Apr 2, 2021
Lisa J. Porter has successfully
lead some of the world's largest and most critical technology
efforts. Her career started with a focus on academic rigor in
pursuit of some of the toughest degrees, a B.S. in Nuclear
Engineering from MIT and a PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford.
She would later lecture at MIT and then became a researcher for
DARPA related projects, eventually becoming a DARPA program
manager. Dr. Porter would later lead NASA's Aeronautics Portfolio,
would become the first Director of the Intelligence Community's
IARPA, became President at Teledyne Scientific and an EVP at
In-Q-Tel, and then was named to be the Deputy Under Secretary of
Defense for Research and Engineering, an office which is
essentially the CTO for the entire Department of Defense. She now
co-leads a consultancy she formed with Michael Griffin
In this OODAcast we explore Lisa's approach to leadership in the
technology domain. Some themes from the discussion:
- Her comments throughout point to an ability to focus and decide
what she would pursue with a determination to accomplish her goals.
For example, early on she had a determination to dig into topics
associated with solutions around future energy needs and pursued
her undergraduate in nuclear engineering. She later acted on a
determination to support national security.
- Like many others she faced a changing moment when the attacks
of 9/11 happened. We review how Tony Tether looked her in the eye
and convinced her to make the right choice and knew it was time to
- Through her career she was continually placed in
situations where she needed to adapt and overcome and in every case
rose to the occasion. She recounted several situations in her early
career where she learned from role models, including previous
generations of great technology leaders like George Heilmeier
(famous for Heilmeier's Rules, which are pasted below), and Tony
- We discussed how some technologists are fantastic individual
contributors but are not so good at leadership, and learn lessons
on how we can all get better in our individual leadership
abilities. We saw example after example of ways leaders are able to
seek out others to learn from including learning how to do things
- Technology leaders Lisa looked up to frequently had to take
courageous stances because they knew they needed to and this theme
of courage is one that applies to leaders across multiple domains
of course, but in this case we dive in to examples Heilmeier and
others gave Lisa.
- How to push for quality and setting standards and being willing
to understand that some people might not like what you are doing
and may not like you at all. This means it is never going to be
easy to take on the role of leader.
- Strategies for avoiding mediocrity and pursuing excellence
through application of leadership principles.
- Lessons in creating new organizations in government and the
knife fights that come with that (and need for courage, clarity and
transparency and drive to bring new capabilities into
- The virtuous role of In-Q-Tel and the phenomenal job being done
by Chris Darby and his team ( There is a secret to success
discussed here that will almost certainly apply to any other
organization that wants to perform at this level).
- Advice for CEOs on how to bring capabilities to the attention
- How can leaders of large organizations generate positive change
(using the example of DoD's need to pursue new strategy and actions
- The one true job of a leader.
- Her view on securing systems "I have never seen a secure
system, nor have you or anyone else." She underscored how the
approach now known as zero trust is one she strongly endorses
because it flows from the approaches used by the savvy for years,
including the approach of the intelligence community operators who
had to learn to operate in domains of no trust (see, for example,
Moscow Rules of Cybersecurity). Her view, yes raise defenses,
but know that trust is a vulnerability and employe the zero trust
- What is she reading? Marcus Aurelius and his meditations, which
she most strongly recommends for its context and its inspiration.
And Sapiens by Harari.
Lisa discussed the courage she saw in leaders like George
Heilmeier, including the courage to stand up to large interests
that will try to push there parochial interests through
decision-makers, at times trying to do so by throwing their weight
around or bully or seek to claim some ultimate wisdom. One of the
way Heilmeier dealt with that was to force all who came to DARPA
with a new idea or request to answer a set of very simple to
understand questions which are still in use today. These simple
questions, now called Heilmeier's catechism or Heilmeier's rules,
were not always simple to answer, especially if an idea was not
firmly rooted. They are:
- What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using
absolutely no jargon.
- How is it done today, and what are the limits of current
- What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be
- Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it
- What are the risks?
- How much will it cost?
- How long will it take?
- What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for