Interview with NGA Director Robert Cardillo

NGA Director Robert Cardillo shares his vision for the future


How does it feel to return to your imagery roots?

I think my history has advantages and some potential drawbacks, and I’m still working my way through what goes into which category. I was born into this business—my first full-time position, first professional development experience, et cetera. It will certainly be interesting to have been the most junior employee in this business and to now see the organization as its director. And I’m passionate about this business, so I don’t need to be talked into it or wonder what the power of geospatial intelligence could be. I’ve been able to experience that inside and out.

On the challenges side, it’s not 1983 anymore. Even since 2006, when I left NGA to go to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), GEOINT is a different business. I have to be mindful that while I am proud of and lean heavily on that history, it also isn’t today. I encourage all of the professionals in our business to remember that the key to success is self-awareness—being confident and proud of their contributions to any conversation or partnership—and being equally comfortable knowing that their contributions are limited. I think if I can balance those two, I will have a better shot at taking advantage of the positives and not getting tripped up by the negatives.

Quick story: when I was the most junior employee, I was 21, and my eyes were filled with top-secret code and James Bond. I wanted to immediately go into the spy business. And they sent me to Arlington Hall Station, which isn’t here anymore. It was a World War II era, creaky old building. And they sent me into this room with one of those old metal desks you see on police dramas with cinder block walls. Then they gave me my first assignment, which was to get a whole bunch of dot matrix printer paper and they said, ‘You need to move that into the burn bags and it can’t be any larger than 1-inch strips.’ There’s a callus on my hand that I still have from three days of tearing dot matrix paper. So that was my inauspicious debut.

How do you plan to carry on intelligence integration in your role at NGA?

A benefit of moving to DIA in 2006 was my ability to see and work with NGA from DIA’s perspective. When you go to DIA and look back at NGA, it looks different. It was hugely valuable. Then, when I went to ODNI, I was sort of a partner, but more of a demander. I was: ‘I need X at this time frame or the world’s going to spin off its axis and crash into the moon or something.’ Everything was a crisis, and I needed it immediately. So I went from an internal leader to an external partner to a senior demander. Now that I’m back inside, my approach to instilling this sense of integration is to try to see everything we do through the lens of consequence. There’s a reason I use that word. Consequence is whatever a customer decides is mission success.

We create content at NGA. We place that content into context for a living. That’s what a map is. A map is a contextual, visual depiction of a geographic area. We do the same thing with imagery products. We don’t just tell them what happened over night. We tell the customer what happened over the past 10 years, and we project that history forward to tell them what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, next year. It’s necessary for us to create that content. It’s necessary for us to create the context around that content. However, it is insufficient if we stop there. And we must integrate. We must—and another sequence in my C-construct is—convey that information. Content and context must be conveyed to get to consequence. We contextualize with multiple sources. All of that is integration, and it sets the conditions for customers to achieve their consequence.

Take whatever you’re doing, flip the lens, and look at it through the eyes of your customer. When you do that and you can see the potential consequence on that side, you’re good. If you do that and you can’t see consequence, maybe we’re doing legacy things that aren’t as consequential as they used to be. We should question those things. Especially in this budgetary environment, we’ve got to ask those hard questions. I’m going to use this construct of consequence to create this lens.

In what ways do you believe your experiences at ODNI will influence your leadership at NGA?

It’s another doubled-edged sword. I need to be careful and mindful. We have many people who are doing 7/24 work, supporting Central Command, in a clearly tactical dynamic. I don’t believe the director of NGA should be in that dynamic. I want to be aware of those activities, but I don’t want to be in the way of them. There might be a person or two in the organization a little worried or maybe a little excited—depending on their view—that I’m going to move into the NGA Operations Center (NOC) and sit in the ‘Captain Kirk’ chair and start spinning myself around saying, ‘Point the satellite. Take the picture.’ I was ‘Mr. Tactical’ in my last job, and I used to make those phone calls to the NOC, but not now.

