G. Nagesh Rao is the Chief Technologist with the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Investment and Innovation for the Small Business Technology Transfers (STTR)/ Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs.
MeriTalk: What are you working on in the IT space with your programs?
G. Nagesh Rao: We are an oversight policy program to make sure they are using those dollars to go to small businesses to do innovative research and highlight those success stories to encourage more participants into that innovative pipeline. We encourage that risk taking. That’s the whole point in the program. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, then we’ve got data that can show what is going to work and what’s not going to work. That gets into what SBIR.gov is doing because that’s a gateway business intelligence platform tool for not only the government folks, but it’s good intelligence for the companies themselves to understand what are the agencies’ needs and what are the agencies looking to fund, currently or in the future, or what they’ve funded in the past. That helps them do what they want with respect to seed funding in high-risk areas that the free market just won’t touch. The Federal government, we’re more interested in space exploration, public health, food, and national security. One of the riskier projects we’ve seen coming out right now is Made in Space. That company is doing all the 3-D printing on the International Space Station. They’re developing that technology there for the future of space exploration development. NASA has the control of their own technology.
MeriTalk: How does cloud computing factor into what you do?
GNR: We have been funding some of that Internet of Things technology and a few other proposals recently that delve into that issue. From the data side on SBIR.gov, right now we’re in cold fusion storage servers technology. I’d like for us to see how we can get our system updated into the cloud, down the road. It’s a piece-by-piece process. I’m dealing with 11 agencies’ data and having all those systems talk to each other and interact with our main gateway platform is really important. The cloud seems to be a really efficient and cost-effective way to get all that data up and dealt with in a more streamlined manner.
MeriTalk: How has FITARA affected your job as the chief technologist?
GNR: It’s really just the Federal government trying to make sure our IT systems are up to date and done in a secure manner. We don’t have sensitive data as much on our system. What we’re doing is taking public data and making better sense of it.
MeriTalk: What’s an interesting, creative thing you’ve done with big data?
GNR: I’d say with SBIR.gov. That system was built with pennies. I did it really cheaply, but I had to be really efficient with the tight budget I had. If you look under “award listing” or “company listing” in the header, we did an analytics dashboard so you can see the number of awards that are issued each year by agencies–what states the awards are going to, where’s that hot pool of talent, innovation, and really cool companies emerging from across the country. You can actually drill it down to ZIP codes and see where those awards are being won. You can see how many small business companies have been focused on a couple of areas of interest or in multiple arrays of interests and get a landscape on how that company is maturating from a piece-by-piece perspective. What’s nice is it’s 30 years of data.
MeriTalk: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a chief technologist?
GNR: Be yourself. Be fearless. And be honest. Be ready to jump to the next ship. I was restless and rather than sticking to it, I would grow curiosity to learn something new. There is no secret sauce. It’s more about ensuring that drive and innovation and crossing the threads. I’ve always been active in the nonprofit world. So by day, I would work one job, but by night, I’d be engaged in other projects, to try to cross those threads together. I went to get my master’s in law. I got my MBA. I always jumped around.
MeriTalk: What advice would you give to someone on the outside looking into the SBA who wants your job?
GNR: Don’t chase sexy. I think a lot of people are trying to make the headlines. Truth be told, the SBIR program kind of languished a little bit. Part of it is understanding the value in crafting the narrative. Finding the joy in it, then building out on that.
MeriTalk: How would you define your leadership style?
GNR: My boss, John Williams, he’s been great as a mentor. He’s the head of the entire SBIR program for the Federal government. He gives me a lot of autonomy and says, “just go,” do my thing. Good leaders are the ones who trust their people. I operate on a flat leadership perspective with our team. I let them take the reins on stuff. I mentor, I guide, but I’m more of an “I trust you, so go and get it done” kind of guy.
MeriTalk: What do you look for in an IT leader?
GNR: Being creative, yet pragmatic. Look for creative ideas. Look for creative solutions. Entrepreneurial mind-sets are folks who know how to do more with less.