Interview with Jay Crossler on why passion is the key to success

 

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice. 

Chief Engineer Jay Crossler has had a truly eclectic journey before coming to MITRE and while working here. Coming from a military background, Jay learned about computer programming at a young age and developed a passion for it that introduced him to exciting emerging technologies at Carnegie Mellon, in the Air Force, in the consulting world, and, finally, in his current work at MITRE. Listen as Cameron and Jay discuss the passion and grit necessary to succeed, not just at MITRE but as a professional in any demanding career.

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Podcast Transcript
Cameron: 00:14 Hello, my name is Cameron Boozarjomehri and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast. Today, I’ll be interviewing Jay Crossler.
Jay: 00:22 Hi. How’s it going? Thanks so much for having me.
Cameron: 00:24 So I thought a fun place to start would just be a little background on you, your education, maybe your professional journey up until now.
Jay: 00:32 Sure. Yeah. So I have taken a different path than many people in MITRE did. I started out as a military brat living overseas. So I grew up in Korea and Germany. I actually spent very little time in the States until I came back for college. But while I was there, my mother was a computer programmer. So I spent most of my free time, wherever I could, learning about programming, writing scripts, writing tools and apps. This was way back in the day before the internet was widespread, before there were bulletin boards, before a lot of that existed. So a lot of punch cards and others. So as a kid, I loved computers and programming and got really excited about that. I went to Carnegie Mellon, a super-nerdy tech school, where I did computer science and system design and lots of other cool stuff there, but also robotics, a lot of vision systems for robots and also computer security.
Jay: 01:30 I did this because I was going into the military. I went into ROTC. I became an officer in the Air Force where I did some pretty cool things. Most of the time, they didn’t want me for my leadership skills. They wanted me for my super-nerd computer programming skills, making websites and portals. I, ultimately, worked for General McChrystal in the Pentagon designing portals to help us go to war and invade Afghanistan from. So things that not a lot of people did, especially at quite a young age. I was exposed there to a lot of MITRE people.
Jay: 02:04 But before coming to MITRE, I went over and decided I’d try to make a lot of money as a consultant. I did it. I went to Accenture and other companies. Started my own company. It was fun but so much travel working 12-, 14-, 16-, 18-hour days every day, never seeing my family. Made lots of money, but I found that that’s not what motivated me.
Jay: 02:25 What motivated me was solving problems. To be a little cheesy about it, solving problems for a safer world doing things that really helped America, helped our people, helped the people I used to be in the military with, and my friends and family that are in the military. So I’m focusing my time and energy on that.
Cameron: 02:41 So I’m guessing solving the problems for a safer world is a perfect [inaudible 00:02:45] that drew you into MITRE.
Jay: 02:46 Well, at the time, that wasn’t our logo and our brand. I’ve been here not too long. I’ve only been here 15 or 16 years. So I’m still new. I think they say at 30 years you’re no longer new at MITRE. So we had a different approach then. It was a systems engineering company. So we had different terms for it but really that’s what I resonated with is … The people I knew at MITRE were big thinkers who really focused on doing what the country needed, doing what’s right. They weren’t motivated by money or weren’t motivated by all the shiny things that a lot of companies get distracted by. So that’s why I came here and that’s why I’ve stayed here.
Cameron: 03:25 I think that’s an excellent segue into our next question, which is what kind of work is making you want to stick around MITRE?
Jay: 03:31 Well, I have a very different job than most people at MITRE. I’m a chief engineer, and I’m the chief engineer of operations. So what that means is that on our workforce side of MITRE, the ones that go out and work with our government sponsors and work in our technology centers, I look across quite a lot of things, over thousand projects.
Jay: 03:53 My background is in software engineering and software development, coding, cloud. But I also … have spent a lot of time learning AI algorithms, deep learning, machine learning and also things like quantum computing and 3D printing and computing at the edge like Raspberry Pis. I’m a tinker. I’m a builder. I’m a maker. I like to just put things together and play with them, get my hands dirty, code them myself, do a few trial runs of a bunch of different algorithms. So I really understand the internals of things and how they integrate and go together. A very technical, maybe renaissance, man that is what I aspire to be. I know enough about everything—mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, all of that stuff—but also legal, business, really understand how the money flows.
