Episode 15: Create a Culture…That Sparks Innovation

Draper helped develop the technology that put humans on the moon. These days, they’re using their impressive catalog of intellectual property to solve more down-to-earth problems. The same technology that guides a missile to its target could help plants pollinate, and even deliver medicine in developing countries.
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How Yesterday’s Technology Can Solve Tomorrow’s Problems

Draper helped develop the technology that put humans on the moon. These days, they’re using their impressive catalog of intellectual property to solve more down-to-earth problems. The same technology that guides a missile to its target could help plants pollinate, and even deliver medicine in developing countries.

It takes a unique kind of problem-solving intelligence to combine existing technologies in new ways. Communication and collaboration are essential to drive innovation. Mike Crones, CIO at Draper, explains how he encourages cooperation across gender, nationality, and age differences to create a world-beating team.

Featured Luminary: Michael F. Crones

Mike joined Draper as the Chief Information Officer in September 2015 and transformed a struggling IT department into a high performing innovative team. Mike led his organization in the delivery of major DoD compliance certifications one year prior to deadline, leading to major contract awards.  In parallel he has driven internal customer satisfaction and overall IS delivery to all-time highs.

Over the last two and a half years Mike has developed strong relationships throughout the corporation in an effort to truly understand the mission and customer perspective.  This has enabled Mike to build a clear vision for Draper’s IT future ensuring that it is closely tied to business outcomes.

Prior to Draper, Mike spent eleven years at MIT Lincoln Laboratory (MITLL) in various roles from technical staff, to program management, and eventually culminating as the Deputy CIO.  During his time with MITLL, he helped run the Laboratory’s central IT services and was intimately involved with cyber security, information assurance, and compliance activities.

Mike is a champion for delivering superior customer service while balancing the need for appropriate information security and enabling the business.  Mike has held technical IT implementation, management and architecture roles across various industries.  He holds his bachelors from Merrimack College and a masters from Brandeis University.

“Everybody brings something different to the table. Everybody has really great, innovative ideas. It’s up to leadership to stand back and produce an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing those ideas. That’s what drives innovation.’

Mike Crones, CIO, Draper

Advanced technology powers Draper to solve the world’s toughest problems

The Luminaries Hosts

Mark Schaefer (left) is a digital storyteller, podcaster, blogger, author of six books, international speaker and college educator. Douglas Karr (right) is a digital story teller, podcaster, blogger, author and technologist. Together they shine a light on their guests’ technology vision, human side and motivation to build a better future. Mark and Doug have a unique ability to illuminate highly complex technology topics from fresh and very human angles by focusing on technology’s purpose as an enabler of human progress. Take a listen to Luminaries to learn, laugh and be wowed by human potential.


