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An Interview with James Donnellon, NESDIS CFO and CAO

Monday, May 24, 2021

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, which pays tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and are instrumental in its future success.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, NOAA’s James Donnellon left South Korea when he was a young child and has spent most of his life in the United States. He has always been interested in both finance and the sciences, so it seems appropriate that he ended up becoming the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Administrative Officer at NOAA NESDIS

As NOAA celebrates Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we sat down with James to learn more about his story.

 

 

How did you first become interested in finance? 

I'm not sure that I could ever pinpoint one specific event, but growing up, I always enjoyed following the stock market. Plus, my dad was actually an executive in the federal government, and budgeting was a large part of his job. I guess I always had a desire to understand how the federal budget worked as well as understand more about global finance and budgeting in general.

I also always loved the sciences, and received college degrees in both business and biology. So the combination of those interests led me down this career path. 

 

How did you end up working for NOAA? 

I actually started off as a consultant in various forms, working with state and local governments, as well as the federal sector. One of these places was the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where I did budgetary and financial work alongside scientists who were trying to cure a number of things, such as deafness and various communicable diseases. I had a great deal of satisfaction working in a science-based environment. 

I’d originally planned to go into the private sector, but after the events of 9/11, I knew I wanted to move into the federal government so that I could help from the inside out, if you will. So, I took a position at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where I did budget and finance work for a number of years, and when an opportunity presented itself to come to NESDIS, I jumped at it. 

I feel like working in budget and finance has allowed me to get into other areas I am interested in too. I have a strong desire to learn more about global climate change and how that will impact us all as we head into the future. And obviously, I’m very interested in protecting the environment for the sake of my son’s future. I love the NOAA mission and all the passionate people who work here. 

 

Since it is Asian/ Pacific American Heritage Month, what has your experience as an Asian American been like at NOAA? 

I think one of the great things about working at NOAA is that there's such a promotion of diversity and inclusion. Our Assistant Administrator at NESDIS, Dr. Stephen Volz, has been a really strong advocate for the various initiatives we have going on through the organization, and others through the Department of Commerce. 

I am the chair for the Diversity and Inclusion Council here at NESDIS, and we've got a number of passionate employees who partake in those activities. So I think it's been a really good environment here at NESDIS and NOAA. We work with such a diverse group of people who have all kinds of backgrounds and skill sets, and that has really been great for us and the organization.

 

Do you have any role models, whether Asian American or not, that you really looked up to throughout your career?

A name that sticks in my mind is a woman named Patsy Mink. She was a Japanese American, and the first woman from an ethnic minority group to be elected into the United States Congress in the early sixties. And, I feel that trailblazers like her, especially being a female minority, inspired many more folks that followed. I think she had quite an impact on Asian Americans across the United States.

 

What would you say are your proudest accomplishments during your time at NOAA?

Well, there are many things that I’ve had an amazing opportunity to be a part of, but I am particularly proud of really building up the personnel and the structure within the CFO and CAO environment. I would say that the CFO and CAO group has really talented individuals that should be able to sustain our organization for a long time to come. 

We’ve also had hands-on involvement in helping with the reorganization of NESDIS, and taken a leadership role in advocating for resources at the various stakeholder levels, all the way up to Congress. I think we’ve really laid a good foundation for years to come for NESDIS. 

 

What sort of advice would you give aspiring students who are interested in finance or the sciences, particularly for Asian American or minority students who might have limited access to stem initiatives?

I think it’s important to always keep the door open to possibilities and try to get involved in different projects. Just immerse yourself in various opportunities and never say no to an opportunity to get involved in a project. Even if it's not in your comfort zone, there's always a support area. 

I think that that's one of the great things about budget and finances. It bleeds into so many activities that you help support, even if you're not necessarily hands-on with the technology itself. It does give you a great opportunity to learn more about technology and the supporting infrastructure that's necessary to keep an organization like NESDIS up and running and to be successful.

 

So what do you like to do in your spare time outside of work? Do you have any hobbies? 

Let's see... in my spare time, I love almost anything with a motor, like action sports. I love all kinds of automobiles, but the one I was always obsessed with growing up was the Dodge Viper. I now own a 2001 model, and on occasion, I take it out for some fun and I enjoy wrenching on it during a nice day.

People who know me well would also say that I'm obsessed with racing—Formula One, IndyCar, MotoGP, things like that. I also love tinkering with cars, taking them apart and then fixing them up, and understanding how engines work. So although I can't wrench on a satellite, I try to wrench on an engine, automobile, or motorcycle. 

I used to race motorcycles when I was much younger and my body was in better shape! I do still like to ride in my spare time though. And then, if I can, I do things like exercise and just try to get my mind ready for the day.