Dan: Let’s start with a get-to-know-you question: Say one word that describes you… and then say some more words about it.
Niall: One word is probably optimizer. I’m very analytical and like to be sure about things. So I’m always considering my options to make sure I’ve picked the best one. I love doing a lot of research but I also try to avoid overthinking things or spending too much time on research. Sometimes I succeed in that…
D: How did you end up at MITRE?
N: I first heard about MITRE from my dad when I was a kid. He was an Air Traffic Controller who worked with MITRE and always had good things to say about the people. Then in grad school, I interviewed with the company and got a great offer. Two years later, I’m still here!
D: What did you study in grad school?
N: I got an MS in Information Security Policy and Management, at Carnegie-Mellon, which is a fancy way of saying I studied cybersecurity. While I was there I also took a few courses in design thinking, and that’s a big part of how I got involved with the Innovation Toolkit.
D: Aside from working on ITK, what else do you do at MITRE?
N: I mostly support Public-Private Partnership and Acquisition projects, helping to translate technology into requirements and building strategies. But the ITK work overlaps a lot with my day job – it’s fun to pull design thinking and ITK into the cyber-type work, whether it’s cyber testing or program protection.
D: What’s it like to be part of Team Toolkit?
N: It’s great! We all have so many diverse skills and backgrounds, which is really cool. As someone whose primary expertise is in the cyber realm, I can definitely empathize with people who don’t automatically feel like they are part of the design thinking crowd, or maybe feel like these methods aren’t really for them. Because of my background, I can help show that ITK is really for everyone.
D: How might you explain ITK to someone who’s not really familiar with things like design thinking or innovation?
N: I’d say these are tools that help adults be kids again. They help us tap into a more creative mental mode. These tools change our speed, exercise a different part of our brain, and ultimately make us better problem solvers.
D: Do you have a favorite tool?
N: Yeah, I really like the Premortem. And Mind Mapping. And Problem Framing. So I guess I have three favorites, but they’re all sort of related. Too often teams jump right to a solution or end up being busy for the sake of being busy. These tools help make sure we know what the problem really is, and they give us permission to have really important conversations we might not otherwise have. Conversations like “What problem are we really trying to solve?”
D: One of the things Team Toolkit does is celebrate failure with cake. Do you have a favorite flavor of Failure Cake?
N: I like failure cake that tastes OK. All too often failure does not feel OK, so I’d love it if failure cake was an OK flavor. Maybe vanilla? And let me add that if Team Toolkit was a cake, it would definitely be my favorite kind of cake: Funfetti, with all the colors and flavors together. Confetti is my favorite thing.
D: I borrowed that last question from when your wife Kaylee interviewed me, and this next question is from her too. If ITK were on the cover of a major business / innovation magazine, what would you want the cover to look like?
N: I’d want it to be an art montage by Lane Smith. He’s the illustrator who did Stinky Cheese Man, and I really like his visual style. It would be so cool to see how he would represent Team Toolkit.
D: Final question – is there anything else you want to tell the world about ITK?
N: It’s such an amazing team, and I hope more people can find themselves on teams like this. Everyone deserves this at least once in their lives!