Mr Wilhelmsen has been Technical Director of the NATO Communication and Information Systems Services Agency (NCSA) since July 2009. He has considerable national and international scientific research and management experience in the areas of command and control (C2) systems, Air C2 System (ACCS), electronic warfare and defence communications.
Mr Wilhelmsen has been married for almost 20 years to a Turkish lady.
What exactly does the NCSA do?
The NATO Communication and Information Systems Services Agency (NCSA) provides information technology (IT) services to help NATO fulfil its missions.
IT in NATO has 3 dimensions: horizontal, vertical and time.
The NCSA is the network operator, the Belgacom of NATO. We provide the network, connecting all NATO’s locations inside the 28 nations, and we also connect them to the operations that are on-going. We worked in Libya recently, we are in Afghanistan, and we are still in Kosovo and Bosnia, in Iraq until 2011, in the horn of Africa due to the anti-piracy operations. We help also to protect the maritime traffic across the Mediterranean Sea. So we go from the capitals of the 28 nations; we provide network, communication and data services, information technologies; we are acting like the chief information officer organisation of NATO. So, horizontally we go all way down to the troops operating in the field.
But we also support from the bottom, meaning that we operate the fibre optic pipes, the transmission circuits, everything that connects everybody, all the way to the information used in applications. We affect every function or services, and also the activity of people. For instance, the operation planners use tools to plan operations; intelligence officers share intelligence information. There is a vertical “stack” as it is named in IT lingo. We also call it the TCP – IP or Internet Protocol stack from the transmission protocols to the data standards used in web services etc.
The time dimension means that in NATO we start scientific research, looking at new technologies and operational requirements to the definition and implementation of projects and then we operate the systems through their lifecycle. The first part of this timeline is managed by another agency, the NC3A, in which I used to work before (until 2009). NCSA then takes over the implemented systems and operate them. In 2012, they will combine the 2 agencies, and we will be a big organisation, a bigger structure. NCSA is about 4,000 people, and there’s about 1,000 people working in the up-front activities.
You started to work in the IT sector in the 1970s, i.e. at the very beginning of the modern development of this technology. Now, the world has completely changed, IT is everywhere; everything is managed by IT. How do you perceive this evolution?
Throughout my whole career I have been very lucky to be a part of what I could call, from the IT point of view, the biggest revolution in our history. I feel very privileged to have been on the front line of this. Now, I look to the young engineers and professionals that come out of the IT sector, and see how great opportunities are for the future. The next decade will be the decade of information technologies, moving in to the centre of everything.
Today’s kids could even be called “digital natives” – they are born digital!
I have been lucky to be involved in all of that since the beginning. And it was really the beginning because I started my Master degree in electronics in 1970, and through the next 40 years we have been achieving a significant amount of progresses.
A few months ago, I read an article saying that the amount of technological development in the last decade is equal to all the technological development since the beginning of humanity!
It depends –if you think about it in terms of electronics. In 1967-68 the microprocessor revolution started. Then the co-founder of the Intel corporation, Mr. Moore, established the “Moore’s law” which says that every 18 months everything doubles: the number of transistors on the chip, the speed of the processor; and you have half the cost for the same memory size. It has been true since 1968, and it seems exponential! Now it is starting to be physically difficult to put more transistors on a chip – it comes down to the atom and molecule-levels! Nowadays, devices like a simple mobile phone are more capable than the main frames computer that I used in the 1970s! You can record this development as a phenomenal thing!
You have worked in many different regions, in very demanding sectors. What would be your suggestions and advice to young professionals who want to work in the IT sector?
I would like to give actually 2 messages to the young professionals in the IT business. The first is passion; the second is commitment. Passion has been my fortune – I have been fortunate to work with things I am passionate about for 40 years!
