Sue Kalweit Interview

Christy Monaco, USGIF VP of Programs, recently spoke with Sue Kalweit, former senior associate for culture and leadership excellence at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, to discuss reimagining unclassified work and more.


Monaco: Good morning. I am Christy Monaco, the vice president of programs with the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. And I am so pleased this morning to be joined by Sue Kalweit, the senior associate for culture and leadership excellence at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Sue, welcome.

Kalweit: Christy, it’s great to be here. Thank you for this opportunity to chat with you.

Thank you for joining us today. We are planning to talk a little bit about NGA’s efforts to explore and expand how it operates in the unclassified domain. We’re doing so because we are getting ready to publish a white paper at USGIF about reimagining unclassified work and platforms. Sue, I know this is a topic that NGA thought a lot about particularly during the pandemic and I know it’s something that you personally have thought a lot about in your role at NGA. Before we get going, could you just explain a little bit about what your role is at NGA? 

My work at NGA is about assessing our culture. How do the members of Team NGA experience their day-to-day lives and work within the workplace of NGA? What are the healthy culture habits that we have, and what are some things in our culture that are inhibiting the highest performance that Team NGA can have? In 2021, Alex Glade and I conducted a culture assessment with help from across Team NGA. Through that assessment, we identified healthy culture activities in NGA and areas where we can improve. That report is getting ready to be released to the workforce in another week. We will spend time this year developing a way to measure the culture so that we know how we’re progressing and what actions we need to take to advance it. This is about making the human-machine team at NGA operate at its highest performing levels by creating an environment where every teammate feels they can thrive.

That’s fantastic. I can’t wait to hear a little bit more about the Culture Assessment. You just mentioned the human-machine teaming and that’s something you and I have spoken about before. I thought it’d be fun for folks to hear your thoughts directly about this. There’s a lot of attention that’s put into the technology side of adopting new tools, but I know you always want to remind us to think about the human side of adopting such tools. Can you talk a little bit about how NGA is approaching the human side of reimagining how it works?

Absolutely. I want to build on your point that we spend so much time focusing on optimizing the machine, it’s time and energy that we also need to equally spend in optimizing the human side. Optimizing the human side comes in two flavors. Flavor number one is skills and knowledge. That is the work we’re doing to upskill and reskill our talent and to recruit and hire a broad and diverse talent pool in the STEM areas. The second component of the human-machine team is motivation and inspiration, the piece that allows agility, innovation, creativity and collaboration to flourish. That’s where our culture activities as well as our leader development evolution come into play. Creating the kind of environment where teammates feel it’s safe to learn, and perhaps not get it right the first time but continuing to learn. And to do so by reaching out and engaging in a collaborative way, with teammates who have different skill sets, different backgrounds, different experiences. creating that inclusive environment and making it how we do our work.

Very interesting. When you talk about needing the culture to allow for that innovation and collaboration to flourish, in the bright spots throughout NGA, what’s in common there? What’s the secret sauce that allows those sorts of behaviors to flourish?

What I saw during the pandemic was leaders encouraging new things. And recognizing that if it doesn’t work, we’re going to build on what we learn and move forward. A couple weeks after I’d sent a large portion of my workforce home, a couple of teammates began asking if could we start doing baseline reporting on the unclassified. They came back a week later and said we’re going to come back with a plan. Their plan was, we’re going to study this for a couple of months and then we’ll tell you how we’re going to get started. I said we’re not going to study, we’re going to get started. Those two teammates went back, identified a couple of branches who were ready and willing to take that first leap into the unclassified. And that too, is key—courage, folks who are willing to take that risk. Two weeks later, we had our first unclassified baseline report. It was written by a branch that works in a special access program, so they typically work in very, very classified areas. And they wrote the first unclassified baseline. From that moment forward, things just started to explode.

That is such a great story and example of everybody pulling together in a time where it wasn’t just sort of the organizational, cultural aspects, you had something else going on that forced that to happen. And I know that NGA has been leveraging unclassified data and commercially available data capabilities for years. There’s this school of thought that because it’s classified, it must be better or more special. But on the flip side, do you think there are missions where GEOINT customers would prefer unclassified data?

