Q&A with NGA Deputy Director Susan M. Gordon
In April, trajectory had the opportunity to speak with National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Deputy Director Susan M. Gordon. Having joined NGA in January, Gordon shared how her previous Intelligence Community experience helps shape her decision-making in her new role and how she is helping to execute NGA Director Robert Cardillo’s vision for the agency.
HOW HAVE YOUR VARIOUS ROLES AT THE CIA AND LEADING THE DEVELOPMENT OF IN-Q-TEL PREPARED YOU FOR YOUR NEW ROLE AT NGA?
The short answer is I think I have a breadth of experiences that not only prepares me to see big challenges from various perspectives, but also my career has spanned the whole intelligence cycle from analysis to development to information technology to deliverance capability to operations back to production. I think it’s that breadth that allows me to sit in a position alongside a director with a pretty aggressive, bold vision and know how to help execute that within an organization. If I see my role is to drive that vision home, then I think I have a range of experiences that prepares me to do that.
As far as In-Q-Tel, that is a singular experience that taught me two things. First, I’ve always known the power of industry in our business. I can’t think of a single, great accomplishment that has been done without industry partners throughout IC history. The In-Q-Tel experience was really about understanding an innovation engine that is out there in this country, not necessarily in the big firms we have historically dealt with, but all over the place. Back in 1998, Silicon Valley was emblematic of that. The In-Q-Tel experience says there’s innovation and you need to reach it not only through traditional partners, but elsewhere too. In order to do that you need to approach it in a slightly different way because it’s an elusive beast much less consistent with the way big government moves. The In-Q-Tel experience at CIA was bold and aggressive and chaffing against the way we historically liked to do things. In six months time we went from an idea to implementation that has now persisted over 15 years. It came from an idea that the U.S. government recognized we couldn’t do it alone. I think I bring that experience here in this moment in time. It’s fun to realize that in its early days In-Q-Tel was most known for its investment in Google Earth, which is fundamentally a foundational GEOINT program. In a bizarre way it’s like coming home.
COULD YOU TELL ME ABOUT NGA’S NEW TRAINING WITH INDUSTRY PROGRAM? HOW WILL THIS PROGRAM BETTER THE INDUSTRY-AGENCY RELATIONSHIP?
Luckily not every great idea starts and ends with Susan M. Gordon [laughs]. That was an idea that existed well before I got in place. In 2015 you really need to have a flow-through of ideas between the public and private sector in order to make sure you have the best perspective on how you’re going to do things. One of the great ways to affect that flow-through of ideas is to give our officers the opportunity to not only experience industry and innovation from the inside, but actually to put them on the outside in order to learn everything from the way they view interaction with the government to the specifics of what they’re doing. We’ve gotten through a pilot phase and we’re looking for more partners all the time. How to better industry-agency relationships? You get better at your job by not doing your job [laughs]. One of the best things about industry-agency relationships is getting our folks to see the work through a different lens. As I say the word ‘lens,’ I keep thinking about the director’s lens of consequence. This is just a different type of consequence for a different set. I think it will be valuable—if I could go back in my career I would take advantage of it.
IN WHAT OTHER WAYS IS NGA PROMOTING INDUSTRY INNOVATION?
The first thing is through Director Cardillo’s vision, and he has been incredibly articulate and aggressive in sharing that vision with our partners and making it clear the concept of ‘Team NGA’ extends beyond the bounds of this building to all who are pursuing geospatial intelligence. That sounds cliché, but when the boss puts his marker down, he sees our future as dependent on innovation, particularly with partners. I think that’s an incredibly important signal and demand on us. He even started his first week on the job with an open letter to industry and that’s one element of promoting industry innovation. He puts the marker down and said we need more innovative industry partnerships—and he’s demanded that we deliver it.
The second piece is Robert expects me to help deliver on that promise. Of all the things he could ask a deputy to do, one of the real focal points of my job is to make that happen. In other words, not just turn it over to the system, but actually to have someone driving.
Third, Mike Geggus has taken on the role of industry innovation advocate with a fresh twist. His role isn’t just at the front end where we provide the opportunity for industry to come in and share their ideas. It’s not just the opportunity for Mike to reach out to partners and answer their concerns and address ours, but what Mike is doing is driving the back end. At the end of the day it’s fun to talk about innovation and the ideas we could pursue, but the real measure is “are we pursuing ideas?” One of the things Mike and I are doing is working with the whole organization to make sure we not only have an entry portal for ideas but also the mechanisms in place to drive adoption within the organization. This is not a new concept but what’s great about it is having someone working with various elements in our organization to achieve it.
Another element is our interest in and pursuit of where the commercial sector is going, whether it’s “darkening skies” or developing the products and services that make sense of Big Data. We’re really putting the marker on our interest in the commercial space in developing and driving the organization to figure out how we’re going to account for it. Everything from statements of intent through assignment of specific people through engagement with emergent capabilities provide an excellent chance of not just talking about innovation but actually enabling innovation to take hold of the organization.
WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S IMPORTANT NGA MOVES TOWARD BEING MORE TRANSPARENT AND LEADS THE IC IN THIS INITIATIVE?
