NSF Tech Leader Aims for a Data-Savvy, Innovation-Focused Workforce

Who is Danny/Shutterstock.com

Dorothy Aronson, the National Science Foundation’s dual-hatted chief information officer and chief data officer, discusses her role in shaping the data literacy of the agency’s workforce.

For Dorothy Aronson, the National Science Foundation’s chief information officer—and now dual-hatted as chief data officer—the critical, data-focused work is nothing new. 

“I'm not sure that having a title like ‘chief data officer’ honestly is a very important distinction,” Aronson explained in a recent conversation with Nextgov. “It's important outside of the building that we have that, but it really changed my role only slightly because I was already very involved in that area.”

Though chief data officers have been popping up in agencies for several years, all CFO Act agencies were mandated to name one by the middle of last year. NSF opted to expand the responsibilities of an IT-focused leader already innovating from within.

Most of Aronson’s professional background is federal service. She’s an artist and accountant-turned-techie who spent her early days working as a programmer—at a time when very few women were working the job. After serving a long stretch in the Defense Department and as an operations innovator for its Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, Aronson spent her last 12 years pushing technology-driven transformations within NSF. With a budget of $8.3 billion in fiscal 2020, the agency funds roughly 24% of federally supported research in colleges and universities across the U.S. and constantly has scientists moving inside and out. Reflecting on that fluidity and the NSF’s ultimate mission, Aronson opened up about the vision and responsibilities of her ever-evolving work—and explained how, for the federal workforce and the leaders that steer them, a little flexibility can go a very long way.

“NSF’s [information technology] needs to be cutting edge. It needs to be nimble and agile. It needs to allow for the frequent changes in policy and law,” Aronson said. “And I work with a continuous-change mindset. So, we're never finished.”

The agency includes more than 1,500 personnel, excluding National Science Board, Office of Inspector General and contractor employees. Aronson works with a mix of federal and temporary employees and is ultimately responsible for the IT budget, which she said amounts to between $110 to $120 million. No one reports directly to her, but Aronson said she’s also responsible for the agency’s IT workforce. “So what that means is that the people who are spending the IT budget go through a governance process that I lead, and so I’m very much involved in how money is brought in for the IT projects, and for how it is spent,” she said. For technical guidance, Aronson reports directly into the agency’s director, and for help with managerial purposes, she leans on the agency’s chief operating officer, who she happily meets with every day. And as NSF is a relatively small agency, Aronson added that she also works intimately with other agency chiefs. 

“The C-suite people are very integrated into my life. We all are in one building,” she said. “We’re close coworkers.” 

The law and policies governing agency CDOs are still emerging, but NSF has been leveraging data for many years, giving it what Aronson calls a clear “head start in that area.” She was already working across the agency’s data-driven efforts, so it made the most sense for her to assume the new role when the direction arose. And in these early days, she’s working deliberately to build out the agency’s data strategy and a comprehensive data inventory. In her eyes, the NSF’s workforce is instrumental to all of this early work and beyond, “because none of this happens without people.” And for the group within NSF that’s responsible for implementing the data strategy, Aronson said the ultimate goal this year is to enhance the degree of data literacy for every single person inside the agency.

“A lot of my time is spent on ‘how do I ensure that the IT workforce here is properly educated’ and also that the workforce at large has the IT skills they need to use the tools that are being provided—and then the same thing with data, being aware of the data,” Aronson explained. “So a lot of training and education is part of this role.”

As they learn more about being empowered by the tools and data they have access to, Aronson also hopes that NSF personnel will grow increasingly comfortable with advanced technologies that could make their jobs easier and more enjoyable. The agency’s human resource department, for example, has worked diligently to integrate bot software into their efforts. Aronson sees the automation technology’s potential to drastically increase productivity across the agency. She believes that bot software has the potential to become as accessible as Microsoft Excel is now, as it allows people to quickly conduct complex calculations with very little effort. “Within a few years, I'm hoping that bot software goes to everyone's desktops, and that people can simplify their most uninteresting tasks themselves,” she said. 

Though the first priority is always smooth, reliable day-to-day operations, Aronson said introducing advanced and emerging technological applications are not considered an option to her—but are mandatory to keep the agency on its path moving forward. If employees spend all their time focused on fixing today's problems or even tomorrow's problems, Aronson said they’ll simply not be ready for the day after. “We have to always be anticipating that next project and I don't consider that an option,” she said. “So even though we have development efforts and pilot efforts going on, they're not optional efforts.”

She’s come to embrace an approach that's hyper-focused on everyday improvements and steadfast innovation, but it’s not always easy and Aronson has faced cultural barriers along the way. For one, federal service and the expectations inside of agencies are frequently in flux. “Getting people excited about change is a very, very hard part of the job,” Aronson explained. “It takes a lot of individual outreach and it's not something you can do in an email.” 

She has many technical measures to gauge the success of NSF’s IT-focused efforts, but in this light, Aronson said she also measures success based on those around her. “I want the people that I work with to be happy and feel rewarded by their work,” she said.

And her own come-up was not without its own challenges as well. Still an artist by hobby, Aronson initially studied art and accounting and began her career in the finance field. Early on, she was approached with a serendipitous opportunity to learn programming and immediately fell in love with the work—but that, too, did not come without barriers. 

“The technology world when I got out of school was all completely, really men,” Aronson said. “Definitely early in my career, I was sort of the only woman in the room, and I faced a lot of difficulty for several reasons—and I'm sure some of them were my own.”

Aronson did not ever have the opportunity to “work directly for a woman” until she arrived at NSF—when she was in her 40s—and by that point, she absolutely loved it. Andrea Norris was heading the agency’s IT shop, and Aronson said watching her run the show was unlike anything she’d seen before. “I looked at her and it was like my mouth fell open, you know, she was just being herself—as a female,” Aronson explained. “So I had learned to behave in a more circumspect sort of way, and here she was being a woman. That was a major change in my life.”

Aronson said she’d never had a mentor, but following that experience, she’s still learning to be one herself. Embracing that mindset around adaptability and continuously evolving has proven to be instrumental in her life. 

“[Something] I think that's important is the ability to be flexible,” she said. “Throughout my whole career people put me in different places and I said ‘OK, I'll do that.’ I didn't want to be the CIO. I didn't want to be the CDO. I didn't want to be a manager and a leader. None of those things were things I aspired to. They were just things that people said, ‘We have a need for this. Can you do that?’”

And as her present responsibilities evolve and grow, she plans to continue to do so as well. 

“I do believe that there's a whole vocabulary around data and a culture around data that I'm not yet familiar with because that's not where I came from. I still look at data from a technology perspective, not from a data science perspective, which I'm just really learning about,” she said. “So just like the whole rest of the workforce is continuously learning and changing—so am I.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.