Inside the U.S. Defense Department’s New Tech Startup (P.S. They’re Hiring)

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Defense Digital Service Eric Fanning Army Chris Lynch

Former Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning (left) announces the creation of the Army Digital Service at a recent event at General Assembly’s NYC headquarters, alongside Defense Digital Service Director Chris Lynch and journalist Jeff Jarvis. Photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Crisp.

National security and cybersecurity are growing concerns for many Americans, especially as talk of hacking and digital espionage dominate headlines and rattle daily life. Protecting the country and developing tools to keep citizens safe are top priorities for the U.S. government, and, in recent years, it has turned to top tech talent to rapidly innovate, problem solve, and find security vulnerabilities. This is particularly true within the Department of Defense, whose progress its staffers admit has been slowed down by outdated tools and processes that lag behind private tech companies’ capabilities.

That’s where Defense Digital Service (DDS) comes in. Since launching in late 2015, the program — a branch of the government’s tech startup, U.S. Digital Service (USDS) — has worked on projects involving cybersecurity, veterans’ medical records, cutting-edge GPS systems, and more. DDS’ cybersecurity initiatives Hack the Pentagon and Hack the Army (known as bug bounties) invited civilian hackers to search for vulnerabilities within five public-facing government websites, then rewarded them in cash for their findings.

Now the Army has its own dedicated team called Army Digital Service, which launched in December. Continuing the pioneering work of DDS, it will leverage tech expertise to solve inefficiencies related to Army recruiting, veteran affairs, and more. Earlier this month, Air Force Digital Service launched as well, and the team’s agenda is currently in the works.

Even with ongoing changes and many uncertainties in the new White House administration, all signs point to USDS and its sub-groups moving forward as planned.

DDS Chief of Staff Reina Staley confirmed with us this week that, while the administration has changed, “Our mission remains the same: to solve critical technology issues within the DoD to improve services for our civilians and uniformed personnel and the country as a whole.”

“Our mission remains the same: to solve critical technology issues within the DoD to improve services for our civilians and uniformed personnel and the country as a whole.” — Defense Digital Service Chief of Staff Reina Staley

Matt Cutts, a Google engineer who went on leave from the company to act as USDS’ director of engineering, announced last week that he had resigned from Google to serve as USDS’ acting administrator. (The previous administrator, Mikey Dickerson, was a political appointee who stepped down on Inauguration Day.)

In a January 18 blog post, Cutts said, “Working for the government doesn’t pay as well as a big company in Silicon Valley. We don’t get any free lunches. Many days are incredibly frustrating. All I can tell you is that the work is deeply important and inspiring, and you have a chance to work on things that genuinely make peoples’ lives better.”

At a recent event at General Assembly’s NYC headquarters, we got the inside scoop on the government’s efforts to modernize technologies within the Department of Defense. Renowned journalist, media professor, and public speaker Jeff Jarvis led a discussion with then–Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning (another appointee whose term ended on Inauguration Day) and DDS Director Chris Lynch, a tech entrepreneur in his first government position. The group explored the challenges of modernizing the Defense Department, the importance of bridging the civilian-military divide through tech, and the value of doing impactful work.

And yes, Army Digital Service is hiring. Staley confirmed that the team is still actively recruiting for positions within both Army and Air Force Digital Services. The roles “span across our four core competencies: engineers, product managers, designers, and ‘bureaucracy hackers,’” she said, the latter being the department’s preferred name for its strategy and operations staff.

Watch our video of the entire panel below to learn more about U.S. Digital Service’s programs. Read on for highlights from the insightful discussion. (Comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Defense Digital Service Director Chris Lynch: A good way to think of us is like a SWAT team of nerds. We come from our own lives into the heart of government to work on problems of impact.

Jarvis: The military used to be far ahead on many technologies — now the consumer world is far ahead. What are the skills and areas of expertise that this program is going to bring you?

Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning: The Department of Defense 40 years ago was leading the way on a lot of technological innovation, and that’s flipped. Part of this is about getting people who come from a different background — who are in that world where they’re iterating, refreshing, and moving faster than we are — to help us modernize. It’s not just in the technology space or in the digital space; we need to think about that across the entire department.

Jarvis: What kinds of people are you looking for?

Lynch: We bring in people who don’t fit the mold of what the government has by itself. We have developers, designers, product managers, and what we call bureaucracy hackers. We want the best of tech to come out and do a tour of duty — come out for six months, a year — and work on something that matters, then go back to where you came from and tell other people about it.

“A good way to think of us is like a SWAT team of nerds. We come from our own lives into the heart of government to work on problems of impact.” — Chris Lynch, director of Defense Digital Service

Jarvis: How long are you committed to Army Digital Service? What’s the life like?

Lynch: Six months to a year is the average. People will often take a leave of absence from the company they’re working with. We talk about how anything we do after this couldn’t be remotely as impactful as what we do right now. The first thing I worked on was a system that collects medical records for when people leave the DoD and go over to the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs). Doctors were scanning forms in a file format that would never go over to the VA — they would just silently fall off the face of the earth. And these could be the forms that were required for you to get chemotherapy. So, when I say you can literally come out and work on something that could save a life, that is true.

Defense Digital Service Eric Fanning Army Chris Lynch

Lt. Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, commander of U.S. Army Cyber Command (right) speaks with journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis at GA’s NYC headquarters in December 2016. Photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Crisp.

Jarvis: Mr. Secretary, you’re a political appointee in incredibly interesting political times. If someone says, “Working with the government right now?” how do they see themselves fitting into this behemoth of the U.S. government at this time?

Fanning: The issues we’re targeting with Army Digital Service aren’t related to the election — they’re related to what we’re seeing our adversaries doing, combined with old ways of doing business that we need to change. That’s going to survive the presidential transition.

This is a little bit like saying we need oxygen when we say we need people like Chris to help us with projects and force us to think differently. Another important outgrowth of this is that people coming to do this work and then going back to their companies increase dialogue and understanding to help us build a more permanent cyber force.

Jarvis: I understand none of this work involves weaponry, but there’s a huge infrastructure that’s involved. What’s the range of the impact you’re going to have?

Fanning: We’re starting with things that aren’t the weapons platforms to see how this works, but I would like to see this eventually across the board because we need help all the way from things that impact the lives of soldiers and families to our weapons platforms.

“There is certainly no confusion that the adversary has gotten very creative in how they’re using digital electronic warfare to impair our ability to penetrate whatever battle space there is.” — Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning

Audience member Jon: It’s great to hear senior leaders talk about this, but how are you getting the lower levels on board to change the thinking behind what you do?

Fanning: There are lots of reasons why this work is important — bridging that civilian-military divide, new ways of thinking about workforce and accessing talent — and I see a lot of enthusiasm on it. And it’s getting those quick wins, which Defense Digital Service has done, that show everybody we need to do this. There is certainly no confusion that the adversary has gotten very creative in how they’re using digital electronic warfare to impair our ability to penetrate whatever battle space there is. I don’t think the [lower levels] need convincing because we’re showing them in their training and in war games what can happen to the Army when someone employs some of these tactics against us.

Jarvis: Chris, you were a serial entrepreneur. How is it coming to something where you don’t have to worry about the market, revenue, and venture funding?

Lynch: I don’t think it’s that different. I showed up at the Pentagon and we didn’t even have an office. We were supposed to be a team of three or four people and now we’re 22. I would like to say we’re on a pretty decent Series A right now.

The reality is that we will all expire. I have a two-year appointment. And that expiration helps keep in your mind that if you waste your time there, it falls on you. You will leave the building and I promise you will say, “I worked on something that mattered and I didn’t waste my time.” That expiration helps us focus intensely on a problem set.

Audience member Chris: The government contract process is intimidating for prospective hires. Are you thinking about changing that process?