[00:00:00.77] NARRATOR: Luminaries talking to the brightest minds in tech.
[00:00:05.70] MICHAEL DELL: And my hope is that we come together and share the technology and expertise and products, that we share a vision of a future that is better than today. A vision of technology as the driver of human progress.
[00:00:23.03] NARRATOR: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.
[00:00:29.41] MARK SCHAEFER: Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Luminaries. This is Mark Schaefer with my co-host Doug Karr. How are you, Doug?
[00:00:38.38] DOUGLAS KARR: I’m doing fantastic.
[00:00:39.80] MARK SCHAEFER: Today this is– we are on a geek fest today. Aren’t we, Doug?
[00:00:44.20] DOUGLAS KARR: Yes. [LAUGHS]
[00:00:44.73] MARK SCHAEFER: This is a geek fest.
[00:00:45.56] DOUGLAS KARR: This is a dream come true.
[00:00:46.93] MARK SCHAEFER: To me, we’ve got this amazing guest, Mike Crones. He is the CIO at Draper. And look at through his web site. And this is like the secret Batman lab at Wayne enterprises that develops all those cool technologies. This is– I’m just geeking out over our guest today.
[00:01:05.62] And I think this is going to come as close as I ever will be to Batman, which makes me kind of sad.
[00:01:10.72] [DOUG LAUGHS]
[00:01:11.71] So, Michael. Your website is dazzling. You seem to have a hand in everything awesome at Draper. You’re into space flight, self-driving cars. You might even be into flying cars. I don’t know. We’ll find that out today. You’re into medicine.
[00:01:29.26] So tell us a little bit about your enterprise. It’s a nonprofit, right?
[00:01:33.70] MICHAEL CRONES: Right. We are actually a not-for-profit organization. And it’s an extremely diverse organization overall, I think, from a technology perspective, software, and technology. There’s probably nothing that we don’t have or hasn’t passed through the door at one time or another.
[00:01:51.09] MARK SCHAEFER: What about the flying cars?
[00:01:52.45] [DOUG LAUGHS]
[00:01:53.20] Is that in your wheel house at all?
[00:01:54.43] MICHAEL CRONES: I take one home every once in a while.
[00:01:56.63] MARK SCHAEFER: I knew it. I knew it. Batman. Told you. So tell us a little bit more about the mission of the organization.
[00:02:06.57] MICHAEL CRONES: Sure.
[00:02:07.15] MARK SCHAEFER: I mean, what’s the purpose driving this?
[00:02:09.19] MICHAEL CRONES: Well, you know? It’s actually interesting you used the word “mission,” right? So, traditionally, Draper has been a DOD contractor focused on guidance systems for Triton missiles. We worked on Apollo moon landings and guidance systems there, as well. That’s been the bread and butter.
[00:02:25.42] And we’ve started to really more diversify into the commercial space using a lot of the technology that was developed for those core pieces, but then redeployed in different ways to meet other new challenges for the world.
[00:02:41.27] MARK SCHAEFER: That’s cool. So it’s almost like you’re looking at your core technologies and then dreaming up new applications.
[00:02:47.20] MICHAEL CRONES: It’s absolutely known. In many ways, the company is 40-ish years old. There’s a lot of intellectual property that’s been developed over the years that’s been put on the shelf. They may have to developed for one thing, 25 years ago, 30 years ago, wasn’t deployed. We’ll take those things, look at them, blow the dust off a little bit, and say, what’s going on today? Can we actually use some of what was invented 25 years ago to address a different problem today that was not even around then?
[00:03:17.61] MARK SCHAEFER: Awesome.
[00:03:18.29] DOUGLAS KARR: That’s incredible.
[00:03:20.11] Well, tell us a little bit about your personal story. I mean, this just seems like the coolest job in the world to me. How did you arrive there at Draper?
[00:03:29.38] MICHAEL CRONES: Well, you know? It’s been kind of an interesting journey for me. I’ve been in the DOD space for about 15 years and worked at a peer organization also in Massachusetts. And have known Draper for 20-ish years. It just so happens that I bump into one person and have a conversation, and opportunities were appropriate.
[00:03:51.89] So it’s one of those scenarios where you’re just at the right place at the right time. My prior role, I was a deputy CIO in a peer organization. So I had a lot of the exposure to the same type of customers, technology, challenges, mission that I do with Draper. So it was a great fit.
[00:04:11.72] MARK SCHAEFER: So was your background always kind of technology?
[00:04:14.28] MICHAEL CRONES: No. You know– I mean, starting out in life, in general, I was in sales. And one thing led to another. I never thought I’d actually end up in technology. But one of the pieces that I’ve seen is it’s really been a driving force for organizations to push them forward. And it’s also been a great opportunity, personally, to just really kind of explore. I think be creative and innovative too.
[00:04:38.97] MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. Speaking of creative and innovative, let’s talk about a few of the things that you’re working on. And the thing that kind of blew my mind on your site was this thing called DragonflEye. So I’m just going to read the words right off your website because people won’t believe this. It’s an “internal research and development project already showing promise as a way to guide the flight path of dragonflies. Potential applications of the technologies underpinning DragonflEye include guided pollination, payload delivery, reconnaissance, and even precision medicine and diagnostics.”
