Web exclusive Q&A with Justin Poole, the new deputy director of NGA
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your roles and responsibilities as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) new deputy director.
My background is in geography and cartography. I graduated from the University of Maryland and started at the Defense Mapping Agency (a predecessor to NGA) as a young cartographer in ’91. I worked my way through the ranks in the geospatial analysis world, and became interested in improving the systems we work on day-to-day. I got into the requirements and development world from an operational perspective, and ended up becoming NGA’s chief architect so we could design and architect our systems to better support the mission.
I got a little hungry for getting back to hands-on missions, so I went back to analysis for a time. Then I went over to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to be the mission manager for counterterrorism for two years on joint duty assignment. I came back to NGA for a bit then left on other joint duty assignment to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to support the building of new satellite capabilities as associate deputy director of IMINT.
I was asked to come back to NGA to stand up and run the Xperience directorate. I did that for several years, working on GEOINT Services and the customer experience. I was then selected to be the director of source, responsible for content and safety of navigation. Then, in August of this year, I was selected as the seventh deputy director of NGA.
My responsibilities are simple: I run the agency. NGA Director Robert Cardillo sets the strategy, leads from above, sets goals and priorities, and it’s my responsibility to execute them and run the organization.
Q: How do you plan to build upon agency initiatives to develop innovative industry partnerships?
Throughout my career, no matter what I was working on, I have always realized the value in strong industry partnerships. The challenges and the goals Director Cardillo has laid out for us require us to take a harder look at the way we approach acquiring capabilities from our industry partners and academia.
One of the ways I’m going to help NGA build better relationships with our industry partners is to revamp our acquisition processes. I know that sounds like the same thing every new deputy director says, but I have watched us get to a point where we’re a little too focused on building systems around workflows, which leads to large, waterfall developments. We need to be focused on tools and applications that center around the data and are a lot more agile. I’m going to revamp the acquisition process around being able to take advantage of different contracting mechanisms, nontraditional industry partnerships, what’s available in the open, and to not necessarily require partners automatically have SCIFs and clearances. We will build and develop on the low side and move high as necessary.
I’m also in the process of redefining the role of the component acquisition executive within NGA. That work is underway.
Q: In addition to acquisition reform, Director Cardillo has many ambitious goals for the agency. What are your plans for executing his goals?
If you really dig into the Director’s vision and goals, while they have matured as the times and technology have evolved over his three-year tenure, they have remained steadfast: to deliver relevancy to our customers, to keep us left of launch, to embrace automation and new tradecraft, and to work together to improve our culture.
We have struggled internally to understand how to manage and communicate that change not only to our workforce but also to our industry partners and among our senior cadre. The first thing I’ve done is work to implement a new organizational structure and governance process that for the first time, in my opinion, has very clear lines of responsibility, accountability, and almost by definition requires transparency and communication among senior executives charged with running those governance processes. Far too often organizations sidestep governance when it gets too hard. We’re not going to let that happen this time because part of running the business is for me to make sure the governance process is used.
The Director has asked me to accelerate the delivery of capabilities to the desktop, and in order to do so effectively and efficiently we can’t be mired down in process.
Q: Under this new organizational structure, NGA has reorganized its directorates and changed the title of chief of staff to executive director. What do these changes represent?
I’ve found throughout my career that you don’t really reorganize, you tweak to correct areas that might need some attention.
There are two major changes under this reorganization. One, we had our chief of staff loaded down with not only the enormous responsibility of a chief of staff for an agency of this size, but also with oversight of several large key components or directorates—security and installation and human development. We wanted that position to focus on the integration and synchronization of activities across the organization.
So, Ed Mornston, formerly our chief of staff, is now executive director of the agency. We studied other examples of an executive director in the community and found it to be what we were looking for. In doing so, we took the large directorates that were previously aligned to the chief of staff and created an associate director for support and aligned those directorates under that person.