Jay: 04:44 When you put all that stuff together and are able to think about those hundred things at once, then we can call you a chief engineer. Then that’s really your job at MITRE is to work across lots of different projects, put all the pieces together, find out where things aren’t at a high enough level of quality and work to fix those issues where you can in a way that supports our staff and helps everybody grow.
Cameron: 05:08 So I guess you could say that chief engineer means well-rounded.
Jay: 05:12 I think so. I think more people outside of MITRE wouldn’t think so. They’d still call us all super nerds. But I think inside of MITRE being a chief engineer, you’re the invisible technical backplane of the company. Your job … you don’t have people that report to you which is nice, kind of a benefit of the job. You don’t have to do all the performance evals and ratings of people throughout the year. Instead, you use your influence and your ideas to communicate what needs to be done. A lot of time, that’s getting money for a certain initiative, moving money or resources around the company or arguing for a point of view or deep diving, doing a Red Team on a project that isn’t working well or reviewing technical documents. I think it’s having lots of experience in lots of different areas and an ability to use that experience in ways that benefits many different projects. I think that’s what we look for in our chief engineers. It’s both political, as well as, financial, as well as, technical experience. So you’re looking for people to embody a lot of that along their technical career path.
Cameron: 06:17 So with that breadth of knowledge, having to juggle the engineering hat with the advocate hat, with the budgeteer … I guess that’s not the right word. But …
Jay: 06:26 Yeah. Budgeteer, sure.
Cameron: 06:28 The idea that you have to play all these roles at once, how do you keep them, I guess, straight in your head?
Jay: 06:33 It helps if you’re a bit schizophrenic and can context switch very quickly, can run through a bunch of different personalities. I like to think leadership really is having five or six stored personalities ready at my disposal. I know who I am, but I also know who angry Jay is or happy Jay or excited or passionate Jay is. I can put those out as needed because different situations have different strategic and tactical value in employing those different world views. So I find that helps.
Jay: 07:06 I write a lot of things down, but I don’t do it to keep track of it. I find that when I write it down, I remember it a lot more. I found that to be a good way to create systems to help me excel. So that’s really the big answer I’m going to … create systems, find ways to help you. If that’s having an admin that’s really good at doing calendaring things, something I’m not very good at, but keeps me on task and makes sure I show up when people need me, that helps a lot.
Jay: 07:38 Finding teams of people who really are diligent about tracking the details or remembering what all the keys things to work on are. That’s good. So building teams and finding those teams and getting them the resources. I find those ways of putting people together to really assemble their top skill areas that helps me work a lot better and work across hundreds of different things at once.
Jay: 08:04 The other big piece is just listening to people. Everybody here, if you’re at MITRE, you’re already … I’ll use a Boston term: You’re already wicked smart. What I found is that generally none of us are really smarter than the others. Maybe we are 10% or 20% smarter some. But that’s not really … it’s really the experience that people have. It’s their passion levels, how much of their energy and time and focus they’ll put towards a problem, how selfless they are, how much they’ll pay it forward versus looking for others to do favors for them. Those are the traits and tendencies that I think make you want to work here and inspired me to keep coming to work. I mean it’s hard. All of us would probably rather get paid tons of money and not have to come to work. We don’t live in that world. So it’s good to build systems that excite you and encourage you to keep wanting to come back. Make friends with people that you trust that you want to talk to and that keep inspiring you to keep doing your best as long as you can.
Cameron: 09:08 I think that’s a perfect explanation of exactly why we’re trying to start this podcast project.
Jay: 09:12 Yeah. I think exactly it. Most likely if you’re listening to this, then you care, and you’re interested and you want to grow. Hopefully, some of these ideas can help. Everybody has a different journey to take. But I think what I found was that if you have passion and you find the way to get through the slump, because a lot of … Most likely what a lot of people find, you’ll keep going up in your career to the point that you make enough money. You’re never … not at MITRE, you’re not going to make all the money, but you’ll make enough money that you’ll soon get to your point. I found it’s late 30s where you … money isn’t your chief worry.
