Mastering the fine art of innovation

Last byte | A conversation with Amy Alving, SAIC's chief technology officer

Amy Alving has seen U.S. science and technology innovation from all sides.
Alving put her 1988 Princeton University doctorate in mechanical and aerospace
engineering to use first in academia. In 1997, she turned her attention to
the government sector, becoming a White House fellow serving the Commerce
Department. She soon joined the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
and became director of the Special Projects Office. In 2005 she joined Science
Applications International Corp. In December 2006, she became chief technology
officer. Alving recently spoke with Washington Technology associate editor
Michael Hardy about her perspective and experience.

Q: What qualities did you see in SAIC
that made you want to work there?

Alving: At DARPA, [because] it's a
funding agency, it gets exposed to all
the companies doing research and
development. I had a good view across
all of industry. What always intrigued
me about SAIC was the innovation and
the quality of the work that came out of
the company. That, plus the integrity of
the company, was what drew me.

Q: Which of your attributes do you
believe can contribute to SAIC's mission?

Alving: I've always been the sort of person
interested in finding out how the world
works. How do the parts fit together? What's
out there that explains things we haven't
understood? For a company whose first name
is Science, that character of trying to understand
science and how it can be used to a
greater good [is what I bring].

Q: As a student, what led you to go into a
technical field in the first place?

Alving: I didn't know much about engineering,
but everybody told me because I liked
math and science I should consider physics or
engineering. I stumbled into it, but I found a
home. I like a job that
involves trying to understand
the world.

Q: Innovation can come
through academia, government
and industry. Having
worked in all of those sectors, how do you
think they should interact to provide the best
environment for technological and scientific
innovation to flourish?

Alving: They fill different roles. When I was
working for DARPA, our charter was to pose
the challenges and put up the funding to
develop the solutions for those challenges.
But it wasn't to develop the solutions ourselves.
That was industry's role.

Q: There are fears in some quarters that the
United States is losing ground to some other
countries in innovation. Do you think this is
happening, and if so, what do you think
could strengthen U.S. innovation?

Alving: It certainly is a problem. What has
kept this company strong is in large part its
technical innovation over the past 100-plus
years. There's a consensus we need to continue
to rely on that in the future. How to make
that happen is the subject of some debate.

Q: Who influenced your career or taught you
principles that continue to guide you?

Alving: I've been fortunate to have had a
number over time. When I was an academic I
had a mentor, Gordon Beavers, associate
dean of the Institute of Technology at the
University of Minnesota, who made it his job
to show me the ropes and help me understand
what was going on. One of the best
pieces of advice he gave me when I was an
assistant professor was, "Amy, you need to
learn when to say no." That's a message
that I've carried with me
throughout.

In taking the steps to
become a White House fellow,
there again a mentor played a
key role. A much more senior
friend of mine, Wilson Talley,
then chair of the Army Science
Board, called me to tell me about the White
House fellowship and get me involved.
Without that phone call, I never would have
known about the program and my career
would be very different today. I have a whole
series of stories like that because of people
who care about the generation coming up
after them and make an effort to connect people
to opportunities.

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