I had the privilege the last four years to see and participate in the confluence of intelligence and policy. To be able to see how our customers use our output is invaluable. I would hope I can bring that sense of urgency, and I don’t mean in the sense of ‘you have to do this in five minutes.’ We’re involved in a mighty cause, and I need to be able to convey that to the senior leadership team and the workforce as much as I can—how important their work is. I know they hear that a lot. But, I had the opportunity to sit at the center and see what worked, what didn’t work, and how people reacted to certain types of products and services. I will try to pass on that sense of live theater. My theory is that every one of our team members wants to make a difference and provide consequential intelligence to the customer. But, they might not know how, or what question to ask, or how to make sure. If I can create that view and set the conditions to incentivize the workforce, we will perform at even higher levels. My bias is, if you’re excited about your job and connected to your customer, you’ll produce better content, better context, and better consequences.

Can you elaborate on some of the themes and initiatives you will drive as director?

When I was doing analysis of the Soviet Union, using a light table, clicking off tanks, and counting armored personnel carriers, we owned the medium. There was no competition. From where I sat, in a windowless office in the Navy Yard, we were in our own world. And that’s a nice world to live in, if you can afford it, and if your adversary is slow enough and monolithic enough to tolerate such a pace. Thank goodness the Soviet Union was slow enough and monolithic enough, and quite frankly, not smart enough. We were able to outlast them. Fast forward, suffice it to say, we do not own this space anymore. It is not a monopoly.

If you wanted to take an image from outer space in 1985, you didn’t have a whole lot of choices. You needed a top-secret clearance and a way to task the U.S. government Intelligence Community. We don’t live in that space anymore, and I believe if we don’t fully engage in and join that broader community—government, contractor, and academic—in this vibrant geospatial marketplace, it will be to our detriment. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, I walked into NGA and they had no idea that all of those things were going on.’ But, I’m going to challenge us to strengthen that engagement and those partnerships. I want to take advantage of the power of that vibrancy and energy that’s going on out there. And, I think we can benefit richly from that exchange, in an innovation and adaptive technology sense.

Many of our customers have very exquisite questions and operations. There’s a time and a place to be in this very narrowly compartmented area, and we have to protect that. And we have to get even better at that, too. So, I do think we have small niches where we need to exquisitely pursue a specific application because of the mission import, or the customer import, or both. But beyond that, I look forward to the competition. I think it is, and will be, constructive. The message I want to send to our workforce and to our partners is that we are open for partnership, and I’d like to constructively compete with you. If we’re both pursuing some function or capability and you’ve got the angle on it and are ready to deliver it, I’m ready to thank you. And I understand that thank you might have a check with it, but that’s what I mean about constructively compete. I think there’s so much for us to take advantage of. While it was nice back in the day to have that windowless office and nobody to compete with, it was not a model that could survive.

Building off that, what will be some of the core elements of your future strategy for the agency?

We have to be a better partner, and we have to find better partners. I hope industry doesn’t take that the wrong way, I don’t mean we have bad partners right now, but it’s a two-way street.

I’ve been remiss in not mentioning our allies, and actually I think NGA is the model in the consortiums that have been developed and all of the geospatial agreements that exist. Even though we all understand we’re the biggest dog and bring the most to the table, my view about those kind of partnerships is it doesn’t matter what size you are—if you’re a small country with limited resources or whatnot—to me what you bring to the table goes back to my comment about self-awareness. ‘You’re from country X, you speak language Y, you have history Z.’ All of that is a gift that creates a different lens through which you see the problem or opportunity. It’s not a math game. It’s not a sense of scale. It’s a sense of perspective.

I want to instill a sense of acceptable risk. I want the NGA workforce and our partners to know, if you innovate, if you experiment, if you take a couple steps outside the extant policy, and your purpose is to move to a more consequential exchange or engagement or output and it doesn’t go well, I’ll be your top cover. And that’s not carte blanche to throw away security and all rules and regulations. But we do not have a large, slow, and monolithic adversary. While we have those on our spectrum of adversaries, most of our customers’ interests are on agile, adaptive, learning adversaries. If that’s who we’re defending the nation against, we have to be more adaptive and agile. And the only way you’re going to do that is if you’re allowed to accept more risk. If you’re doing it for the right reason and you have the right mindset, and your intention is consequential output for your customers, I’ll accept well-meaning mistakes along that path.