Jay: 09:50 And then the slump sets in. I see this with a lot of co-workers. What happens when you’re not fighting to get a little bit of extra money, that extra raise, that extra promotion? Do you have the energy to keep going or do you become complacent and fall off? I see this across all of DC in lots of professions. What’s great about MITRE is that a lot of people have that passion. They’re really interested in the next technology. They’re really interested in the next initiative, the next big thing and that drives a lot of us to keep trying and keep growing and keep learning. So find that, embrace that, use that as much as possible to motivate you and your co-workers and friends to keep improving.
Cameon: 10:34 So actually I think this is a perfect segue into discussing that there’s so much technology, so much knowledge at MITRE. I think earlier you mentioned edge computing as being a big area of interest. I was hoping maybe you could touch a little more on the kind of work you’re doing with edge computing?
Jay: 10:50 Sure. Yeah. Again by edge computing what I mean with that is really instead of centralizing a lot of your processing, push it out, as far out in your system as you can. So where I was specifically getting involved in is cameras. We have a lot of surveillance systems that we work with, with various government agencies, whether you’re trying to protect a building or you’re trying to keep an area secure. You want to make sure there’s no bad guys going into the Super Bowl. There’s lots of reasons that you have cameras and are looking through the imagery.
Jay: 11:24 One thing you can do is you can suck all that imagery back to a central place to analyze it, look for faces and license plates and so on. That takes a lot of bandwidth. A lot of times then, you have to have wired networks and that’s really expensive having all that cable, and it can be broken or cut or tapped. It just becomes really painful to build systems that way.
Jay: 11:43 Another good way to do it, which is now becoming more and more feasible, is use things like Raspberry Pis to stick them on the edge of a camera going directly into a Raspberry Pi, instead of the camera going directly to a radio or to a transmitter. Then have that Raspberry Pi look for the things that you’re interested in or use heuristics to count the number of cars, count … look for certain license plates, do the things that you can embed into the edge and then only when it finds what it’s looking for, then you send that back. In practice, it cuts down bandwidth by a good 50 times, 50X decrease in bandwidth and it’s not too hard to do.
Jay: 12:20 You got lots of little nuances you can work through that … Those machines get warm and hot so you … if you’re out in the sun, they have a tendency to overheat. Then you have to have good containers on them and heat sinks and so on. You have to work with the privacy, and then make sure they’re not hackable because Raspberry Pis don’t have a lot of security. So there’s all these now second order and third order and fourth order effects you need to really start thinking through. A lot of people think, oh, yeah, I’ll just stick a Raspberry Pi on it, but it’s never that simple in practice.
Cameron: 12:46 Speaking of the privacy and then also the computational limits angle of what’s going on, is there any consideration into how smartphones and other smart devices play into this edge computing game? Because, if I may, your phone is a very sophisticated machine. It can do a lot of computations. It has a built-in camera, lots of other built-in sensors that can detect the information we’re interested in. But at the same time, you have to handle that trade off of … in the context of a phone, this is a device I’d love for personal use to manage … in some cases-
Jay: 13:20 Sometimes. Sometimes MITRE buys it, sometimes sponsor does, sometimes you don’t even know who bought it or where it came from. Yeah. There’s lots of issues with this. I think what we’re seeing is that you’re seeing a lot of trends come together in the smartphones. I’d actually like to take you on a slightly different place.
Jay: 13:37 So first just rewinding, we were talking a bit about my past here at MITRE is that when I was here … actually I think it was about 10 years ago, I helped start the entire smartphone effort at MITRE. Before that, all we did … we had a programming of desktops and programming of laptop section. Nobody even considered mobile development. Everybody thought it was a passing fad and Blackberries would be the … what would rule the world. These silly little iPhones coming out were a toy.
