Jack Jones - NIH: IT systems pilot

Jack Jones - NIH: IT systems pilot <@VM>Online Extra Q&A: Jack Jones

Career highlights

1985: Begins working in IT at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratory after several years of working elsewhere at the lab.

1993: Director of Information Processes, Sandia National Laboratories. Later appointed senior advisor for cybersecurity to the Energy secretary.

2001: Joins the National Institutes of Health; named NIH chief IT architect.

2003: Assumed additional responsibility as acting deputy director for the Center for IT.

'When you're flying or working, you can only do what you can do, and figure out what that is and get on with it.' -- Jack Jones

Olivier Douliery

Jones draws on his Navy training in developing a flight plan for NIH

Most everything Jack Jones learned about leadership he learned on the fly, so to speak, in the Navy.

As a flight navigator, he participated in a number of simulated emergencies, in which instructors increased the stress level by distracting their students to teach them to focus on the job at hand. The lessons from that training became second nature.

'Always remember when you're flying or working,' Jones said, 'you can only do what you can do, and figure out what that is and get on with it.'

Jones, acting deputy director of the National Institutes of Health's Center for IT and NIH's systems architect, is known for assessing a situation and making a decision quickly. He also knows how to reach out across groups to move a project forward.

He has spent most of his 18 years in federal IT at the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratory research facility in Albuquerque, N.M. He came to NIH, an agency of the Health and Human Services Department, in 2001.

At NIH, he has led development of the enterprise architecture. Jones' approach has been to implement an EA that is practical and can be used daily and not become shelfware, said Gene Cartier, vice president of SRA International of Fairfax, Va., which provides support to NIH's CIO office.

'Jones is a hands-on manager who leads by example,' Cartier said.

At Energy, Jones early on embraced Web browser technology and spearheaded the effort to create an Internet presence at Sandia, using evangelism, technical leadership and training, and providing hosting services to Sandia organizations, Cartier said.

In the early days of browser technology, this involved making quick adjustments. He signed up to buy a $70,000 site license for an early browser. Shortly after, the browser company went under, taking the Sandia funds with it. Jones signed the labs on with Netscape Communications Corp.

Jones said he learned from the experience: If you're going to be at the leading edge of a technology and you're a central services organization, you have to be willing to make changes quickly because the market changes that fast. He said it's only worthwhile being at the leading edge when it's important to how your business develops, at places such as NIH or Sandia.

When security breaches were uncovered and controversy centered on Sandia researcher Wen Ho Lee in 2000, Jones was assigned the task of fixing Energy's security problems, Cartier said.

Besides technical planning, Jones was able to garner both senior management and field-office support for his recommended changes in computer security procedures. Jones said he created a large task force of people from across Sandia's three weapons labs, so they were all engaged in creating the solutions.

'We actually assembled them in one place for a period of a couple of months, at least a core of them, to be able to work together and have rapid communications,' he said. 'It was getting all those people, all the points of view together and insisting on an outcome.'

Wide participation

Since coming to NIH, Jones, who holds a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from Stanford University, has involved CIOs of the agency's institutes to advance projects and overcome the 'not invented here' mindset.

When he taps individuals to participate, they're not always receptive, at first. The point is offering an opportunity for all the interested parties to come in and participate in how a solution is going to be created, he said.

'This is part of what attracted me to NIH, that our CIO [Alan Graeff] had already done some good work in establishing a governance structure,' Jones said, citing the IT management council, composed of the CIOs of all of NIH's institutes.

They plan for projects, definition of the scope and requirements, while assuring nothing will break because applications these days are rarely completely independent.

All the plans are available to everybody who's interested before they are executed.

'Usually that involvement generates enough buy-in,' he said. 'In that we get good support.'Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to move up to the manager level?

As you move up to leadership roles, you're looking more broadly at things and you're accepting longer time frames for seeing your ideas come to fruition. If you're seeking a leadership position, you should think about how that will feel to you. If you want the additional breadth and can accept the fact that it takes longer to see these ideas come to fruition, then in fact you'll be happy with the decision you made. If you'll find those things more frustrating than the benefit of having the broader impact, you should wait awhile longer.

Q: What's the best advice you received, and from whom?

The best advice I received was from one of the human resources people in my history, who advised me to choose jobs carefully that were aligned with my skills, desires and my innate tendencies. He said, you're a broad thinker, you like to think about the future, you're an idea person. You should be in a field that is in fact planning and developing the future.

Q: Why government service?

The characteristics that were important to me about the National Institutes of Health were: 1) because of the diversity required for research, it's a very interesting IT position because you see the same diversity of need and growth that you see in the Internet; 2) there was when I came here, and continues to grow, an interest in governance of IT, such as how do we make effective IT decisions and what is the executive input to that; 3) there are a lot of smart people here and it's interesting to work with smart people.

Q: How important is mentoring in developing a good manager?

I think it's important. It needs to be tuned to the individual and how they work and perceive things. I had some people who for me were mentors, but for whom other people wouldn't have thought of them very much as mentors. I worked for two vice presidents at Sandia National Laboratories (in the Energy Department), and they gave me interesting insights into things that helped me develop.

In one instance, I questioned how he handled a meeting, which implied criticism that he had not been authoritative enough in the meeting. He had a short discussion with me, of which the gist was: I have a broad range of behaviors I can exhibit and here's why I didn't think that was an appropriate behavior for the meeting and why I chose this one.

For me, it was an important learning experience to think about developing a broad range of behaviors and to choose ones that would be effective in a particular situation to achieve the goals that I was after. Other people may need different approaches that are based on their needs and understandings and where they need development.

At Sandia, I mentored a couple of people. I did that based more on where their interests lay, by finding out what they were trying to achieve in their career, and helping them understand what I thought their strengths were, and where I thought they could make important development. I then working out opportunities for them to have experiences and training that would help them develop.

Q: What part does fun play in your work?

I think I have the world's greatest job. I think fun generates energy and enthusiasm and that produces much better results.

Q: How do you balance work and home life?

By going home and putting my BlackBerry where I can't hear it. When I first got here and got my BlackBerry, I left it on my nightstand several nights in a row. One morning my wife said'or maybe it was in the middle of the night when it went off'you have a choice. You can sleep with me or you can sleep with your BlackBerry, but you can't do both because I'm not waking up when you're BlackBerry goes off. (My boss was sending me e-mails at 3 a.m.) My wife's more important than my BlackBerry.

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