NASA CIO Renee Wynn (center), one of the longest serving CIOs in federal government, plans on leaving her post on March 31.

Mar 10 2020

Q&A: NASA CIO Renee Wynn on Her Time Leading IT at the Space Agency

After nearly five years on the job, Wynn plans a move to the private sector, but will miss the front row seat to history.

One of the longest serving CIOs in federal government, NASA’s Renee Wynn plans on leaving her post this spring. During her tenure, she focused on improving the cybersecurity of the government’s most popular agency, and helped raise the agency’s FITARA scores up from an F to a C+. Wynn was regularly recognized for her IT accomplishments, most recently being named to FCW’s 2019 Federal 100 list. FedTech spoke with Wynn about her time at NASA, her biggest achievements, and her favorite experiences.

FEDTECH: NASA’s information technology infrastructure covers both earthbound IT and IT in space. What was the biggest change you saw in NASA IT from the earthbound perspective?

WYNN: Understanding and beginning to wrestle with cybersecurity on our corporate network. There were definite needs for significant improvement on how we utilized modern tools to protect NASA. As an agency, when I arrived, we did not fully understand the true threats through IT hardware and software that this agency faced. I am very proud of how my team worked in trying to change the culture here at NASA to embed cybersecurity in the way we do business.

FEDTECH: What kind of threats was NASA vulnerable to?

WYNN:There was the typical nation-state threat that any federal agency faces. There are threats to steal the intellectual property. You have the direct threats to the enterprise of NASA itself. Then you have people wanting to get on networks to use our compute power, not to steal anything, but to plant a little bitcoin mining operation and run something for no cost. 

And you have all the typical stuff every agency has — people injecting malware into email, then an innocent person clicks on a link and, oh, there goes your day. We’ve put a lot of tools in place to protect our users from what I call an ignosecond, the moment you click on something and you realize you shouldn't have. We've done a lot of work to address the ignosecond.

FEDTECH: NASA is one of the few agencies with two layers of IT — enterprise IT and space mission IT, much like the Defense Department has enterprise IT and warfighter IT. Talk about overseeing IT for an agency with that kind of dual infrastructure.

WYNN: It does present some interesting challenges. The first thing is to understand your network topography — you have to know where points are connected and depend upon each other. We’re on the path to fully map out our networks and where they intersect, not only with our mission networks, but also with what I call our physical networks. These are our ground systems as well as the systems that our HVAC systems ride on. In 2017, there was an a-ha moment when we went, “Wow, we really are interconnected between our mission systems, our corporate (which is largely what I run) and our ground systems and physical assets.” Folks said, “Oh, we might not be as protected as we thought we were because we hadn't anticipated being interconnected with all these other aspects of agency operations.” That a-ha moment was huge in turning the mindset around.

Then from 2017 on, we've been working with the missions across all of the centers to figure out the best protection for the activity or the mission. What does that mean? Let's take Voyager. Voyager was recently in the news because communication had been stopped, and we restarted it. Voyager 2 was mapped out and designed back in the mid to late 1960s, and it was launched in 1977. Imagine what we thought the threats were in 1977 when it came to IT or cybersecurity.

FEDTECH: Basically, all you could do in 1977 was shoot it down.

WYNN: Bingo. You would use the harsh environment of space and the distance as elements of protection. All great. Now it's 12 million miles away, but it still phones home, so to speak. Well, that phoning home, it's only as sophisticated as we had in the 70s. That presents a risk to the agency, and a risk to that operation. We've been working with the mission bit by bit to figure out the best protection strategy for that flying asset, because we're not going to upgrade the operating system — it’s more than 12 million miles away. We have to think of different strategies to look at in terms of protecting it as best we can knowing when it was launched, and what the technology was at the time. I think it is important for us to continue to capture the data that we do get for the benefit of humanity. 

FEDTECH: What changes have you seen in terms of support for IT within the agency and within the government?

WYNN: I’ve seen a lot. We are in the process of establishing the full budget for the NASA CIO, and the final decisions on those resources will be in December 2020. I've done a lot of preliminary work to make those conversations maybe a bit more organized than they were a few years ago. In the meantime, the seat at the table here at NASA for the CIO has changed considerably. One of the things that I think that I led NASA to is that the CIO shop is a functional leader. The next step I would like to see the next CIO make is to become an absolute business partner. We're not there yet. We bounced between a business partner and a functional owner in terms of a leadership model here at the agency. It is time for us to be a business leader or a mission leader within NASA, and I believe that I've delivered it to the point where it's a good stepping stone.