[00:05:17.95] I mean, this is just really amazing. It sounds like something from X-Men or something. So is this the most exciting thing you’ve got going? Or what can you talk about that’s not, like, super secret? Or maybe talk about something that is super secret. And what’s got you really excited? What makes you go, wow, when you go to work?
[00:05:37.60] MICHAEL CRONES: Well, you know? I think you go back to the word “mission.” So I was always really keyed in on the mission. And I think it’s a mission of defense of the nation, right? From a DOD perspective. Draper’s mission is a little bit more broad, although we have a big portion of the organization that’s focused on DoD delivery.
[00:05:55.10] The other commercial parts of it that are growing really are exciting because we’re starting– we’re addressing problems for third-world countries, you know? We’re addressing medical issues, we’re addressing how do you provide precise medicine for diagnosis and treatment much more quickly than in the past?
[00:06:17.24] So the DragonflEye is kind one of the more well-known I’d say. I mean, it’s right out–
[00:06:24.84] MARK SCHAEFER: That’s what’s on your top of your tongue.
[00:06:26.32] MICHAEL CRONES: Exactly. I was going to say that.
[00:06:27.69] MARK SCHAEFER: In DoD there’s probably some rule you can’t say that. I’ll say it for you.
[00:06:30.90] [DOUG LAUGHS]
[00:06:31.30] MICHAEL CRONES: But, you know? The cool, sexy stuff that’s there, that’s fun. But it really goes back to kind of delivering that mission, right? And part of our mission is to make the world a better place. How do you help to solve problems? And, again, it’s taking that technology and redeploying it in different ways.
[00:06:50.78] So when you take a look at DragonflEye, the technology that enabled us to do that is nothing new in many ways. It’s taking other technologies that we’ve had and putting them together in a different way to go after solving a different problem. You know? Miniaturizing things, the microfluidics, the chip manufacturing, those things. There’s nothing really– quote, unquote– “new” but it’s looking at things in a different way bringing different technologies together to address something.
[00:07:19.23] MARK SCHAEFER: Yes. It’s interesting because it seems to me that could be a model for a lot of companies. Like you said, it’s dusting off things and seeing how it can be applied in new ways.
[00:07:30.73] What’s the process behind that? How do you prioritize and make that kind of magical mash-up happen?
[00:07:37.72] MICHAEL CRONES: Well, first, I want to go back to your comment about intellectual property, right? We absolutely are. Intellectual property is the key. And ensuring that you capture that appropriately and you know what you’ve got there to kind of draw back on from a library of information.
[00:07:54.47] But what it comes down to from a prioritization perspective. I think in many ways it comes back to what’s going on in the world today. What are our customers coming to us with. For example, we may have autonomous vehicle needs, right? So we’ve got companies that will come to us and they’ll say, we’ve got this great product around autonomous vehicles. But we need it to be more accurate, we need to fine-tune some different things. We’ll then take what’s there and use some of our intellectual property to kind of crisp it up and really refine it better for delivery.
[00:08:34.90] MARK SCHAEFER: Awesome. Certainly, that’s a great model for the world today.
[00:08:39.68] MICHAEL CRONES: It is. It is.
[00:08:40.85] DOUGLAS KARR: All right. Well, we got to talk about your favorite technology. Let’s talk about mine. So when I was doing my research, the one that caught me was the take-me-home system for astronauts. So we’ve all seen the movies with the astronaut drifting off and it’s always–
[00:08:55.33] MARK SCHAEFER: They always do.
[00:08:56.67] [DOUG LAUGHS]
[00:08:57.54] They drift. It’s like in every movie.
[00:08:58.90] DOUGLAS KARR: They lose the tether and then they float off in space.
[00:09:01.41] MARK SCHAEFER: [IMITATING HIGH-PITCHED VOICE] Oh, no, George Clooney, don’t fly away.
[00:09:03.12] DOUGLAS KARR: [LAUGHS] But this is actually a system that you guys devised that doesn’t even need the astronaut, I guess, to guide them right back to the vessel.
[00:09:13.39] MICHAEL CRONES: Right. And actually, we’ve had a history of space exploration from a Draper perspective going back to Apollo. And as we continue to evolve, we’re seeing– again, this is other customers coming to us with other problems that they’re trying to solve.
[00:09:29.47] So, obviously, you’ve seen this from the movies with George Clooney and everyone, right? This has been a problem for George Clooney in the past.
[00:09:35.67] [ALL LAUGH]
[00:09:36.85] And so we’ve–
[00:09:39.49] MICHAEL CRONES: We felt very passionate about solving George’s problem.
[00:09:42.07] [ALL LAUGH]
[00:09:43.70] But while I think it’s really interesting to talk about it from a perspective of space exploration, because that’s– again, goes back to sexy– that’s what gets everybody’s attention. If you think about it from a perspective of a firefighter in a building. And I’ve mentioned this before. You have a firefighter in a building. He has lost his way.
[00:10:03.65] DOUGLAS KARR: Yeah.
[00:10:04.09] MICHAEL CRONES: So now you’ve got a real world scenario that I think we can all probably relate to one time or another. How does that firefighter get out of the building safely? And it’s the same type of concept and technology that can enable that.
