How NASA Deals With BYOD: Build Your Own Petting Zoo

Ever wondered how the planet’s peak space agency manages its bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program? We spoke to the agency’s chief technology officer to find out. Hint: it involves building a petting zoo.

Tom Soderstrom is the IT chief technology and innovation officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In case you’re unfamiliar with the JPL (as it’s more commonly known), it’s responsible for putting cool stuff on other planets. Think the Spirit and Curiosity Rovers on Mars, the Carbon Observatory orbiting Earth, the Galileo Deep Space mission leaving our solar system and the Juno mission to observe Jupiter like never before.

Other job titles for staff in NASA’s JPL include director of the universe and other out-of-this-world careers that give individuals operational control of entire planets.

Tom says he sees his job as putting great new consumer technology in the hands of smart people to make their lives easier at work. To do that, the CTIO for JPL bends time around the IT industry to suit him. His theory is that three years in IT is like a decade in the real world.

“One of my jobs is looking at the future. I [map it out] in three-year increments, because that’s an IT decade. I lay out the trends for the next IT decade and then I crowdsource it with an IT innovation seminar and then the people who stay behind become the leaders of those initiatives,” he said.

From there, JPL’s tech-boffin-in-chief builds what he calls an “IT petting zoo” so that NASA staff can try it all out for themselves.

“I created a petting zoo. An IT petting zoo. We buy more or less one of everything that passes the laugh test and then let people who really could make sense of it use it in their environment. It’s all about the use case. You don’t know the use case until you try it,” he said.

If it doesn’t work out, JPL will abandon it and find something that’s better suited.

“We relentlessly drop things that don’t make sense,” he adds.

NASA allows its employees to participate in a bring-your-own-device program, and having an IT petting zoo allows staff to figure out just how they’d use consumer gadgets to improve their work lives.

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By also mapping out various “IT decades” on top of the lending library of gadgets, JPL has been able to harness some of the best consumer gadgets for use in its enterprise environment and in turn for space exploration.

“We were if not the first, one of the very first [organisations], to use iPhones in the enterprise. We’re one of the first to use cloud computing, and we tried 10 different cloud vendors, and tried it with our own data six years ago. Now cloud computing is part of our ecosystem,” he boasts proudly.

Google Glass, for example, was added to JPL’s petting zoo when it first came out, and now the scientists are using it in NASA clean rooms for visualisation and augmented reality purposes.

It still has its limits, Tom says, but he hopes those barriers and limitations will be removed in the next generation of smart eyewear for the workplace.

Tom doesn’t know yet what’s going to be in his next IT decade, but he’s roaming the show floor of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to find it.

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