirmed in my mind that indeed I was a very smart CIO. Then he said to me that was all well and good, and a great idea, but what we really need is something that documents what we have, documents our mission requirements, and gives us a plan for how to meet the mission requirements – then we just need to figure out if we can afford it. Gulp. Isn’t that what I just said?

I had a flashback to an encounter I had in a store. I ran into Sanford Speight, a former classmate of mine in Mr. Cave’s eighth-grade Latin class. After 30 years, I was surprised I still recognized him and called out his name. I reminded him that I was in his Latin class at Kelly Miller Junior High School in Washington, DC. He said to me, “Oh yes, I remember. You’re the only person that I have ever known, to this day, that could actually speak in Latin.” Boy, I’m glad that I didn’t say to him what I really wanted to say when I saw him … “Mene memoria tenetis?” I suppose only an ancient Roman would appreciate that query.

I got a real lesson from Dr. J. that day and from Sanford. The answer was no; I spoke in IT terms and not in terms that were relevant. So, to him, I didn’t say that, or more accurately, I said, “blah, blah, blah”. I was speaking IT jargon and not speaking to him in terms that were relevant to him as a leader of one of our lines of business.

Hunter emphasized this in his discussions with us. CIOs who successfully deliver business (Mission) performance through IT, face a future of great opportunity and increased influence when they talk and act like this. Sooner or later they will be viewed as tied to and relevant to the mission.

Linda Y. Cureton

SpaceRef staff editor.