One of the things I say is, ‘It’s a GEOINT world.’ When we put a device in every human’s hand that allows him or her to put a contextual reference for anything they want to geospatially—that is a great moment for our business. But it does put some energy into our requirement and ability to participate in that world that seems to be moving along independently of what we do. Why do we care? We are not competing with what the commercial sector is doing, but the competitiveness of the geospatial environment is something we certainly want to participate in. Our customers are living in that world and our only interest is serving their needs. We want to be a part of that great revolution because if it’s in our customers’ interest then it’s in ours.
Another reason is we have—depending on the intelligence side or the geography/cartography side—either 60 years of tradecraft or hundreds of years of tradecraft that we can bring to bear on this incredible movement happening today in GEOINT. And it must be brought to bear to serve the nation. I can’t wish for this to go back in a bottle where it’s only a few people dealing with the geospatial reference for their world. It’s everyone’s reference. I’ve got to leap into the fray and be present. If it is making our information available on the World Wide Web so first responders can react to a natural disaster—which is by definition a national security incident—then I have to do that. If I sit behind a closed environment and say ‘that’s not my space,’ we will not have served the nation with the best we bring to bear. The reason why we have to be more transparent is we have significant value to bring based on our years of knowledge and tradecraft, but the world is going to move on without us if we aren’t participating in the way it wants to interact with the information.
THE AGENCY’S GOALS TO BE MORE TRANSPARENT AND INNOVATIVE COINCIDE WITH THE ADOPTION OF MORE OPEN-SOURCE TOOLS SUCH AS GITHUB AND THE DISTRIBUTION OF APPS FOR APPLE AND ANDROID MOBILE DEVICES. WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SAY ABOUT THE ROLE THE AGENCY HAS TAKEN IN LEVERAGING OPEN-SOURCE TECHNOLOGY?
The fact that I can download one of our apps on my iPhone, which is the way I interact with the world, that is so implematic of what I just said. It’s recognizing where people want to be. I think that’s so exciting, don’t you? What’s great about open-source technology and architecture is it extends reach and makes development and availability much easier. It’s speed to use. What’s nice is it provides a standard that allows people to participate in that world and able to enter it, knowing if you do it that way it’s going to be useful. It’s accessible and that’s the way the world is turning. There’s a lot of movement and investment with the number of people developing open source, open code, and open architecture.
Our drive is consequence. For the people with a problem, we want to make our information relevant to their problem. In our movement toward the open architectures, there’s a way to leverage a natural movement and use it to deliver consequence. That sounds like a bumper sticker but it is in fact what drives us. We’re lucky because those capabilities are exactly the ones we need to extend our reach and use. My expectation is we’re going to keep pushing on this. A great example of this is the GEOINT Pathfinder initiative that is looking at how to solve intelligence problems using 100% open-source information. I would expect part of that solution space is to continue to use this avenue for this work. This is a great foundational capability that a lot of us can build off of.
HOW DOES YOUR ROLE CONTRIBUTE TO NGA’S OVERALL INNOVATION VISION?
I have proclivity for relevance that seems to overcome any comfort I have with a status quo. That’s in addition to the specific things I’ve mentioned that we as an agency are doing, over which I believe I have a responsibility to make sure actually happen. I have always been interested in doing what is necessary, not what’s comfortable, and looking at solution space that isn’t tied to what you’ve always done. On top of all the great moments and great activities we have to execute, I am a person who says ‘we can do that.’ I have a history (going back to the first question) that teaches me that philosophy works. When you use the great power of government and a vision, you can couple yourself with industry who has some pretty clever ways to go and achieve these great purposes, even if they wouldn’t have considered it five years before. In addition to being a ‘doer,’ I think I’m designed to be a ‘believer.’ Robert Cardillo has the right vision here. He has set a pretty bold course for what we need to do. He hired me in part to help make that happen.
WHAT MOST EXCITES YOU ABOUT WORKING AT NGA?
This is a great moment because geospatial intelligence can provide context for the world’s problems and solutions. If we can step into that aggressively and build on what we’ve done historically, this is when the magic happens. The second thing that excites me about working at NGA is we have excitement around the vision that’s been articulated about this critical moment. We’ve got a workplace where we are willing (and this is big for a government agency) the future to be different from the past. That means you have vision and you have willingness to step into it. NGA is still a pretty young organization. I think that makes us an optimistic bunch. It’s a delight to work with women and men who believe they are not only supposed to get to that state but want to get to that state.
ARE THERE ANY FINAL THOUGHTS YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
Innovation is a great topic. This is the crux of what we’re trying to achieve. We’re lucky to live right now when there are so many players in this space that we want to take advantage of the ideas we have not yet thought of and bring partners in for the ideas we already have. We have an opportunity to bring to bear the skill, expertise, and wisdom of past accomplishments coupled with the opportunities opening up because the world has fallen in love with geography again. It’s a pretty exciting moment. We recognize it not only for our responsibility to the nation, but also in the opportunity to do something pretty magical with our industry partners.