NASA Digital Transformation Officer Jill Marlowe discusses the agency’s digital transformation strategy and approach.
Digital transformation — described as the practice of using powerful digital tools such as data analytics and personalized information and interfaces to dramatically improve the way something is accomplished – is widespread in our lives. During the past decade, new digital technologies and techniques have revolutionized routine tasks. NASA is continuing to actively pursue digital transformation – focusing on agency-wide coordination and sharing best practices to increase efficiency, effectiveness and innovation.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- NASA’S strategy for digital transformation
- The transition to model-based everything
- How digital transformation will expand space exploration capabilities
Jill Marlowe is NASA’s Digital Transformation Officer. In this role, Marlowe leads NASA’s digital transformation by focusing on where the enterprise needs to go and architecting digital solutions to accelerate mission outcomes. Her responsibilities include refinement and integration of the agency’s transformation strategy, plans and policies, and coordination of implementation activities in six thrusts: data, modeling, process transformation, collaboration, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and culture and workforce. Marlowe previously served as Associate Center Director, Technical, at NASA’s Langley Research Center, where she led strategy and transformation of the center’s technical capabilities to enable NASA’s future missions. From 2012-2018, she served as Langley’s Research Director where she led the center’s largest organization to conduct cutting-edge research and technology development in aerosciences, structures and materials, and intelligent flight systems. Marlowe has a bachelor’s in aerospace and ocean engineering from Virginia Tech, a master’s in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from George Washington University.
Jill Marlowe: Digital transformation. Innovation. It’s all about connecting us as humans together and accelerating our ability to do bigger and bolder things than we ever thought possible.
It’s about transformation. It’s really about how emerging digital technologies can help us completely reinvent not only the way that we work, but really what we’re able to deliver, what we’re able to do. And that includes missions that we have not even been able to think were possible yet.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
Digital transformation has been getting a lot of attention across the globe. Some have said that 2020 is arguably the year of digital transformation.
Our guest on the show today is Jill Marlowe, who is stepping into a new position this week as the NASA Digital Transformation Officer. Jill, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Marlowe: No, it’s my pleasure. I’m happy to be here.
Host: So, what’s all this talk lately at NASA about digital transformation?
Marlowe: That’s quite the buzz word, right? So, I always like to ground people in maybe something that they’d be familiar with in their personal lives. So, when you think about digital transformation, I’ll invite you to think maybe about television shows just as an example, right? You go back 10, 20, 30 years, we always used to sit down at the same bat time, same bat channel every week, and wait for our programming to come. And that was the traditional way we did things. Then over time, we started to get DVDs, DVR, all that stuff, and really all that we were seeing there is that that content was becoming digitized. You could put a disc into a machine and be able to capture all of that.
But if you think about now what’s happening, really that whole entertainment industry, the idea of a television show has been completely transformed. People are able to subscribe to services, they’re able to binge watch television shows, and we have a lot of content that never even gets released anywhere other than on a subscription service. And so all of that was made possible by the digital underlying technology that came to pass in the last couple of decades. And so really that’s what we’re talking about is digital help to transform the entertainment industry. And if you peel that onion even a little bit farther, you can think of so many different examples where that’s happened in our personal lives. Another one is just navigation, right? Back in the day, we used to have paper maps and then it was the little Garmin thing that you had on your dashboard, which was just a digitized version of maps.
But if you think about how we navigate now, pretty much everybody uses an app in their phone and it takes into account traffic or tolls, or in some cases whether, if you use Waze, it’s where you spot the cops and it’ll automatically and dynamically re-route you as you go along. So again, totally transformed the way we think about navigating from point A to point B.
So the beauty of all of this is as much as we’ve already seen, just like in those examples that I’ve given you, it’s really just the beginning. There are so many different digital technologies that are coming onto the scene if you think about automation and robotics, and people have heard of big data and analytics and AI and machine learning, and just think about shopping on Amazon and the way it’s starting to more and more capture who you are and able to suggest products to you.
