Ep 85: Linda Cureton: Master ‘Debugger’ of Powerful Organizations

Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Linda Cureton, veteran U.S. federal government tech leader, turned entrepreneur.  As a child, Linda “was always fascinated with numbers.” Facetiously she recalled doing a math problem as a youngster to compute how old she would be in the Year 2000.  “I remember the arithmetic and coming up with the age --- 41.” She thought: “Oh my God. I’ll be dead.” This immediately spurred her. “I better hurry up and do things!”

Linda has had many chances to “do things” (BIG THINGS) although she resisted technology in early life.  Still in high school, as an example, she worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association as a student assistant cartographer. But because she was left-handed, she would smear the ink, and was “banished” to using computers, instead. Originally aimed toward Washington D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Linda wanted to take calculus in 12th grade, the field of mathematics which focuses on the rate of change over time. So she matriculated at the famous Howard University, because she could enter as a senior in high school in an advanced early calculus program. She began university as a pre-med major, (“I hated it”) but kept taking music classes at Duke Ellington. A Howard University mentor counseled her to drop out of the pre-med program.  “You will be successful if you do what you love and enjoy,” he said. Linda switched, sophomore year, to major in mathematics with a minor in Latin. “I wanted to do pure math, but the counselor insisted I take computer classes. I couldn’t get out of it!” As she began to take programming classes (IBM Assembler, Fortran, etc.), much to her surprise, “I really enjoyed them.”  Upon university graduation, she was awarded a full scholarship for a PhD in mathematics. But fate intervened in the person of her first husband who “wanted me to get a job and a new car.” So she interviewed at the National Air and Space Administration (NASA), where she started her career. “That’s how I got into technology,” although to her, at the time, it felt like “punishment.”  Clearly, over the years, that feeling dramatically changed.

Linda was a mathematician/programmer for 2 years at NASA, then moved to the U.S. Navy, working in the weapons systems development program, and studying to become a program manager in undersea warfare.  Her primary motivation for taking the role was to spend time in Seattle, Washington (where her first husband’s family lived), then travel across the country to various naval bases, finally ending up in Crystal City, Virginia. “After 6 months, I realized I didn’t like it, at all” so she moved to become a systems programmer at the Seattle naval base.  Her next transition was sparked by divorce. Post-divorce, Linda moved home to Maryland and Washington, D.C, where she took a systems programmer position at the U.S. Department of Justice. She stayed with the department for 16 years, in a variety of technology management jobs. “I met my current husband in the computer room!”   In looking back at that period, “I joked that I did every job you could do in a data center, except operations, and I married him….”

She eventually became Deputy Director of the DOJ Data Center.  After 16 years at DOJ, Linda began applying for senior executive positions in government.  “I was told I was not qualified,” she said. Never one to back down from a challenge, “I started applying for jobs I thought I couldn’t get!”  Evaluating rejections taught her what she needed (“what I really needed, not what people said, but what the marketplace truly required”) in experience, skills and seasoning.  She recognized a need to learn to build coalitions, and whole organizations, “from dirt, from the ground up.” Engaging in that developed the “executive acumen” that characterized the rest of her career. She went to the U.S. Department of Energy as the Associate Chief Information Officer for operations for several years. The person who hired her had left, and she had no guidance nor support. “I was the only African-American career executive in the department, and the only black female; it felt very lonely.” But from that experience, she grew immensely.

Linda became the Deputy Assistant Director of Science and Technology and then Deputy CIO for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) for four years, as a female executive in a male-dominated agency where she had numerous accomplishments and “built a very strong team.”  Following that, she spent the next 8 years, again at NASA – first as CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, for 4 years, where she built that organization up to become viable and respected.  Then she served as CIO for the entire NASA agency, for her final four years. (“My boss’s boss was President Barack Obama! The buck stops there.”)  In contrasting ATF to NASA, Linda laments that NASA did not always have the most innovative technology, in comparison to ATF, who had excellent, up-to-date computers, applications and support for “those who put their lives on the line.” At NASA, she spent most of her time “debugging” the nationwide agency and bolstering it.  One of her most enjoyable moments was watching the last space shuttle launch.

In looking back, and evaluating her government career, Linda admitted “I was a pretty terrible programmer, but I was good at debugging.”  She still considers that one of her major strengths: the ability to find “bugs” in an organization, a project, a challenge or a team and solve them.  “I learned the value of teams and teamwork,” along the way. Linda had no formal mentors in her career but learned that “the best way to have a mentor is to be a mentor,” and mentors can be found outside of your organization.  While at DOE, feeling isolated, Linda reached out to Gloria Parker, the first African-American female working at a Cabinet level, as the CIO for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Gloria generously shared invaluable advice about how to effectively serve as a CIO. They have remained friends to this day. “We mentor each other.  She got me through those rough parts!” One piece of advice Linda would give to others is to pay attention to your health. Having weathered nationwide stresses (like a “hanging chad” election and the cataclysmic effects of 9/11), she has learned that it is important to maintain your health and well-being in the face of major challenges.

After retiring from NASA, Linda founded Muse Technologies, branded to reflect the concept of “goddesses of inspiration.”  She wrote a book: THE LEADERSHIP MUSE , in which she ruminated, from her heart, about things in the physical and spiritual world from which she drew leadership inspiration (“from hummingbirds to owls to notions about numbers and infinity and music…” and more.) In Linda’s eyes, “the job of leadership is so difficult, and impossible, it takes divine inspiration, sometimes, to get through it.”  That is why she founded Muse to support Federal executives and leaders, who need technical change support, supplying them with innovative problem-solving, process support, strategic planning, project/program management, technology recommendations and “soft skills” training for staff. Her problem resolution skills are well-utilized on behalf of diverse clients.

Linda expressed gratitude for setbacks and disappointments she experienced over the years.  “They have made me what I am, today.” Her greatest joy comes from contemplating “the vastness of the world we live in, God’s creation.  It gives me a chance to decompress….to understand more about my purpose in life.” Conversely, Linda’s biggest fear is potential failure, which “I have pivoted to have the courage to succeed.”  Having recently seen the movie: “Hidden Figures,” (about African-American women overcoming prejudice and discrimination to strongly contribute  to the U.S. space program), Linda left the theater “annoyed” because so many people were rejoicing, thinking that barriers faced by the protagonists in 1965 no longer existed. “Dude,” she said. “That was so last week. Maybe they don’t give you the trash to take out, but I had my share of more ‘nuanced’ attitudes!”  

On work-life balance, Linda commented: “Life is not 50/50.  It is 100/100. I am 100% who I am all the time.” Three of her career lessons for women are:

  1. You can cry, but keep on moving;

  2. Don’t apologize for being a woman – use female advantages to succeed:  heightened empathy, intuitiveness, compassion and more;

  3. Never sell out; “it’s better to quit a job than do something you think is wrong.”

In her community life, Linda gives back by being an active board member for the DC Youth Orchestra for K-12 children (“being a child musician taught me resilience and grit”) , and a newly-formed regional group called Pink Architecture, convening tech women “in an intimate space” to share insights, knowledge and support.  

Linda can be reached on Twitter at @curetonL and via the web at www.muse-technologies.com.

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