18 Nov 2008
Q&A: CHRIS TUCKER, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, AMERICAS AND NATIONAL PROGRAMS, ERDAS AND USGIF BOARD MEMBER
It has been an interesting few days for Christopher Tucker. A USGIF board member and ERDAS Senior Vice President for Americas and National Programs, we’ve heard his name being whispered as a potential choice candidate for the position as the new Director of the CIA under an Obama Administration. We’re not the only ones hearing this either.
We caught up with Chris last week – prior to this news leak – and now have his exclusive take on the recent development. We also got his perspective on geospatial intelligence, where the tradecraft is headed, and developments at ERDAS, the company which he is leaving at the end of the week in order to be available for some new horizons …
Q: Tell us about ERDAS and your role within the organization?
A: ERDAS is a really interesting company that was started back in 1978 as the original Landsat imaging processing company. Landsat was the first orbiting multispectral bird out there providing global coverage for general use. It enabled us as a community—remote sensing community—to come together and do things that we only thought we could do in theory; for both civilian and defense/intel purposes. Once you had that sensor out there, you needed a tool that could let folks use the data for practical gain. That was the Earth Resources Data Analysis System [ERDAS]. ERDAS was a start-up that spun out of Georgia Tech, literally in a garage on the campus. And the rest is then history.
ERDAS has grown over the past 30 years to not just do Landsat but to deal with every space-based sensor there is and all the airborne sensors and geospatial data of all kinds, including the National Technical Means that the National System for Geospatial Intelligence [NSG] relies upon. And, ERDAS is no longer just an imagery company. If anything you do ever uses or ends up on a map, you should give ERDAS a call.
My role at ERDAS has been senior vice president for Americas and national programs – it’s kind of a euphemism to address everything from the Yukon to Tierra del Fuego and everything requiring a security clearance.
Q: And you are fairly new to the organization, right?
A: I came to ERDAS by way of acquisition last year. Prior to that, I was CEO of IONIC.
The ERDAS IMAGINE tool, which is the heritage of the company, really represents the next generation of multi-source, multi-sensor, net-centric applications that allow users to access imagery and other geospatial data, make this data geospatially accurate, exploit/analyze this data, and generate information products that can support analysts, operators, targeteers, and support personnel in the intelligence community as well as the tactical military community. What tools like IMAGINE have done is helped people harness a whole lot of data for real mission gain. The side effect, however, is that a data management problem has evolved as this data has accumulated.
ERDAS, recognizing this problem, used to point customers to our partners, saying, “Maybe they can solve your data management problems.” It turned out this was unrealistic, so the company decided to build an enterprise spatial data infrastructure product, which we now call our APOLLO Server. Some of this product was built from scratch, but somewhere down the line ERDAS decided to acquire some companies to accelerate that platform development. That is when they acquired IONIC, and I came to the company.
So, I really come from the company not from the remote sensing tradition that I talked about earlier but from a service-oriented architecture tradition; specifically the implementation of Open Geospatial Consortium-compliant web services.
I know that’s a mouthful but it’s something that NGA and the rest of the federal government, and frankly governments around the world, have been investing in over the past 15 years in order to achieve the interoperability, information sharing, data discovery, and geospatial enablement that they have sought within their enterprise.
Q: When you were at In-Q-Tel, what kinds of companies did you all invest in at the time? And what were the key attributes of these companies that made you want to invest in them?
A: If I told you, I would have to kill you—Ha! When I was first came to In-Q-Tel, I was given the task of sitting down with agency [CIA] personnel and defining the CIA’s priority technology challenges in what we called “The Problem Set.” The original In-Q-Tel Interface Center—the “QIC” for short—staff (Sue, Basil, Anne, Rick, Sharon, Kathy) really deserve great credit for this accomplishment, as they had to help tease this information out of one of the most complex and secretive organization on Earth.
It was the first public, unclassified articulation of the agency’s priority technology challenges, which enabled us to “go to market” and engage hundreds, and by now, thousands, of technology companies and organizations that the agency had great difficulty in otherwise engaging. The way they described it was that those were the challenges that they were unable to solve despite all the money, all of skills, and all of the acquisition vehicles—the methods for contracting— available to agency.
The idea was that they would create an organization that had different acquisition characteristics and an external view on the agency, which was “exquisitely tethered”—I believe those were Sue’s words—back to the agency’s needs. Seeing the big IT explosion in the mid to late ‘90s, and realizing that the agency was less and less capable of engaging those smaller start ups, those small businesses, some that couldn’t find the Beltway on a map if they had to. They needed an organization that could engage those companies which was not encumbered in the same ways by the FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation].
