Episode 18: How Does NATO Manage IT?

Managing the infrastructure for a complex organization can be a monumental challenge. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) compounds that challenge with an extra layer of complexity: It serves 29 different nations, each with its own culture, language, and technological protocols. In this episode, Dr. Gregory Edwards, Directory of Infrastructure Services in the NATO Communications and Information Agency, explains how he builds trust and consensus to keep the organization running – and moving forward.
Listen More
All Luminaries Podcasts

Ensuring Technological Stability and Adaptability for a Global Organization Requires Special Leadership Skills

The technology environment for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is incredibly complex: 26 data centers, 18,000 users, 31,000 devices. Factor in 29 different nations speaking dozens of languages, and it’s easy to see how hard it could be to keep things running smoothly. And it’s not enough to just maintain a status quo – as technology evolves, and member nations needs change, NATO’s digital infrastructure has to adapt as well.

Dr. Gregory Edwards, Director of Infrastructure Services in the NATO Communications and Information Agency, helps provide the leadership that allows for both stability and flexibility. In this episode, Edwards explains how he fosters understanding, builds trust, and ultimately achieves consensus in the organization.

Featured Luminary: Dr. Gregory Edwards, NATO

Dr. Gregory Edwards assumed the post of Director Infrastructure Services in the NATO Communications and Information Agency in December, 2014. He is responsible for the life cycle aspect of the Telecommunications Networks and IT Infrastructure; Core and Enterprise Services; Information Technology Modernization Program Executive oversight; in addition to comprehensive solutions for Cyber Security and System Management and Control for the entire NATO Alliance.

Dr. Edwards has earned Bachelors degrees in both Computer Science and Management, Masters degrees in National Resource Strategy from the National Defense University and Information Resource Management from Webster University. In 2011, he received a Doctorate in Applied Management and Decision Sciences, Information Technology Systems from Walden University. He is a graduate of Yonsei University’s Korean Language Center. He earned several military medals and awards of distinction, as well as, official commendations from the Republic of Korea’s Chief of Staff of the Army and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff for C4ISR interoperability accomplishments.

NATO is Winning the Battle…with Data

“You listen, and you find that middle ground, and you shape what you are doing to satisfy the whole. Consensus-building is what you must have.”

— Dr. Gregory Edwards, Director of Infrastructure Services, NATO Communications & Information Agency

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.


