At DigitalGlobe, this leader listens to people with big ideas, not just big titles

April Bohnert

DigitalGlobe is not exactly a household name, but its technology touches our lives every day. Its satellite technology is the reason Uber helps us find our way — and it’s driving Facebook’s efforts to bring internet connectivity to the world. In addition to Uber and Facebook, clients include Google, Amazon, NASA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Jeff Robertson — its chief information officer, chief security officer and senior vice president — has his hands in everything from product development and cybersecurity to people operations and data storage. We sat down with Robertson to learn what drives him as a leader.

DIGITALGLOBE AT A GLANCE

FOUNDED: 1992.

WHAT THEY DO: Collect geospatial imagery from satellites, turning that imagery into insights.

WHERE THEY DO IT: Westminster and Longmont, CO, and around the globe.

WHO THEY DO IT FOR: Businesses, governments and nonprofits — including NASA and U.S. Department of Defense.

ROBERTSON’S LEADERSHIP: Recognize smart people, get out of their way.

WOMEN IN TECH: One of several diversity initiatives Robertson champions.

PETABYTES OF DATA MANAGED: Close to 100.  

As a chief security officer — one of several roles you fill here — cybersecurity must be top of mind. How has the evolution of cybersecurity impacted your work?

We look at security holistically. From a cyber perspective, I organize the bad actors who might target a business into five tiers. Most companies see only one or two targeting them; we see all five. Tier one includes nation state actors like China and Russia. Tier two actors are nation states that are not as sophisticated, like North Korea. Then you start getting into regular cyber actors — the hackers for profit, the hackers for disruption. The fifth tier, which most organizations don't see, is terrorist organizations, which are becoming more sophisticated in their cyber-related activities.

We have to manage the spectrum of those threats, and each is a little bit different in the protections and how we need to monitor. The security professionals here get to work on and see a lot of interesting things and perspectives. Fortunately, management also understands how important cyber is.

What are the challenges of managing such enormous amounts of data?

The number one challenge with our data is getting it “out of jail.” We have enormous amounts of information, but it’s not just raw pixels. There is a lot of information embedded in those pixels. Right now, we manage close to 100 petabytes of data.

Historically, that's been locked in our basement, so to speak, where it wasn't accessible to anybody but ourselves and it wasn't super accessible through products or to our customers. Part of our strategy over the last few years has been to unlock that by moving the data into the cloud and bringing it closer to our customers.

But, when you're talking 50 to 100 petabytes of data that you want to move to the cloud, you’ve got to be innovative. We were a beta customer with Amazon, partnering with them to figure out how you drive massive amounts of data into the cloud.

What’s your leadership style like?

I try to get out of other people's way, frankly. I'm here to unblock roads, to get teams in the right place and to get them the right resources to do what our customers want and unlock growth. Basically, I let the smart people in this organization — which there are a ton of — do their jobs.

Describe the culture at DigitalGlobe.

We have an interesting culture. It's very inspiring. We're half aerospace and defense company, and then we're half startup, basically. Very innovative, very fast moving. It's really interesting as you see these cultural aspects come together.

How does diversity play into the culture here?

I’m a very big sponsor of driving diversity in the organization. It’s one of my passions. My colleagues and I drive a number of different programs. Women in Technology is an example; we’re a huge sponsor of that with different organizations. Within our organization, we’re getting people to think about how they form teams and how diversity plays into that, including diversity of background, origin, gender — and diversity of thought.

How are ideas heard and presented on your team?

Rather than hearing the loudest voice in the room or the person with the largest title, we promote a culture of “the best thought wins.” We’re trying to break down hierarchical aerospace culture into a very flat meritocracy.

That’s interesting. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that from a large, established organization like DigitalGlobe.

You wouldn't, but I think that's what helps us create such velocity. Sure, we have really complicated parts of our business where meritocracy wouldn’t work. The team that's flying the satellites, for example, operates in a very structured manner. They do what the playbook says and that's super important. But for the majority of our organization, we want to keep the innovation and velocity of a startup in our culture.

How do you drive innovation at DigitalGlobe?

We have something we call “Innovation Fridays,” when team members share what they're doing and how it's innovative. I remember when a fairly new team member, someone who came up through the ranks from an entry-level position, gave a presentation. He was working on backup and recovery — not the sexiest thing in our organization — but he presented to a broad audience of business leaders. I was sitting next to our chief operating officer.

He talked about what he was doing — ensuring that our files and products backup successfully and are able to be recovered. It was a leap of improvement, and it engaged the business leaders, who said, "That's super important to one of our strategies, which is disaster recovery and resiliency." It was a way for him to shine and get questions from the COO and the CIO that assures him that what he's doing is super important to our business model.

What does professional development look like on your team?

We are growing a lot of positions, so we're looking for new talent, but we also make a lot of internal investment. We have several leadership programs that have been very effective. We’re learning that a development team takes both emerging leaders and established leaders to be successful. I consider every individual to be a leader in some respects.

What aspect of your job gets you most excited?

One reason I came here was that I connected to the purpose. It’s important to me to make a difference in the world. Saving lives and really contributing to our vision — that's core.

Second is the people that I work with. This is an amazingly smart organization. It’s the most amazing thing to see people around me develop and unlock their capabilities, to see them be successful — to help them be successful.

 

Photos via Nick Cote. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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