This special problem set gave us the road rules and we immediately got down to business. I think this demonstrated real foresight on the part of George Tenet, Buzzy Krongard, Ruth David, Joanne Isham, and, well, success has many parents.
The types of businesses we were investing in ranged widely, to include those offering technologies in multi-lingual search and retrieval, entity extraction, machine translation, multi-media search and retrieval, high-end information assurance and privacy, data warehousing and data mining, enterprise middleware—for all sorts of purposes, knowledge management, and on and on.
Geospatial intelligence, a term that did not yet exist, did not come to the top of the investment priority list. It wasn’t until late in our problem set definition that one of my agency colleagues thought it important to mention something along the lines of “sometimes we get asked questions about what happened in a particular area of the world at particular moment in time, and it is extremely difficult for us to do this in a timely manner.”
I was dumbfounded. Having grown up watching [Tom] Clancy films and the like, I knew that this could not be true. Let’s just say that after some due diligence, this became one of In-Q-Tel priorities, and it led me personally down a path that I never would have imagined.
The first steps down this path involved investing in “geospatial interoperability”—for lack of a better term—particularly through what is now called the Open Geospatial Consortium, of which I am now on the board. We put out a few million dollars worth of funding into that technical community not only to invest in technologies that might be individually useful to the agency but in a way that would ensure that data from different systems across the agency could dynamically show up on the director’s map.
We saw the OGC as a great context to take out priority problems and challenges and have them executed by industry collaboratively in a context where industry and governments worldwide were already engaged.
Geospatial is one of these things that became a big focus for In-Q-Tel. And, as a result, a number of things came out of that beyond our investment in OGC such as MetaCarta and Keyhole, which ultimately became Google Earth. OGC continues to yield an evolving standards-based architecture that has come to integrate real-time sensor networks and more. In my opinion, these technologies have really changed the way that we do business but still hold the promise of transforming the enterprise fundamentally.
Q: There was a significant focus on interoperability at the GEOINT Symposium. Tell us what was happening on the exhibit floor at GEOINT.
A: I think there are a lot of different things on the floor at GEOINT. You have software providers. You have solutions providers. You have professional services organizations that when you go in their booth they are demonstrating that they have a track record of dealing with a multitude of technology. The GEOINT Symposium really has evolved into the premiere intelligence conference and is something I am proud to be associated with.
As you would suspect at the GEOINT Symposium you see a lot of people putting things on a map. The interesting part is how things got on that map. I can’t emphasize this enough. Sometimes it is a file sitting on a laptop being visualized on an application running local on that laptop. Sometimes the data is served from the other side of the world or 10 servers from all over the world on 10 different vendors’ platforms from 10 different operating systems with the data in many different formats and the data “magically” shows up on your map.
Those are two radically different worlds, and I’d say at the GEOINT Symposium you see the entire continuum because in reality our customers need a wide range of different kinds of solutions. However, the National System for Geospatial Intelligence is working hard to achieve this world of massively distributed, secure, net-centric spatial data infrastructure where all their business data, or mission data, is laid out upon more traditional geospatial data—whether it be imagery, maps, features, etc.—by authoritative data stewards in a time dominant fashion.
So at GEOINT see a lot of different things. But especially within interoperability demonstration and the participating vendor booth, you are seeing the use of the standard web services architecture that we invested in at In-Q-Tel, and which NGA, ArmyTEC and other DoD elements have continued investing in to this day.
You often have GEOINT attendees, and I think this is common around the defense and intelligence communities, that think about intelligence from a policy, organizational or political science sort of way—which I can say lovingly, since I have a Ph.D. in political science—and I believe this worldview is important. But in the end, the mechanics of our national intelligence and defense intelligence infrastructure require that everything be put on a map. And I think that one of our big struggles in our defense/intelligence community is that we have not yet reconciled the actual organizational imperative to have all of our data, all of our observations, all of our knowledge managed in a spatial/temporal context on your map.
We haven’t reconciled that imperative with a commitment across the entire defense/intelligence community to expose all of our data as I described earlier. Right now the mode we are in is the next necessary step in our evolution; to say NGA is in charge of geospatial intelligence just as NSA is in charge of signals intelligence and CIA is in charge of human intelligence and we all rely on NGA for maps.
I think that has been important because NGA has great geospatial assets that need to be made available to the community as described above. But at the same time every single defense and intelligence agency in the United States—and across our commonwealth partners and coalition partners—needs to be managed geospatially and needs to be published with these standard web service interfaces, of course accounting for the need to know, which is another problem that many do not understand has been solved. Without this, we as a community will not achieve the level of time dominant targeting, operations, analysis and support that we require.
Q: You spent some time at GEOINT week before last. What were some of the big takeaways for you?
