Elevating the GEOINT Profession

Former NGA Director Robert Cardillo reflects on his tenure at the helm of the agency and shares his insights on the GEOINT Community’s future


Former National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Robert Cardillo recently spoke with trajectory magazine about the significant changes the rapidly accelerating GEOINT Community experienced during his time as director.

Cardillo, who led the agency since 2015, passed the baton to new NGA Director Vice Adm. Robert Sharp in a ceremony at the agency’s Springfield, Va., campus Feb. 7.

Cardillo described the state of the agency at the end of his tenure as “healthy,” “forward-leaning,” and “risk-tolerant.” In his trajectory “exit interview,” he also shared his insights on the future of the GEOINT workforce and the Community’s growing presence in the St. Louis region.

Succeeding with the Open

The former director recalled how early on at the head of NGA he adopted the phrase “Succeed in the Open” to acknowledge that the agency’s proud and mostly closed past must adapt to a changing profession and world.

He also noted how a junior colleague was quick to propose a wise amendment to his then newly coined phrase, suggesting the agency succeed “with” rather than “in” the open. 

“The advance of our profession is now occurring predominantly beyond our control,” Cardillo said, noting how nearly every aspect of the economy is now location-based as new applications and programs are introduced daily that create value for companies while saving consumers both time and money.

This new era of democratized and commoditized geospatial information is a “rising tide” for NGA, fostering increased conversancy and proficiency regarding the tradecraft. This leads to a pool that is not only deeper, but also richer, Cardillo said.

“The bad news is we aren’t the only people fishing,” he added, referring to talent. “So, we have to be better at selling the mission and selling a career of growth and opportunity that is rewarding and enriching.”

Despite changing times, Cardillo believes NGA will continue to seek team members who are “passionate, intellectually curious, and motivationally driven.”

He also predicted progress toward the open will only continue to grow.

“I would observe as we sit here in 2019, whatever I experienced in the past four years will be overwhelmed in a positive way in the next four.”

A 100-Year Investment

The agency’s Next NGA West campus in North St. Louis presents a significant opportunity for NGA to find even more new ways to succeed in the open.

“When I look at those 97 acres I see a canvas and I cannot be more excited about what we will be able to create on that campus and with that community,” Cardillo said, adding the agency placed a significant bet on North St. Louis that is about much more than the projected $1.7B cost of the new facility. “We’re a recovering monopoly and we are trying to think our way through cooperation, competition, and so on. What a gift it is to have that property, in that timeframe, in an era in which the profession is growing so greatly. We get to design a workspace to take advantage of that.”

The agency’s next Western campus is expected to be much more connected to the outside world—though still secure—and to offer even more opportunities for uncleared expertise to engage with government counterparts.

Cardillo described the opportunity as “once in a lifetime—or longer.”

“It’s a 100-year bet. We have to get it right.”

Changes & Challenges

Regardless of the excitement surrounding the proliferation of geospatial information, rapid technological and cultural changes can be difficult for any workforce—and NGA is no different.

“There are some unintended messages that come through when you talk about so much change,” Cardillo said, citing examples such as whether certain skill sets will still be in demand.

“People might think ‘NGA is growing away from me,’” he said. “What we need is, ‘I’m going to grow with NGA.’”

Cardillo noted there were some challenges early in his tenure surrounding these questions and acknowledged NGA’s Office of Career Services should have been better resourced sooner to help the workforce prepare for the changing landscape.

“I think the agency is in a good place now and well poised to continue to grow on that path,” he said.

A more open GEOINT Community has also made data integrity an increasing challenge—one which culminated in NGA creating its Office of GEOINT Assurance under Cardillo’s leadership.

“In the old days we controlled and owned everything, and in such a world one of the benefits was you didn’t have to worry much about pedigree, provenance, or answering questions about where the data came from,” Cardillo said.

Alongside data integrity, he predicted cyber hygiene will be of growing importance in the coming years.

“We have to sustain if not grow the confidence, integrity, and credibility we must have as IC professionals or we don’t get invited into the room.”

Looking Ahead

Cardillo described his outlook for the future of the GEOINT profession as “bullish,” and described considerable excitement for future capabilities.

“This discipline is going to continue to thrive,” he said. “I would caution teammates on the government side of the profession to not rest on those laurels. Our job is to add value. It’s great that the tide is rising but we serve to ensure the fight isn’t fair, that there is advantage. It’s going to be harder and harder to do that.”

Cardillo described USGIF as a “showcase, educator, connector, and integrator” for the community.

“It’s all about who can make the best network,” he said. “It takes a network to defeat a network.”

These connections are important both technologically and culturally.

“I encourage [trajectory] readers to think about how they can elevate conversations about value propositions, roles, functions, and public-private relationships if not partnerships,” Cardillo said. “It’s about how we grow the broader geospatial ecosystem in a way in which we can create more value for the country.”

Headline Image: Robert Cardillo gives a keynote address at USGIF’s GEOINT 2018 Symposium.

Posted in: News   Tagged in: Data, Innovation, Intelligence, NGA

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