I also want all of our personnel to prompt their customers with offers and ideas. This is a little bit of a twist on the risk piece because that can be risky. Those conversations don’t always go well. Take that competitive world and that interactive geospatial community, and combine that with the adversary, which is crossing boundaries like nobody’s business. Al Qaeda has no interest in Rand McNally. It doesn’t mean anything to them—they’re creating their own geography. With those two conditions, we have to become more proactive and prompt questions, offer solutions, and present products and services to our customers that they didn’t ask for. I’d like to be able to provide the confidence to the workforce that I’ll cover them in those engagements.

What do you think NGA needs most from industry right now?

It’s a partner question, and industry is our partner now. And thanks to USGIF, for one, for creating those conditions to further that partnership. I appreciate that we’re not alone. The market is crowded, and I’m excited about that crowd. As a culture, we tend to be reactive, at least my generation, and that could very well change. We must create an innovative consortium and benefit from the vast research and development that industry has, and have conversations about needs, desires, requirements, etc. I understand there are ways that you have to have those conversations to create a fair competition for fewer and fewer government dollars. But within that framework, I’m more than open to innovative solutions.

I strongly believe the Director of National Intelligence is quite serious about following through on his commitment and dedication to the IC ITE proposition and creating more conditions for integration. As I understand the IC ITE model on the technology side, you’re not going to see a whole lot of five, seven, or 10-year contracts. I can’t imagine how I could tell you what my requirements will be in five years, much less seven or 10.

So here’s a specific challenge to industry: I know, given our customers and our adversaries, that we must be agile. If we’re not agile, we’re not relevant. If we’re not relevant, we’re not needed. We need industry to help us with that agility. We don’t need to own all of the parts to the solution, but we do need to own and be responsible for the output. When we turn it over to a customer, we stand behind it. Whether it’s a navigation tool, a targeting solution, or a long-term geospatial study of the Arctic, we fully stand behind it. And we are very comfortable locking arms with industry and allied partners on the way there.

How will GEOINT credentialing better the community and advance tradecraft?

To me, this is a win-win. As I step into the position of NGA director, I will have functional management responsibilities for this profession inside the government, and I take those very seriously. And I know I need help to do that. I want and need USGIF’s dedicated assistance in crafting, refining, and developing these credentials. My concept of operations is, we work on them together, because USGIF as an organization has great access to credentialing expertise. So, I want to blend our expertise to create the set of credentials that helps my workforce both ground and grow their profession. I want those credentials to be available and apply to contracted services, and USGIF can help in doing that.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The competition I described a number of times, that’s not just a geospatial issue, it’s an IC issue. In my last job, I ran into lots of principals, at a lot of different venues, at a lot of different times. You’ve got to compete for their attention. That’s step one. You have to find a hook. Once you get their attention, your time is very limited. It’s a world full of information. They have choices, and those choices don’t have to be us. We need to understand that it is a different relationship, a different equation than it ever has been. I don’t want this to sound like, ‘If we don’t change, we’ll die,’ because I don’t actually believe that. But, I do believe the upside for our business is so high, that if we can improve our relationships, create more business, create more reciprocally productive partnerships, take advantage of, and build upon, the innovation going on in the unclassified, open and academic worlds, the more we will have to offer. And that offering can and should be interactive, responsive, and proactive to customers that I can only imagine are going to become busier and more distracted. We’re going to be competing with more and more sources of information going forward.

The business the IC is in is storytelling. I know it sounds a bit simplistic or like we’re Entertainment News. But let’s face it, if we don’t tell a compelling story—one that informs, alerts, warns, and educates customers to understand their problems in a way they didn’t before—we’re going to struggle. This is not, ‘Oh no, the end is near.’ It’s rather the opposite. It’s, ‘Oh yes, look at the heights we can move to.’

Return to feature story: Conveying Consequence

Posted in: Features, Perspective   Tagged in: 2014 Issue 4, Innovation, Intelligence, NGA

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