Kevin J Scheid discusses his career to date and his plans for the NCI Agency as the new General Manager.
"How old were you when you got into the White House?" I ask the NCI Agency's new General Manager, not unimpressed by his extensive CV.
"12,"he replies deadpan, not even a hint of a smile on his face to give away his obvious wit.
We're halfway through the interview, and Kevin Scheid hasn't missed a beat. Quick on his feet yet careful with his words, he is not one to be caught off guard.
But as he takes up his new role, the Pennsylvanian native agreed to chat with the Communicator to reveal how he ended up in the hot seat, and his future plans for NATO's cyber and tech arm.
So is the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency headed for a radical makeover with its first American national at the reins?
"I plan to take the first 90 days, like most new heads of large organizations, and do some deep-dives in some key areas, to make sure I understand the status and state of the Agency…
First, I'll hold deep dives in the areas of finance and the customer-funded regime, personnel management and the contract issues and how that is progressing, in acquisition, as well as the management of the organization. Do we have the right management structure for the Agency? Following that, I'll do the same for major programmes and projects.
And then, what I also want to do is put together a small transition team to help me get an independent, objective look at how the Agency has evolved over the past five years. This team will be made up of people from inside and from outside the Agency, as well as some consultants that have particular skills - a small group. For six to eight weeks, they will dig into the same issues that I will be looking into and then give me their independent views on them."
Kevin Scheid is not exactly new to NATO. Between 2009 and 2012, he held the joint titles of Deputy General Manager, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Acquisition of one the Agency's predecessors, the NATO Consultation Command and Control Agency (NC3A).
He may have left The Hague five years ago, but his work with the MITRE Corporation – which he describes as an organization with "a similar model to the Agency but with much more overhead funding" – and his recent stint overseeing the new NATO Headquarters IT programmes, have given him more than a good understanding of how things stand.
"I don't believe you can delegate strategy and I don't think you can delegate change management. So in the first 90 days, I want to put together a new strategy with the Agency Supervisory Board (ASB), with the Directors, and with the Agency at large.
After my deep dives into the Agency functions, I will work with the ASB to develop a five-page strategy with goals and objectives that we can realize over the next three years."
Why five pages only? "Brevity is key – you need to have that."
He may also have been inspired by another American civil servant, Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense. "There is an example where Bob Gates, who was then the Deputy National Security Advisor to General Scowcroft, wrote a memo which came out on the day of [Bush Snr's] inauguration to set up the whole structure for the National Security Council process.
It was five pages and it covered all the contingencies, all the various committees etc. And from that day forward, it never changed.
That is the difference that experience in public policy makes, because they know exactly what they want. They know this because they have seen before what worked and what didn't work." Scheid could easily argue that he has also seen what works and what can be improved after his 32 years serving in the US government. He spent 11 years at the White House Office of Management and Budget, supporting three administrations, before working with the US Intelligence Community for a decade. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was asked to serve as a senior Team Lead on the 9/11 Commission, which made recommendations on reforms of US intelligence.
Most recently, he served in the US Department of Defense in the positions of Deputy Comptroller and later as the Assistant Deputy Chief Management Officer within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Doing the maths
"As a budget examiner for the Office of Management and Budget, you learn to ask tough questions and gain quick insights into federal programs. I then had the pleasure of working with the US intelligence community where I had oversight of large, multi-billion dollar programmes. Sometimes I didn't do well, sometimes I did. I've learned a lot over the years.
I was the Deputy Comptroller of the Department of Defense at a time when NATO was engaged in Afghanistan and the US was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, both going simultaneously, so the US would spend 500 billion USD just running the military and then we spent an additional 160 billion USD annually at the peak of the two wars. So we were spending nearly 700 billion USD a year on those efforts."
The NCI Agency has a budget of roughly 1 billion EUR a year, how can that even come close to comparing with the previous figures Scheid has had to juggle?
"The skills are still the same, and I don't mean to be trite, but the zeros don't make a difference to me.
The NATO Nations are careful with the money they invest in these projects, so every Euro is important, every Euro is dear and we have to get the most out of it. And I think it's one of the big challenges in this job. How do we work to help secure Europe with the resources that we have?
As the Nations invest more in defence, how can NATO and the NCI Agency play a thought-leadership role in guiding some of those investments?
Because if we work together as we collectively invest, there is a multiplier effect in the way we can spend the money."
The NCI Agency's top man has always had a good head for numbers. Well before he was responsible for national and organizational budgets, Scheid worked hard to put himself through college.
"I actually worked for four years after high school. It was essentially because of finances. In the US, you pay for college, it is not subsidized to the same extent as in Europe so students and their families pick up most of the bill.
My family lived outside of Chicago when I finished high school. I worked the first few years in a Marriott hotel there, and then eventually I moved to Austin where I had family and took a job in an IBM factory, building typewriters. And just down the street from my student apartment was a dormitory where a young man named Michael Dell was living.