The passion I have is for the values of our societies and the need for us to protect democracy and protect the freedom of our people; and do it in ways that can be stimulated with my other passion which is IT! We use IT to promote peace, stability, prosperity and people’s development. You see how the Internet has been able to open the access to information that may be part of the causes of the Arab spring: it is a fabulous thing!
So I am passionate about IT and I am passionate about the development we are able to achieve in IT over these years. And I am passionate about how we can use IT for the good of our societies and our people. That has been one of the biggest success stories, and I feel good about having been part of all of that all over these years. I can mention a few things I have been lucky enough to participate with.
I was born in 1949 – the same year the NATO was founded by 12 nations. Throughout my life, NATO, as an alliance, has grown up to 28 members – and countries are still joining NATO.
It was in 1968 when I was doing my military service within the Norwegian army as an officer and the Cold War was at its ”hottest”; the Russian tanks were entering Czechoslovakia. The years up to 1988 were the most important period for the original mission of NATO. NATO aimed at protecting the Western World’s security and safety. During these years I worked for defence industry developing IT systems primarily for the military. Fortunately, everything ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, of the Berlin Wall and the enlargement of the EU. Many former Warsaw Pact members and Soviet Republics are now part of NATO.
In 1994 when the Balkan crisis was at its crest I was in the defence research environment on the NATO side. We faced a terrible situation in former Yugoslavia and NATO was asked to help re-establish peace. NATO had never been doing anything similar to that. It had simply been guarding the back door against the Russians. Fortunately, in our laboratories we had the prototype Internet-based implementations that could be used to support the missions in former Yugoslavia. We built our protected Internet and we used it to allow 60,000 troops to move in and to settle the conflict without killing anybody. Various software and communications network were developed in order to share the information. The most important things at that time were e-mails, simple database systems and the early implementation of the web.
In 2003 we started the next chapter with the war in Afghanistan. I am going back to Afghanistan now for the 20th time in January; I will be spending 3 weeks there. I go there in order to help implement IT in order to support Afghan people and to help them to establish peace and democracy. Stability will allow the possibility to improve the livelihood of the Afghani people.
The commitment for me means not to be a quitter. I really feel that if I step into something I believe in, I stay on it and I do not give up. A good advice for a young professional could be: do not give up! As long as you fight for something you believe in you have all the chances and the opportunities in the world to succeed in. It has been a theme for me all over all these years.
Why did you choose information technology? In the 1970s it was an unusual choice, wasn’t it?
I lived in Norway and my father was an engineer in the geology area. I spent some holidays working in his laboratories and then I wanted to study at the chemistry department of the Norwegian Technical University. But then I decided to get first rid of my military service before going to the university so I decided to apply to the officers’ school in the Norwegian Army Signal Corps instead of being a simple soldier. That was in 1968 when the situation in Czechoslovakia happened. The interest in information technology and communications caught me. So I started my studies in 1970 and I obtained my Master’s degree in telecommunication in 1974. The choice was actually triggered by seeing what the information technology could do in a military environment..
When I finished the University I joined a fairly large company. The parent company at that time was called ITT (International Telephone & Telegraph) and the daughter company was called the STK in Norway. It was one of the many companies that was bought by Alcatel in 1985 and became part of Alcatel. I worked there for almost 17 years.
My choices were easy because I was very lucky to be in a very fortunate position. It was the beginning of the Internet and the microprocessor revolutions. There were small teams; we were about 40 at the beginning. We developed one of the first digital communication networks in the world, the pioneer digital network based on microprocessors. There were the breaking times of the microprocessor revolution, digital revolution, digital network and so forth. Up to 1985 I worked together with them as the main project developing the capability which later became the foundation for the Norwegian Defence Digital Network.
I was lucky to be a part of this early phase because it allowed me to build an understanding of IT from the “bottom”. I escalated the hierarchical levels pretty quickly and I became one of the youngest vice-president of the ITT/Alcatel environment. Is I was only 36 back then in 1985. It was very good for me because it gave me the chance to do what I like on the technology side while working together with people to bring new things as well.
