Written in the stars

Linda Cureton
Linda Cureton

After serving as Chief Information Officer at NASA until April this year, Linda Cureton tells Lynne Nolan about her tenure as part of a mission that touches the hearts and souls of every human on this planet.

While it was great watching the last mighty Space Shuttle launch, it was even better feeling the ground shake, feeling the heat, hearing the sonic boom, and feeling the power that lifted brave souls to low Earth orbit.

After retiring in April this year after almost 34 years of federal service and having served as Chief Information Officer at NASA for three and a half years, Linda Cureton is now at the helm as CEO of her own “sizzling start-up,” Muse Technologies.

Linda Cureton reflects on the tenure, enthusing that “It was my vision to make the NASA IT program the very best in government.”

“As an aside, internally, our goal was to be the best in the universe – after all, we were NASA.  I believe that this IT organization has indeed been able to make this claim.  The IT program is known as forward-leaning and innovative.  Moreover, the program is known as one that gets hard things done,” Cureton comments.

“I enjoyed being part of a mission that touches the hearts and souls of every human on this planet.  While it was great watching the last mighty Space Shuttle launch, it was even better feeling the ground shake, feeling the heat, hearing the sonic boom, and feeling the power that lifted brave souls to low Earth orbit,” she says.

On her move to helm her own company Muse Technologies, she says that “after just a short period of time, I have to say I absolutely love it.  It’s scary, risky, and exciting.  Muse specializes in IT transformation – this is what I have been doing for decades.  I am eager to continue to provide this much-needed service to other organizations.”

Cureton studied a BS in Mathematics (Cum Laude) with a minor in Latin at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, where she received an M.S. in Applied Mathematics, in addition to a post-Masters Advanced Certificate in Applied Mathematics.

Although Cureton was always interested in Mathematics, that was not always the case with technology.

While she was at school, Cureton worked as a student assistant cartographer making maps. At that time, people used pen and ink to create nautical charts, while computers were just starting to be experimental. As a left-hander, her hand kept smearing the ink on the charts, so she was punished by being banished to working on the computers, she recalls.

In undergraduate, she happily took her required coursework along with her favourite classes in Math, Latin, and Classics, and almost had enough credits to have a double major – a B.S. in Mathematics and a B.A. in Classics.  “All I needed was one year of ancient Greek.  However, it seemed to be too much trouble to this young co-ed.  To my dismay, a guidance counsellor caught this and decided that I must have computer classes since I was a Mathematics major.  Reluctantly, I complied – only maliciously so.”

“I waited until the last minute until all the classes were full.  After failing to get into a computer class I returned to the counsellor who just happened to know of one class that had only one student.  It was IBM Assembler Language.  To us old programmers, this language is what real programmers use.  As it turned out, I liked it and took another course in FORTRAN,” she adds.

Cureton first started working for NASA after attending university jobs fair, at which NASA happened to be recruiting. NASA was looking for outstanding scholars, who were Mathematicians and knowledgeable in IBM Assembler and FORTRAN to program on what was then considered a supercomputer. She stayed for two years working as an Aerospace Technology Mathematician.

As NASA CIO, Cureton was responsible for being an active member of the NASA Administrator’s executive leadership team, providing him and others with advice about all IT matters in NASA, as well as holding responsibility for providing centralized IT services, for example desktop, network, web hosting, and agency-wide application support.

IT has been transformed at NASA, she believes, having moved from an extremely decentralized IT service orientation to one enterprise approach that is able to provide consistent and efficient services to the entire agency.

“This was and continues to be an extremely daunting change management task.  Decentralized services are often optimized to specific program needs.  Centralized services are optimized to a base requirement that leverages economy of scale and managed configurations,” she admits, on being asked about the main challenges of the role.

An acquisition and sourcing strategy in NASA’s Information Technology Infrastructure Integration Program (I3P) implemented used key contracts, the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) standards and an integrated in-sourced call centre delivered critical solutions.

“Challenges existed in managing change – to include customer expectations; transitioning service providers; and defining an actionable architecture in a heterogeneous environment.  In essence, NASA’s diverse environment does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.

As the NASA CIO, providing IT solutions to the best engineers and scientists on the planet is humbling, she says. “Often, these thought-leaders, who are very technically knowledgeable, don’t necessarily appreciate the discipline of IT. Being a humble servant to these technical giants requires resilience, talent, and patience.”

While the numbers often say yes, in regards to women being fairly represented in senior management positions at leading companies in the technology sector, “I must say that it doesn’t always feel that way,” she says, referring to Rebecca Shambaugh’s book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, which “challenges us to examine our beliefs checking them to determine if they are limiting us in any way.  She goes on to say that ‘…in order to reach your potential, it’s essential to acknowledge the beliefs that you hold about yourself, as well as your belief about other people and the world around you.’”

