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August 4, 2006

Technology Leadership Begins With the Individual

Nicole Hemsoth

Leadership is not one of the traits most often associated with the typical scientist or engineer. We expect technology professionals to have a firm grasp on the hard sciences, while leadership skills are often considered expendable. But a lack of leadership can create a vacuum in technology organizations. So says John E. West, who directs the Major Shared Resource Center at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. West has written a book on this subject called “The Only Trait of a Leader, a field guide to success for new scientists, engineers and technologists” (http://onlytraitofaleader.com/book) and maintains a related blog site (http://onlytraitofaleader.com).

West, who was selected by HPCwire as one of “People to Watch” for 2006, is spreading the word about the importance of cultivating leadership skills throughout organizations. We recently interviewed him about his book and why he believes these skills are so necessary for those in the technology fields.

HPCwire: What was your motivation in writing the book, “The Only Trait of a Leader?”

West: At the most basic level I wanted to address the individual gap in education and training that technology professionals face in trying to move from school to a career. The education that we get in school is mostly technical. This is starting to change at a handful of schools, but most science, engineering and technical majors finish with only perfunctory general education classes in writing and speaking.

Yet these are bedrock skills for any technology professional and it can take years of training and practice to develop competent performance in them. Virtually no time is spent learning about making good career decisions, managing teams, leadership or seeing the broader business and social context of your contributions. As a result most careers are filled with lots of unpleasant surprises and crisis-learning as people are suddenly thrown into situations for which they are completely unprepared.

So the first thing I wanted to do was just spend some time trying to tell other people the things I had learned and save them some pain. Even if they don't begin mastering the skills they'll need after they read the book or the blog, at least they will have been exposed to the issues and have some conscious awareness of how to move forward when they do find themselves in a crisis-learning experience.

My second goal is a lot bigger. The technologies that engineers and scientists create solve problems for people. You can think all the way back to the wheel and then move forward to cars, airplanes, CAT scanners, computers, cell phones, light bulbs and thousands of other ideas. We scientists and engineers create technology that changes the way people live, that (hopefully) increases our quality of life, and that catalyzes further social development. Yet most of us are never in a situation that causes us to stop and think about the larger context in which our individual contributions fit. I want to provide that opportunity to as many people as I can. I believe that in understanding that our role as technologists is important, we can get people to be more excited about whatever they are doing and to be more serious about doing it “on purpose.” If you are excited about what you are doing, you'll tell others; and we certainly need more technical professionals. You'll also likely try to do it better, which is ultimately of benefit to everyone.

HPCwire: Let's get right to the central theme. What is the only trait of a leader?

West: Followers.

The point is that with all this power to shape the future of society in the things we create and in the ways in which we create them comes a responsibility to think about the big picture, at least sometimes. This can be an overwhelming message, and our tendency would be to say “That's all well and good, but there's nothing that I can do about it. That's for the CEO to worry about, not me. I'm just a cog in the corporate machine.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. First, if you accept that the only trait of a leader that matters is that others follow his or her example, then you see that everyone in every position in society and in companies has the potential to be — and probably is — a leader. Everyone influences someone. The second thing you see is that because we impact society and its future, we have an obligation to lead for positive change, right now, whatever stage of our careers we are in.

Leaders have a picture of how things can be better. Then they work for change to make that picture reality. Your picture might be small: maybe you believe that everyone on your team should be treated honestly and fairly but, right now, they aren't. So you start by treating everyone honestly and fairly, and by challenging, when you can, others that don't do this. Or your picture might be big: maybe you believe that everyone would benefit from being able to share their expertise on whatever tiny subject they have mastered with the rest of the world. And so you create blogging software that empowers ordinary people everywhere to publish on the Web. The point is that we all can see a picture at least slightly bigger than ourselves and when we see something wrong — or inefficient, or whatever — with that picture, we can work to make it better.

HPCwire: You've touched on why leadership is important for scientists and engineers in general. What it so critical in the field you're involved in — high performance computing?