FEDTECH: Are there any projects you would have liked to have finished?

WYNN: Oh gosh, that list is long. I came in as an outsider; I didn't even understand what people were telling me half the time. Within my team, for sure, I was embraced and treated as an equal and not as an outsider. Many of my mission partners also embraced me coming to the agency and saw me as a business partner. Not everybody did. The view of the White House and the Office of Management and Budget and Capitol Hill of NASA's ability to manage IT was pretty poor. I focused my attention there, and just didn't quite roll back around to create stronger partnerships with my mission colleagues here in the building where I exist. 

I wrote back in early 2019 that 2020 would be the year of the customer experience, and we are putting things into place to do that. I wish I was going to be here for that, because I so wanted to bring it to NASA, but my time was spent on fixing our external reputation when it came to cyber and how we managed IT, as well as fixing our internal cyber security posture. With my great team, we've made a difference. But that meant we had to leave behind the customer experience because I just didn't have the bandwidth nor the focus to work on that at the same time. I think great things are going to happen for that customer experience.

FEDTECH: The federal government has a lot of high-profile female CIOs — you, federal CIO Suzette Kent, Small Business Administration CIO Maria Roat, and others. Is there a strong government commitment to promoting women in IT?

WYNN: Having spent my entire career, give or take a couple of years, in the federal government, I have intentionally selected to stay where females are seen and treated like leaders. In the Environmental Protection Agency, where I spent 25 years, the entire time I was there I saw female supervisors. I saw Carol Browner, the administrator in the 1990s, right? For me, it was always possible to be a female leader, and always have a seat at the table if I followed in their footsteps. I believe an element is seeing people like you or that you can identify with. If an early career male sees me as an inspiration, I've done my job, right? But I do pull young women aside to coach them or give them feedback or just an inspirational word, because it is hard.

At NASA, there are some amazing female engineers. I love watching them in action, and they have been inspirations to me whether they know it or not, watching how they behave, the questions that they ask — that influences me. We’ve got to have people like us or people that inspire us in positions we seek in order to believe that it is possible. One of the things in whatever my what's-next is, is that I'm going to keep my eye on how to bring more women in and keep women in this field. I'm happy to keep making that difference.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out NASA and other agencies use tech to keep far-flung users connected. 

FEDTECH: What are your plans for the future?

WYNN: It's such a common question and I don't have an answer. But I want to keep going in the private sector. I want to learn what it's like to run a business. I want to contribute to the strategic direction of the business. I’ve got a little bit to offer there in terms of what I know about cybersecurity, what I've learned about IT, and I'm just excited to serve in another capacity. Someday soon I need to figure out what that means, though.

FEDTECH: What will you miss the most about working for NASA?

WYNN: The front row seat to the Mars 2020 Rover launch this summer, or the Artemis 2 moon mission test that is coming soon. I'm going to miss knowing about it firsthand. It was a source of great pride when I can look at what was happening and know that my team across the United States, and across NASA, contributed to so many of the stories that you hear about NASA. You don't hear about us, we just make it happen with our mission partners. I am very sad to see that front row seat go away, but it's time.

READ MORE: See how NASA uses SD-WAN to modernize its networks. 

FEDTECH: What was the coolest thing you did or saw while you were at NASA?

WYNN: There are three things that I could share that were just mindblowing opportunities. The first one is that with proper protective gear, I got to hold a moon rock. (I saw a lunar trash can, too. It said, “Lunar trash only,” and I took a picture of that because it cracked me up.)

The second thing was flying in SOFIA at 43,000 feet for a night, staring through a telescope and looking at Jupiter and its moon, Ganymede. 

My number three was going to Kazakhstan to see a human launch and experiencing two weeks in Russia and Kazakhstan, seeing the history of astronauts and space exploration through the eyes of the Russians. Taking a tour of what happens in the background for a safe launch, watching the astronauts get to the space station and come through the portal was just the experience of a lifetime. 

The thing that will always influence me is the leadership that I've been exposed to at NASA, and how to make science fiction turn into fact by giving your absolute best to your people. And if you can't give your best, ask for help. That's going to be my one takeaway that shaped me going forward here at NASA. 

I have a lot more stories to share. But that'll cost you a glass of wine.

Photo courtesy of NASA, FedScoop