Dell started building computers in his dorm room and now that whole area where the IBM factory was is all Dell factories. He's had a very different career path than I…" Scheid took up to three part time jobs to finance his Undergraduate Degree in Economics and later his Graduate Degree at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs, at the University of Texas.
"I managed the apartment building I lived in for the owner. And I was a computer operator which distantly ties to what I am doing now."
Serving the public
Like Dell, he could have started his own company, so why aim for the White House?
"I have always been inspired and moved by public service, I enjoy it and I don't get the same psychic benefits from corporate work. That's why, although at the time I wasn't driven by public service, I entered the LBJ School of Public Affairs, because they had a very good international programme.
And I had an opportunity while in graduate school to work under an excellent professor who was focused on international trade and defence issues… He helped me get an internship working at the US embassy in Thailand.
Thailand at the time was immersed in security issues related to Cambodia and the Thais had requested the purchase of a squadron of F16 [fighter aircraft] from the US. The question the ambassador had for me during my internship was: 'If they buy this, what is the impact on the economic development for Thailand? What is the impact on the population?' So I did some economic analysis and that got me initially interested in defence issues."
Shortly after completing his internship, Scheid fulfilled his ambition of getting a job in Washington, and within three years, he was back working on defence issues. One might wonder why he didn't stay at the Pentagon given his attachment to public service and his obvious dedication to his country.
"The Department of Defense is a very large and complex organization and there are lots of excellent people there. Here at NATO I have found not only excellent people, but a challenging environment due to its international aspects.
I am a strong believer in NATO and I am a strong believer in getting the Nations at the table to work through their problems.
For NATO to be successful, you need all its entities to work well together, and once you have this, you can really change the world.
And that's not a trite conversation or point. Look at the work NATO has done in Afghanistan, look at the work it has done in the Balkans, look at the work it is doing right now in the Baltics just to preserve the peace and to project stability. I think NATO has a great mission and the NCI Agency has a great mission within NATO."
Staying the course
Scheid plans to stay "annoying close" to the Agency's three main locations – Brussels and Mons, in Belgium and The Hague, in the Netherlands – in the coming year to keep project delivery under control.
"This is part of what I'll be looking at during the deep dives. What is the performance of our projects and programmes? Where do they stand? Are we doing everything we can to deliver on time and on budget?"
But he also intends to regularly meet with the Agency's 30+ CIS Support Units (CSUs) across NATO, as they are an "integral and critical" part of the Agency.
Given his transatlantic connection, he intends to build closer ties with Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, and with the US and Canadian governments.
"I just want to make sure we cover North America and we also need to find a structured way of engaging with other governments on a regular basis."
He has already set out big expectations and it is also clear that the Agency's new boss is a man of strong principles.
"When I was 11 years old, I gave up meat and it scared my parents, they didn't know what was going on." He may have been a schoolboy at the time, but he was already determined. And so, he stuck to his decision.
"Then as an adult I realized I simply don't like meat and I don't need to eat it with all the options we have now with fish and vegetarian dishes."
As people acquire more responsibility, maintaining a good work/life balance becomes more difficult. Health is often the first casualty of a thriving career.
Reaching new heights together
"I do not have particularly good habits. I enjoy working, I am single, I don't have a family and I am a bit obsessive at work which is not healthy.
Knowing that, I am trying to get some balance by exercising a lot and that's where I got into mountaineering and climbing a few years ago. And the climbing is less important than the months of training that lead up to it and that's where it pays off health-wise.
As I hit some critical birthdays, it sort of reminded me I needed to take care of myself. Mountaineering is tough on the body, I've had altitude sickness a few times. It's a real personal challenge.
All you're doing is putting one foot in front of another. It's very simple in principle but it's very complicated when you try to climb at higher altitudes. And there's nothing gray about it, it's either black or white. You train and you train and you prepare, and you either make it or you don't.
I like that clarity about it, because there is only one spot at the top, so you work to get to the top. There's not a lot of clarity in modern life, but with climbing it is clear. Climbing is also a team sport. At higher altitudes, you are roped to your team members and you either work together or you fail."
Unsurprisingly, his attitude to sport is not far off his attitude to business.
"They're dependent on you, you're dependent on them and you have to work together as a team…
A lot of what we do with the Agency, a lot of what we do in business to achieve big things, means working as a team."
So while he may be permanently assessing the situation and the people in front of him, and he may ask some tough questions, Scheid really is a team-player.
"I want to walk the halls and meet people on the first day. I want to engage with people directly so that they know they can talk to the General Manager, and the General Manager hears what they are saying, knows what they are doing and that there is connection there."
So be ready for that knock on your door because Scheid intends to move mountains with your help.