Loria Favors Collaboration and Diversity as Director of EROS

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CJ Loria didn’t have the smoothest transition into his role as the new Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center director.

He had been on the job less than two weeks when the government shut down for 35 days, starting Dec. 22, 2018. Then the dogs of winter—the wind, the snow, the cold—came howling, filling him with visions of his life back in Louisiana very quickly.

Color photograph of Christopher "C.J." Loria

Christopher Joseph "CJ" Loria, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD.

Now that he’s settling into the job, here’s another twist: Loria has been asked by USGS Headquarters to take on the role of Acting Assistant Director for the Land Resources Mission Area (LRMA) for 120 days beginning May 13 to help USGS through a reorganization period.

As the LRMA staff and projects transition to Ecosystems and Core Science Systems, Loria will need to be in Reston about one week a month. When he’s gone, John Hahn again will assume the leadership role of Acting EROS Center Director.

With all that going on, Loria insists he is thrilled about landing at EROS. In this second of a two-part conversation—the first part was about his life before coming to the Center—he discusses his future here at the Center.

Why were you interested in being the EROS Center Director?

“I think it’s a tremendously important job. From my previous career experiences with NASA and as the Director of Operations for the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, NORAD, I’ve got the space systems development and space operations background that are helpful with flying Landsats 7 and 8, and on the development of Landsat 9. Through my works with SAIC, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), and Exelis Geospatial Systems, I have gained valuable experiences working on enterprise IT systems and on-boarding new technologies. At DISA in Fort Meade, MD I worked on leveraging IT mesh networks for our strategic systems with the brilliant people at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the Naval Research Laboratory.”

But what does a NASA guy specifically bring to a USGS mindset?

“Again, I understand space operations, and space systems development. I understand the time it takes to fund, develop, integrate, test ... many of those experiences are already proving relevant and useful here at EROS with our ongoing Landsat 7 and 8 flight operations, as well as the development of Landsat 9. I also have experience staffing and developing concepts of operations and high-level requirements for the necessary ground systems, control centers, telemetry, designing the ground system, and operations. “

You have talked at conferences in the past about diversity being an important part of successful organizations. What do you mean?

“I believe diversity is tremendously important, obviously. I think especially in an organization like this, the USGS, which as you know is a science organization for the Department of Interior (DOI). So, we need and value diversity in the sense of ethnic backgrounds, faith, and so on. A richness in diversity brings us a diversity of experiences, knowledge, and thereby approaches to challenges. Diversity helps us become and continue to be a broader and more effective organization.”

Effective in what way?

“Diversity, and a healthy organizational culture, helps avoid group think.  For example, if one looks at them a certain way, group think was probably a contributor to the loss of both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. I’ve seen the value and importance of a smart, hard-working, and diverse team that works to get to the root cause of a challenge, and the team of engineers and scientists that develops potential solutions and eventually the best overall solution. I see the same qualities of motivated, educated, and hard-working people across all of EROS.”  

Can you give us a specific example of diverse thinking?

“With NASA, I saw firsthand the value of having people who approach problems differently or even orthogonally. An Astronaut Office colleague of mine, Don Pettit, Ph.D., is brilliant, and his often-orthogonal thinking brought forward some of the best collaborative solutions for NASA on subjects that ranged from the International Space Station to concepts of operations for a future mission to Mars.  Someone coming at a challenge, from a wholly different perspective or point of view, often enriches the conversation. Collaboration and an organizational culture where one is safe to share ideas that are different from the group’s majority viewpoint improves our trust within the workplace, makes us a more collaborative team, and invariably develops the most optimum possible potential solutions to select from.”

So, you’re talking about diversity from a lot of different angles?

“Exactly. A team with a diversity in education, societal, and cultural background results in different thought processes and ways at looking at challenges. I read a great book a couple of years ago by Susan Cain called ‘Quiet,’ about the value of people with a more introspective nature, and how they can contribute to organizations. It is a tremendous book that speaks to the value of having diversity even in personality types on teams that need to collaborate to tackle challenges.” 

Color photograph of Christopher "C.J." Loria

Christopher Joseph "CJ" Loria, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD.

You espouse the value of quiet, collaborative leadership. How will that look for you here at EROS?

“You don’t always have to be the one speaking. I listen to my staff. I ask questions. I know that I don’t know everything, even if I’d been here for 30 years. That’s why we have John Dwyer and his team with the Science Applications Branch. That’s why we’ve got Tom Sohre and his crew with the Center IT Team, or ‘CITT.’  So, when we are working on a complex challenge, I value and want our talented and diverse team together so that I can ask them, ‘What do you think?  What are your inputs? Are there any risks? What are the opportunities?’ ”

So, you see listening as being a large part of leadership?