Christy, we’re seeing that right now in the Russia-Ukraine war that’s going on. We’re seeing that from our industry partners who are publishing annotated images of where Russian forces are on their march through Russia into Ukraine. They’re providing regular updates on it. There’s no doubt that classified data has a really critical role in providing information that is otherwise not known through commercial means. There’s also no doubt that commercial data has value in today’s national security environment. We also know that there is an information war going on. Who better to share observations of what the adversary is up to using open source and commercially available data than NGA, the eyes of our nation. That contributes to the information that we need to publish about what our adversaries are up to, to counter what our adversaries are claiming to do. There is a need in today’s national security environment for unclassified GEOINT information, from the intelligence community, as well as from our commercial industry partners.

For years, we have turned to unclassified GEOINT data and products when it comes to things like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and for topics like climate change. But having a global situation, where you have diplomatic interests and military interests and economic interests at play, having unclassified GEOINT that is easily shareable and rapidly produced, I think, is a real strategic advantage we have. A bit of a follow up question to that though is, are there missions where you think customers should be leveraging unclassified GEOINT but aren’t?

I think we’re in a learning stage right now, and understanding the role of unclassified data and sources combined with our classified. Before the pandemic, we thought about commercial but it was commercial data that was coming into our classified workflow. It was integrated into classified reporting. During the pandemic, we looked at what unclassified reporting is, now we’re in a time and place to start asking ourselves how does the ability to do unclassified reporting, starting with unclassified sources, and pushing it into the classified space, work into our workflow end to end? It’s that end-to-end workflow that we need to continue to explore and experiment with.

Do you think there are advantages or disadvantages to those two different approaches that maybe you could further explain?

The advantage of starting classified and then working to make that unclassified, is a more familiar process, more in our comfort zone. We are ready to do that. The disadvantage is, if we’re focused on just getting what we have classified out as unclassified, we lose the opportunity to expand our horizons for what all unclassified sources can bring. If you start unclassified, you’re in search of anything and everything, whether it be imagery or other unclassified geospatial data that you can use to answer the key intelligence questions. You have a diversity of sources. You also have a diversity of humans involved, so you get a diversity of perspectives. This starts to play into the future and wanting to bring in greater diversity of experience and expertise and backgrounds. We’ve got to acknowledge that the future workforce doesn’t all want to live in Washington D.C., that the future workforce will want to have some type of remote work options. If you think about starting unclassified, you now open your talent door wider. You get a diversity of sources and a diversity of talent to create insights that can go out unclassified rapidly and then pushed up into the classified world where now you’ve got a new set of diverse sources and talent and experience to add to that. I think that the diversity bonus you get by starting unclassified and pushing up is the biggest advantage, and for me, personally, overrides the advantage of a comfortable place of starting classified.

We spent some time in the white paper that we’re getting ready to publish addressing that very point. And in fact, think of it as the potential to have what we call a geographically agnostic GEOINT Enterprise. That diversity bonus means you could potentially have a workforce that is spread out globally, leveraging sources from many different places. You did mention that the diversity of sources and diversity of commercially available sources, many of the tools that NGA needs to deliver against its mission imperatives, are commercially available tools, but many of those aren’t necessarily purpose-built for NGA analysts. Can you talk a little bit about how NGA explores the use of such capabilities?

I love this question, Christy. For so long, we’ve talked about COTS technologies, and how we take advantage of that. We’ve created a workflow where we’ve taken COTS technologies and we’ve adapted them for our workflows. We’ve adapted them to also accept our classified data formats. Today, we’re in the world of smart machines, AI, machine learning, cloud technologies, what are commercial tools in this new IT world? I wonder how the paradigm shifted—we’re now talking about a toolbox of commercial capabilities, to build algorithms, to build software applications, to connect to data sources in the cloud. I readily go to something that we created in NGA, an electronic table, called I-Spy. We call it GOTS because we created it in the government, but we created it from commercially available technologies that are cloud-based. It makes me think, is it a commercial tool? Or is it a government tool? What is the definition of commercial as we move into this new technology frame? I’m now of the mindset, that commercial tools are what we create and build and take advantage of in the world of AI, machine learning and cloud computing.

