The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency striving to promote national health, prosperity, and welfare through the progress of science, and to secure the national defense. By bolstering research efforts and driving knowledge, our agency aims to transform the future and sustain global leadership. The NSF serves as the backbone for over 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by colleges and universities in the US, providing funding for researchers from a plethora of disciplines.
As the CIO at NSF, it is my responsibility to deliver the latest and most effective technology to the users. However, it is challenging to keep up with the rapidly evolving IT landscape. For instance, when professors and researchers from various institutions come to work at NSF, the tools provided to them need to follow the market standards as they cannot be expected to learn new technologies in a very short period. In order to serve the customer base efficiently, in my experience, it becomes vital to anticipate the market changes and continually modernize IT.
What according to you are some of the major trends that have been impacting the IT landscape lately?
Several new technologies are now emerging in the market, and one of the most prominent among them is blockchain. The capabilities of blockchain extend beyond cryptocurrency and can be leveraged to achieve secure communication across the departments. I think of blockchain as a spider web. Whenever an insect hits the web, the vibrations transmit through the web, alerting the spider. Here, the ends of each string can be considered as the different departments within the organizations. With blockchain, whenever some activity occurs in the organization, every department will be notified of the process at once. It can also be used to establish communication between various agencies. Taking the example of the research landscape, there are multiple agencies like the NSF. The integration of blockchain will work wonders in promoting efficient collaboration between the different organizations. Apart from blockchain, robotic process automation (RPA) is also making waves in the technological landscape. As technology becomes simplified, users will not only be able to streamline their daily workflow, but also introduce efficiency and productivity into the organization. The implementation of data science will enable enterprises to facilitate robust data analytics tools to the users, thus reducing the reliance on the central IT shops.
What according to you is the key to overcoming some of the challenges in IT?
As CIOs, we need to keep pace with the technological evolution and anticipate market change
A critical factor that contributes significantly to the workflow is collaboration. By fostering shared vision and understanding between different departments, organizations can achieve excellent business outcomes. For instance, we have different scientific disciplines at NSF, each one having a separate office, and my administrative function is to facilitate IT resources to every one of the offices and assist them in allocating funds to the researchers. Apart from that, I have to ensure the presence of adequate IT professionals to bolster the goal of NSF. Although, as a CIO, I function under the director of NSF, I do not have a staff of my own. However, I manage the budget going into the operational IT department, and hence, extend a measure of influence over its functions. The NSF has a central IT organization as well as distributed IT professionals across the departments. Therefore, I need to collaborate with people from multiple offices. In the instance of a financial office, it could be the requirement of a new financial system. I will have to work with the relevant personnel and ensure sufficient funding and compliance. In my opinion, convincing people that they are doing the right thing for the right reasons is more gratifying than having them do something because one can.
From a technology perspective, how do you introduce innovation into your organization?
The key aspect of innovation is being open to new ideas, as it empowers organizations to augment their processes, develop robust products, and enhance their efficiency. Drawing from my own experience, new ideas have our organization to overcome many obstacles. A suitable instance to explore this aspect would be the funding process at NSF. When appropriating funds for the research, the program officers at the agency receive proposals from multiple experts. A group of reviewers is then selected to evaluate the projects and compare them. Although the agency is segmented into various categories, the project ideas sometimes converge, especially for emerging areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, which are leveraged in multiple sectors. In such cases, it is often challenging to find competent reviewers for the proposals.
To overcome this problem, we implemented an AI solution designed to suggest reviewers for different proposals by assessing past data. Although the solution was expected to take two or more years before coming online, it took us only six months. This was only possible because of a cross-functional team asking the right questions at the right time. The human-centered design was leveraged for the process, which is, creating solutions for a diverse audience by considering a broad scope of requirements. We adopted the agile approach during the development, conducting little experiments, and consulting various experts in the field. It not only simplified the process but made a significant difference in adoption and deployment.
What are some of the key focus points that CIOs must pay attention to?
As CIOs, we need to keep pace with the technological evolution and anticipate market change. The oldest problems have to be resolved first so that the entire workflow can be streamlined in practical steps. Also, it is crucial not to invest too much in the present, but rather, prepare for the future. Even when it seems as if the business is barely keeping afloat, it is wiser to invest and build rather than patch and repair aging systems, thus ensuring that the organization is not running behind.