The former director of the NGA urged young professionals to cultivate wider interest and opportunities in the geospatial field
VADM Robert Sharp, the former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), shared information and advice during his keynote address to the Young Professionals Group on Monday during GEOINT 2023. His initial remarks focused on the opportunities that building the Next NGA West headquarters in St. Louis represented.
“So, there I was, as the new director of NGA, and I had just been briefed on the decision that Robert Cardillo had made to build a new facility in northern St. Louis—not on a base somewhere, but in northern St. Louis. And my first reaction was, that is brilliant. I get the vision; because that is an underdeveloped area, under-connected, under-invested,” Sharp reflected. “You could build an NGA headquarters anywhere and NGA could do its mission. But this is an opportunity to really make change.”
“It is going to take cooperation and collaboration from government, federal, state, and local entities, and from business development leaders who are also philanthropists and have resources that can make things happen,” he continued. “It’s going to take academic institutions coming together. It’s going to take industry partners chipping in in ways that maybe they haven’t in the past. It’s going to take nonprofit organizations, all these things coming together.”
The retired vice admiral went on to describe a raft of programs that invigorate geospatial education and inspire future careerists. Sharp currently serves as a fellow at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and has a good view of the organizations positioned to make those changes and is pleased to see that those changes are coming to fruition.
Among the initiatives that Sharp described were:
- Helping the University of Missouri–St. Louis grow their own geospatial collaborative, not only to create a program that would allow GIS certification at the undergraduate or graduate level, but also to create a hub that could be used for multidisciplinary research.
- Helping the University of Missouri–St. Louis be a thought leader in investing in and growing K–16 and adult learning opportunities to feed the workforce.
- Supporting a talent initiative working group in line with the GeoFutures Roadmap.
Sharp is particularly excited about the creation of multiple pathways into the geospatial ecosystem, at all educational levels and through various types of end users, including academia, nonprofits, government, and private industry. He urged the audience of young professionals to get involved through what he describes as “three of my favorite ‘ships:’ scholarship, internship, and mentorship.”
“If you have a scholarship program or are interested in developing scholarship programs, come talk to us because we want to help advertise for you. Second, if you are thinking about growing internship opportunities, let us help you connect to the talent. Third, if you just want to dedicate some time and energy, create an opportunity where you can offer kids to come in and just see what the potential is out there … I guarantee if you spend your time doing it, it will be the best part of your day.”
Sharp also offered encouragement and guidance to the people beginning their careers in GEOINT. When asked about the challenge of working in an environment that is not like Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” mindset, Sharp shared an important perspective.
“I think we at NGA or within the Intelligence Community, or as a nation, need to change our mentality and accept risk a lot more,” he said. “I’ve always believed in the power of being iterative. I was just down at a Special Operations Force symposium and the commander down there was saying, ‘Hey, we fail a lot. But we try not to fail on the same thing twice.’ We try and learn from those things. Leadership needs to set that environment where that becomes our culture. The way we solve problems, it’s a strength of our nation.”
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