It’s really all about all of these technologies that are starting to converge. And when they come together, they’re creating whole new ways of doing things and in many cases, products that we never even knew we needed. Just think about the smartphone as an example. I mean if you had told me some years ago that I was going to need to carry around this device and I would be doing my banking on it, and I would be socializing with friends on it, and I would be taking pictures of my meals on it, I would have told you that you had lost your mind. I couldn’t have conceived that I needed that. But now, I can’t think of leaving the house without it. I don’t know about you. I mean can you imagine navigating modern life without a smartphone in your pocket?
Host: No way.
Marlowe: I know, right? And I mean just think about COVID and how just this whole experience of going through the pandemic has really changed pieces of our lives and how we’ve relied on technology for that. For me, it’s everything — I mean I use the online shopping with the curbside pickup. I’ve got my kids FaceTiming with their grandparents. My older kids live out of state. We now have virtual game nights once a week. And I bet we’re going to continue that after all this is over. My youngest does 5Ks. He’s using wearables to participate now in virtual 5Ks. And now we’ve got Zoom meetings for scouts and we’re doing virtual school. So you can just see all the fingerprints of digital and how that’s reinvented those life experiences. So again, I think we all get the idea of digital transformation. Digital is really transforming and changing our life experience at home almost innately.
So, you asked the question about what’s all this talk about it at NASA. And it’s really all about how we totally understand. I think all of us get this that as complex as our personal lives seem, the challenges at work can be even more profound. I mean in the employee level, everybody going to work, we all have things like reports we need to assemble and it’s taking forever, the systems aren’t maybe friendly, or you can’t find the information, you don’t know who has it in order to pull together maybe something that you’ve been asked to deliver. Or you’re trying to work with partners outside the agency to get that information and you’re having challenges with sharing information back and forth. There’s any number of those challenges that are happening at work. And as challenging as those are, if you think about it at the NASA level, they’re enterprise level challenges that are profound as well.
And those include, just take for example our missions, right? We have even more complex missions than we’ve ever tried to undertake than ever before, like Artemis, right? On much shorter timelines with a much more complex partnership landscape. And that’s a real issue. Also, we’re trying to work with that aerospace ecosystem that’s out there, all of those sea of industry partners, and they are changing. They are transforming. They are doing business in different ways all around us. And so for us to work with them, we’ve got to be keeping a pace and working in those same ways as well. And so, we’re recognizing that inside of NASA, some of our 21st Century business processes are really not up to the task because we have legacy systems that we’re dependent on.
And that brings me to maybe one final enterprise challenge, which is think about all of the talent that’s entering the workforce right now. They are really expecting — they’re digital natives and they are expecting to work and they already live in a digitally enabled world. And so if we want to recruit that next generation, we know we’re going to have to work in these new ways. So when NASA talks about digital transformation, it’s really talking about taking an organizational approach, a coordinated and concerted effort to really harness all of that emerging technology that we just talked about, but put it into use for us at work so that every one of us can be more efficient and more effective. And the work that we’re already doing, and maybe even enable us to go after new missions that really were not possible just a few years ago.
Host: So, do we have examples of what digital transformation in action looks like at NASA?
Marlowe: Well, yeah. Actually, I’ll go back to COVID. So, think about this, just six months or so ago, maybe trending on seven months now, goodness, we couldn’t have conceived of 95 percent of the agency working virtually. But we have all figured out how to adopt Teams as our collaboration platform and I mean it’s been hard. I don’t want to minimize the change that that was, but we did it, right? We did it. We’ve been able to carry on, we’ve delivered some amazing launches and new missions during that timeframe with really on the whole, if you take a look at it, minimal disruptions. And not only that, we’ve done virtual onboarding, right? We’ve brought people who have not been on our team previously onto the NASA team as employees. And they’ve been able to integrate with us without missing a beat. So that’s another example.
And then there’s some even cooler gee-whiz sexier stuff. We’ve actually had for Mars Perseverance, the folks at KSC and at JPL figured out how to do virtual inspections. So they had folks that were just minimal folks going in, and then engineers working at home were able to actually use augmented reality, virtual reality types of technologies to be able to do the final inspections of some of that hardware. And then just managing those folks that do need to go on site. We’ve had centers who have taken advantage of using their geographic information system, so all the digital knowledge of the maps and the buildings that are on center, and overlay that with the teams that need to come on site and make sure that we’re not putting too many people in one building at the same time while we’re planning all the projects and the people that need to be working together. So, lots of different examples during COVID.
