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What one NASA director learned from the AI Federal Leadership Program

As the head of NASA’s IT Procurement Office, Sarah Pollock manages a diverse portfolio that ensures that the world’s preeminent space agency is equipped with the technology it needs to advance its mission, including computing hardware and software, mobile IT services and help-desk support, cybersecurity infrastructure, telecommunications and more. All told, she oversees annual contractual obligations worth roughly $700 million that support IT across NASA’s 10 field centers, and helps set strategy for the NASA Acquisition Innovation Launchpad, or NAIL, a new online platform that seeks workforce and industry input to improve how NASA obtains critical products and services.  

To meet these responsibilities, Pollock enrolled in the Partnership for Public Service’s AI Federal Leadership Program, an initiative supported by Microsoft and Google that has to date prepared more than 200 senior executives across government to develop and consider AI solutions at their agencies. Below, she explains why the program appealed to her and how it has benefited her work at NASA. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.   

Why did you join the AI Federal Leadership Program? 

“Everybody has preconceived notions about what AI means. So I thought, ‘What better way to get a from-the-horse’s-mouth-type of perspective about what AI actually is?’ I wanted to use this knowledge to provide our procurement professionals with a set of best practices and innovations around AI.” 

Which aspect of the program did you find most useful? 

“I found the program incredibly informative and multifaceted. …One session centered around how to responsibly lead AI. We watched a thought-provoking documentary and then heard from some session panelists about designing AI around values that promote diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. I saw a different perspective in terms of mitigating potential bias and implementing AI. We were always challenged to think about the repercussions, possible risks and impacts of AI.”  

How did the program help you advance AI at NASA? 

“I was able to share what I learned with my leadership team to help advance some ideas. For example, the program had an applied learning component that required us to come up with an idea to implement at our agency, build upon that idea and create a full-fledged project plan. When I was enrolled, another colleague and I started to bounce ideas off each other regarding the use of bots and some other things within our office to leverage AI and machine learning. He ended up becoming the director of our Enterprise Services Analysis Division, which heads up the NASA Acquisition Innovation Launchpad. I shared my use project with him, and we have considered doing a pilot program—hopefully working through the new platform.” 

Why should others consider enrolling in the AI Federal Leadership Program?  

“The program opened my eyes to what I thought I knew about AI and helped me gain more leverage in advancing it within NASA by seeking input or support from stakeholders. Given how pervasive AI is becoming, it is incredibly important to know the ins and outs, how it could benefit society, what the risks are and how to mitigate them. This program provides that.”   

Learn more about the AI Federal Leadership Program and the full suite of Public Service Leadership Institute training opportunities.  

Sarah Pollock, director of the Information Technology Procurement Office, NASA

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