Jay: 14:07 I had a much different vision and view. I actually was able to turn that into about 100 staff years of work here at MITRE. Lots of fights. Lots of times briefing. Nobody believed in it except for Rich Byrne, who’s now our senior vice president. He gave me a little bit of seed money and then Anhtuan Dinh, one of our tech directors, gave me the permission to go out and tell everybody in the US government about this. So about once a week I’d go out and I’d give a briefing on this topic to some different organization. Then after about a year, I got … we started getting projects that wanted work done and we started growing that smartphone effort. Now, we do tons of development. We build apps. We do mobile device management service. We embed them in our architecture. We turn them into radios. There’s a hundred things that we do with them to help the public good.
Jay: 14:57 So that was something that I believed in that very few other people believed in. All of the leadership at the time basically said, “No. Don’t waste your time on this. This is not how it’s done.” I was able to make a massive transformation at MITRE because of that. So one of the things I like to say is I challenge everybody listening to this, you do that too. Be that agent of change. If you really have a big vision of where something’s going push that, find funding. It’s going to be hard. People aren’t going to make it easy for you. But you can make a massive change that really changes the future of the company and maybe the government on it.
Jay: 15:30 But back to your original questions, you were asking about the convergence of all these devices and what your phone can do. One of the briefs I used to give … I guess this was six years ago. It was an iPhone 6, when it came out it had sixteen radios in it, 16 different antennas either for transmitting or receiving. I bet the new iPhone XRs or XSs or whatever they are, probably have 30 to 40 radios, transmission devices in it. How do you protect that attack surface? There’s lots of ways that they can intrude. And do you want to? Is it worth it? Or do you just trust Apple to do it because they’re looking, too, and they have a massive center to do so? Are we the protectors, the reviewers of that? Or do we work with Apple to make it better or do we put laws in place? There’s a lot of these big questions that we really need to think through? What’s MITRE’s role? What’s our personal roles in this?
Jay: 16:24 One of the things we need to think through is how much do we rely on these smartphones? I have kids. So watching how kids have taken to this technology, they can’t envision a world where they don’t have everything at their fingertips, and they can ask Alexa at any time to check their homework.
Jay: 16:39 Then screen time becomes a big issue. Is it good for us? Is it bad for us? Is it good in the short term and bad in the long term? We just don’t know. There’s a lot of these other issues.
Jay: 16:49 Then the last place I’ll take it is what do we want at MITRE from this? We’re in a transformation. I actually have a project now that I’m trying to work to really help think through should everybody at MITRE have a smartphone? Do we even need desk phones anymore? Do we get rid of all of them and everybody gets a smartphone? How do you pay for it? One thing that most people don’t know it seems like a solution that makes sense… it would quadruple how much we put into our phone budgets but maybe that’s worth it. Then you minimize the amount of deciders that have to decide whether you get a MITRE phone or not.
Jay: 17:25 But then there’s some people that have bad behavior. A lot of people find their favorite coffee shop and work from there, or maybe they don’t have Verizon, so they’re on roaming and then MITRE gets a hundred dollar a month bill or thousand dollar a month bill. How do we make that change? It’s still this big massive problem of how these phones go into our lives and how we pay for them equitably so everybody shares those costs in a way that makes sense.
Jay: 17:54 So again second, third order challenges with all this. There’s security versus convenience, but there’s also pay versus access versus being an enabler. It sure helps me get higher access to information and people to reach me if they Slack me or text me throughout the day. It changes everything, how I communicate with my teams and my co-workers. So I don’t think we have a really good sense of the good and the bad that these offer for us. We all feel that it’s good or we wouldn’t spend so much time and money on it, but we don’t have hard numbers on that.
Jay: 18:30 So with that, you asked one question, and I took you down a bunch of different paths. But what I recommend is everybody thinking through these, really think through the big, long-term picture, the second and third order effects. All the systems that have to go in place to support this and make these technologies work.
Jay: 18:47 Something that our [Vice President], Joel Jacobs, says is … he’s in charge of all the technology at MITRE… is that the best and worst thing about MITRE is every single person, every employee wants to be more of a CTO than the CTO and wants to tell the CTO how to do his or her job better. It’s frustrating. You’ve got 7,000 people here, who all think they know better, but not that many people really think through the second and third order effects and have all that experience and wisdom to realize, hey, if I make this one change, well, now some of these 5 other jobs change, and these 10 processes break, and these 20 other things don’t happen.