And in fact, there’s a quote that I love. The Microsoft CEO back in April actually was talking about how just in April alone, there were more than 200 million Microsoft Teams meeting participants in a single day. And he couldn’t have imagined that level of engagement previously. And really, the acknowledgement that they were talking about was that we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in just two months at that time due to the pandemic. So I think the pandemic, it’s been a forcing function for a lot of change. It’s not a use case any one of us would have wished for, but it really has shown us that there are new ways of working that we may want to keep and adopt as we look to the future, because they’re enabling for us. We know we need to work with all kinds of geographically distributed partners, for example, going forward. And didn’t we just learn how to work with geographically distributed teams? Because at the end, as we’re working from home, so many of us, that’s what we are right now. We’re a geographically distributed team.
Host: So, what’s the agency’s strategy for digital transformation?
Marlowe: So, I mean I think we’ve got to be fair, right? Digital transformation’s not a new thing. We’ve been talking about it and a lot of folks in a lot of organizations, not just NASA, have been leaning into it for quite some time. But in reality, that’s our challenge. We have had a lot of people across NASA who are already engaged in digital transformation. Just the examples that I just listed for COVID are a result of some of those concerted efforts. However, a lot of what we have done has been very distributed, right? It hasn’t been connected and integrated well with each other. So we risk having silos in developing the new ways that we’re working. And also, a lot of those efforts have been more what I would call prototypes or experiments, trying to see if a particular technology, say for example, something in artificial intelligence or machine learning, could be put into good practice for us. And so, we’ve proven those experiments, but we haven’t really figured out how to scale them.
So, where we are now, and you asked what’s our strategy for digital transformation, is we are really going to take a more coordinated approach to looking at enterprise digital transformation. So, this is really looking at where are there things that we really ought to be doing in a more coordinated and consistent way across the enterprise. Minimize duplication, because we don’t need a lot of people trying to figure some of these same things out if we all have a common challenge, and then try to figure out how to scale them up. So there was a formulation team that has been working actually for a couple of years, doing a lot of benchmarking both internally and externally, and that team developed six strategic thrusts where NASA really needs to focus as an enterprise. And if you want, I can run through those thrusts real quickly.
Host: Yes, please do.
Marlowe: I’ll start by talking about what we consider to be our digital foundation. If we’re going to lean forward as an enterprise and capitalize on the potential of digital transformation, there’s really some things we have to do as a foundation. The first one of those and the first strategic thrust is data. And I’ll just say colloquially, this is really all about getting our data house in order. We need to make sure that all the information that we have sprinkled in all the little containers across NASA is findable, it’s accessible to the people who need to use it, it’s interoperable and it’s reusable. We don’t need to be reinventing things for each other. So, we have a set of activities and strategic roadmap under our first thrust data.
The second one is really all about our mindset as people, right? So the thrust is called culture and workforce, but this is really how do we inspire in all of us this idea of a growth mindset? And what that means is really focusing on not just what I’ll call digitizing, the way we’re working right now, as in just taking literally whatever it is that we’re doing and turning that into something on a computer. It’s really thinking about how can the digital technologies really fundamentally transform what we’re doing and enable us to do whole different products, just like we talked about with the entertainment industry or the maps. So that’s really all about our culture and workforce. And there’s a component of this too that goes to having a culture that understands what we really ought to be doing as an enterprise versus local. So that’s our second strategic thrust.
Our third strategic thrust, and this is in the foundational category, really sits at that intersection between data and culture and workforce, and it’s really all about collaboration. It’s how do we engage with each other as people as we do our work, and with the data that we all need to get that work done? And so that’s the collaboration area. It does include the virtual collaboration platforms, but it also includes how we visualize our data. So things like augmented and virtual reality fit into this one as well. So that’s our three foundational strategic thrusts. Then we have two strategic thrusts that we consider to be more in the enabler zone.
