From NASA to NAPA: Former CIO Wynn finds new home

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A long serving chief information officer at both the EPA and NASA, Renee Wynn recently retired. But she’s hardly out of the picture. Among her post-federal pursuits, she has become a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. Wynn joins the Federal Drive with Tom Temin as part of a weeklong series of new NAPA fellows.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Renee, good to have you back.

Renee Wynn: Oh, it’s good to be here, Tom, and thanks for the invitation to join you today.

Tom Temin: And just give us a little bit of a rundown on what you are doing generally, since leaving NASA.

Renee Wynn: Since I left NASA in the middle of the pandemic, I put my job search dreams on hold, and I went ahead and I hung my own shingle. I’m a company of one, R.P. Wynn Consulting LLC, and I’ve got several clients basically doing IT services consultation: what are CIOs expecting in terms of services, delivery, customer experience, also helping some small businesses break into the government business. And finally, I’m actually doing some international space business, working with another country to try to help them build out their space capabilities, given that we’re in the heart and the throes of a space economy boom.

Tom Temin: Well, that’s true. Yeah. So you are well situated and well timed for that kind of thing. And just reflecting back as CIO of NASA, what is it like? I mean, what’s your advice for leaders that have a job like Chief Information Officer, but you’ve got all of these federated components that have their own local CIOs and different domains, that always struck me as a difficult thing to kind of pull together.

Renee Wynn: It is a challenge to pull together. And I would say at NASA, where you’re filled with really smart people — lots of individuals within NASA have patents — and NASA was our agency that put boots on the moon, and we’re envisioning putting those boots back on the moon; this time we’re going to make them female boots, which I’m really excited for. So what I always focused on was making friends, you get to know the business, you don’t go in thinking you have all the answers. And certainly within NASA, there’s no way you can go in thinking you’ve got all the answers. It’s just a pretty incredible workforce there as well as our contractor workforce. And so we go through and make friends and learn what they were trying to do, learn about their struggles, explain to them that the CIO wasn’t there to break them. And I could bring to the table certainly cyber security and other skills in terms of serving the agency, and just started to work forward on building out the capabilities in the service delivery within the CIO organization. It helped that when I got there, the center CIOs, they all reported to me. And they’re an amazing bunch. I was going to use the past tense there for a second, but they’re all in place still there. And the team, we really coalesced on the things we needed to get done each year and on a regular basis. And my final piece of advice is never let a good crisis go to waste. There were definitely several times where I’ve faced a little bit of arrogance within NASA, and I would get to go knock on a few doors and say, Okay, we’ve got a problem. And I need your help on how we can solve this. So you can keep operating, and we can get some of the bad guys out of our network. And those were opportunities again, to learn, as well as form a stronger relationship with my colleagues around the mission. And I think as I end on that note, I will tell you that in September of 2019, it was the team, the CIO team that delivered Office 365 to the astronauts on the International Space Station. So we were delivering services 200 plus miles off the face of the planet. And it’s kind of funny as I look at the private sector, like ‘Oh, you don’t have commercial experience,’ and I just kind of chuckle. I’m like, ‘Yeah, but nobody has that kind of experience that I had, which is delivering IT in space either.’ So it’s good fun.

Tom Temin: So they came a long way from the celestial Unix command line.

Renee Wynn: Well, I don’t know, we’ve come a long way from that, because I’m not talking about uplinks and down links to flying assets that have been flying for, Oh, actually, most of my life. You’ve got Voyager that is still flying, bringing back data. And I’m not going to tell you whether that’s Unix or anything like that, just in case somebody’s listening. But I will tell you that that was developed back in the late 60s, launched in the early 70s. And we are still getting some magnificent data from the outer edges of our planetary orbits here. So it’s pretty fascinating; I missed that but to be part of that process to sort of think through what makes sense: Do we keep flying? Do we cut the flying off because the cybersecurity pieces so far out there, you don’t have to worry as much about cybersecurity for the Voyager.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Renee Wynn. She’s former CIO of NASA and of the EPA, now a new fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. And there’s been lots of talk about skilling and reskilling and so on of the workforces that are specialized within the government. What’s your sense of what the next generation, if you will, of IT type of people, those in the CIO channel, are going to need.

