NASA’s work on everything from space missions to studying climate change means that the U.S. agency generates mountains of data every day. Jeffrey Seaton, its CIO, is convinced quantum computers, which harness some of the exotic phenomena of quantum physics to generate unprecedented amounts of computing power, will be key to unlocking many more hugely valuable insights from that information treasure trove.
NASA logo on display at a convention
But it may still be a while before the machines’ true value can be realized, despite all the hype that currently surrounds them. Asked at this week’s Forbes CIO Next virtual summit when he thinks quantum computing will be really useful for NASA’s work, Seaton sounded a note of caution: “My guess is it’s five years plus still.”
Seaton, who was confirmed as NASA’s CIO in January after becoming its acting CIO in May 2020, knows a thing or two about high-performance computing, having overseen that activity for part of his 30-year career at the agency, which began as an intern helping to design robotic hands used to assemble things in space.
Since taking over the top tech job and the $2 billion-plus annual budget that comes with it, Seaton’s been on a personal mission to improve the software and hardware available to NASA’s 65,000 full-time government employees and contractors. Giving its researchers access to more computing power is one of his top priorities, which explains why the agency is experimenting with quantum technology. Freeing up more internal data to apply that processing power to is another.
“Historically, we’ve had silos of data,” said Seaton. “Silos of excellence [too], but it was disconnected data.” He and his team have been broadening researchers’ access to raw data while ensuring that security is respected so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. They are also giving researchers better machine learning and other kinds of algorithms to apply to it.
Seaton’s optimistic the strategy will reap big dividends. “Maybe data from [our] engineering group could be connected with data from the safety and mission assurance group, and together [they] could create opportunities not seen before.”
Navigating the politics involved in getting teams to hand over data may not be as demanding as navigating astronauts back to the moon, which is the goal of NASA’s Artemis Program, but it requires a combination of tact and forcefulness that many CIOs running businesses will be familiar with.
Like his private-sector counterparts, Seaton also has to make trade-offs between standardizing tech across an organization and allowing individual divisions within it to use software and hardware they think is best for their needs. NASA’s “divisions’ are its nine large research centers spread across the U.S., which specialize in different areas of research. Seaton spent many years of his career at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and took on the role of chief technology officer there in part because he wanted to address issues with the quality of tech services Langley was receiving at the time from NASA’s central IT team.
Jeffrey Seaton, CIO, NASA
Now that he’s the head of that central team and the person in charge of an agency-wide tech staff of several thousand employees and contractors, Seaton’s trying to get more consistency across NASA’s operations while at the same time establishing better ways of gauging how internal “customers” feel about the quality of the service they are getting.
He acknowledged at the Forbes event that this process isn’t friction-free, but also stressed that the world had changed since his time at Langley. “We try to be careful and make sure we’re only focusing on enterprise solutions where that really does make sense. But the universe is expanding because there are good tools that can do a large majority of what our folks need. Then we can focus on the edge cases.”
The universe of cyber threats facing NASA is expanding too. The agency is a top target for foreign and domestic hackers because of its space-related activities and research into areas such as future aircraft designs. Over the past year or so, its tech team has seen a big spike in the volume of phishing attacks on NASA employees, as hackers have tried to exploit the shift to more remote work to try and trick them into revealing credentials with which to gain access to the agency’s systems.
Cyber defense remains a top priority for Seaton and his team, and it’s an area where the center sets rules and standards that have to be followed across the agency. That approach includes using AI-powered security software which aims to block suspicious emails and insisting that code is regularly updated for software “patches” that eliminate known vulnerabilities. It also means educating NASA employees about how to avoid being fooled by attackers. “The best technology can be overcome by the worst human decisions,” noted Seaton.
Despite the intense pressures associated with tackling ballooning cyber threats and ensuring the reliability of mission-critical software, NASA’s tech leader remains upbeat about what he and his team can help the agency achieve.
At the Forbes event, Seaton recalled that a decade ago articles were being written forecasting the demise of the CIO role as technology was becoming easier to use and more widely available. The problem, he noted, was that tech leaders at the time were still too focused on the basics and weren’t partnering enough on advanced projects.
The world has changed dramatically since then—and so has the opportunity for IT teams to work on missions that really make a difference to their organizations. “It’s a super-exciting time to be a CIO,” said Seaton.
I am the editor of the CIO Network at Forbes, leading coverage of the rapidly evolving role of senior technology leaders. I also develop topics and programming for Forbes
I am the editor of the CIO Network at Forbes, leading coverage of the rapidly evolving role of senior technology leaders. I also develop topics and programming for Forbes CIO events. Previously, I covered frontier technologies such as AI-driven cybersecurity and quantum computing for MIT Technology Review. Before that, I was a partner at a Silicon Valley VC firm that invests in enterprise tech, which I joined after covering the Valley for The Economist Newspaper, where I was a writer, editor and business leader for over 25 years. I am a graduate of Oxford University and hold an executive MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth Graduate School of Business. Follow me on Twitter @martingiles.