ANNOUNCER: Luminaries. Talking to the brightest minds in tech
SPEAKER: And my hope is that we come together to share more than technology, and expertise, and products, but that we share a vision of a future that is better than today, a vision of technology as the driver of human progress.
ANNOUNCER: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.
MARK SCHAEFER: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Luminaries, where we talk to the brightest minds in technology. And boy, do we have a treat for you today. You know, I’m here with my co-host, Douglas Karr.
And Doug, are you a fan of superhero movies?
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, you know, we’ve got these people flying around, keeping the world safe for freedom. Today, we’re going to be talking to a real life super hero, in my book– in my book. Today our guest is Dr. Gregory Edwards. He’s the director of infrastructure services in the NATO Communications and Information Agency.
Dr. Edwards, welcome to our show.
GREGORY EDWARDS: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be with you.
MARK SCHAEFER: So happy to have you. So honored to have you here.
And as I was preparing for our podcast, I was looking over your work history. You have had such a very interesting and challenging career. Can you tell us a little bit about your career path? How did this all lead to NATO?
GREGORY EDWARDS: Well, thank you for the question, and again, a pleasure to be with you this morning. Let me say first that I’ve really been blessed in my career. And I think everyone who achieves any success in moving to different levels have to first give the praise to those who helped them get there. OK?
My journey started as a young Texas boy graduating from high school, going immediately into the Air Force. I’ve served in the Air Force for over 30 years, completed my career. I was again blessed with the educational benefits that were free in that space. I took all advantage of all that was offered to me, and ended with a PhD, as I ended my military career.
MARK SCHAEFER: What did you– what was your PhD? What did you study?
GREGORY EDWARDS: I studied information technology. And you’ll see, the thing with me is that’s what I’ve done all my adult life, and I still have a passion for all the different facets of IT and that’s where I am. But that military career took me all over the world in serving the United States in learning international environments, representing America, you know, wherever you are, because you are a true representative when you do go abroad.
So that military career, as all things, came to an end, and a good end for me. I thought it was a time for me and my family to transition. And so I took a small position in industry, because I wanted to see what it’s like on the other side, so to speak, to work in that area. But my passion rest with being a civil servant, and so I returned to government, working as a DOD civilian, still in IT. And I served in a large defense information systems agency for about five years.
And I still wanted to serve, and so I took a stint in Afghanistan, of all places, as a civilian under a special program that they have. And I was so proud to have the opportunity to be the advisor for the minister for IT for all of Afghanistan, and I spent a year doing that, helping them think about technology and how it could be employed in their world. And that’s where I learned about NATO, to be quite honest with you. I knew about NATO for all of my military career, but some thought it was a place that you don’t go to, because of the diplomacy and the bureaucracy that’s set in that space.
However, working in Afghanistan, I met some really, really nice people, and someone said, you know, you’d be perfect for this position in Brussels.
And OK, I know where Brussels is. I love to play golf and the weather is not nice, and so I’m not sure that’s where I’d like to go. But I read the job description, and it was everything that I wanted to do.
MARK SCHAEFER: Wow. That’s awesome.
GREGORY EDWARDS: And so I couldn’t pass it up. I threw my hat in the ring, I competed, and you know, the rest is history. That that’s where I am.
MARK SCHAEFER: You mentioned that you’ve benefited from the leadership of others kind of helping you along. I can tell that that mentorship is still important to you, that that’s an important part of who you are too.
GREGORY EDWARDS: Absolutely. You have to lift up others, I think, and as you go throughout your daily life, whether it’s spiritually or otherwise in your profession. And it gives you a good sense of purpose. And I really– people– my sons tell me, Dad, you’ve been brainwashed, you know, from being in the military. And I say, you’re exactly right, I have been brainwashed. But I really learned some good traits with that, and one of them is really, you know, lifting other people up, and being a mentor and a supporter.
DOUGLAS KARR: Well, as a fellow veteran, I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for the leaders like you out there lifting us up. So thank you so much for your service.
I’m assuming most people like myself never even realize the vast infrastructure and challenges of NATO. And I’ve got some notes here, 44 locations, 18,000 users, 31,000 devices, and 26 data centers. (CHUCKLING) Can you tell us a little bit about the scope, and how NATO keeps this organized and running smoothly?
GREGORY EDWARDS: I surely can. I mean, keeping it in perspective, 29 nations now. Montenegro joined us last year. And so with those 29 nations, that, you know, kind of spells the terms of the connectivity that we have to have bring that family together, you know, for that alliance. You know, forces us to have that type of capacity, that number of users for our network and the services that we provide.