Jay: 19:27 So I think that’s my big message is get wise on all the interconnections because our world and our systems are becoming more and more interconnected. Once you have the wisdom and the experience of having worked through that then start thinking through second and third order effects and then start playing with the solutions that we need and that our sponsors need to make the world a safer place. Before doing that, a lot of us have this tendency, because we were so smart in high school and so smart in college and so smart in our lives, that we know the answer to everything. It’s generally never that simple. But we can all do it. We just need to keep thinking more and learning more until we get to that point where we can really make those changes.
Cameron: 20:08 So actually sticking to that point, I feel like collaboration is really one of the big things that I see at MITRE not just in terms of collaborating with your peers but also collaborating with sponsors. Trying to say that, yes, we have this narrow problem we’re trying to answer, but how does it pan out in the larger context of all the things that your enterprise touches?
Jay: 20:34 Collaboration’s really hard. As somebody who’s spent probably around 30 years now in technology, 25 years deep in technology in my career, what I’ve found is it’s almost never a technology problem. It’s almost always a communication problem in everything. So that’s always usually the root questions I ask when I’m brought onto some new project is who’s talking to whom, how are we communicating, who knows what, how are decisions made, what’s the governance because almost always that gets to the root of most problems.
Jay: 21:09 When we talk to our sponsor, I find that’s the case as well depending on where you’re talking in the organization. Usually if you’re talking to the workforce, the action workforce, the action officers, the GS-13s, -14s, -15s that are getting things done in the enterprise that … a big problem they usually have is they don’t see the big picture. They don’t see where their SES is or their big bosses are pointing them. They don’t see all the pieces. They’re working on making things more efficient and makings things better where they can, within their scope of control. So a lot of times we can help them see that bigger picture. We can help them paint a picture. We can help simulate, okay, if we did X, here’s the ramifications. If we did Y, here’s what would happen, where if we did Z, here’s what would happen.
Jay: 21:51 We have to be good communicators. A lot of times not dumb it down, but we need to communicate it very concisely and effectively and say here’s … you’ve got three options. Here’s what’ll happen if you go with each of these options. We’re generally not good at that. It’s a lot easier for us to give a 400- page paper than it is to give a 4-page paper. So that’s something I challenge everybody to do, that focused communication.
Jay: 22:16 But then the second side … a lot of times we work very high up in organizations, the SESes, the generals, the three stars, the four stars, the people making these massive decisions. It’s very hard for them to really understand what all the people under them are doing and the nuances in those second and third order effects. So sometimes you’re working at tactical level, sometimes at the strategic, and the communication collaboration challenges are different from each. The big thing I would say is read more, learn more, try to understand more, talk to more people to really get a bigger contextual sense of what’s going on and that’ll help you make more informed decisions.
Cameron: 22:53 Thank you, Jay. I think we’ve gotten a lot of really useful insight from you. I really appreciate you being here.
Jay: 22:57 Great. Thanks so much for having me. Love this kind of stuff. It’s exciting to see where MITRE’s going. We’re going through a lot of transformation now, but so is the outside world. So we’re matching pace with it.

 

Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public.

© 2019 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. (Case number 19-2357)

MITRE’s mission-driven team is dedicated to solving problems for a safer world. Learn more about MITRE.

See also: 

The Nibbler Method: Problem-solving in the pursuit of mastery
Interview with Ali Zaidi on designing lessons in artificial intelligence
Interview with Phil Barry on blending AI and education
Interview with Dan Ward, Rachel Gregorio, and Jessica Yu on MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit
Interview with Tammy Freeman on Redefining Innovation
Interview with Jesse Buonanno on Blockchain
Interview with Dr. Michael Balazs on Generation AI Nexus
Interview with Dr. Sanith Wijesinghe on Agile Connected Government
Is This a Wolf? Understanding Bias in Machine Learning
A Spin Around the Blockchain—Exploring Future Government Applications

Aug 12, 2019

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