The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.
Next is Artificial Intelligence Industry Executive of the Year finalist Brad Mascho, who’s chief AI officer at NCI Information Systems, Inc. Here, he talks about professional risks, future focus areas, career advice and more.
What has made you successful in your current role?
I don’t think you can understate the importance of storytelling in any role. It’s so important to communicate a vision in a way that people can not only embrace it but champion it themselves. Telling a good story and connecting the benefits of emerging technology to one’s daily life is the most valuable way I have found to humanize this technology.
NCI has a proud 30-year history as a go-to service provider for the public sector. It has been a tremendous corporatewide team effort to win over the hearts and minds of our organization to the point where today nearly every program or proposal NCI does include our AI capabilities. We’ve truly shifted into our vision of an AI company.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
In 2012, I left my job and life in Washington, D.C., to move to Columbus, Ohio, to start a health care technology company. This involved moving my wife and our first child (we have three daughters today) to Columbus sight unseen.
It was quite a risky adventure for us, but in the end, that company was able to provide great jobs to over 100 people while emerging as a leader in AI.
What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
I joined NCI as chief AI officer because I truly believe our government should be a destination employer for every person coming out of school. My first job was working in the Congress and I have extremely fond memories of my time on Capitol Hill.
Adopting emerging technology like AI is the single biggest opportunity for us to remove the pain of the bureaucracy and change the culture of government. This can make the U.S. government a destination employer for our best and brightest. And believe me, we need to be a destination employer because AI is the single most transformative technology of our generation.
We need a government that continues to recognize the importance of AI — and compels faster development and adoption for the good of mankind — and perceives it as a core strategy in the defense of our nation.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
I’d say a big lesson that guides me on a daily basis is “do not let perfect be the enemy of good.” Everything should be iterative, and you can apply the concept of a minimum viable product in everything you do — whether it’s writing an email, creating a presentation or building a solution. Perfection is a lie and if you wait for it, the only thing you can guarantee is that you’ll be unsatisfied and unsuccessful.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
My first job after college was as a junior staffer in a congressional office. It was a great first job where I learned to be patient and respect all opinions. The turning point for me came early in that role. I actually started that job during the August recess, so I hadn’t had a chance to meet the congressman in-person.
While he was away on break, and knowing he had little digital engagement, I rewrote his website and most of his position papers. Not long after I showed him his updated website and position papers, I was named his communications director.
I really loved having the chance to hone my communications skills while continuing to focus on new technology. Taking initiative jump started my career and is a value I practice to this day.
What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?
A failure that left a lifelong impact on me actually came at the end of a baseball camp when I was 10 years old. I liked baseball, but at that age didn’t follow the game much back then. So when we were each given an unopened pack of cards, all I knew is that I had eight little pieces of cardboard. One of them was a Kevin Maas rookie card, who was a phenom for the Yankees that summer.
Like a scene out of “The Sandlot,” I happily traded away my Kevin Maas for eight cards — because surely eight cards are better than one — only to find a camp full of preteens laughing at my deal. I took my licks that day, went home to open up the only set of baseball cards I owned and began studying the stats of every player —home runs, hits, wins, strikeouts, and more. I vowed never to make a bad deal because I lacked knowledge.
Fast forward to today, I can look back on my actions and know I made the best decisions with the information I had at the time.
Which rules do you think you should break more as a government/industry leader?
Two words: Take risks. I had a government customer once explain that the reason behind his aversion to risk was because private sector companies that make mistakes, such as a data breach, have insurance to cover their losses, whereas the public sector has no such protection. I told him if he wanted to remove all risk, he had better unplug all of the computers, turn off the lights and go home. But then again, that would only create a bigger risk — the risk of inaction.
People spend too much time talking themselves out of change because they believe that something new is riskier. But what if continuing the status quo is actually worse? Take an iterative and MVP approach to your life and your work. Create a hypothesis, build your MVP, test it and then invest or divest in the outcome.