Shambaugh reminds readers to examine these self-beliefs periodically, she says. And so in answering this question, Cureton says she had to examine herself and “wonder if it feels this way because it is – or if it feels this way because of my own limiting reaction to intentional or unintentional workplace biases.  For myself, I must say it’s a little of both. The numbers suggest women are still underrepresented as CEOs of top companies.”

Cureton believes women bring a different style of leadership to companies, and “I think that women are the best leaders to have in times of difficult change. The so-called female traits of empathy, intuition, and collaboration are game-changing leadership characteristics in an environment where people are afraid to change, facts are scarce, and the collective wisdom of a critical mass is needed.”

She believes her own strong points are the traits of empathy, intuition, and ability to collaborate. “Ironically, in my rookie leadership years, I felt the need to shut down these attributes and use the more masculine and so-called successful style.  I felt a strong pull to conform and be ‘one of the boys’.  But, now, I’m comfortable in my own style.”

On the barriers that persist in terms of prohibiting women from fulfilling their potential and assuming an equitable share of management positions in leading tech companies, she says “certain attributes are rewarded that may not be typically associated with women.  Assertiveness and ‘pride of ownership’ are often associated with successful scientists.  Women are typically more accommodating, inclusive, and collaborative.  To say ‘I’ did something rather than ‘we’ is often a rewarded behavior.”

“I think we also have a ‘pipeline’ problem.  We absolutely must attract more young girls into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.  As a young girl, I wanted to be an astronaut.  But, I didn’t see any astronauts that looked like me.  My favorite show growing up was I Dream of Jeannie.  The girl was the sexy, servile genie and the boys were all heroic astronauts.  We need to help young girls with this.  Women in technology need to get out help these young goddesses,” she adds.

With more needed to be done to attract women to the tech sector, “I would first charge women in technology to get out and be visible to young girls interested in the technology field.  Second, teachers need to be trained to avoid discouraging women (and minorities) from studying technology.  And finally, I think that women need to be kinder to each other, providing encouragement and mentoring to help others reach professional success.”

Cureton tries to do all these things, she says, and she is “always eager to talk about girl power to these young goddesses.  I have a home-based business teaching piano mostly to children.  Every chance I get, I make the music-math connection and reinforce that math is as ‘easy’ as music.  Finally, though it’s getting difficult, I mentor as many women as I can.  Fortunately, social media makes this goal more practical and attainable.”

Asked whether she feels she had to work harder to achieve her success in the past than what might have been expected from male equivalents, she responds: “I have to say yes.  I don’t recall who said this, but there’s a quote that goes something like – ‘you’re not paranoid if everyone really is against you’. To acknowledge that there are workplace or societal biases means that you must work harder. You have to work harder just to have equity.”

“Having said that, I feel blessed to have been required to overcome these adversities.  It made me a better woman,” she adds.

Never, ever, ever apologize for being a strong, smart, sexy, technology diva.

Cureton’s grandmother, Corona, is her role model.  “We called her Mama. Mama could crochet, knit, sew, and do needlepoint   She taught me, a lefty, how to crochet left-handed yet knit right-handed, and how to use a pair of right-handed pinking shears.  She could also do ceramics.  She could hang dry-wall, plaster walls, do masonry, do plumbing, repair shoes, perform basic masonry work, and fix a car. I’m pretty sure she could even perform minor surgery.”

“She was the President of the Officer’s Wives Club while my grandfather served our nation as an Army dentist.  She was unwelcome and a minority.  But her charm and leadership carried the day and she served her country in this role with class and capability,” she adds.

Organizations need to get over their fear of technology and learn how to leverage it for transformation, Cureton asserts.  “We can’t just follow the hype or the flavor or the month, we must understand our organizational culture and how to mitigate barriers that hinder success.”

Most organizations hate technology because it has failed them in many ways, she believes, as we see large software development efforts ruin many executive careers; the demons of data gobble up critical information just when you need it the most; and the purveyors of bit and byte containers change things so fast, people hardly get a chance to learn.

Nevertheless, business leaders must lock arms with their technology executives and overcome the barriers to integrate powerful capabilities that can move them light years ahead,” she says.

The highlight of Cureton’s career was writing her first book, The Leadership Muse, adding that “It has certainly not made Oprah’s or New York Times Bestseller lists, but it was a labour of love and expression that changed ME.  The book is a reflection of the ordinary things in life that can inspire you to do the extraordinary.  It changed my life and I value the experience of creating it.”

Having retired from the government and from NASA, Cureton has gone from CIO to CEO and started her own company Muse Technologies, Inc. and looking to the future, she will be “focusing on IT transformation and doing all the things that I absolutely love.  I also want to write another book on leadership.”

Never, ever, ever apologize for being a strong, smart, sexy, technology diva, she advises women pursuing careers as CIOs. “Use your knowledge of technology and couple it with your super powers of empathy, intuition, compassion, and ability to collaborate to change the world.  Oh, and use your powers only for good.”

Read my interview with Linda Cureton in Silicon Valley Global. 

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