West: Leadership at all levels of HPC — from system administrators to national program managers — is even more vital because of the role that HPC plays in accelerating the development of all the science and engineering disciplines. Put simply, HPC helps make the world a better place faster. Dan Reed said it effectively in his testimony on H.R. 4218 in 2004 when he talked about the unique aspect of high performance computing “…that distinguishes it from other scientific instruments — its universality as an intellectual amplifier.”

HPCwire: But the world needs followers too. Are leadership skills important to technology workers who have no aspirations towards management?

West: Absolutely. In order for technology to bring positive changes, it is required that each of us acknowledges and acts on the leadership role that we have to play in whatever we are doing to build that technology. Globe-changing innovations are very rare and are usually the province of a select few super-visionaries that have something the rest of us don't. But the tasks that we as scientists and engineers have in supporting these larger innovations and in pioneering the myriad of small innovations that are “just part of the job” we do every day requires leadership. It takes leadership to look for a way of getting to the next milestone that doesn't take your team on a code death march. It takes leadership to give bad news when it needs to be given, and to give recognition and credit to those that helped make something possible. It takes leadership to do the right thing rather than the expedient thing.

Leadership isn't about having position, money, power or fame. We are all leading right now and the only question is whether we're leading on purpose to make things better — even if they are very small things — or if we are leading by accident with no thought to the impact we have on others.

Being — and acting like — a leader also gives you something very powerful as an individual. It gives you choice in the paths that you take. You can be a leader and choose to spend your entire career happily on a team writing code in the bowels of a multi-million line application. If you are an effective leader you can also choose to lead teams and maybe eventually lead companies. But if you aren't leading and actively choosing how to react to what's going on around you then you won't have choice. Instead you'll have the career, and the impact, that others choose for you.

HPCwire: You talk a lot about the importance of mentors in the book. Did you have a particular mentor that changed your life?

West: Many, many people, ideas and situations have had a real impact on my life. Some have taught me by negative example, and some have been positive examples. One of the most powerful things about the concept of mentorship is that if you are paying even the slightest attention, you'll find something to learn in just about everything that happens to and around you. It's great if you can hook up with a Nobel Prize winner with an itch to see you hit the big time, but this just doesn't happen to most of us. So look for the lessons that you can find in everyday experiences and “ordinary” people. It's often the ordinary people who have the most extraordinary things to teach.

Professionally, I've been very fortunate to have a series of really wonderful people mentoring me who were genuinely interested in my success and well-being. I wouldn't even be in this profession if it weren't for one of my undergraduate professors, a man named Dr. Bert Nail, who kept me from giving up and leaving engineering altogether when things seemed pretty bleak. One of the most valuable things he taught me is that you don't necessarily have to be smart to make a difference, but you do have to be ready to work hard.

I was also blessed with a strong start from two caring parents and support over the past twenty years from my wife, who is an incredibly strong force in my own personal development.

HPCwire: You also talk a lot about the importance of not being afraid to make mistakes, since failure can be a great source of learning. But some failures can have devastating consequences. How do you balance the risk with the potential to learn?

West: You have to understand the value of what you are trying to accomplish, and you have to be careful that you honestly assess both the risk and the reward ahead of time.

I have a built-in tendency to underestimate the risks of something I want to do and to inflate the potential return. So first of all I learned that about myself by critically assessing past failures. By knowing that I also know that I have an obligation to counteract that tendency in order to protect my organization, which I do by getting risk/reward assessments from other people to balance my own biased views. This is especially important when the risks involve the future health of your organization and the livelihoods of your team.

HPCwire: Many of the leadership skills you discuss in the book are about communication — writing, speaking and marketing (branding yourself). Why are these so important for technologists?

West: Science and engineering are fundamentally creative fields, and at their most basic level, our products are ideas. Ideas have to be communicated to have value. Ideas create value for your career in that you get paid for the ideas you have and your ability to implement them. They create value for your company or organization in that they sell products based on ideas. If you cannot effectively express ideas then you cannot succeed. This is true whether you are in your first week on the job trying to convince your boss that your approach to a problem is worth trying, or whether you are the CEO trying to convince your stockholders that your strategic vision is the best one.

It is true that you can have a reasonably successful career with marginal public speaking abilities, especially if you aren't “out front” or in an executive role. But if you cannot clearly and convincingly articulate ideas in writing, you might as well stay home.