Lynch: Working with the government is really hard, so we’re doing baby steps. Hack the Army is a crowdsourced bug bounty. It’s novel and unique in a couple of ways. When we did Hack the Pentagon, there wasn’t really a model to have a crowdsourced activity where people could lend their skill sets back into the government. All of this revolves around this idea of just doing things, taking the things we learned, and taking it a little bit broader the next time.

From doing Hack the Pentagon, we now have a vulnerability disclosure policy. Right now researchers can tell us if there’s something wrong with one of our systems and we won’t threaten them. That’s a good thing. We want to know our vulnerabilities.

Defense Digital Service Eric Fanning Army Chris Lynch

Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, Defense Digital Service Director Chris Lynch, and journalist Jeff Jarvis at GA’s NYC headquarters, announcing the launch of the Army Digital Service. Photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Crisp.

Jarvis: Mr. Secretary, does that end up changing your view of how people should work in the Army?

Fanning: Yeah. This excites me for a number of reasons. Nobody thinks we can recruit, train, and retain the cyber workforce we need in the ways that we do for the rest of our workforce. So I think this is a great way to experiment. It’s not just that we have these incredible problems or opportunities in the cyber world, but I think we can learn a lot about how we access outside talent and other forms of talent beyond our traditional workforce.

Jarvis: Whether it’s a hackathon or a bug bounty or crowdsourcing, besides coming to work for Army Digital Service for six months or two years, are there other opportunities?

Fanning: I’m hoping this is a model we can expand in other ways to break down the barriers between the Pentagon and the world outside, particularly as technology is being developed, fielded, and iterated differently now than it was four years ago.

This is a way to get at problems that are causing huge headaches for soldiers and their families and link to real operational requirements for us in the field. But it’s also a way to experiment with doing things differently. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says we’re not looking to break down the wall, just punch some holes in it so we can get some interaction going that we don’t have now.

Jarvis: How open can you be about publishing the problems you have so that people can come to you with solutions?

Fanning: Right now all the projects are unclassified. People are asking, “Why would you invite people to come and hack you?” We say, “Well, there are quite a few people doing it anyhow.” I would rather have a friendly person tell me where I’m goofed up than have someone in a basement in Russia find it first. A lot of the projects we’re working on are commonly known bureaucratic headaches that can have a significant impact on people’s quality of life.

“If you think about how difficult all this is and you have an opinion about how to form your government, come out here and help change it.” — Chris Lynch, director of Defense Digital Service

Jarvis: When you leave this, what new worldview do you take with you?

Lynch: This is hard work. If you think about how difficult all this is and you have an opinion about how to form your government, come out here and help change it. There is nobody else who can do that besides you. You have these opinions, thoughts, and skill sets.

When I go, I will have an appreciation for how tough this is. It’s a mission focus — that’s the reason you come out here. But I have a complete appreciation for how difficult and how large the scale is.

Jarvis: If someone wants to apply here or elsewhere, how many are you hiring? Where do they go? When would they start?

Lynch: usds.gov. We’re part of United States Digital Service. We all hire off the same pipeline of candidates. On our team we’re looking at probably about another 20 people, which would put us I guess on our Series B.

GA Co-Founder Matt Brimer: President Obama did a press conference about our response and understanding of Russia’s influencing of the U.S. elections and some of the cyber attacks. With Russia stepping up their involvement in such a massive and now publicly known way, does that change your strategy around Army Digital Service’s needs? How do these new revelations impact your needs and the projects that are going to come out of your work?

Fanning: It’s not any one part of the U.S. military, or the government for that matter, or private industry. It’s all of America and it’s heavy on our minds. It’s why I’d love to see this grow to work across the military. When we get to weapons platforms and classified worlds, it’s going to be complicated to make that work. But this is everything for us. There are soldiers in 150 countries around the world today as we sit here. It’s not just U.S. Cyber Command, it’s not just our Army Cyber Command — it’s the entire military.

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