Michele Weslander Quaid '94M

Merging technology with national security

“I thrive on tackling big problems and challenging the status quo,” says Institute of Optics alumna Michele R. Weslander Quaid ‘94M.

She has done so at the nexus of national security, domestic and foreign policy, and technology during a nearly 30-year career in industry and government that included stints with Google and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

She describes her career as “an adventure, affording me the opportunity to collaborate with amazingly talented people of diverse backgrounds and cultures, from corporate boardrooms to combat zones, to build purpose driven networks and achieve outcomes against the odds.”

Now, after founding her own company, Sunesis Nexus, in 2015 she places “special emphasis on mentoring and sharing insights to encourage and inspire current and future leaders to explore their talents, follow their passion and find their purpose.”

Raised by a single mom

Weslander Quaid grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. She never knew her father and was raised by a single mother who only had a high school education and recognized that a good education would establish the foundation to enable her daughter to succeed.

So she enrolled Weslander Quaid in the top school in the county -- Santa Barbara Christian School -- where she attended kindergarten through 8th grade.

Her mother then decided they would move to Seattle, WA.

There Weslander Quaid was inspired by her high school physics teacher, who saw in her the passion and drive to succeed. She won the science award and was valedictorian of her high school graduating class.

Fascinated with space since childhood, Weslander Quaid dreamed of being a part of the US space program someday and traveling into space. "Though some people believed that my success would be limited given my disadvantaged demographics, I was blessed to have a family and teachers throughout my education who saw past that and believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams," she says.

Weslander Quaid earned a bachelor of science degree with a double major in physics and engineering science, cum laude, from Seattle Pacific University in 1991. For her senior project, she did a study in optics and decided to pursue that field for her master’s degree. Weslander Quaid chose to attend the University of Rochester because of its top-ranking optics program and generous financial aid package.

Early work in national security

While still in graduate school at the University of Rochester, Weslander Quaid was recruited by Eastman Kodak, an Industrial Associate of the Institute of Optics. She started working in the National Security community in 1992 as a development engineer and image scientist initializing satellite imaging payloads and optimizing the image processing chain for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Weslander Quaid also worked closely with image analysts at what is now known as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to understand their needs and determine the best technological solutions. Those insights led to the development of new and improved products and processes.

Recruited to become a member of the NRO’s System Operations team, Weslander Quaid led high priority projects as a systems engineer at Harris Corporation. She identified opportunities for technology insertion and tool integration and established an electronic data sharing capability for scientists and engineers at distributed locations thereby increasing productivity.

Recognizing that the best way to understand customer’s needs is to interface with them directly and to live for a while “boots on the ground” in their operations, Weslander Quaid supported various military exercises. She took the insights she gained to adapt and apply technology to address customer requirements, and provided input to the intelligence agencies that led to new and improved products for the warfighters and national decision makers.

Recognizing that innovations in the IT industry were outpacing the technology available within government, Weslander Quaid wrote the charter and helped to establish and run the NRO’s first-ever rapid prototyping capability, which led to more timely technology insertion and integration in support of operations worldwide while a senior systems engineer at Scitor Corporation. That rapid prototyping capability evolved and is now used across the National Security enterprise, and the distributed architecture she developed became the model for operations globally.

Weslander Quaid established the Operational Data Services Element and the Virtual Archive Portal providing web access to data and enabling new enterprise services. These systems have been in operation nearly 20 years and are considered mission critical. Her innovative technology applications proved to be prescient solutions for operational needs, and Weslander Quaid achieved the highest technical executive leadership rank in the company due to her visionary leadership and high-value contributions to customers, becoming the youngest chief engineer in the company’s history.

She became recognized by government leadership as an expert leader for cross-discipline information sharing and community collaboration initiatives, which resulted in more timely and relevant support of customers worldwide. Weslander Quaid became a cross-agency spokesperson to the highest levels of leadership and speaker at various events.

Post-9/11/2001, Weslander Quaid was recruited into public service to lead change, innovation, and organizational transformation, and became one of the youngest people ever sworn in as a senior executive in the US government.

The ‘Warrior Goddess’

As a government official, Weslander Quaid led the cultural and technical integration of the national security community, establishing and serving in senior leadership positions including: deputy technical executive for NGA; intelligence community deputy chief information officer (CIO) for the DNI; chief technology officer (CTO) and deputy CIO for the NRO; and, the DNI’s senior representative to the Secretary of Defense’s Intelligence - Surveillance - Reconnaissance (ISR) Task Force leading information sharing and collaboration initiatives in support of global coalition stability operations. Her perspicacious leadership—both in industry and government—has had a lasting positive impact on the US and its allies, and her support of the troops both at home and abroad earned her the call sign “Warrior Goddess.”

“After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Weslander Quaid worked nine years at various national security agencies, shaking things up by dropping archaic software and hardware and convincing teams to collaborate via web tools,” wrote Vanessa Richardson when Entrepreneur magazine listed Weslander Quaid among the 7 most powerful women to watch in 2014. “Basically, she treated each agency like a startup to transform the sclerotic federal agencies for which she worked. She standardized platforms across agencies and streamlined a technology-testing and procurement process that reduced time and costs—all cutting-edge ideas among the closed fiefdoms of Washington,” Richardson wrote.

Weslander Quaid’s success caught the attention of Google Inc., where she was hired in 2011. She served as the CTO for Public Sector, helping the leadership of government agencies determine the technological paths they wanted to follow to achieve functional capabilities, and helping Google employees understand the needs of public sector clients. Weslander Quaid also served as the chief innovation evangelist representing Google as a keynote speaker at events worldwide.

After four years with Google, she founded her own company, Sunesis Nexus, in 2015.

Weslander Quaid is a communicator, certified professional coach, and independent consultant, who works globally with both the public and private sectors, using her experience and expertise in executive leadership, strategic planning, coalition building, technology, innovation, leading change, organizational transformation, and operations.