Renee Wynn: I think the United States government, and those that work within the CIO, are gonna maintain some of their current skills. You still have network operations. We’ve got to get smarter on cloud strategies. How do you not get into a monopoly with one cloud provider? How do you get the right compute? How do you stay mobile? How do you protect your data? How do you actually get to see traffic now so that as you go to the cloud, you’ve got this ‘What’s going on in my network traffic? What is my traffic? What’s a good guy? What’s a bad guy?’ operation. And so figuring out that whole cloud engineering, and how do you have a hybrid approach in terms of your own data centers in the cloud, and that’s where right now knocking at the door of expanding cloud use within the federal government, and you need the people to be able to support that, because you have to check technical capabilities when you’re buying them, even from a vendor. The other thing is artificial intelligence, machine learning, getting control of your data, your data sprawl, and putting your data to good use. Those are data scientists and others that can look at data, visualize unstructured data and help you make decisions as another category where there needs to be some leaps and bounds in the federal government. You can reskill some of this; there’s a lot of folks that are really, really talented. And so you’ve got to just think through your strategy, how you spend your money, how you invest in your people, and help bring them along to the next generation. And then the other piece, I think, is a mindset that IT is a very dynamic area, a lot of folks that work in the CIO space are pretty used to having to turn on a dime and change and adapt very quickly. You’ve also got to make sure that your people, and there are many that are very adaptable, but you got to make sure your entire workforce understands their value. So when it’s time to adapt and change, they’re open and willing to make these changes in order to support the advancing missions, as well as the advancements in IT. There’s drone use, and how does that come into play both from protection of the United States government, as well as what does this mean for the way we do business? And the final thing, which really comes from the pandemic, is how do we protect the United States government in our networks when we’ve got a lot of people dialing in from home. And that’s a new paradigm that we’ve got to get. Everyone’s building their capabilities and understanding in that one, but I think there’s still some more strides to do, because I think our workplace model is probably not going to go back to the way it is, it’s going to be bimodal. It can be people teleworking a lot more often, people still coming into the office, maybe a couple of days a week or maybe even full time. So how do you structure your cybersecurity and protect the United States government? So those would be the four areas. I think there’s reskilling opportunity, there’s new hire opportunity, where you get that capability.

Tom Temin: And just getting to the cloud point for a moment, the cloud itself is moving into space, as commercial companies launch these fleets of small, low orbit satellites. The cloud, literally will be in the clouds pretty soon.

Renee Wynn: That’s exactly right. So you’ve also got AWS and Microsoft that have gotten into the space business in terms of mission control centers. So what you’ve got is they are launching space satellites. And in fact, so are elementary schools, there’s a lot of providers that allow you to hitch a ride on a rocket and into the payload. And that is really starting to blossom in terms of what we’re seeing as a new space economy. Associated with that you also have, like I mentioned before AWS and Microsoft, that are actually getting into the business of mission control centers. And so that breaks a little bit of the model within NASA itself. I think it also provide opportunities to make choices about the best risk-based decision on is NASA going to continue with a particular satellite, whether we’re going to provide that ground control piece, or whether we would go to a private sector to provide that capability. And the other piece you have to be very, very careful for is cybersecurity is alive and well in space. We used to rely on space as being both a harsh environment and its distance to really protect what was going on with everyone and many countries advanced their space capabilities. That also changes the dangers within space itself, especially in low Earth orbit. So what I think you’ll see is there’s just a lot of excitement, there’s a lot of opportunity. There’s probably a lot of being scared because sometimes people are very excited to join the space business, but they don’t always fully comprehend what kind of business they’re getting into. So very exciting. Just got to have your eyes wide open.

Tom Temin: And what do you hope to work on while at NAPA?

Renee Wynn: While I’m at NAPA, I’m very excited to be working in the technology space and that is is thinking about how does the government keep up and use its infrastructure to advance services to my fellow patriots around the country, as well as there’s a lot of international business as well that’s really looking at what they call the Citizen Services in a very positive experience. So you’re not having to do business at every different agency, but you’re considered a solid user of federal government servers and have a single sign on, and the ability to navigate that well. I’d also say that a lot of the infrastructure is very old. And how do you move forward with that infrastructure, transform it where it’s appropriate to transform it? And then in other cases, how do you keep it as current as you possibly can? And I mentioned the legacy IT issue at NASA, there’s some legacy IT that I called good IT. And you didn’t want to change it because it’s supporting a flying asset. We’re not going to upgrade an operating system on a satellite. The newer satellites are contemplating the ability to do these things. So that’s a great thing for the future. And so I’ll bring also the space business. And since it’s a blossoming economy here in the United States and across the globe, my hope is just also to continue to work in this space area, space policy. But I know definitely technology will be part of it. And I’ve also started to work on some of the sustainability issues that NAPA is working on.

Tom Temin: When a when this the former CIO of NASA, and now a new fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Renee Wynn: It was a pleasure and thank you again for the invitation to join you.

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