Conducting a Symphony of Expertise at MITRE
Elaine Reed wished she had the opportunity to take piano lessons as a child. When her own children came along, she made sure they had lessons and a piano to practice them on. But now her daughter was in college and her son was finishing high school. Their childhood piano lessons were finished, and her third child was still too young for them. The piano was now free. The opportunity was now hers.
Reed, an information systems engineer at MITRE, sounded both pleased and daunted by her long-awaited opportunity. "I must say that playing the piano is very, very hard. You have to get to that stage where you don't use your brain to read the music. Instead it's like each finger has a little brain." Ten brainy fingers working together to make seamless music: an apt analogy from the project lead of the team of MITRE subject matter experts helping the Census Bureau prepare for the 2020 Census.
Before coming to MITRE, Reed spent two decades working in the telecommunications industry managing big-budget integrations of enterprise applications. She followed that phase of her career with a brief stint as a government contractor. A certified Project Management Professional with three telecommunications patents, she was well qualified for the work, but it lacked something for her. In 2006, she found that something at MITRE.
Looking for Community
"I ended up here because I admired the sense of community that MITRE had built, a collaborative community of professionals, each an expert in his or her field." MITRE was the perfect environment for a project leader skilled in directing individual expertise to serve a broad strategic goal.
The Census Bureau is committed to producing a complete and accurate count. A successful 2020 Census will be harder and more expensive to achieve unless the Bureau adapts to the challenges presented by a larger, more diverse population with increased concerns about privacy, confidentiality, and security. Reed and her team are researching approaches and strategies that the Census Bureau can use to make the 2020 Census the most accurate and efficient yet.
"That's where MITRE's talent for innovation comes in," says Reed. "How can we make use of technology to do things smarter, to do things cheaper?" MITRE is helping the Bureau find methods to reduce costs of the Census to the American taxpayer while maintaining or improving its accuracy. By beginning their research for the 2020 Census right on the heels of the completion of the 2010 Census, Reed's team aims to provide the Census Bureau with ample time to implement their findings.
While a smarter and cheaper census is an important goal, another key focus for MITRE and the Census Bureau is to preserve the immense value of the census. "The raw data generated by the Census Bureau has planted the seeds for a host of technical innovations," says Reed. "The bureau was the first to collect and share the public map data that companies like Google used to build billion-dollar industries." The tools that MITRE and the Census Bureau collaborate in designing will make the data from the 2020 Census even more accessible and useable by communities and the marketplace.
Worth, Not Widgets
MITRE assists our customers with charting strategic plans that focus on outcomes, not output. "Many government agencies feel a pressure to measure their success based on things like how many reports and plans they produce," says Reed. "But what those agencies should really care about is not the number of reports; but the effectiveness of their reports, of their communications. Did the public value the data? Did they make use of it?"
Once a strategic plan is in place, Reed takes pains to make sure all of her team's efforts serve that plan. "As we work on any one particular aspect of the project, we make sure to take the whole program into account. We're not just optimizing on one aspect; we're trying to optimize on the whole program."
Reed finds this a refreshing change from earlier contractor work where her responsibility was often to focus on a specific problem isolated from other efforts across the organization. MITRE emphasizes that successful collaboration depends on a team's knowledge of the overall operation. "You have to be aware of what the other team members are doing in their areas or you won't be successful in the area you've been assigned."
The subject matter expertise represented on the team Reed assembled for the Census Bureau includes strategic planning, program management, operational planning, and research, technology, and testing. Even after four years at MITRE, Reed still can't help but be impressed by the high level of collaboration the skilled professionals on her team practice.
"The team has a great deal of respect for the contributions each member brings to the table. Respecting each other's opinion has helped us to work through the challenges we've faced on the project and to arrive at the right answer."
After a day of working through challenges at MITRE, Reed returns home, perhaps to play a piano lullaby for her young son. She'll lay her fingers on the keys, knowing that if she can guide each brainy finger into doing its job well, the result will be music to the ears.
—by Christopher Lockheardt
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