The future of work at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) requires the amplification of human-machine partnerships and a more productive and collaborative workforce. Increasing the efficiency and ability of the agency’s internal elements to work better together—across classifications—amplifies the intelligence products provided to its customers.
According to the 2020 Tech Focus Areas, NGA is committed to ensuring the GEOINT workforce remains agile, connected, and able to respond to mission and customer needs regardless of where they are globally. This includes acquiring tools that enable real-time collaboration across a team’s physical or organizational location; permitting secure work using open-source data in uncleared spaces; creating visualization tools that enable work with multi-dimensional data; and identifying and implementing tools that automate and adapt to specific workflows and tasks.
On Wednesday, July 22, members of the NGA team spoke at USGIF’s virtual GEOConnect Series Main Stage about their 2020 Tech Focus Area, the future of work.
“When we looked at the tech focus areas and how we wanted to convey to industry what we were looking for in terms of technology, we really wanted to make sure that we put some futuristic ideas about what work would look like for the activities, environment, and the people,” said Mark Munsell, chief technology officer, NGA, who moderated the discussion.
Working in an Unclassified Remote Environment
NGA teams need tools to work securely in unclassified and flexible workspaces in order to provide continuous access to data and mission work, while still adhering to location and security protocols. This, according to Munsell, was the challenge.
“We wrote this before the pandemic and as it turns out, it was kind of a script for us moving forward to say let’s practice some of these things that we’re looking for,” said Munsell. “We have this experience with both technology and our workforce, to operate in an unclassified and remote environment. But also, take what we do and move it to the high side, merge those things together, and provide the country the absolute best geospatial intelligence that we can.”
During the pandemic, NGA launched a program called Reimaging Unclassified IT to prioritize, sustain, and enhance systems for the future of work, as well as analyze the workflow changes needed.
“We’re [also] debating the infrastructure needs and the security implications of that,” added Mark Andress, CIO and director, CIO-T, NGA. “So that is the thinking underway. We see this as a value proposition in terms of retention, CIO-T, and even in meeting productivity.
Moving Forward in the New Normal
According to Matt Conner, chief information security officer (CISO), Director of Cybersecurity Office (TS), NGA, the agency has always had a “let’s go succeed in the open” mentality.
“We’ve had little moments where we were doing things like this, but I don’t think anybody could have forecasted where we are now,” Conner said. “[But] I’m very confident that despite the crisis-driven actions, we’ve been very judicious…Leadership within the agency understands that we have to apply appropriate controls to balance risk.”
As services are deployed, for example, to enable greater access to e-mail, Conner’s team used the agency’s co-operative hacking team or penetration testing team to kick the tires and assume an adversarial posture for those kinds of services before they exposed them to risk.
“I can imagine a future where NGA is working on essentially any iPad, any tablet, any phone. Our future doesn’t look anything like it does now, and for that reason, we have to sort of get past the idea of our perimeter or boundary,” said Conner, adding that the data experiences and computer experiences should be contextually based on where you are, not just who you are, and what access you have.
A Data Centric Agency
“When we really think about the future work, we’re thinking about a data-centric agency,” said Munsell.
For the last few years, NGA has recruited and hired individuals who are skilled in data management. It has also trained employees on the use of data to develop a level of data literacy for a data environment. And the agency has seen the future of data.
But, according to Kim Thompson, Director, Human Resources, NGA, in order to thrive in this data environment, NGA will need people with ‘soft skills.’
“We think about IT as being this deep knowledge, and you’ve got to be very technically focused. But you also have to have the soft skills—understanding, emotional intelligence, being able to lead, and innovative,” Thompson said. “Those are the things that are harder to identify, but that we need to look for in the individuals we hire and develop it to a greater extent within our own workforce.”
Part of the agency’s future of data also resides in their new west campus (N2W) in St Louis, especially in regard to building the labor force in the St. Louis metro area.
“The recognition by GeoFutures of the importance of providing those opportunities in [St. Louis],” said Sue Pollmann, program director, Next NGA Campus West (N2W) and NGA West executive, NGA, “helps NGA in our outreach to develop a more diverse workforce.”