“For me, yes, very much so. As part of the NASA Astronaut selection process, they did personality tests on our entire class. I’m actually an introvert, and I’m more comfortable in small groups. Nevertheless, I had to do speeches in front of large audiences for NASA, sometimes 500 to 1,500 people. Those were taxing. So yes, what I do is, I listen, and I watch the group, and I try to watch the body language. If someone hasn’t contributed, I’ll often wait and eventually ask them what they think, to draw them out and into the dialogue, which typically results in better ideas and solutions. Another thing that collaborative leadership does with an organization is, you build trust between people and within the organization. People will see and learn that you don’t have to agree with the branch chief, team lead, or the Director. That it is safe for someone to offer their professional opinion, and to contribute to the conversation at hand, especially if their contribution is different than the group’s. A collaborative approach really makes for a better, healthier organization. Conversely, I’ve seen leadership by consensus not work, and make organizations and teams less effective.”

You worked for a time in the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA. You have said that Dr. Charles Draper knew everyone by their first name. Is that important to you?

“His leadership style and work ethic are still famous today at Draper Lab, and they helped to craft and shape that culture and set of values across Draper Lab. Here at EROS, I’m working on meeting our entire staff and learning everyone’s name, and their role in our organization. For me, following Doc Draper’s example is about understanding and valuing human nature and people as valued individuals. Everyone likes to be recognized and valued. That’s why it’s important. Everyone on our staff is contributing to EROS being successful.”

So how are you doing in learning those first names?

“When you make and take the opportunity to meet and work with our staff on-on-one, as I have—with, for example, Mary Johnson with our contractor DCT—they make your day a little bit better. Everybody’s important. And people are here because they want to be here. They want to be part of what we’re doing. When I see expertise in what people are doing, whatever their area—whether that’s Fabian Ysker with our security team; or Devon Brock leading our the staff in the cafeteria, where they always have great food and generally great and diverse music playing; from a scientist like Gabriel Senay, a Ph.D., to Cyndi Boltjes with our administrative staff—I’m very proud to be part of this organization and team.”

Have you developed a strong grasp for what EROS is all about yet?

“I’m working on it, and the big picture has been fairly easy to pick up on. However, understanding the details of the work, understanding all the people, all the expertise, and all the aspects of what they’re doing, is going to take some time. We are already doing data fusion from multiple remote-sensing platforms (satellites) and aerial Lidar data. We are incorporating artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) to accelerate the processing of our higher-level data products. I need to understand what every branch is doing, and how those details fit together. Then there is the up and out, how and where we support the bigger picture with the Core Science Systems (CSS) Mission Area at the USGS as a part of the USGS reorganization. I and the senior leadership team here at EROS are working outwards to understand and find ways that we can support the other mission areas across the USGS, such as Water, Energy and Minerals, Natural Hazards and Ecosystems. It’s going to take us a little bit longer to do that.”

How do you view EROS’ mission within USGS?

“I think the mission is tremendously important, and it guides us. USGS Director Jim Reilly summed it up beautifully recently when discussing Earth Day: ‘As the United States’ premier Earth Science agency; every day is Earth Day at the USGS.’ Our mission is to provide unbiased, objective, and independent scientific information and data to support decision and policy making at all levels of government—from federal to state to local city councils. USGS information is used in a variety of ways to assist in making critical decisions to ensure the well-being and prosperity of America’s communities.”

Color photograph of Christopher "C.J." Loria

Christopher Joseph "CJ" Loria, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD.

Is and should EROS be a science center?

“You hit on something that John Dwyer, Tom Loveland and I have been talking about. EROS and the USGS have been making strategic, necessary, and important investments in Landsat and our on-premise computing.  With those investments in hand and on track, we need to invest more in our science, and our scientists and engineers, to achieve our desired outcomes and results in our projects, our science, and our data products.”

How vibrant do you consider the work and staffing in our Science Branch?

“We have a very broad array of important work and challenges. For example, last October the White House published its ‘Memorandum on Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West.’  We are working on science aspects of water, and we also have staff working on famine prevention and food supplies in sub-Saharan Africa through work funded by the USAID. We are assessing our diverse body of work and asking, ‘Do we have the right staff? Is there other staff that we’ll need in the near future?’ ”

It sounds like you’re saying science is important here.

“Yes, very. I asked Dwyer, ‘Do you have enough staff? Do you have enough budget? What are you not doing that you are thinking about or would like to do?’ I shared with John that he didn’t have to answer me right then, but let’s be thinking about it. Let’s get together in a little bit and have a coffee or sit down over lunch, discuss it.’ John, Tom Loveland and I have been having those conversations, and they are proving to be very open, informative, and productive.”

Where does your interest in science come from?

“That’s why we’re all here. It probably doesn’t come up too strongly in my background, but I’m a firm believer in the science and environmental aspects of what we’re doing here. When I was in grad school, I was twice selected and worked as a Harvard Fellow while earning my Master’s degree. Supporting a senior Harvard Fellow, I got to work on aspects of prospective U.S. Clean Energy technology policy, and CO2 sequestration. Later as a consultant, I worked on an advisory committee for the National Science Foundation, and later was recruited and hired to help stand up operations at its National Ecological Observatory Network in Boulder, CO. So, the mission here and what we do is tremendously important.  We understand that.”