My specific role is to really lead a team of teams, and they are providing cybersecurity services, and protecting and defending the networks that– also, they are providing the networks that connect those 29 nations together for voice video data types of services. Also, I have, what we call, well, the data centers themselves. And a side point is we have too many, and so our digital endeavor, we’d like to reduce those to a smaller number, you know, using some of the capabilities that Dell offers, as a matter of fact, in that journey.
And then, you know, how do you keep control of that? You have– you deliver services, and you do that and you follow a model of delivering services. You have a service level agreement with the nations that you support, and we make sure that the technology is operational and we’re able to respond to, you know, incidents that occur throughout.
But that’s keeping it going day to day, from a services perspective, but then there is evolution and change. And so then we employ a project management style, and that’s where some of the bureaucracy comes in. But at the end of the day, you have a requirement and then you have a solution, and then you implement that solution and it advances the technology that’s in place. So leading a team of teams is how I do that. Certainly, I’m one leader of many, in that regard.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, you’ve mentioned this word bureaucracy a few times.
And I can’t help but kind of key in on that, because, as Doug said, of course you lead a very complex technological organization, but you’ve also got an organization of, you’ve got to take care of the interests of these 29 countries. There are, I’m assuming, kind of a complex funding model. You’re working across nations with different languages, probably different legal protocols and even technical protocols. And as I consider this, I’m thinking, you have the most complicated job in the world, sir.
So tell me a little bit about your leadership style. You just must have all the (CHUCKLING) patience in the world. But what are the implications of leader– of leadership in a digital transformation effort that is so complicated?
GREGORY EDWARDS: Yes. Excellent question. And you’re so right in everything that you say in the question, the challenges that we face. But it starts with patience. You can’t be one that wants to achieve, you know, world hunger in a short period of time.
But really, it’s about the essence of building consensus, and if you have consensus, you go faster. And so I’ve learned, in the three years that I’ve been there, to spend more time communicating, understanding, listening to 29 nations, and there’s a way to do that. It’s established through committees, and through those committees you look around the room and they all speak. And each has a little different approach, and you’re looking for middle ground, to be quite honest. You’re not looking for what you brought in to be the solution, and you’re going to sell everyone that that is the solution that they should take. You will fail.
So you listen and you find that middle ground, and you shape what you are doing to satisfy the whole. And then you will find success. So consensus building is what you must have.
Next, I would say, trust. They look in your eyes– and we have a roundtable, and that’s the symbol, if you would, for NATO and our dignitaries as they sit around as an alliance. It’s quite impressive, actually, to witness. But all the committees sit around that table, and there’s the 29 nations. And so they’re looking in your eyes, they’re seeing if, in fact, they trust you, OK, if you are an individual who is a leader who will do what is best for NATO. So you build that trust through– with those various committees.
And for example, there’s a resource committee, and they would like– they like to get into all of the numbers and details of what it is that you’re delivering. Sometimes we would say, you don’t need to know all of that, or you don’t understand the technicalities of what we’re doing. That is the wrong answer, that’s the wrong approach. OK? You help them understand, and by helping them understand, then they help you move along.
And then finally, just like a company, we have a supervisory board and that’s, again, 29 nations. And they are giving you guidance as to where they think the agency should be going, and we’re listening and moving in that direction. So you know, patience, but consensus, and then trust.
MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, that’s just so wise. As you’re speaking, I’m reflecting on some of my own consulting projects, and the ones that really face the obstacles is when you’ve got a group of people who says, let’s just do it! You know, it’s like, it’s time to put on the show! We’ve got to go, go, go, go, go!
And eventually, you do come back and build consensus. You can either do it up front (CHUCKLING) and save time, or do it later and waste a lot of time. But I really appreciate your wisdom on that.
DOUGLAS KARR: It seems another challenge that you’re faced with in that is, and it goes back to leadership again, is that a coalition agency like NATO has turnover, as well. So you’re working with all of these employees that are constantly shuffling in and out, maybe don’t have the stability of a corporation where– you know. How do you maintain that culture of trust and collaboration? How do you throw someone in there, and immediately get them to kind of adopt that culture?
GREGORY EDWARDS: Sure. That is very difficult for us. But let me say first where we’re made up, of course, the military, and so that’s military from all nations, all services of all nations. And there is, as you know as a veteran, there are differences between the services and then the nations themselves in regard, as people come together to perform tasks.