So, the first one of those is model-based everything. So it’s a kitschy title for this area, but it’s really all about how we recognize that the world is getting more complex, demanding us to work much faster. There’s much more demand for accuracy and at least understanding where we have uncertainty in our work. And also understanding that we’re going to have to change. We’re going to have to pivot. You might be moving in one direction today and you might be asked to shift to a different thrust or a different goal tomorrow. So all of those things actually, humans have a real hard time keeping up with when you start scaling them up. And we recognize that digital models really can help us, and a lot of us are using them in our work already. But the idea of model-based everything is that if we take a look across the board and think about where use of digital models can really help people do their job and then start connecting those models together, into more of a model-based enterprise, it will really improve our throughput.
So that’s that first enabling strategic thrust, model-based everything. And then the next one is artificial intelligence and machine learning. So, this is where we’re really talking about how do we, all that data that I talked about, we’re going to get that data house in order. Well, imagine if we could actually use AI and machine learning on top of that to extract new insights out of that data. So much data that humans really have a difficult time seeing sometimes some of the interesting features and we know this technology can help us do that. So that’s the two enabling strategic thrusts.
And then at the very top of our strategic thrust pyramid, if you can visualize building that in your mind, sits process transformation. And that’s really all about how we take those foundational layers and those enablers and really completely reinvent and transform the way that we work. And that’s what we mean by processes. It’s just nomenclature for the way that we’re working. And so really what we’re driving at there is finding efficiency and effectiveness in everything that people do, and how do we go after that as an enterprise. So those are the six strategic thrusts and they form the basis of the strategy that we’ll be pursuing as we go forward.
Host: How will the engineering community experience this digital transformation?
Marlowe: So, I’m an engineer by training, and so that’s a question that’s near and dear to my heart. So, what I would say is engineers really, if you think about the way that we work, they’re going to experience progress because they actually do all –they need all six of those strategic thrusts that I just talked about. So if you just think about it for a sec, engineers, they’re constantly thinking about how to improve or optimize the way that they do things and that’s really process transformation, right? That’s the first thing. And everything they do, they do in teams. Well that’s really collaborating. And really what they’re trying to do when they gather in teams is really come up with new solutions to problems. And that’s really that growth mindset that I talked about in the culture thrust. They’re also oftentimes using models to start projecting what might be possible, and so that’s obviously in the model-based everything. And all of that modeling that they’re doing is generating all data. So, there you go.
And in the future, we know that as we look at all of those sea of data, and we’re looking especially at things like interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work where we’re really getting into the complex systems that are going to be the hallmark of our engineering going forward, AI and machine learning can really help us to tease out I think more of the capability of the system than we’ve been able to. So, I really think engineers are likely to experience and drive advances across all six of our digital transformation thrusts.
But there is one thrust in particular that I really think that the engineering community is probably going to be in a lot of the driver’s seat on, and really experience advances, and that is that model-based everything arena. Really if you go back to the work of the formulation team that I talked about in digital transformation, that whole recommendation came from recognizing that the engineering community has been using modeling in their work for a very long time, and they started to latch onto the idea of model-based systems engineering as an integrator for all of that work.
And so this notion that you’ve got model-based systems engineering working at the front end to define requirements and drive them down and then integrate the models coming back up from all of the design engineering work, and then below that, below design engineering into the discipline engineering communities. And then as we’re doing all of that engineering work and building out the systems, you’ve got mission assurance coming along on the backend, that bookend of systems engineering. That whole model for how the engineering community is trending toward the future and really working to integrate and become an integrated engineering enterprise that’s all predicated on a modeling environment, that was the inspiration for saying, ‘You know what? Engineering isn’t the only environment where we know that we need to work in this way.’ If you think about it, we use models in a lot of different other areas, maybe in some cases not as aggressively.
But if we did imagine for a moment, if we modeled our workforce, imagine if we modeled our facility health as robustly as we do some of these other areas. And imagine them coming together and an engineering director, for example, being able to use those kinds of models on the institutional side to forecast where the capability needs to go next. And then imagine in our program and project management realm, much more robust schedules, models, and risk models, and resource models, and being able to do ‘what if’ scenario planning not only based on technical requirements, but really on the integration of all of the schedule risk and the other variables that they need to keep up with, maybe even getting into things like what’s the vulnerability of our supply chain if we’re planning to outsource some things? And what would a model of that end up telling us about our ability to maybe deliver something on time?