Have you jumped into the conversation yet here at EROS about high-performance computing and working in the Cloud?

“Yes, high-performance computing is coming to EROS. In support of the DOI’s Foundation Cloud Hosting Solutions (CHS) contract, we are assessing a ‘smart’ Cloud approach. For example, what capabilities might be required for us to retain on-premise under the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, or under other guidance?  Where does it make most sense for us to leverage the capabilities of the Cloud, such as in data storage and information dissemination? We are taking a system of systems approach to our future.  What can and should we process on-premise through high-performance computing assets, such as those that Kevin Gallagher, Assistant Director for the USGS Core Science Systems Mission Area, brought about with his vision and investment in Denali here at EROS? And how do we best leverage the Cloud? There is approximately one year left on the DOI CHS contract vehicle. So, we are looking to explore and conduct feasibility studies initially, and from those learning experiences wisely grow our capabilities, service offerings, and service deliveries to the Cloud.”

Can you talk about data center consolidation and EROS’ potential role in that?

“We are under consideration with the DOI to be a consolidated data center. As EROS continues to evolve, our role as a data and computing center for USGS is changing and growing, which is fantastic. The USGS’ next high-performance computing (HPC) capability, called ‘Denali,’ and its high throughput computing component ‘Tallgrass,’ are already being installed at EROS.  And, as I mentioned before, we are supporting the government’s work to leverage Cloud services to improve both our Earth observation data delivery, and higher-level science data products processing and delivery.”

There are discussions that EROS is being considered to become an integrated science center for the USGS as well?

“Yes, that is also very exciting. We have a stellar group of people, both government employees and contractors at EROS. We are looking forward to expanding our impact across other mission areas of the USGS through our people and data center assets to provide ‘science as a service’ and computing power across the USGS.”

So how much does all this figure into potential future at EROS?

“With all those changes on our horizon, we are working to build a path to those future roles and responsibilities for the USGS.  We have the team and talent here in our government and contractor staff, and we have the facilities and data center floor space to accommodate even more growth.  I think growth in mission set is exciting, and we are looking forward to potentially providing more jobs and economic impact within our local community.”

What have been the most important issues you’ve dealt with in your first months here?

“There are a number of issues or challenges that we’re working on now, and that we’re making more progress on. Staffing for example. Over time, we have lost staff due to retirements, and people moving onto other opportunities.  We are assessing our present and future staffing needs and are looking to hire new individuals to help us tackle our existing work, and to grow and adapt for our evolving mission and focus. Recently, I was talking with John Dwyer about his science team and what their staffing needs are.  John has some great ideas about bringing in new, young Ph.D.s with more computer and code writing skills. Similarly, I was talking with Tom Loveland the other day, and he’s got the same idea. So, in the challenge of the staffing losses we have seen, there is also opportunity.  We have the opportunity to bring in a diversity of new education, backgrounds, new skills, and new ways of thinking. I hope the new talent may challenge some of the people here, challenge some of the ways people think, maybe help us to improve and make the organization even more alive, and more effective.”

What do you think our relationship should be with Sioux Falls and the surrounding area?

“I love that this opportunity has brought me to Sioux Falls, and that I am becoming part of this community.  We at EROS enjoy a longstanding, positive relationship with the local communities, and with South Dakota State University (SDSU), where I met recently with President Barry Dunn and his executive staff. Our collaboration and work together with SDSU on remote sensing and satellite sensor calibration has resulted in a vibrant study area for the university and quality jobs here in South Dakota for their graduates. We discussed expanding our collaboration in the future into high-performance computing, AI/ML, and how our needs in those areas could benefit the important and growing precision agriculture curriculum at SDSU. I met recently with Senator Mike Rounds and with Mr. Qusi Al-Haj from Senator (John) Thune’s staff.  We had great conversations with them, and one of the topics was our economic impact to the local area and community. Every year, our utilities and services pay roughly $820,000, and we pay roughly $78 million in salaries to our government and contractor staffs.”

You arrived just before the government shutdown, and as the weather was turning nasty here. Did you ever ask yourself what you got yourself into?

“No, but I did ask myself if it’s ever going to start warming up. I got here in December, and part of me is thinking, ‘It’s always winter here,’ especially coming from Louisiana. Once I get used to four real seasons again, and the South Dakota winters, I don’t want to leave. I’m thrilled to be part of this, and to be part of the USGS and our mission for science.”

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Date published: April 8, 2019

They Call Him ‘Gus’: EROS’ Newest Director Brings Diverse Background to the Job

Christopher Joseph (CJ) Loria brings a fascinating back story—and a quiet, collaborative leadership philosophy—to his role as the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center’s newest director.