And so then there are civilians, like myself, who come with set contracts, periods of time that you will work, and based on your performance, you know, you stay longer, or you know, you do not in performing. And then, finally, there are contractors. We call them an interim work force capacity, but there are contractors who we hire. So it’s balancing all three of those, to be quite honest with you.
And I would say that, throughout Europe, working for NATO is quite an honor. And at the end of the day, you also make a good living and there there’s tax free advantages, getting to practicalities. So retaining the civilian workforce isn’t quite that hard.
The military workforce is extremely hard to retain, because the nations also need those military members back in their nations. And so we have to try to keep balance of that, I guess at the end of the day is the best that we can do. And it’s knowing the numbers, and forecasting, you know, what’s your future skills are going to be, particularly as we move toward our digital endeavor and a digital revolution, or an evolution in that area. And so that’s what I would say is keep the balance between the skills.
The world is all looking for cybersecurity experts, so you’re not going to find as many as you thought you might have, so you have to invest yourself. You have to invest yourself in training and in teaching them to be part of the team and to become part of that culture. And retention isn’t what we would like it to be always, but you have to– I think you should not consider that a lost venture, you know? And sometimes people come back , you know, like myself, over a period of time.
MARK SCHAEFER: So we’ve talked about the evolution or revolution– I like the way you put that– in digital transformation. We’ve had the opportunity, on this show, to talk to a lot of really amazing people. Tell us, from the technology perspective, some of your philosophy, some of the building blocks, how you work with partners like Dell to kind of figure out what needs to be next.
We’ve covered sort of the people, bureaucracy part. Talk about your strategy, your philosophy from the technology standpoint. How do you establish those building blocks, and most important, keep moving?
GREGORY EDWARDS: OK. Well, you know, again, it’s about relationships, partnerships. And in terms of Dell, I like to tell the story that Dell found us, and we’re so thankful for that. And it’s Pascale Van Damme– is that her name– she’s the vice president for the Benelux and Luxembourg area. And it’s establishing that relationship and teaching us what Dell has to offer, but listening to our requirements, as well, and then internalizing that and helping us move forward.
And so it’s not just Dell, but it’s a number of other partners that you would also establish those types of relationship with. You know your requirements and you are articulating those requirements in various forums, and you’re looking for solutions to those and how all of those fit in mate and come together. And so you know that’s kind of the approach that we take and the one that I guess I subscribe to.
But I would add, so where are we focused? Where are the gaps, is what I like to say. You know, we aren’t so interested in talking about what’s going well today. The lights are on, that is a good thing. We want to talk about what causes the lights not to come on, and make sure that we’re working in those areas.
And then, try to speak in practical terms. You know, what is doable? What is doable now? The future, you must think about, and you must spend some time on, but speak in practical terms about what’s doable, what’s affordable. You know, know who you are.
And then, finally, I say, you know, know where you sit, and it took me quite some time to really understand this. And it– you don’t give up your principles, but you know, where you sit is talking about investments, so talk about investments. It’s not time to talk about the technology in that particular place, and so don’t be so principled in that area. And you don’t have to be forceful in giving your views all the time. So gaps, being practical, and knowing where you sit and having a conversation in context.
DOUGLAS KARR: One of the videos that I saw was about NATO’s science and technology organization, and I was pretty fascinated to see that research and development was going into machine learning and autonomous defense systems, where technology is actually being utilized to combat terrorism. And I suppose we can’t even talk about NATO without talking about the global threat of terror. Can you talk a little bit more about how that’s working, or under-development, or in-process?
GREGORY EDWARDS: Sure. The science and technology organization is not part of my agency, but it is within NATO. And it’s a scientific community, as you would appreciate, looking far into the future and helping NATO understand what the future is bringing from technology and scientific study, and then having conversations with those who develop the requirements, so that they can perhaps be a little more realistic in their requirements that they’re developing. What we do in the agency, in terms of scientific work– I’ll use an example in the cyber area, because that’s, you know, very important today amongst other things– is we’re looking at the threats that exist and new terms of hybrid warfare, new aggressors in this space, espionage that’s occurring throughout.
And two points that we look at in scientific study is situational awareness. Now, situational awareness is there’s so much information out there, how do you make sense of it all, is what we’re saying, and how do you give a visualization of some context to that? You know, two people at various levels, for what purpose? For decision making. And so now decision support systems talks to business analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. And so the science and technology organization, that’s why they delve a little deeper into those areas to understand more of the physics, if you would, and then we’re more at a practical level, if you would, of finding people like Dell who are really bringing that capability into the technology that we can use.
