Andy Brooks’ work history in 2017 included a stint as a researcher at Yahoo, the founding of the University of California-Berkeley’s data science program and a newly earned doctorate degree.
Brooks represented the kind of Silicon Valley talent and pedigree that was thought to be too rare and too often ignored in Washington, D.C., and in the intelligence community writ large. In fall 2017, he joined the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as the organization’s chief data scientist, where he oversees the use of people, data and technology, as well as preparing for the agency’s future needs.
But since he accepted the job he has continued to live in California and does not work out of the NGA’s gleaming headquarters in Springfield, Virginia.
“That’s not an arrangement we probably would have been comfortable with 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago,” said Robert Cardillo, the outgoing director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “But ... we’ve put our people out in the Valley because … they’re not always coming to Washington with their ideas or their innovations.”
Cardillo is set to turn over the reins of NGA — which collects, analyzes and distributes geospatial information to the military and intelligence community — to Rear Adm. Robert Sharp in February. He plans to retire in the weeks following the change of command after 35 years of service and leading the agency since 2014.
In a Jan. 3 interview with C4ISRNET, Cardillo pointed to Brooks’ role as proof the intelligence agency is adapting to the modern world. He also discussed how the agency has evolved during his four years at the helm, why the intelligence community needs to continue to challenge the status quo, why he emphasized storytelling and how the processing of images has changed since he started in the business in 1983. Below are extended excerpts of the discussion (a longer version of which will appear in the next print issue of C4ISRNET):
On new partners and innovation
We need to continue to challenge some of the many historic barriers that have been in place. Some of those barriers we have control over, some we don't. I'm talking about federal acquisition regulations that are there that we will adhere to, of course.
But within that, sometimes, quite frankly, the mindset has inhibited taking a bit of a calculated risk and that’s where I’ve been asking people to just make sure that we’re not holding ourselves to a 10- or 20-year-old mental standard that needs to be challenged. I think the agency’s in a different place now in doing that self-challenging of what may have been a historic bias that inhibits us from taking advantage of a partner that might think, “Oh, it’s just too hard to work with the feds.” So we have to go find them.
On stressing storytelling in intelligence work
As I introduced myself to the agency and said look, you can have all the good stuff in the world on your desk or in your mind. If you don’t convey it, if you don’t translate that in a meaningful way that helps that person make a decision, you can’t get to what I emphasize, which is that consequence.
Consequence is something we don’t define. It’s those that we serve. So consequence could be safely navigating, precisely targeting, understanding the intentions of an adversary ... whatever they decide.
So storytelling was a way to make sure that people were thinking hard about the conveyance piece. And look, let’s play to our strengths here. Humans like to see pictures. They feel comfortable with maps. It helps give a frame, literally and figuratively, of reference for life. So let’s play it up.
Now again, that wasn’t a new idea. The agency’s always been into those frames. We invested in this. We spent time and money. By the way, we recruited from Pixar, we recruited from National Geographic, because we knew that we needed to improve our skillset in that conveyance piece in order to get the consequence.
On moving forward
My comment to my successor is going to be, I think we’re in a good place, but we have to keep pushing, we have to keep challenging, because technology is changing so fast and the community is changing so fast that if we don’t accelerate we could backslide.
That’s gray. It’s not good. What I mean by [backslide] is ... Let me go back to one of my fundamentals. The mission hasn’t changed. We provide a service to decision-makers and operators so they can make better decisions when and where they need to. What’s changed is the world in which they operate, of course. And so, to me, backsliding would be perhaps succumbing to some pressure. You mentioned that the community is not completely of one mind about how we make this engagement, that there is some risk that the past that we should be proud of and that we were quite successful in can in some ways be a way to hold us back. Somebody would say, “Well, this is how we succeeded definitively, and this is how we need to succeed tomorrow.”
I’m not being critical of our past. I’m quite proud of what we’ve done, but sometimes that backward pride can hold you from going forward.
On what’s changed since he started
The methods are different ... the technology is different. I tell my new teammates here when I welcome them, I say, “Look, spend time on the craft.” This is a profession. You need to learn it and know it deeply. After you do that, after you build that base, you can do lots of different things. I was lucky enough to have the time to do that. That craft, that analytic pursuit, that passionate curiosity, that relentless drive to figure out that unknown has not changed. Almost everything around those questions have changed, of course. Who do we need here? You’ve got to have those core drivers, that passion, one, to serve something higher than yourself, [and] two, to serve to understand unknowns and to continually question our biases and our assumptions. Those are all fundamentals that existed in ‘83 and ‘53 and in 2019 and beyond.