An Interview with Paul Nielsen, New Director of the SEI

NEWS AT SEI

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This article was originally published in News at SEI on: March 1, 2004

U.S. Air Force Major General Paul D. Nielsen became the Software Engineering Institute’s new director in August. He retired from the Air Force after 32 years of distinguished service. Most recently, he managed the Air Force’s science and technology budget of more than $3 billion annually and a staff of approximately 8,700 people in the laboratory’s component technology directorates and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. He also was the Air Force’s technology executive officer and determined the investment strategy for the full spectrum of Air Force science and technology activities. news@sei caught up with him soon after his arrival at the SEI.

What trends do you see in federal funding for science and technology?

In the 1990s, the biggest increases were in health, medical research, genomics; the budget for the National Institutes of Health quadrupled in ten years. Research in medical fields is important to us all, but as a country, we have to invest in the physical sciences, too. Other federal funding for research and technology decreased across the board in the 1990s but has been increasing since fiscal year [FY] 2000 and is likely to increase again in the FY 2006 budget. The Department of Defense, the Air Force, the Army and Navy all have seen sizable increases in science and technology funding since 2000.

Is this increased spending a characteristic of the post 9/11 world?

No, this trend started earlier. Of course 9/11 has focused attention on certain issues that might not otherwise have been as important. But as a country, we were under-investing in the physical sciences. A lot of great industries, and associated job growth, happened as a result of investments in the physical sciences. Look at the development of computers and then the integrated circuit revolution afterward: there was no business of this kind 60 years ago, but now it’s a huge part of the economy.

So do you see the SEI as an engine of growth?

I do. We’re in an interesting position as a quasi-governmental organization, an FFRDC [federally funded research and development center]. We do have a DoD focus, because they are our sponsors, but the work that we do trickles to the whole country, really the whole world. Software drives economic growth and competitiveness. Today most technological advances have a great deal of software content. The SEI’s Watts Humphrey has pointed out that as software grows in complexity, as some programs begin to approach a billion lines of code, you can’t have the same percentage of defects that you had with smaller, simpler programs, or you’d be driven crazy trying to find all those defects in test. The military services used to have their own programs to improve software quality, but since the cutbacks of the 1990s, the DoD has relied on the SEI to do this work on software process improvement.

Talk about your experiences with techniques for transition, such as applied technology councils in the Air Force and other kinds of partnerships. How might the SEI strengthen and develop its transition activities?

For every research organization, an engineer’s work is not done until it transitions, until it makes people’s lives better. Sometimes this is forgotten, and sometimes it’s hard to pull off. A big portion of the job has to be developing new technologies, but transition, making sure it gets out there, is critical.

We found that it’s important to stay close to customers. In the Air Force, applied technology councils met with customers at the senior level, so that we understood the needs from our customers’ most senior people, and they knew what we were doing for them, and we could establish schedules and commitments. These same principles apply for the SEI.

One way the SEI transitions technology is through training and education. The SEI is offering a growing number of courses and has seen a healthy growth in attendance over the past few years. These courses represent a tremendous opportunity to get the word out. And while we can’t train everyone on our own, we can rely on our partners to help us supply this training.

In the Air Force, there was a lot of discussion about a crisis in systems engineering: where had all the system engineers gone? Perhaps they all retired, or maybe they left the aerospace industry, landing in telecoms and dotcoms. I think the work of the SEI goes beyond its original charter and is contributing to a revitalized systems engineering discipline in the country as well as software engineering.

The Air Force is actively involved in attracting and nurturing scientists and engineers. How can the SEI help with building the software engineering workforce?

At times, people will hit some of the wrong buttons when they try to recruit scientists and engineers. You have to have reasonable salaries, but more importantly, engineers want to have interesting work. You need to take away obstacles and provide them with resources to do their jobs well and give them educational opportunities, which may not always be traditional academic programs. It may just be helping employees think at the next strategic level, and the SEI can help with that through its courses. Engineers want to make a difference—and they want to expand their skills.

What drew you to the SEI?

I’m a technophile; I started my career as a physicist. As I completed my Air Force career, I wanted to stay in high tech, I wanted to do something important, to be at or near a major university, and I wanted a leadership role at a great organization. I’m not a turnaround artist; I want to take good organizations and make them better. I had been aware of the SEI since it started in 1984, first with its research on methodology and then with CERT work in network security.

The SEI is in an ideal position to collaborate with industry, to impact the corporate world along with the military services. We can’t give advice to everyone, but we can educate key men and women so they know the right questions to ask, the right sensitivities to have. We need to reach out to international partners as well; a lot of systems today have software and other components that were developed outside of the United States. We want this software to be solid and secure no matter where it comes from. The SEI is big enough to matter but small enough to be nimble, and I want to cultivate the right partnerships to extend our influence.

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