MARK SCHAEFER: I was doing some research in preparation for our interview, and I saw this news– I guess it was a news clip– about Operation Locked Shield. This was one of the coolest things I have seen, where you bring these people together in this very, very creative way to– really, it was– it’s a large international collaboration around cybersecurity, and it was just this amazing and inspiring exercise. Talk a little bit about that. And I can see by– there’s a lot of pride on your face.
Now, this is a podcast. You guys can’t see this, so I’m describing this for you. But Dr. Edwards here is– he seems very proud of this. So talk a little bit about this amazing collaborative exercise.
DOUGLAS KARR: With pleasure. And Doug, people will think that I planted this question, because I’m so proud that my team won Lock Shields this year. I was visiting there a couple of weeks ago and got the out brief. Of course, they didn’t tell us at that time who the winners were, but I knew we were in the top two, at that particular time.
And so, you know, we defend NATO’s networks everyday as a profession, and so we wanted to demonstrate our skills. And let me just say humbly, we did that, and we were the winners–
MARK SCHAEFER: But talk a little bit– what is this thing? What is this exercise? Because it’s really– there’s things we can learn here in business too. I haven’t seen anything like this before.
GREGORY EDWARDS: Absolutely. It is announced as the world’s largest live-fire cybersecurity exercise, and it is comprised of 22 teams. There’s no limit to the number of teams. They ask all who would like to participate– you know, it’s NATO– to do that and form teams. This year it was 22 teams.
Now, it’s conducted virtually. The Estonia– Tallinn, Estonia is the location where the Cyber Security Center of Excellence is located. And so they run the exercise virtually from that area.
There is– the teaming is a blue team, red team. Red team is the aggressors. The blue team are the defenders. And 22 defenders are given scenarios of threats and attacks, and it is how they ensure that their systems are configured and protected and defended that earns them points. And the number of attacks and the number of points, and then you raise up to who the winner would be for the overall conflict.
This particular year, I was amazed to see scenarios around critical infrastructure protection. This is water plants. You know, it’s all about the internet and the network connectivity, and so people had to defend critical infrastructure protection of course networks.
Also drones were used. And how do you– you know, drones, of course, are wireless communications, and so you had to defend in that particular area. And it brought in nations that were partners, as well as NATO. So it’s a well orchestrated event, and for us, it’s an opportunity to hone our skills and really demonstrate that. Because the preparation that the people must do to be ready to defend is quite intense.
So a powerful exercise. And yes, I think industry and others could learn, but industry participates, you know? Dell did not participate this year, however, industries provide the equipment and the configuration. And then they’re learning the threats that cyber has to services that they’re providing, and then they can build better products.
DOUGLAS KARR: We’ve talked about a lot of the threats, but you know, let’s talk about some of the great things about NATO, as well. Collaboration has been core to the mission for 60 years. Could you share what the Science for Peace and Security Program is?
GREGORY EDWARDS: Sure. Again, this is more of a political program that was established. You know, NATO is 29 nations and 41 partners, and so– many people don’t recognize that. And so the alliance is not trying to be closed, the alliance wants to be inclusive of all nations, and so there are 41 partners who are part of this. And so in partner discussions, they’re looking for ways that other nations can contribute and support NATO, and NATO can support other nations.
And in this particular area, Science for Peace was a program that was created to say, well, nation A, you have some scientific endeavor going on, let’s say in the cyber area, you know? We have an avenue now to communicate with you about that. Otherwise, there would be no communications. And so it’s embracing other nations under this particular program. And sometimes capabilities are received from those nations, from industry as well through those nations, for NATO to learn, and then the situation works the other way, as well.
DOUGLAS KARR: Incredible.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, Dr. Edwards, our time has just flown by. I feel like I could just sit here and learn from you all day. But unfortunately, we’ll have to bring our show to a close. And just thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your wisdom.
GREGORY EDWARDS: It was absolutely a pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity. And thank you for your service in terms.
DOUGLAS KARR: Absolutely.
GREGORY EDWARDS: And again, it was my pleasure to be with you.
MARK SCHAEFER: And thanks to all of you for listening. We never take you for granted. We appreciate the time you spend with our show.
Why don’t you maybe look at subscribing to Luminaries? We can be found on the regular channels, you can find us on iTunes, you can find us on Spotify, all over the web. Leave us a review, we’d love to hear from you.
And this is Mark Schaefer, and my great consistent co-host, Douglas Karr. And we will see you next time on Luminaries, where we talk to the brightest minds in tech.
ANNOUNCER: Luminaries, talking to the brightest minds in tech. A podcast series from Dell Technologies.