Supercomputers and Human Capital
Washington's gift is seeing three steps ahead, predicting possible problems and then troubleshooting to ensure the best possible outcome. This was an integral part of his job at Sandia, as developing computers used to test the status of nuclear weapons is a tricky business. He created computer architectures used to certify the safety and performance of the national nuclear stockpile—a process that required a tremendous amount of computing power. Previously, scientists would have used custom-built supercomputers costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, Washington’s team was the first in the world to figure out how to make off-the-shelf PCs link together to work like a supercomputer.
“When we put it all together, it was the fifth-fastest computer in the world at just a fraction of the cost. That was cool,” he said. “This proved to the world that you can build a fast, viable computer for scientific purposes using relatively low-cost components.” Knowing that every major corporation from Google to Facebook now uses this same strategy, well, “That’s very satisfying,” he said.
After a few years at Sandia, he had to adopt a new skillset as he was rapidly promoted from manager to director to leading the distributed computing group at the Sandia California site and, eventually, to chief information officer. “I wasn’t even 30 years old when I became a manager. I was managing people who were much more senior than I was,” he recalled. “I learned to lead by being humble about what works and what doesn’t and by listening to feedback from my team.”
Accustomed to being among the smartest and most capable people in a room, it was tough for him to sit back and let others try things. “I learned that when you’re leading a team, their success is more important than yours,” he said. “Before becoming a manager, the most important thing was me having the answer and knowing how to get something done. I had to learn to motivate others to solve the problem rather than solving it myself, even if it took longer for them to do it. They needed to know I had their back more than they needed to know I was smart.”
In the long run, the strategy pays big dividends. “Leadership is all about getting the best out of others at scale. It doesn’t scale if you do everything yourself,” he said. Just like building a supercomputer out of thousands of individual PCs, Washington learned how to unite a team with a vision and equip them to communicate efficiently to create an impact much larger than the sum of the parts.
He went on to work for Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense firm, where he specialized in the new frontier of cybersecurity in the internet’s early days as the organization’s first chief privacy officer. As he moved up the corporate food chain, he built new skills once again. No longer a player-coach, he started managing managers. He learned to skate above the details of each group or project and inspire teams with visionary ideas that ignited passion. His gift for seeing the bigger picture and translating technology to external audiences enabled him to provide his teams with what they needed to be successful.
Washington is as good at solving equations as he is at working a room. He’s intense and incredibly intelligent but has a joyful, infectious energy that puts people at ease while firing them up to produce great work. He’s also a gifted communicator, a trait he credits to his mother’s influence. She would often ask about what he was learning at Texas A&M. He found that if he could explain his highly technical work in a way his mother could comprehend, then he had mastered the concepts.
“It drives me crazy when I hear someone explaining something in technical terms to a non-technical audience, and I know they don’t get it,” he said. He has passed that lesson on to his employees. “If you can’t explain this in a way that your mom would get it, then you don’t have the details right yet.”