From 1985/88 my division was responsible for “digitalising” Norway. We brought in the digital communication systems and the digital switches that we use for telephony. Norway is a small country with 4 million people but we had 1 million lines of digital telephony by the time I finished the job in 1988.
And then I went to Turkey because the Turkish PTT wanted me to contribute to the development and implementation of the plans and the architecture of the Turkish defence networks. I worked on it for 4 years. This resulted in a very good collaboration with Norway and Turkey and also led to what is now the Turkish digital network for the military applications, the TAFICS.
After a period in the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, I came to NATO and have worked there from 1994 onwards.
I have been able to follow what I like which is to work on technologies I like, working with things I have a passion for and seeing what these things achieve as well as leading people to do things that are fun! I have been lucky to do all of this!
So, if I sum up, the key factors to your success are passion, commitment…
Yes, and working with interesting people! I think the multicultural aspect is very important to mention in my life and my career.
I come from a small country, we are proud of things we are doing, but we are also humble when it comes to understanding that we are small in an enormous machinery. We quickly learn to work in another language and to work with people who have different backgrounds. We try to achieve something together and we set common goals, we give the possibility to everybody to share the same passion… even with different backgrounds. It is one of the greatest things when you are working in a multinational organisation like NATO, in my opinion. Those factors have given me the opportunity to succeed and I have been very fortunate to be able to do that.
Would you advice young people to have these kinds of multicultural experiences?
Yes! I cannot enough stress how much it is essential! If you live in Central Europe you live in a multicultural setting; so it almost comes by itself. But some people stay out in the side wings of the world and are locked-up in their own cultural background and historical references. It’s important to have historical references and background but it’s important to show tolerance and understanding. Tolerance and understanding are the most important things in this world. We had so many bad examples in the last hundred years with wars that came as a result of a lack of understanding of the values of multiculturalism.
An absolutely terrible thing happened this summer in my country. It confirms exactly the importance of sticking with the value Norway has chosen with the adoption of a positive attitude towards multiculturalism. But in all societies there are counter-forces that look to create closed communities. It is very harmful; it has caused most of the sorrow that we have seen in the world in the last 100 years. This pain has been caused by the lack of understanding of that. At a personal level it is extremely important.
How do you perceive the evolution of the IT sector now and in the future? Where are we going?
We are at the crossroads. Now collaboration among people is commonplace in social networks and activities that are stimulated by information technologies. You can now do things that you could never have done before; you have access to information sources that you would never have had access to before. All these things have created a revolution in the workspace, a revolution in the social sphere, and made life completely different from what the previous generations were experiencing.
You have to find ways to put that to good use, and you also have to make sure that it creates more happy people! It’s important that Information Technologies serve a purpose. The key challenge is to understand the purpose for the future. Therefore I think that we must now make the information technology the enabler of the successes we are looking for in the future! IT should not be only a commodity like the electricity or water or something like that. Information technologies can do so much for societies; we saw it in the Arab spring. It can promote equality amongst people; it can stimulate talents from where it comes from. It is important that these days, despite the economic and financial crisis, we look positively to what we can achieve in productivity gain and positive value with the use of IT.
I cannot think of any sector that has had this amount of quantum and paradigm changes. Aircraft, for instance, has not changed that much: in 1900, the Wrights brothers flew for the first time, but since then it’s the same thing with faster, more comfortable and safer planes! Information technology has moved ahead of everything else.
The Internet is probably the most important social and societal change that has happened in our world.
I was working in this field in the early 1980s when the Internet started up, with the first TCP-IP protocol – the core of the Internet. We discussed that a lot where I was working, we developed solutions for that; despite that in Europe we wanted to take other paths… The US wanted to develop a TCP-IP-based Internet and we were looking to ISDN, which was more a controlled and more managed, information technology. That died because of the potential of the freedom of the Internet and the way the Internet could step ahead because it was not centrally managed but contrary, was open. Everybody contributed to it so it grew together like an organism.
