When people think of The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), they typically think of an agency full of brilliant scientists, engineers, and innovators that are pushing the boundaries of technology to achieve the agency’s mission.

That image is a true reflection of the world’s preeminent space exploration agency, which didn’t miss a beat in pursuing its mission during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, NASA successfully completed complicated projects like landing and deploying a helicopter on Mars with a mostly remote workforce that had never operated that way at scale before March 2020.

The magnitude of NASA’s projects requires its great minds to work together effectively and cohesively, which is no small undertaking. With 66,000 employees spread across 10 centers and additional component facilities – and in remote places like outer space – NASA turns to enterprise-wide technology solutions that support innovation and collaboration while keeping the agency and its data secure.

Tech Solutions Based on User Experience

NASA’s technology team understands that enterprise solutions are only good if they meet the needs of the end users. While technology organizations historically have emphasized the technology first, with the expectation that end users will make it work, NASA takes a different approach. The technology team asks about user requirements and the user experience and then designs technology to deliver what employees need.

“At the end of the day, we don’t exist for the technology; we exist to achieve mission success,” said Jeff Seaton, chief information officer at NASA. “My team wants to make sure that we’re doing all that we can to understand what our internal customers need and then develop ways we can meet those needs.”

This approach is an evolution for NASA, which decades ago took the typical one-size-fits-all approach to technology. But in an agency full of brilliant minds, if the enterprise solution didn’t work, people found their own solution, leading to insecure and inefficient shadow IT.

“People start doing their own thing because they feel their needs aren’t being met, which is valid in a lot of cases,” Seaton observed. “In a workplace like NASA, there’s a lot of very smart and creative people, and their goal is to solve problems that haven’t been solved before. So if they’ve got a problem with the technology, they’re going to figure out a way to solve that on their own if they have to.”

To deliver enterprise solutions that would support mission requirements across NASA’s diverse user base, Seaton and his team are continuing to learn how end-user teams worked and what tools they needed to feel successful in their roles. Instead of just supplying technology that people requested, they continue to inquire about the processes the technology would support and the behaviors of the users that supported those processes.

“By viewing enterprise technology through the lens of the user experience and really listening to our internal customers, we were able to deliver solutions that helped people achieve mission success,” Seaton said. “And by doing that, we also gained user trust, which is critical. When your internal teams trust you, it makes it easier to make changes or updates and to deploy something new in the future.”   

Enterprise IT at Scale

Enterprise technology solutions are the best way not only to keep the day-to-day operations working, but also to keep teams collaborating. If each person on a team uses a different collaboration solution, then each person has to be an expert in all of the solutions. With common enterprise solutions people only need to learn one common solution, which is a much better use of time.

“Ideally, we work toward enterprise contracts that meet up to 80 percent of the agency’s needs in major service areas. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but with the maturity of today’s technology, we can meet a lot of our end-user needs with some subset of common solutions,” Seaton said. “And the higher the utilization of common tools and platforms means that the overall universe of things my team has to focus on maintaining and securing – if we can do it, it makes our customer’s lives easier and they can focus more time on the mission.”

Pandemic Preparation

Pre-pandemic, collaboration at NASA involved emailing documents around with tracked changes, and people sitting together in a conference room with just a handful of remote people dialing in – if any. As in many organizations, people that were joining remotely were often second-class participants. They typically couldn’t be seen, and jumping into the live conversation was challenging.

As NASA watched the pandemic unfold across the world, its leaders decided to test the agency’s ability to work in a remote environment at scale. Before the pandemic shut things down in the United States, they asked everyone – the entire NASA population that wasn’t deemed critical to be onsite – to work remotely for a day. During that day, they asked teams to use the enterprise technology – connect through VPN, try the document collaboration tools, hold virtual meetings – and to send in questions or problems that arose from being in a remote environment.

“We had nearly 40,000 remote connections on that day,” Seaton said. “That test was much more successful than even I expected. That day and the remote work stemming from the pandemic, drove our workforce to figure out how to use technology – especially the collaboration tools – that were already available, but they never used before.”

The week following NASA’s remote work test, the pandemic began to force NASA’s workforce to move toward mandatory telework, and NASA teams took the lessons learned during the test to make a smooth transition to working in a primarily remote environment.

“The pandemic was a forcing function. We had to do things differently. And living in this new reality has opened people’s minds to possibilities that are really transformational.”

Support From Technology Partners 

NASA partners with technology service providers like Leidos to support its enterprise solutions. These partners can deliver technology at scale and support the NASA technology team not only with day-to-day maintenance and operations, but also with implementing new innovations based on customer needs.

The NASA OCIO’s Workplace and Collaboration Services area leverages NASA’s NEST contract to enable NASA’s customer-focused end-user approach. Through NASA NEST, Leidos is embedded in NASA and makes the NASA mission its own.

“We work with our partners like Leidos to build the same user experience mindset that we expect from our own teams, because in many cases, our partners are the face of the CIO organization,” Seaton said. “When employees are getting a new laptop or having a system upgrade, they are most likely working with a Leidos contractor. They are a critical member of the team and really shape that end-user experience.”

NASA also looks to its partners for creative ideas. Third-party providers can bring lessons learned from their work with other organizations to solve problems within NASA.

“With a large service provider like Leidos, we’re typically not their only customer. I’m looking for them to bring us better ways of doing things than what we’ve done in the past. Our providers have a way of infusing new ideas or innovations into the work we do,” Seaton said.

An example of this is a recent bot-a-thon NASA organized, where it asked internal teams to bring forward a process or task that they felt could potentially be automated. Over 100 people within NASA submitted ideas, and the IT team worked with its contractors and other experts in automation to evaluate the problems that were submitted and develop potential solutions.

The automation solution developed as one of the winning ideas is expected to initially save 1,200 hours annually through automating a manual process, which freed staff up for high-value work.

A Post-Pandemic NASA

As the world comes out of the pandemic, NASA is leveraging the lessons learned to reimagine the future of work, where innovative enterprise technology continues to power a productive and more inclusive work environment. Leaders expect some people to come back into the office full time, while some work in a hybrid environment or remain completely remote. But regardless of where people are working, Seaton said NASA will examine the user experience to develop the tools they need to work more effectively, efficiently, and inclusively well into the future.

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MeriTalk Staff