[00:10:17.43] MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. Fascinating. Well, we’ve been doing this for a while and, really, the heart of our podcast is exploring this world of digital transformation and strategy.
[00:10:29.25] I believe you are the first not-for-profit organization that we’ve interviewed. So I think that’s an interesting angle. Does that help you or does that hurt you in terms of your freedom? Your ability, the speed that you can begin the digital transformation process for your organization.
[00:10:49.65] MICHAEL CRONES: You know? I don’t even look at that type of organization we are impacting how much we can go after digital transformation. I think it’s really– it comes down to what the willingness of the organization is and the need.
[00:11:05.16] You know? Quite honestly, I’ve been, again, in that not-for-profit or research community for a long time. And what I see is a tendency to be a little bit more stagnant. Right? There’s not a lot of agility and progressiveness in some of the technologies and processes, and the business processes that those organizations function around.
[00:11:28.92] I think we’ve got an opportunity. We’ve got a newer leadership team in the past several years that have come on board. And they come from the commercial side, mainly. So they look at things very differently than a traditional DoD space or not-for-profit type scenario.
[00:11:46.71] So they’re looking at things almost with a commercial eye and the need for agility, the need for change, right? The need for innovation, automation. And this goes people, process, and technology. It’s really about looking at, what do I have for people? What are their skill sets? Are they the right skill sets? What processes do I have today? What do I throw out? What do I redo? And then, obviously, foundational technology. Making sure that we’ve got the right refresh across the board there.
[00:12:16.95] MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. You mentioned the people part of it, which I find is sometimes more difficult than the technology part. You can make technology do whatever you want.
[00:12:27.85] So what does that mean for you as a leader? How do you make people feel safe with change?
[00:12:36.72] MICHAEL CRONES: We actually had– I had an all-hands every six months or so. The last one that I did was all focused around change because I needed to actually– you’re exactly right. I need to get people comfortable with being uncomfortable. And it was, number one, reassuring them that we’re all in this journey together and it’s OK to change.
[00:13:00.30] Some of my staff members have been there for 20– actually, I have one staff member that was just recognized for 50 years of service.
[00:13:06.69] DOUGLAS KARR: Wow.
[00:13:08.40] MARK SCHAEFER: That’s nice.
[00:13:08.85] MICHAEL CRONES: You’ve got– we’ve got half of the department at this point in time that has really kind of turned over and it’s newer, it’s millennials. And then we’ve got folks that have been there for 30, 40, 50 years.
[00:13:20.37] And so we really need to make that balance, show them that we value the history that they come in with. And also want to kind of marry that with new perspective. So it’s a matter of really kind of being up front as a leader to make sure you’re kind of pushing that message constantly and supporting it through actions.
[00:13:41.40] MARK SCHAEFER: I mean, that’s really the important part of diversity what you’re trying to do. You need the old hands.
[00:13:47.01] MICHAEL CRONES: Without a doubt. I mean, the history of Draper is incredibly deep and wonderful, right? And we need to take that in the right way and move it forward. And quite honestly, some of the guys, some of the women that are working from an IT perspective that have been there for a long time, they are such great mentors to the newer staff that’s there. And so it’s really nice to kind of see that bridge start to get built.
[00:14:12.73] MARK SCHAEFER: Congratulations. Sounds like you’re doing a great job there.
[00:14:16.20] MICHAEL CRONES: It’s actually been a lot of fun.
[00:14:18.09] MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah
[00:14:19.18] DOUGLAS KARR: Well, it seems that at the core of Draper you’re an innovation company. I mean, you have to with all of these problems. And I love that you talked a little bit about passing that culture along. Is there a story here for other companies that aren’t like Draper that maybe don’t have that culture internal on how they can bring innovation in and build it as part of their building blocks within an organization?
[00:14:43.98] MICHAEL CRONES: You know? I think there’s one piece that I go back to. We have obviously a number of core values as an organization, right? One of them is respect. And to me that resonates pretty loudly in how you are interacting with your peers throughout the organization.
[00:15:04.53] So everybody brings something different to the table. Everybody has a really great innovative ideas. And it’s up to leadership to stand back, produce an environment that they can feel comfortable in, sharing those ideas. And that’s what, I think, really drives a lot of the innovation.
[00:15:23.34] When you have an environment where you stifle people from kind of contributing, no matter what the idea is, I think you lose out tremendously. So not-for-profit, commercial, it doesn’t matter what type of organization it is. I think creating that culture of openness drives that innovation piece.
[00:15:44.02] MARK SCHAEFER: That’s awesome. Well, you’ve been so really inspiring with what you’re telling us today and you’ve really made such great achievements. And it just must be so energizing to work in this creative environment. And you see this blend of technologies and these blends of teams working together.
