Northrop's new IT leader shares strategy, growth plans

A tough market isn't something to be avoided; instead, for Northrop Grumman Information Systems President Kathy Warden, it is an opportunity to embrace change and help define the next upturn in the market. She shares her views in this exclusive interview.

2013 might not seem like the best year to take over one of the biggest IT operations in the government market.

Squestration, budget cuts, increased competition and partisan bickering are contributing to the toughest market in decades. Companies are seeing margins shrink and are making moves to reduce headcount and lower costs across their organizations.

Kathy Warden

Kathy Warden, Northrop Grumman

It’s not a picture perfect situation to come into, but from Kathy Warden’s perspective, there couldn’t be a better time to take over as corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Information Systems. She replaced Linda Mills on Jan. 1, who ran the business for several years before becoming Northrop’s corporate vice president of operations.

In this two-part interview with Washington Technology, Warden speaks about her goals, her management style and what she sees as the opportunities and challenges ahead. Click here to read part two.

WT: Why take this job now?

Warden: There is going to be a lot of change in the industry, and I think that Northrop Grumman has an opportunity to define what the industry will look like coming out of this down turn.

I like our portfolio, and I think we can strengthen it. It seems like this might actually be the right time to make a bigger impact.

For me personally, it was the right time. I’ve been running organizations of increasing scope and complexity, and this was the next logical step in that progression.

WT: What are some of the things that you have done that prepared you for this step?

Warden: I’ve been running businesses in the federal market for 12 years, and before that, I worked in a variety of industries, which gave me an opportunity to do work with commercial customers. Over the last 12 years, I’ve focused primarily on defense and intelligence.

So, I understand how a variety of different organizations work, and what customers need.

I’ve worked through upturns and downturns, and to be honest, downturns are more challenging but can be more fun because you have an opportunity to make a bigger impact at a time when the organization needs leadership and vision.

WT: What drew you into the government market to start with?

Warden: This industry offers a real mission focus, an opportunity to make an impact that is more than just returning dollars to the bottom line.

The reason you exist is greater. It’s to provide the capability that helps make our world safer, for ourselves and our children. That really appeals to me.

WT: From your experience in the commercial markets, what best practices do you think the government should learn?

Warden: There’s been a dramatic change from building complex solutions that were highly tailored to government applications to now being more open to utilizing commercial, off-the-shelf technology.

But, I think we need to go even a step-further by leveraging technologies, but also new business models; service models such as the cloud, things that used to be asset-intensive, but where now the government is saying, I just want to pay for the output of a system and not have to buy and build the system.

As the government has less money, they are really thinking about efficiency in new ways.

WT: As a leader, what strengths do you bring to this position?

Warden: It’s the context of having operated in a variety of different roles and markets and being able to set strategy and define a path to get there. That will be important because we’re entering a time of great change.

I started my career at GE, and one of the things that was instilled in me very early is how important people are and that leadership isn’t a job on an org chart. Leadership is people wanting to follow you, and understanding the vision that you lay out for them.

WT: How about the opposite? What areas are going to be asking for help with?

Warden: My team is very important to me. This business has tremendous breadth. We have over 2,000 contracts, so we need to be talking to a variety of customers on any given day, and listening to them and executing for them.

The team is an extension of me in being able to provide that reach.

I want to make sure that our customers have a common experience each time they talk to Northrop Grumman. My leadership team -- not just the people who report directly to me, but our leaders all through the sector -- are a way that we can get that message to our customers and be consistent in that customer experience.

WT: You said that you see an opportunity to shape what the industry is going to look like. How do you think the industry is going to change?

Warden: Customers are much more open to innovation today, and that happens because when you have fewer resources, you get more resourceful.

Our customers are listening to ideas to do things differently and change processes that have been fairly entrenched over time. That plays well to Northrop's strengths. We like hard problems. We like the challenges that seem complex and not straightforward on the surface.

We are putting forward ideas on how to use technology differently. An example of that is the work we've done in Blue Force tracking. The more recent work we've done in aerial communications is helping to change the way that messaging is communicated across the battle space, from ground to air and back to ground.

In network operations, we see an ability to transform the way that networks are defended, and how they support the warfighter.

The problem space is not diminishing; it's actually growing. There are more threats and more diversity in the threats to global security today but there are fewer resources to address them.

WT: When you look at your business group, what do you see as your strengths, and where are you focused on improvement?

Warden: We want to broaden our footprint, particularly internationally. The global security environment offers opportunities and is in need of the kind of capabilities that have been developed in the U.S. market.

We want to grow our footprint in cybersecurity, but everyone talks about that. For us, we have a strong footprint in defending networks and supporting cyber operations. We want to continue that, but we also believe legislation will broaden the market in critical infrastructure protection and global security.

Part 2: International opportunities.