So, you can see the idea of modeling, it’s got a lot of tentacles, right? Where it’s weaving its way into all of the different functions that we’re doing across NASA, really providing an information backbone and a decision-making backbone for us to work together and make decisions together. And really the engineering community is right there, front and center. And again, some of the inspiration for how we could maybe not only work in these ways within the engineering community, but take it NASA-wide.
Host: And so, what other changes or impact do you think employees can expect?
Marlowe: So, I think I’ve been hanging up at the 100,000-foot level more in the vision camp, right? So what I think employees will maybe experience right out of the gate are some of what we’re calling the early wins. So I mentioned that we’re seeing a lot of prototyping happening across the agency. And what we’re doing right now is we’re in the process of doing an agency scan to look at some of the exemplars that have been demonstrated out there, and harvesting those and figuring out where some of those exemplars could really have a broader impact if they were introduced to the larger community. So in the model-based engineering area, we’ve got some proposals that we’re looking at that are really looking at how do we integrate engineering environments across NASA, because sometimes we use different environments across different centers. So, they might be involved in a prototype to look at a multicenter environment there.
We’ve got some proposals on the table to look at extending the use of MBSE, really trying to push it more toward adoption across the entire life cycle. We’ve got some other proposals on the table that are really looking at advancing multiphysics and interdisciplinary tools, really pushing them onto next-generation computer platforms, the GPU-based platforms. And we’ve got some prototypes and proposals on the table for using AI and machine learning to mine lessons learned from past projects. So as you’re working, the AI assistant would be monitoring what you’re doing. And then in real time, suggesting back to you that, perhaps there’s a lesson learned on a past project that you’re about to trip on. So those would be some of the early things is that the community would be hearing about those prototypes and maybe even getting to participate in them. And of course, we are always inviting people to come forward with their ideas.
A little bit longer term, what we’re really aiming for is to integrate all of our efforts across NASA at the enterprise level where that makes sense. And so what they might start seeing is an alignment of some of those foundational building blocks, for example, maybe access to an intelligent search tool that would help locate information across all of NASA. So that’s more longer term. There’s also things like robotic process automation that could be a digital co-worker and take care of some of the more mundane parts of your job, including things like maybe extracting information out of the work that you’re doing and automatically generating a monthly status report, or even better than that, eliminate the concept of a monthly status report and provide a window into our work, so that senior leaders don’t need the dreaded monthly briefings to be able to understand that work is on track, right? We would have more real time and dynamic ways to do that.
Host: Right, and the crowd goes wild.
Marlowe: It’s a dream. We can dare to dream, right? That’s exactly it.
Host: There you go. And Jill, what are some tangible ways that digital transformation will help NASA expand its capability to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond?
Marlowe: Oh gosh. So this is like a kid in a candy store for me, because the possibilities really are endless. There’s tons. I mean we have a lot of challenges before us if we’re really going to put humans on Mars and beyond. So it comes down to how we decide our priorities and those enterprise conversations that we need to have to help us focus on those. But fundamentally, we know that Artemis is going to happen through working with a wide array of partners to achieve what we’re doing. And so we’re curating that ecosystem. And so a tangible way that digital transformation will help with that is really in that collaboration arena. How can we collaborate with them? How can we share the data that we need and start to engage as a partnership there in ways that we haven’t been able to before?
Now, the next thing for Artemis is everybody knows that is an aggressive schedule, right? And so digital transformation can enable different kinds of process transformation, just ways to re-invent the way that we work. Like I just talked about, maybe showing real time progress of our work in dashboards using data aggregators instead of having to generate all of those monthly reports, which takes a couple of days out of every month. Talk back to schedules, we know we’re going to need to do everything faster. It’s not just about the reporting. It’s really about everything, right? We’re going to have to do procurements faster. We’re going to have to hire team members faster. We’re going to have to actually do facility maintenance faster and make sure that we don’t have a lot of downtime. So, imagine just for a moment of a project manager who could get an instant status on a procurement from a chat bot, instead of waiting for some overworked person in procurement to try to look it up for him.
