A CIO conversation: NNSA's Linda Wilbanks

Sarah Lourie, Assistant Editor

With 20 years of teaching experience and four degrees under her belt, including a Ph.D. in computer science, Linda Wilbanks went back to school when she realized her students were gaining more real-world experience than she had.

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She applied for a faculty fellowship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and today she's the CIO of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Wilbanks recently talked with about how she keeps learning on the job -- and how something called earned value management keeps her on track.

How did you become a CIO?

Wilbanks: The advantage of quality assurance is it takes you across all areas of the lifecycle development and touches on all aspects of everything NASA was doing because the software went through all the cycles.

The CIO that was there at the time formed a committee of people to keep him abreast of what was going on in IT areas across the context. Then he retired and the position became open, and I thought it was an interesting next step forward.

The advantage of quality assurance is it takes you across all areas of the lifecycle development and touches on all aspects of everything NASA was doing because the software went through all the cycles.

So when this position came up, it was an agency comparable to NASA, in that there were other sites associated with it, so I applied and got the job. It's been phenomenal.

Continuing to learn seems to be a priority for you. How do you make that part of your job?

Wilbanks: I like to learn and I like the challenge -- I'm trying to read a lot of journals. IT is a field that changes constantly and you need to keep abreast of it. You can't do that in classrooms anymore. It's through talking to people that are in your field and making acquaintances with people who do your job in another agency. Because none of the people in the federal field have enough money to do what they want to do, we have to learn from each other. I sit on some committees and try to attend one or two conferences a year.

What's your budget process?

Wilbanks: The head of our agency, administrator Linton Brooks, actually has to defend our budget before Congress. We supply him with the information he needs but he does all of the defensive. There's a lot of interaction among the people on the Hill.

How do you create an argument for him?

Wilbanks: I always take the approach of 'Where's our greatest risk? Where's our biggest shortfall that can come back to hurt us?' It's based on that I build my justification for the money or the people. I find that when you're talking the risk, people better understand the prioritization.

You also understand that you're not going to get it all. I have to prioritize within my department as to what our highest needs are and what we see as the highest risk to the agency.

How many people are in your department?

Wilbanks: I have 15 feds, about 100 contractors and I'm responsible for eight different sites [in addition to] the headquarters site

How do you keep them motivated?

Wilbanks: Part of it is to show that I'm interested in them. Part of it is to recognize them as people. One of the things I say to people who work for me -- and with me -- is that family is critical. They've got to have a balance in their life. We also do fun things; we have a door decorating contest for Christmas. You try to say thank you when you can. I respect them as people, not only as people who work for me, but people who have an outside life, too.

What have you found to be your biggest challenge?

Wilbanks: Making sure my people have the resources needed to do their jobs. I can't expect them to do things without ensuring that they have both the funds and the people to work for them.

Is there a shortage of people with top-secret government clearance?

Wilbanks: It costs a lot of money to get a clearance, so we want to make sure we hire the right people. It's ideal if they come in with it, but nobody ever does, because everybody is always looking for people with clearances. The good ones are taken up right away.

What's your most recent initiative?

Wilbanks: We're working on something called earned value management and it's actually a presidential initiative that all of the federal government is doing -- implementing EVM on all projects over a certain dollar amount. It's a general management technique that takes and looks at a project at how much money have you spent -- which everybody does -- but the added component has to do with where you are in the lifecycle.

So if you spent 80% of your budget, do you have 80% of the work done? It's a very good management tool to help you understand if you're on time and in budget for the amount of work that has to be accomplished.

Is there a consensus amongst your peer group of what CIOs need to pay more attention to in the future?

Wilbanks: The fast-paced world of technology and the fast-paced problems of cyber security; those are moving very fast and our budgets never increase. That's kind of a given in the government.

Do you see yourself teaching again in the future?

Wilbanks: In about 10 years I would like to retire and teach high school math.

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