Switching gears just a little bit, one of the things that you and I have also talked about is that unclassified work doesn’t equal telework. And how does telework or remote work relate to hybrid work in an NGA context? Could you maybe share some more of your thoughts on that?

This question gives me a chance to brag about NGA and our new campus West, which we’re very, excited about. Well before the pandemic, we were rethinking unclassified work in NGA spaces. We created not only completely unclassified workspace in our new campus, but also workspace that can go from the most classified to unclassified, it has that sort of flexibility. Unclassified work does not equal remote work, or telework, it’s about the access to sources and the fabric that you’re working on, and the customers that you’re connected to. The role of remote work in hybrid work, my personal view, is the human mindset, the freedom that many teammates felt to be creative and more connected to their purpose, and feeling that they had more autonomy to master their mission. I see an importance of the remote work environment and hybrid work environment to create that freedom of innovation that teammates seek to feel their purpose and excel in the mission. As I look at the future workforce and what they’re expecting of their future work environment: flexibility, autonomy, the ability to bring all of what they have, their experience, their knowledge and to learn from others, to have access to resources and expertise outside of just their immediate work branch, tells me that the remote work environment is critical for us attracting and retaining the future talent we need for our mission.

As you know, I was still at NGA at the beginning of the pandemic and one of the things that struck me aside from that feeling of freedom to explore and having a little more autonomy, and the ability to build mastery, was also how humanizing it became particularly for the workforce, to see their leadership in a home environment and to understand, ‘hey, everybody’s got something going on, family, everybody’s got laundry to take care of, my cat just jumped into the screen a little while ago, everybody began to connect, I think, even though we were so physically disconnected, there was almost an emotional connection that I really felt NGA was able to kind of take advantage of as well.

There’s research to prove how you felt. The research is pointing to the fact that coming out of the pandemic, workers, generally speaking, feel differently about what’s important to them. They want to work for organizations and leaders who show empathy, who show care, who are humanizing, who support flexibility and autonomy and who can relate to me as a person, not just as somebody who’s sitting in the boss’s seat.

Can you give us a preview of what the Culture Assessment is going to say?

In short, what the Culture Assessment says is that we have many healthy culture activities. NGA has an employee council, a supervisory council, our NGA professional network, where the voice of Team NGA can be heard and have a seat at the table with the senior leaders of NGA. Our flexible work policies on the human side of things are other very healthy culture initiatives. Also, our diversity, equity and inclusion activities, which we do to increase diverse representation as well as improve inclusivity and behaviors that support inclusion are healthy activities. But we have room for improvement. The Culture Assessment identified eight areas where we can advance our culture.

One last question: I hear you’re preparing to retire. What’s next for you? And what do you hope to see the agency continue to evolve when it comes to how the agency works to complete its mission?

Thanks, Christy, I am preparing to retire. It’s an exciting time. It’ll be a second return to industry for me. I’m focused in three areas as I move back into industry. The first two start at the intersection of the human-machine team and working to help organizations optimize the human side of the human-machine team in ways that we had talked about. And bringing my mission knowledge and expertise into optimizing the analytics component of the human-machine team, looking at ways that analytics are built with the human knowledge, expertise and experience in mind, and are answering the questions customers have and the intended use of those analytics. The third piece for me is integrating my passion around diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility and culture. Doing good is good business. I want to enable diversity and inclusion that creates higher mission and business outcomes.

Sue, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. I know with your last week on the job, there are many things you could be doing, and spending some time with us was a true gift to our community. And thank you so much for your many years of service, both in industry and in government. And we are very much looking forward to seeing what’s next for you.

Thank you again, Christy. I look forward to continuing our relationship with USGIF. Best of luck to you at the Symposium.

Posted in: Features   Tagged in: Sunday – April 24

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