Technology seems to be a way to spread democracy. Do you think IT can be a proper means of spreading democracy, equality and social responsibility? What do you personally think about social responsibility and ethics, both in the professional life and in the IT sector?
When I was in charge of the NATO C3 Agency, I had the opportunity to spend some times in Afghanistan and I had to deal with several things. First thing was that the NATO science committee established a collaboration programme with Afghan universities, the Afghan-Silk Road project. It aimed at bringing the Internet to universities in Afghanistan. They set up a network of satellite based links to the Internet at the universities and provided help for them so that they could include IT in their teaching and more importantly access the Western World’s academic networks.
On the other hand, we also witnessed the misery caused by the war in Afghanistan. We started a social organisation inside the agency named the “Children of Afghanistan”. During one of my trips there I visited an orphanage and a refugee camp where 400 families were living in very poor conditions just before the winter receiving with very little help. We collected money and winter clothes and we sent it to help the people. We were only 400 colleagues, but we were able to send 80 boxes of winter clothes, warm shoes and useful things for the children. When you see the potential in people that had such a bad luck in their lives with so little help, then you understand that the human aspect as well as technology are both as important.
NATO aims at providing security and at supporting organisations that provide assistance, or development aid etc. It is difficult not to be inspired by the same ideals, the same will as people who are engaged in this kind of projects!
When I was a child I had a hero, Fritjof Nansen. He was a Norwegian athlete, scientist, a Polar explorer and also a diplomat. He was born in 1861. He had this combination of social commitment and scientific background. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for the work he did for the refugees after the First World War. He was the first High Commissioner for Refugees in the League of Nations, of the predecessor to the United Nations.
He stands for what I consider to be the important elements of social engagement and I want to live up to something like the kind of things he did. Fritjof Nansen was the first man to cross Greenland and he was the first to study its ice cover from a scientific and geographical point of view. He developed an “always-forward attitude” burning bridges behind him and making then sure there was no retreat. He crossed Greenland from the Eastern side facing the Atlantic Ocean, a terrible and uninhabited place. He and his team crossed the island on skies to the West side where people live. When they were doing that he was sure there was no way to come back, no return path and he had to go forward. He made the choice not to have a plan B; there was no option to fail. It has taught me a lot and has made it sure that success is the only option. Don’t make the option to retreat easy when you want to give up.
This issue is very closely linked to the economic and financial crisis we are currently facing in Europe. Mr Barroso has stressed that at the bottom of this there is a big social crisis which is linked to corporate and personal social responsibility. This kind of initiative has to be developed in order not to endanger the future of Europe. The EU institutions have well understood this issue and try to get their staff involved!
I do agree that there is a lot of contradicting elements around us. Capitalism has brought us a lot of good things but it has also driven us to a very egocentric and self-supporting lifestyle. We are loosing the perspective of what we can do for our societies. Some countries have social-democratic solutions and they try to help those who do not have the same amount of incomes but in my opinion, communism is not the answer. The answer is benevolent capitalism or socially engaged capitalism. You need to stimulate the entrepreneur spirit, the spirit to create things that will bring growth and values in the society. You must do it under a social umbrella; an umbrella of social conscience.
Once I talked with the CEO of a well-known bank in the Netherlands. He said that we are not actually facing an economic crisis, neither an ecological crisis but actually an “ego-logic” crisis. Our egos are at the centre of all of our problems.
It’s a good point! That is why we need a different form of motivation and have a social aspect in mind when we do certain things. We should not do things just for the fancy car or the great materialistic life we want to have.
As individuals we need this kind of instincts. At EPN we try to promote volunteering amongst professionals. It can bring happiness to everyone.
I agree! When you are dealing with the kind of work we do have in NATO you need to have a sense inside you that serves a purpose that is good that goes forward together with your personal success. It’s important to create environments where people can get inspired to do good things that also benefit others.