We also took our international affairs organization and moved it out from under the director for operations (now called the associate director for operations) to fall under the associate director for enterprise, which aligns with our National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG)/Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence (ASG) organization called the Geospatial Enterprise. This gives our external reach one place to be focused on—NSG, ASG, and all of our international partners.
One other slight change is we re-established the west executive. This is important. Previously, the most senior person in St. Louis was the deputy chief of staff and they did deputy chief of staff work but just happened to sit in St. Louis. We had used a west executive in previous administrations and decided to bring it back. That person will be the most senior person in St. Louis and will report to the Director and myself and be our representative in the west.
Q: How did your joint duty assignments at NCTC and NRO influence your perspective on GEOINT?
I have become a card-carrying fan of the joint duty program. I can’t say enough about how excellent of an experience it is for any officer at any level within the organization. Before I had done one I felt like I didn’t need it. I felt like I knew what I needed to know. But until you immerse yourself in another organization that is part of the same community, you don’t really see the differences and the benefits.
The benefits are enormous. You get to see not only a new mission, but also you get to see your mission back at the ranch from someone else’s perspective. And you gain an expanded network of colleagues that is invaluable in the Intelligence Community (IC) where you are required to have a strong network to get anything done. The alliances, friendships, and partnerships I’ve built in my two joint duty assignments are invaluable and I still reach out to many of those people today.
You also gain an appreciation for the subtly different challenges that other organizations feel, and also get a sense of relief when you see another organization maybe having the same challenges you’re having—you don’t feel like it’s just you.
Q: What are some of the obstacles the community faces that keep you up at night?
Not only from my perch at NGA as deputy director, but as a member of the IC, what keeps me up at night is fear of failure. I’m not talking about me personally; I’m talking about the community that I grew up in and love failing in a critical way. I always want my customer to go into a fair fight and it’s my job to make sure they have that advantage.
That fear is a healthy thing to have. If I slept well at night then I’m probably not doing my job properly. A good friend and colleague once used that line with me and it resonated and holds true.
Q: As a member of the GEOINT Community for more than 25 years, what do you envision for the future of the community and tradecraft?
I would say two things, and both are very doable and we are well on our way. The first is maintaining our edge. For the longest time, the community held a monopoly on sources and now we have a world rich with new, compelling, exciting sources—whether it’s commercial satellites, new types of data, or analytic services. We’ve got to maintain our edge and take the best advantage of that available source and information to allow us to stay relevant.
The second thing is so much of our ability to handle that revolves around technology. It’s great to have tons of data, but if you don’t have the technology to make sense of it, organize it, conduct automation against it, and to drive to answers rather than eyeballs on imagery, you’re not going to be effective. Traditionally, the IC and Department of Defense have done systems or technology acquisition in a specific and often laborious way. We don’t have time for that anymore. We need to mature those processes.
Q: What are you looking for from industry and academia?
To be frank, what I need from them right now is patience. And I say that as a person who knows that in the last six to eight months my community has been less than deliberate in our preparation for requirement that have gone out to industry. In other words, we’ve put out RFPs or RFIs and then pulled them back or we’ve extended contracts. I ask them for patience, but also to help me as I mature the acquisition process to understand what I can do to help make their lives easier. I will be spending a great deal of time with industry to discuss these matters with them. I know the GEOINT Community around industry loves the mission, is patriotic, and they put up with us and are great partners. We’re going to do better together.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
I grew up in this agency. I did my time away, but this agency is my home and I feel honored and privileged to have been selected as the deputy director and I’m even more excited because I feel like I was a homegrown choice. I’m going to work doubly hard to ensure we are successful—and success is more than this agency. Success is achieved along with our industry, academic, and international partners. I feel good and I’m more excited than I’ve ever been about a job as I step into this position.
Photo Credit: NGA
USGIF founder shared what the beginning of the Foundation looked like, how the GEOINT community has changed over the years, and what receiving USGIF's 2021 Lundahl-Finnie Lifetime Achievement Award means to him.