Lisa J. Porter has successfully lead some of the world’s largest and most critical technology efforts. Her career started with a focus on academic rigor in pursuit of some of the toughest degrees, a B.S. in Nuclear Engineering from MIT and a PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford. She would later lecture at MIT and then became a researcher for DARPA related projects, eventually becoming a DARPA program manager. Dr. Porter would later lead NASA’s Aeronautics Portfolio, would become the first Director of the Intelligence Community’s IARPA, became President at Teledyne Scientific and an EVP at In-Q-Tel, and then was named to be the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, an office which is essentially the CTO for the entire Department of Defense. She now co-leads a consultancy she formed with Michael Griffin (LogiQ).
In this OODAcast we explore Lisa’s approach to leadership in the technology domain. Some themes from the discussion:
- Her comments throughout point to an ability to focus and decide what she would pursue with a determination to accomplish her goals. For example, early on she had a determination to dig into topics associated with solutions around future energy needs and pursued her undergraduate in nuclear engineering. She later acted on a determination to support national security.
- Like many others she faced a changing moment when the attacks of 9/11 happened. We review how Tony Tether looked her in the eye and convinced her to make the right choice and knew it was time to change.
- Through her career she was continually placed in situations where she needed to adapt and overcome and in every case rose to the occasion. She recounted several situations in her early career where she learned from role models, including previous generations of great technology leaders like George Heilmeier (famous for Heilmeier’s Rules, which are pasted below), and Tony Tether.
- We discussed how some technologists are fantastic individual contributors but are not so good at leadership, and learn lessons on how we can all get better in our individual leadership abilities. We saw example after example of ways leaders are able to seek out others to learn from including learning how to do things differently.
- Technology leaders Lisa looked up to frequently had to take courageous stances because they knew they needed to and this theme of courage is one that applies to leaders across multiple domains of course, but in this case we dive in to examples Heilmeier and others gave Lisa.
- How to push for quality and setting standards and being willing to understand that some people might not like what you are doing and may not like you at all. This means it is never going to be easy to take on the role of leader.
- Strategies for avoiding mediocrity and pursuing excellence through application of leadership principles.
- Lessons in creating new organizations in government and the knife fights that come with that (and need for courage, clarity and transparency and drive to bring new capabilities into existence).
- The virtuous role of In-Q-Tel and the phenomenal job being done by Chris Darby and his team ( There is a secret to success discussed here that will almost certainly apply to any other organization that wants to perform at this level).
- Advice for CEOs on how to bring capabilities to the attention of government.
- How can leaders of large organizations generate positive change (using the example of DoD’s need to pursue new strategy and actions around 5G).
- The one true job of a leader.
- Her view on securing systems “I have never seen a secure system, nor have you or anyone else.” She underscored how the approach now known as zero trust is one she strongly endorses because it flows from the approaches used by the savvy for years, including the approach of the intelligence community operators who had to learn to operate in domains of no trust (see, for example, the Moscow Rules of Cybersecurity). Her view, yes raise defenses, but know that trust is a vulnerability and employe the zero trust philosophy.
- What is she reading? Marcus Aurelius and his meditations, which she most strongly recommends for its context and its inspiration. And Sapiens by Harari.
Lisa discussed the courage she saw in leaders like George Heilmeier, including the courage to stand up to large interests that will try to push there parochial interests through decision-makers, at times trying to do so by throwing their weight around or bully or seek to claim some ultimate wisdom. One of the way Heilmeier dealt with that was to force all who came to DARPA with a new idea or request to answer a set of very simple to understand questions which are still in use today. These simple questions, now called Heilmeier’s catechism or Heilmeier’s rules, were not always simple to answer, especially if an idea was not firmly rooted. They are:
- What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
- How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
- What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
- Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
- What are the risks?
- How much will it cost?
- How long will it take?
- What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success?