A: It is interesting to see how the generations interact. As a relatively young guy, though I have been feeling old lately, and being relatively new to the scene, I only have one decade under my belt, it is priceless to observe the interaction of folks that have spent decades establishing the system that we currently have and have given us the capabilities that we have. There is great knowledge at the top of where the next logical steps are, from the standpoint of doctrinal evolution. I think General [James] Clapper’s presentation was a great example of this sort of knowledge. But then, I think there is a little bit of looking around and going “Where is the next round of ideas that are going to get us there?”
I see the same sort of thing go on at the USGIF’s GEOINTeraction Tuesday events, where folks like Pete Rustan, Kevin Meiners, John Goolgasian, and others show up and share their challenges, and openly state that there is a need for this next round of ideas and technologies to be introduced. They all understand that the defense/intelligence community is a technology intensive enterprise in which good people struggle valiantly—whether in targeting, operations, analysis or support—to get their jobs done with tools that are not necessarily their friends.
As has always been the case, frankly, the younger generation is more engaged at the technology level, focused on tomorrow’s technology. We see where these new technologies can be inserted quickly in a cost effective manner to achieve real mission gain. I think one of the biggest challenges we face as a community is how to marry these generational viewpoints; to have tomorrow’s technologies applied today to the doctrinal shift that we know is not only imminent but absolutely necessary for mission success.
For me, that’s probably the most interesting aspect of the GEOINT Symposium every year.
Q: As a board member of USGIF, please tell us what you think the Foundation has achieved in the last 5 years and where do you think it is heading?
A: I always like to say that USGIF is about three things: community, interoperability and tradecraft. From a community perspective, the Foundation has clearly done a great job in building up the community beyond our wildest imagination. And frankly, I believe there is still great untapped growth potential as everyone comes to realize that when you catch bad guys, you do it by having your mission data on maps. The creation of the GEOINT Symposium, the mid-year Tech Days event with the classified day at NGA, GEOINTeraction Tuesday and other related community-building events are amazing. I’d say the Foundation has achieved its first goal of community building.
Second, interoperability. Why have a community of technology and services providers if their technologies and solutions aren’t going to work together? Or if it will be chronically difficult to bring data together from these different systems in order to do your job? I think from its inception, USGIF has recognized this issue and has played a significant role in facilitating interoperability while bringing community together. Otherwise, USGIF members would just be selling the defense and intelligence communities a bunch of technological stovepipes that can never interact—and that would be a bad thing. We have all lived that nightmare for far too long. USGIF’s commitment to interoperability has been a good thing and certainly accelerated the adoption of OGC web services within NGA and across the NSG. You cannot have a GEOINT community without interoperability.
The third area, which also was a key foundation element when USGIF was established, is tradecraft. By tradecraft we mean all of the skills, know-how, sources and methods that are applied everyday in the trade of geospatial intelligence to get actionable intelligence.
There is a huge generation shift here. If you look at the demographics of who is in the community you’ll see a two-humped camel. There you have folks nearing retirement who have a treasure-trove of knowledge of how to do amazing and often esoteric things. Because of historic recruitment and hiring patterns, there is a dip in the middle, and then there is this younger generation—many coming in after 9/11 with an explosion of recruitment—who don’t have the institutional knowledge, but have a zeal to embrace many of the newer technologies.
In this context, the focus on tradecraft by USGIF is imperative and will see increased focus in the coming year. Some of the steps we’ve taken include the USGIF Accreditation and Certificate Program for colleges and universities to accredit their geospatial programs. This results in a GEOINT certificate that students can pursue, which beyond its educational merits, signals to employers that these students have critical skills that will allow them to rapidly absorb this tradecraft and quickly begin contributing to the mission.
This is just one of the many undertakings of USGIF with regard to tradecraft. Keith Masback, who joined us rather recently as the new USGIF president, is making this his No. 1 priority. The big focus in 2009 and 2010 will be on tradecraft, which is naturally tied to the current state of technology. So naturally, interoperability and community will be a part of this.
Q: Thank you for that perspective, Chris. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave with us?
A: One would hope that this is an area that the transition to the next administration there would place a lot of focus on. I think the current generation of leaders focusing on GEOINT in the functional manager role is important. But we can’t underestimate the power of all the defense and intelligence agencies committing to spatially and temporally enabling their organizations and activities. It would be nice if during transition proper focus could be placed on the geospatial transformation of all intelligence rather than simply focusing on the established functional managers as we have.
I think there is a lot of untapped power there and we could achieve a lot. And, the incoming president should demand nothing less.
[Asked later …]
Q: Speaking of transition, there is talk of you as a dark horse candidate for the position as Director of the CIA. How did this come about and what do you think about your chances of getting the job?
A: Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to gotgeoint.com.