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

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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.”

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