Diva Tech Talk interviewed Linda Cureton, veteran U.S. government tech leader, turned entrepreneur. Linda “was always fascinated with numbers.” Facetiously she recalled doing a math as a youngster to compute how old she would be in 2000. “I remember coming up with the age --- 41.” She thought: “Oh my God. I’ll be dead. I better hurry up and do things!”
Linda has had many chances to “do things” (BIG THINGS), although she resisted technology in early life. Originally aimed toward Washington D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Linda wanted to take calculus in 12th grade so matriculated at Howard University, instead, as a senior in high school in an advanced calculus program. She began university as a pre-med major, (“I hated it”) until a mentor counseled her. “You will be successful if you do what you love and enjoy.” Linda switched her major to mathematics. “I wanted to do pure math, but the counselor insisted I take computer classes.” As she began to take programming classes (IBM Assembler, Fortran, etc.), “I really enjoyed them.” After graduation, she interviewed at the National Air and Space Administration (NASA). “That’s how I got into technology,” she said. At the time, it felt like “punishment.” Clearly, that feeling dramatically changed.
Linda was a mathematician/programmer for 2 years at NASA, then moved to the U.S. Navy, working in the weapons systems development program, to become a program manager in undersea warfare. “After 6 months, I realized I didn’t like it, at all” so she moved to become a systems programmer at the Seattle naval base. Post-divorce, Linda moved to Maryland to become a systems programmer at the U.S. Department of Justice. She was at DOJ for 16 years, in a variety of technology management jobs and eventually became Deputy Director of the DOJ Data Center. Then she began applying for senior executive positions in government. “I was told I was not qualified,” she said. She recognized a need to focus on building coalitions, and whole organizations, “from dirt, from the ground up.” Engaging in that developed “executive acumen.” She went to the U.S. Department of Energy as Associate Chief Information Officer for operations for several years. “I was the only African-American career executive in the department, and the only black female; it felt very lonely.” But, from that experience she grew immensely.
Subsequently, Linda became Deputy Assistant Director of Science and Technology and then Deputy CIO for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), as a female executive in a male-dominated agency where she “built a very strong team.” Following that, she spent 8 years, again at NASA – first as CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, then as CIO for the entire NASA agency. (“My boss’s boss was President Barack Obama! The buck stops there.”) At NASA, she spent most of her time “debugging” the nationwide agency and bolstering it.
In evaluating her government career, Linda admitted “I was a pretty terrible programmer, but I was good at debugging.” She still considers that a major strength: the ability to find the “bugs” in an organization and solve them. Linda had no formal mentors in her career but learned “the best way to have a mentor is to be a mentor,” and mentors can be found outside of your organization. While at DOE, feeling isolated, Linda reached out to Gloria Parker, the first African-American female working at a Cabinet level, as the CIO for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Gloria generously shared invaluable advice about how to effectively serve as a CIO. They have remained friends to this day.
After retiring from NASA, Linda founded Muse Technologies, branded to reflect the concept of “goddesses of inspiration.” She wrote a book: THE LEADERSHIP MUSE , about things in the physical and spiritual world from which she drew leadership inspiration (“from hummingbirds to owls to notions about numbers and infinity and music…” and more.) In Linda’s eyes, “the job of leadership is so difficult, and impossible, it takes divine inspiration, sometimes, to get through it.” Her company supports Federal executives who need change support, supplying them with innovative problem-solving, process support, strategic planning, project/program management, technology recommendations and “soft skills” training for staff.
Linda expressed gratitude for the setbacks and disappointments she experienced over the years. “They have made me what I am, today.” Her greatest joy comes from contemplating “the vastness of the world we live in, God’s creation. It gives me a chance to decompress….to understand more about my purpose in life.” Conversely, Linda’s biggest fear is potential failure, which “I have pivoted to have the courage to succeed.” Having recently seen “Hidden Figures,” (about African-American women overcoming discrimination to strongly contribute to the U.S. space program), Linda left the theater “annoyed” because so many people were rejoicing, thinking that 1965 barriers faced by the film’s protagonists no longer existed. “Dude,” she said. “That was so last week. Maybe they don’t give you the trash to take out, but I had my share of more ‘nuanced’ attitudes!”
On work-life balance, Linda commented: “Life is not 50/50. It is 100/100. I am 100% who I am all the time.” Three of her career lessons for women are: you can cry, but keep on moving; don’t apologize for being a woman – use female advantages to succeed: and never sell out; “it’s better to quit a job than do something you think is wrong.” In her community life, Linda gives back by being an active board member for the DC Youth Orchestra for K-12 children and a newly-formed regional group called Pink Architecture, convening tech women to share insights, knowledge and support.
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