Dr. Bob Brammer of Northrop Grumman: “A CTO can’t let his organization be surprised”

Dr. Bob Brammer of Northrop Grumman: "A CTO can't let his organization be surprised" - top government contractors - best government contracting event

Robert BrammerDr. Bob Brammer is the Vice President for Advanced Technology at Northop Grumman Information Systems. Security Magazine named Dr. Brammer as one of the 25 most influential people in the security industry by Security Magazine. Here at ExecutiveBiz, we named Dr. Brammer, as one of the top ten CTOS to watch in 2009. Now in this new decade, we had the chance to speak with Dr. Brammer about his most recent priorities and what it takes to be a good CTO in this marketplace.

ExecutiveBiz: You recently did a press conference at the National Press Club where you announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Purdue.  What was the main message that came out of the press conference?

Bob Brammer: I think the main point we wanted to get across was that this is a new research consortium combining the largest provider of security systems and services to the U.S. public sector with three world-class universities in a unique arrangement to address major challenges in a broad range of cybersecurity areas.  This is a substantive and long-term commitment on our part to advance cybersecurity research.

“Our executive vice president used to tell me to “drive until you hear the glass break.“  That is very consistent with the old line that “it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.“  You need to get things done and keep your business moving.  Those two pieces of career advice have made a big impact on me.” -Bob Brammer

ExecutiveBiz: Both the government and private sector are moving quickly to hire skilled cyber professionals to meet current and future needs.  How does Northrop Grumman plan to continue to attract skilled cyber professionals?

Bob Brammer: Northrop Grumman offers is a combination of leading-edge work in this field with national-level opportunities.   We already have many very good people, and good people want to work with other good people so that's also an important part of how we attract skilled professionals; in cyber or any field.  We're also demonstrating a continuing, serious commitment to research investment in this area.  Building a staff is not only about attracting skilled professionals, but it is also about continuing to develop those we already have, keeping them on the leading-edge, and providing a base that we can add to.  We are interested in a combination of skilled professionals that we may hire from industry, along with selected graduate and undergraduate students from the universities.  The professionals we are looking for are really at multiple levels of experience.

ExecutiveBiz: Just before Christmas last year President Obama announced the appointment of Howard Schmidt as the Cyber Security Coordinator in the White House.  What are some of the challenges that you think he is going to face in the year 2010?

Bob Brammer: This is a new position.  He has reporting relationships both to the National Security Advisor and the Economic Advisor.  I think he has to build effective relationships with many diverse organizations.  At the federal level, this includes multiple federal agencies, the Congress, OMB and others.  However, he also needs an effective dialogue with industry and the research community.  He must ensure that he is able to communicate effectively with all of these organizations about the nature of the threats and the importance of cybersecurity.  These challenges are certainly things that he will face this year.  The country needs a new cyber security strategy and a response plan.  We need to improve information sharing among the federal agencies and to build public-private partnerships, to increase education and awareness about these problems, and to be an advocate for cybersecurity with OMB.  It is a very challenging job when you add it all up.

ExecutiveBiz: What threats in cyber space are of greatest concern to you and why?

Bob Brammer: I think the ones that we are most concerned about are the state-sponsored threats.  There are a number of foreign organizations attempting cyberespionage on the United States.  There have been a number of incidents reported in the press of sensitive information and intellectual property stolen from information systems from across the public and private sector.  There are also hints of things that could be far worse.  There have also been reports of foreign organizations mapping U.S. critical infrastructure, like our power grid, and this infrastructure has certain vulnerabilities.  Significant attacks on infrastructure like the power grid, transportation and energy systems, financial services, and so forth could be devastating.  Those are very credible threats, right now, whereas they probably weren't a few years ago.

ExecutiveBiz: Anything else you would like to add?

Bob Brammer: One thing that makes cybersecurity very difficult is the challenge of attribution.  In general, it is very difficult to determine the exact source of an incident.  This makes legal action very challenging.  It is also a major issue for cyberdeterrence.  There are ties between the cybercriminals and some of these state-sponsored organizations.  There are many bad guys in this business, and it can be very difficult to decide who is doing these bad things.  That is a significant research challenge.

ExecutiveBiz: What does it take in this marketplace to be a good CTO to help serve your government customers?

Bob Brammer: In large organizations like Northrop Grumman, a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) must be comfortable addressing a very diverse set of issues.  The CTO must ensure that the organization is doing the things that it should do in terms of research and that it remains technically competitive and leading-edge in certain key areas.  A CTO must also ensure the alignment of the technology strategy and research program with the organization's mission and business objectives.  We've focused largely in this interview on cybersecurity.  However, we also have many other areas in our research program, including networking and communications, climate change, command and control systems, intelligence collection and analysis systems, public health, and a very broad range of other areas.  A CTO cannot allow his or her organization to be surprised technically in any key area of the business.  A CTO must be gathering information and communicating with customers, industry, and the research community constantly.  A CTO needs to assimilate large volumes of information to decide what is important to the business, and to ensure successful technology integration with the lines of business and the organization's operations.  Those things are critical to a CTO.

ExecutiveBiz: What is the best career advice that you've ever received that you would like to pass on to others?  Who was it from?

Bob Brammer: There are really two things that come to mind.  The first is for the younger people.  My father was a college professor and so I grew up in an environment where he stressed the importance of education and getting my PhD.  He wanted me to get it as early as I could.  I did my PhD work while I was also working, full-time, for NASA on the Apollo program.  I was able to complete my degree when I was twenty-five and get out of graduate school quickly.  That really helps you get your career off to a good start.  My advice to graduate students is to get your degree, get out of graduate school, and get on with your life.  The second piece of career advice for those in industry is that it really pays to have a strong bias for getting things done.  After I left NASA, I went to work for TASC, which at the time was a small company.  Our executive vice president used to tell me to “drive until you hear the glass break.“  That is very consistent with the old line that “it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.“  You need to get things done and keep your business moving.  Those two pieces of career advice have made a big impact on me.

ExecutiveBiz: What is something that most people don't know about you?  Do you have a hobby or an interesting fact about yourself?

Bob Brammer: Most people wouldn't know much about my family life.  I married my high school sweetheart, whom I took to the Senior Prom.  We have been married for more than forty-two years.  I have children, grandchildren, and now even a great granddaughter.  The little girls in my life get a lot of attention.

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