[00:16:03.51] What is challenging from a CIO perspective? When you get together with your other CIOs, what are you working through? What’s giving you headaches and what are your personal challenges in a role of just relentless change?
[00:16:21.81] MICHAEL CRONES: Well, I think there are things that are internal and external. I’ll start with some of the internal. We probably have some of the most challenging internal customers known to man.
[00:16:34.26] So I am dealing with PhDs from MIT who absolutely can tell me how to do my job technically. And it’s really about building good relationships with them and understanding what they’re doing. I mean, they’re tough, they’re tough. But I think that’s what makes it fun too, is that there’s that really big challenge that’s there.
[00:16:58.17] MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah.
[00:16:58.89] MICHAEL CRONES: And what I found is they’re incredibly appreciative when you can partner with them and bring them solutions to help them drive. And so that’s been really, really wonderful.
[00:17:09.91] I think externally some of the factors and things that obviously keep me up at night, security, right? I mean, that’s an easy one. Throw it out there. We have an interesting profile in which we are a DoD contractor, which makes us unique. But we also have a growing commercial side of the business.
[00:17:28.36] So we’re this weird two-headed dragon where it’s very locked down. And then the other side of the business is, I want to be open and collaborate with everybody. So that’s a little bit tough.
[00:17:41.19] DOUGLAS KARR: Within Draper, unlike a typical organization where someone might get written up or something if they didn’t do a good job, you guys are in life and death situations with the technology that you guys are creating.
[00:17:55.53] And it seems to me if there was one type of organization that would probably struggle with innovation, that’s one with so much risk that you guys have. So how do you balance that within your organization? How are you getting both innovation, but you have the fault tolerance there to make sure that everything is safe and exact?
[00:18:13.98] MICHAEL CRONES: So it’s not solved through technology. The way I look at that is it’s really about engaging with our customers internally, right? There was always or there has been a disconnect between– if you think about security for a second. What I have to say to my customers internally, you need to put a password in here and the password has to be x number of digits long, they look at me and say, why do you want to make my life so tough? I have to remember another password.
[00:18:43.44] And when you sit down and you actually bring them together and you have a dialogue and you can educate them and say, the reason I’m doing that is because of these external factors. Then they say, oh, I never realized this. I never realized you needed to put this layered security in place to keep us safe. I get it.
[00:19:03.15] And so I think a lot of it has been relationships, right? If you’re having transparent, candid conversations with your customers and you’re sharing with them your pin points, as well, saying, hey, let’s– here’s a day in my life, why don’t you follow me around for a day? Here’s the things that are going on and the challenges we’re having. It brings a new perspective that I think they’ve really appreciated.
[00:19:26.88] MARK SCHAEFER: As you look to the future, what’s the one technology that excites you the most? I mean, we hear a lot about artificial intelligence and blockchain and nanotechnology. What’s the one that’s saying, yep, this is one we need to keep our eye on, invest in. This is going to drive a lot of what we do in the future.
[00:19:46.88] MICHAEL CRONES: Well, I do think that comes back– like, AI. I think that will be really fun. And when I say fun, I look at it from a perspective of how do I start to blend that in with my service offerings, right? Can I get to a point where I can have a researcher actually speak what they need and have a device that captures that and previsions a system based on that request? And building automation around that.
[00:20:17.08] I think there’s a lot of promise to that, to bring out or get rid of some of the less effective and efficient processes there are.
[00:20:28.26] MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. Well, Michael, it’s been so amazing talking to you. And the last question I have, I guess, is, I often have a need to become invisible. [DOUG LAUGHS]
[00:20:38.53] So, is the cloaking device coming? Let’s be honest.
[00:20:42.96] MICHAEL CRONES: Yeah. You know? We’ve had a couple of mishaps with that. Unfortunately, the last CIO used that clock. [ALL LAUGH] So that provided me an opportunity.
[00:20:54.40] MARK SCHAEFER: Cloaking device as a career opportunity. You heard it here, folks. You heard it here first.
[00:20:59.81] Michael, thank you so much. You’ve been so great, so generous with your time today. And for people who want to learn more about you and your company, where would you direct them on the web?
[00:21:11.39] MICHAEL CRONES: Go to our web site, it’s Draper.com.
[00:21:13.71] MARK SCHAEFER: Draper.com Thank you, Michael, so much. And this is Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr. Thank you so much for listening to Luminaries, where we talk to the brightest minds in tech. We will see you next time.
[00:21:29.55] NARRATOR: Luminaries. Talking to the brightest minds in tech. A podcast series from Dell Technologies.