HPCwire: In general, scientists and engineers don't receive training for communication skills, except maybe as part of a general education requirement in a college curriculum. What do you think could be done, institutionally, to address this?

West: There are some positive changes that are starting to happen at the university level. Some schools are beginning to supplement their engineering and scientific education with project-based and seminar classes on public speaking, business, writing and entrepreneurship. But in many cases these programs are voluntary or “after hours” activities that can be hard to squeeze into already heavy undergraduate course loads. Another disadvantage is that students self-select into this supplementary material so that those who need it most may not be exposed to it. Carving out real time for these activities in the formal curricula and making them mandatory would help.

HPCwire: As the director of a supercomputing center, what is your vision for the center and how to do you articulate that to your team?

West: One of the things I talk about in the book is that it takes time and maturity to come to a meaningful vision. When I took this job four years ago, we had a very tactical focus on improving operations. This didn't require a big stretch, but it did give us plenty to do while we all found our places in the new organization that evolved after my appointment.

About two years ago I began to focus on what has become our overriding goal of improving access to high performance computing by improving usability. In HPC we are using human-computer interaction metaphors that haven't changed substantially since the 1970s. For traditional HPC communities and long-time HPC users this is not seen as a barrier — it's simply the way it is. But for younger users who have only grown up using a graphical user interface, and for communities that have not traditionally used supercomputers, this interaction metaphor is a significant and unnecessary barrier to entry. And this is just one area in which we can create change to improve access. Every dollar we spend right now in making HPC more accessible to new communities and younger users is a dollar that could lead to the next fundamental shift in how we all work and live.

HPCwire: As a director, I'm guessing you have ample opportunities to apply your leadership skills and techniques. Putting modesty aside, can you give us an example where you've applied one or more of these techniques that has resulted in a specific success story?

West: My most rewarding successes have come from helping people find a way to contribute to our mission in a way that benefitted us both. There have been at least two cases where we were able to work together as a team with specific individuals who weren't enjoying what they were doing, and as a result, weren't performing well. We helped them develop new careers within the center and they are now not only happier, but also engaged and extremely productive. It is deeply satisfying to find times like this when everyone ends up benefitting in a situation that traditionally ends with all the parties unhappy.

HPCwire: I'm also guessing that leadership isn't just a bed of roses. What are some of the tougher things you have to deal with when you accept the role of a leader?

West: No, in fact it can be really hard. There is satisfaction in doing hard work and in seeing a hard job done well, and so developing your own leadership ability can be (it certainly is for me) very rewarding. But you have to do hard things as a leader. You have to take risks and make decisions that ultimately contribute to success or failure. Failure is always hard, and as you progress to more senior positions in an organization your failure can have desperate consequences for your company, your team and their families.

The toughest thing to do is to critically assess the results of your leadership and to be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions. When you were the leader that shaped a decision and led a group of one or one thousand down a path that turned out to be the wrong path, the fault is yours. Owning that fault and honestly accepting it as yours is the only way you'll prevent repeating the same mistake. You don't owe your team or anyone the promise of never making a mistake; but you do owe them the promise of not making the same mistake twice.

HPCwire: Overall, how would you characterize the state of leadership in the high performance computing community today?

West: I'm very happy to see new directions emerging in HPC today. For a long time we seem to have been focused on lists and rankings and just on building big computers. Over the past several years I think we've seen a healthy trend toward understanding what these computers are used for and in trying to find ways to get more work done as both the scale of supercomputers and the complexity of the applications increases.

HPCwire: Finally, have you started thinking about your next book yet?

West: I'm not sure I have another book in me. If I do, it will be a long time getting out.

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John E. WestJohn West is the director of the Major Shared Resource Center (MSRC) at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The ERDC is the premier research and development facility for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with more than 2,000 employees, $1.2 billion in facilities and an annual research program of $700 million. It conducts research in both military and civil works mission areas for the DoD and the nation. John was recently selected by HPCwire as one of the “People to Watch” for 2006. He holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's degree in computational engineering from Mississippi State University.