Or same thing on a hiring status. Or even from a hiring perspective, imagine having an AI assistant that could use natural language processing to do a first pass on resumes and really help understand, and the language that those potential candidates use, really who would have the right skills that you would be interested in. That would be a huge time saver. Or maybe a facility manager who’s got the facility instrumented with Internet of Things sensors to get some early alerts on a failing part and having them be able to prevent some kind of catastrophic failure in the facility that had it going down for months and causing schedule delays. So it’s not just engineering, right? These things can really help across the board. And then, finally, if you think about the ultimate goal of going to Mars, we know there’s still physics that need to be conquered, things like radiation protection and human-scale entry, descent and landing to be able to land on Mars.
And solving those challenges, especially those multiphysics where we can’t really replicate the conditions on Earth, that’s going to require more and more advanced modeling and simulation and multiphysics approaches. And so when you think about the digital transformation and the focus on modeling advances, and even AI and machine learning, to help us get insights out of all of that, those things I think could really be enablers for where we want to go as well. So again, any number of possibilities for how digital transformation can really advance and help us move the ball forward on Artemis, but we’re not going to be able to do everything. I want to make sure that I’m not promising the sun, Moon and the stars, and maybe even Mars since you asked the question in that way. But we have to have conversations about where we choose to focus. What are the most important things that we need to go after in order to move our team forward and do the great things we’ve been asked to do?
Host: How do you expect the agency’s digital transformation efforts to affect innovation?
Marlowe: Yeah. So that’s a really, really good question, and actually somewhat topical. Just a few weeks ago, we actually held a digital transformation hackathon, which was a flash innovation event. I mean actually, that’s literally what we called it. And what it looked like was we had about 200 or so folks from across NASA come together in a virtual environment all collaborating in just one day, literally only one day, on how we could capitalize on some digital advances to be able to move our mission forward. So for example, some of the things that they were able to do in just one day was a science discovery engine, where they were sucking in information literature from all across NASA and beyond, and using a natural language processor to curate out who was working in various topics and how those information could get synthesized together to come up with maybe some new hypothesis.
Another one, and I’ve touched on this briefly already, was using AI and machine learning to mine NASA’s lessons learned. And so taking advantage, really if you think about that flash innovation event and the virtual environment, what we were doing was gathering people who otherwise would not have met, right? They wouldn’t have been assigned to a team together. They wouldn’t have necessarily had that opportunity. And taking advantage of all of their expertise and unique experiences from across the agency, and just for a brief, very agile snapshot in time, got them to focus on a different challenge and really very rapidly, they were able to come up with some ideas and some breakthroughs for how DT could actually, digital transformation, could actually help move the agency forward. And because we had so many perspectives in the room doing that, really the ideas they came up with were much more holistic and meaningful, meaning they would be relevant to a lot more people.
And so that’s really, if you think about it, that virtual environment and how they did that, that’s like digital transformation powering innovation, doing innovation in a very different way. But I will say that there’s a bigger answer to your question about what’s the relationship between digital transformation and innovation, and that is that at the end of the day, digital transformation is all about that second word in the DT phrase. It’s about transformation. It’s really about how emerging digital technologies can help us completely reinvent not only the way that we work, but really what we’re able to deliver, what we’re able to do. And that includes missions that we have not even been able to think were possible yet. So again, digital transformation, innovation, it’s all about connecting us as humans together and accelerating our ability to do bigger and bolder things than we ever thought possible. And that’s innovation, right, at the end of it. So, I think they’re almost like — you can’t see me crossing my fingers, but they’re like that. They’re right there together.
Host: Jill, it’s really been fun getting to talk with you and hear about all the exciting things that are happening around NASA’s digital transformation efforts.
Marlowe: It’s been my pleasure. It was great talking to you today, Deana.
Host: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Marlowe: I just would invite everybody to think about how digital has changed your life at home, and then think about what you wish it could do for you at work. And when you have those ideas and that energy to help solve the problem, come join us on the digital transformation journey. It’s about all of us working together.
Host: You’ll find links to topics discussed on the show and related APPEL courses along with Jill’s bio and a transcript of today’s episode at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
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