Roger Mason serves as senior vice president for national security and intelligence at Noblis and also oversees Noblis ESI, a wholly owned subsidiary.
He was most recently the first assistant director of national intelligence for systems and resource analyses at ODNI where he advised senior leaders on critical intelligence decisions.
He left his VP role at Noblis five years ago to take on the ODNI post and previously served as director of the Institute for Defense Analyses and general manager of the Advanced Systems Group at General Dynamics.
He spoke with ExecutiveBiz about his professorship at the National Intelligence University, how ODNI changed during his tenure there and the ways in which Noblis is helping the intelligence community solve critical problems in a number of different areas.
ExecutiveBiz: How does your private and public sector experience influence how you execute your current role?
Roger Mason: I regard my prior private industry experience as something that really helped prepare me for my service at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). All the tools, skills and experience I used there came from the private sector first. And now, I’m bringing my ODNI experiences back to Noblis, a non-profit science and technology company, and integrating it across all of their intelligence programs.
The different experiences are a huge benefit to my work now. ODNI has a broad impact across the Intelligence Community (IC). Noblis, on the other hand, is more applied in several key mission areas.
For example, at ODNI, one of my focus areas might have been understanding collection assets relative to intelligence priorities and that obviously has huge implications across the IC and national security. Here at Noblis, it’s quite different. I oversee groups operating at the edge that are engaged in technical exploitation and targeting for some of these key mission areas. It’s a trade‑off of breadth versus depth.
Everything I do here at Noblis, I will now view through the lens of the intelligence mission and how we can best serve the men and women of the IC. It becomes a part of your fabric, like an involuntary muscle. Your first question is always, ‘how can I better support the IC’s mission?’ That’s the vantage point you bring.
Roger Mason: My main focus is integrating the separate solution areas that exist in Noblis’ national security and intelligence mission area. That includes strengthening identity intelligence and biometrics; advanced WMD analysis; cyber analytics; as well as overhead reconnaissance engineering. Each is a wonderful solution area that has long‑standing capabilities. My job is to stitch them together, to bring stronger focus on the themes for the IC and better serve our clients’ missions.
Roger Mason: The last five years I was there were pretty formative ones for the IC and the
ODNI. Without question, the leadership of both of those entities reached new levels of integration and organizational impact. Integration is DNI’s biggest current goal and something that they live, eat and breathe every day on the job.
The last year that I was there, in particular, was a seminal one, with insider threats, Syria, and sequestration. These were some of the biggest challenges I’d seen in the IC during my career. It had a galvanizing effect on the senior leadership of the IC and will help the DNI to prepare for the next series of challenges, whether it’s Crimea or the Malaysian Air flight, etc.
When I look to the future, there are a couple of obvious challenges for which the DNI and the ODNI have already set plans in motion. The biggest challenges will be integrating the IT networks and moving to a cloud IT model. That’s well established, but it requires constant attention. This level of change does not happen easily. There’s big effort in overhead persistence to move to more architectural‑based solutions, instead of platform‑centric ones. That’s a big deal which is moving through the industrial base and major systems acquisitions.
The last big area that a lot of time is spent on is how to balance strategic repositioning based on world threats. There are some long‑standing adversaries that need constant recalibration and vigilance. At the same time, they must also be ready for the expected and unexpected. That is a daunting task.
The complexion of Noblis has also changed quite a bit in many dimensions over that time. One of the biggest changes has been in the workforce. There’s a much more balanced distribution of early career professionals and professionals who are later in their careers. There is good knowledge transfer happening because of this. We have effective and proven solutions at work for clients. What is even more amazing to me is that this happened over a five‑year period, which is a very rapid timeframe for that kind of transformation.
We’ve also expanded into a whole new area here at Noblis. We did not work in overhead and airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) when I left to work for the ODNI. That move was made through our 2012 acquisition of Noblis ESI, LLC. That’s an area that now reports to me. Overhead ISR is an incredibly new area to Noblis, but one where I spent a lot of time in my last job, and one that requires a lot of resources.
The other thing that’s really changed is technology. We’ve always had a very robust internal research and development program here at Noblis, but they’ve taken it to a new level. Take for example, big data analytics. You hear those buzz words tossed about casually, but Noblis actually has a big data analytics lab. They have invested in and built the Center for Applied High Performance Computing with a Cray XMT2 supercomputer and high performance computing clusters.
Through the big data analytics lab and with genuine data scientists, we’re working on applied problems throughout the IC. We’ve worked on threat finance, fraud analytics, genomics, biometrics, nuclear forensics, biological weapons, and cyber analytics. These are really nice developments which are going to help our clients who are just starting to leverage these kinds of technologies to solve their biggest challenges.
Roger Mason: Huge progress has been made to how the IC plans and budgets and it starts at the top and works its way down through the echelons. I’ve always found that some of the best opportunities and drivers of change are found where our biggest and toughest problems are. I want to help serve the IC at these interfaces, whether it’s between overhead and ground, intelligence agencies, geographical regions or technologies.
Look at the nexus between biometrics and cyber, for example. That’s the messy stuff. The hard problems lie at the interface and they’re not comfortable to take on. Bringing a fresh and wide-ranging solution to these problems will make a huge difference to how fast and fully we see meaningful progress. That’s where I see the biggest need moving forward, but huge progress has been made across the board there.
Noblis takes seriously that we exist to serve the national interest. It’s not just a slogan or catch phrase. That’s the reason I came back. As a non-profit, we’re not beholden to the short-term focus of shareholders. It’s very hard for most companies to always make business decisions within the best interest of the government, because for‑profit companies exist and are responsible to their boards and their shareholders. Here, our actions are not driven by quarterly reports or outside earnings expectations.
Instead of paying dividends, we put the resources back into the company to ultimately serve the government better. Our Cray computer is a great example. How many firms would take earnings and put them into buying a Cray that’s used very differently than how you’d expect a supercomputer to be used? That’s a big differentiator.
ExecutiveBiz: What are you most excited about moving forward?
Roger Mason: For me it’s redoubling my efforts with my family and young children. I loved every minute of serving the IC and DNI, and I learned so much from everyone there. It required a huge commitment of energy and intensity. Everyone has to work a lot of hours, but it’s the intensity there that was different.
Noblis encourages a work-life balance so I can share more of that intensity on the home front, while continuing my contributions to the challenges facing the IC. I’m an active leader with the Boy Scouts, and a den lead with the Cub Scouts, which is good fun.
At Noblis, I spend more of my time now making sure that the folks moving up the ladder here have opportunities, like I did. I have a person right now who’s got a Ph.D. in genetic sciences. He’s first class, and we’re trying to get him into an executive MBA program. As a necessity, you spend more time helping to develop others and enable them to get that balanced experience. But, it’s still important to keep sharpening the saw.
I’m very honored to have been asked by the DNI to teach part‑time at National Intelligence University and to establish a curriculum and course based on the work we did in my old job. There’s a certain trade craft between operations research, decision sciences and business analytics that we are wrapping together in a course and I’ll teach that in the fall. So, I’ve got a little bit of an opportunity to do that. It’s a good mix.