In order to move at the speed of technology, the Government needs to transition from waterfall development practices reticent of a bygone era. This requires young fresh talent and the Silicon Valley savvy they bring with them.
For many of today’s software developers and technologists, working in government is viewed like “doing time” helping the government only to return to organizations offering the speed and culture today’s talent are looking for.
At Rise8, we believe the answer to this is bringing together Silicon Valley savvy and domain expertise under one roof. To discuss this, we brought together colleagues from both sides to talk about the approaches required to transform this culture. Our panel of guests discussed topics and issues surrounding people, process, technology and brand.
Elizabeth Halford [00:00:28] Hi, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us on our first live stream, we’re going to be facilitating a conversation about getting Silicon Valley talent into government tech spaces. I’m Elizabeth Halford. I’m the brand and marketing director at Rise8. And I’m joined by Ramona Jackson, who’s going to be your host. I’ll be in the background producing this whole thing. So if something goes wrong, it’s totally my fault. We are streaming to Facebook, YouTube and Linkedin’s new Linkedin live feature, which is very exciting to me. Comments are open. Please submit your questions as we go and we’ll get to as many as we can at the end. I’m going to hand this over now to Ramona Jackson, who is a Riser here at Rise8 and a product portfolio director for ABMS. That is the Advanced Battle Management System for the Air Force. It’s a mouthful. And take it away, Ramona.
Ramona Jackson [00:01:22] OK, well, welcome, everyone, to this webinar. This is my first time hosting. So if the production goes wrong, I’m definitely going to blame it on Elizabeth. Today, we have a panel of amazing guests who will be talking about this topic of attack attracting Silicon Valley talent in government tech spaces. It’s going to be a great conversation. We’ll dive into some of the internal forces like people, processes, and technology and some of the external forces like brand. We’ll take some questions from you all and we’ll just have a good time and a great conversation. So I think now we’re going to bring on our panelists so that we can get some intros from them. And then we’ll go over some rules of engagement for the time and jump right in. So I think we have three of the five so far.
Ramona Jackson [00:02:38] So we’ll start off with Max. If you could give a brief introduction of yourself where you’re coming from and a fun fact.
Max Reele [00:02:47] Sure. Thanks, Ramona. My name is Max Reele and right now, I’m the deputy commander of the Air Force’s Kessel Run, which is our flagship software development organization within the Air Force that runs DevOps. Software development in the Air Force has been a thing for a very long time, but we are the first people that started doing it as per industry best standards. Fun fact about myself. I love playing poker. I’ve had an opportunity to play poker on TV.
Ramona Jackson [00:03:29] OK? Next person got to be that fun fact, let’s go to Emily.
Emily Kager [00:03:34] Hi, I’m Emily. I’m coming at you from San Francisco. I currently work at Uber on mobile applications. And a fun fact about myself is I create tech industry content on TikTok, even though I’m way too old and mainly just to embarrass my younger siblings.
Ramona Jackson [00:03:53] I embarrass my 14 year old when I try to get on TikTok. OK, let’s get to David.
David Simeon Jr. [00:04:01] And good afternoon, everyone is the new director of National Security Portfolio at Fearless. Prior to this, I worked with us for a little while. We worked with Max and Bryon Kroger and a number of the folks on this one. And before that I was with the federal government for twenty-two years where I was the chief of Innovation, Technology, Citizenship and Immigration Services within DHS. Fun fact about me. Despite my very youthful appearance, I am a grandfather of two and father of five. So I guess that’s a fun fact.
Ramona Jackson [00:04:41] That’s a very fun fact. David, we also are following one another. I too worked for ICF in Active Next now as it’s called. And then I also worked for Pivotal. So I feel I feel like are we following each other? We’re OK. And do we have Amanda on audio? Was she able to do him back in?
Amanda O’Conner [00:05:13] All right, thanks, Ramona. Hi, everybody. Amanda, I’m responsible for the defense and intelligence business at VMware, just making sure that our customers have a valid path to production and the right skills they need to do DevOps in that space. A fun fact about me. I mean, I have two kids under two, so I don’t have a lot of fun facts. That’s my fun.
Ramona Jackson [00:05:37] I was there many moons ago and will return. OK, so quick rules of engagement or approaches as they’re known in these spaces that we travel through. I would ask that all of our panelists listen as much as you speak. We want to make sure that we get all of the great insights from the different disciplines and places that you guys are coming from as questions. As much as you give insights, ask clarifying questions of the other panelists. We want to make sure that we’re all kind of on the same page about what we’re talking about here. But we also want to bring some different ideas to the table. And then lastly, try not to wax poetic or use too many buzzwords. The audience that we have here from Facebook, LinkedIn, et cetera, we want to make sure that they know exactly what we’re trying to solve here and that maybe we can attract them into this space as well. So we have four topics today within this space of attracting Silicon Valley talent into tech spaces. They will be people, processes, technology, and brand. We’ll wrap up with some Q&A and comments from our attendees. But for each of the four topics, what I’m going to do is throw out either a quote or an assumption to generate some conversation, and then I’ll poke you guys to kind of get through some of your different insights. So we’ll start off with people, unless you guys have any questions before we get started. We’re good to go. OK, so first section is on people, so people most oftentimes is the real root of many of the problems that we’re trying to solve as practitioners in our different fields. I pulled this quote from actually one of our panelists. I won’t say who it is, but it says, “My biggest pet peeve in software is not the usage of a specific architecture pattern or disagreeable code style choice, it’s when people gatekeep the field, aren’t kind to their peers, and take themselves way too seriously.” When I first heard this quote, I immediately thought of some Silicon Valley environments. But I also thought that I’ve experienced this in the government tech space as well. So I’d like to get your thoughts on what this quote means to you and how you feel that we have an opportunity to maybe rectify some of these more people-based challenges. And anyone can jump in.
David Simeon Jr. [00:08:14] I’ll jump in. I think the way I look at that quote, having been on both sides, is that within government, you do have like this bureaucracy and bureaucracy is there for a reason, right? I’m listening to at the end of the day, supposed to protect and preserve the interests of the American people and the interests of the country. Right. But with that, there’s a whole degree of formality that comes along with it. There’s a certain set of values. Everything is by rules and procedures. And sometimes that does create a certain type of culture where things are a little bit more, I would say, gets a little bit more serious in terms of that nature. But being on the other side of it, I’ve seen with the values a little bit different, where you could be more transparent, you can be more open with some government sometimes on a need to know basis, only that you have a certain level of clearance that you’re dealing with. So we have conversations by their very nature become very segmented and you’re not able to be as open and transparent and sharing and collaborative because you have different and different budgets. So the bureaucracy in itself sometimes creates. What I have seen, though, within government is that I’ve seen with the introduction of new digital services, as well as more government agencies adopting regional services and the place that come with digital service playbook become a lot more different in terms of the way that they approach the conversation, be a little bit less buttoned-down. I remember coming to work with T-shirts and jeans when I was in (inaudible). Once I saw my friends that worked at Twitter or Facebook, joined the federal government and from Google, they came in and brought a different ethos to the building. And I think over the last few years, particularly since I would say probably around 2011, 2012, I definitely started seeing a shift in the way that government is. And there is a tendency for that seriousness. But understand is a reason why it’s like that is because of the nature of government and bureaucracy itself.
Ramona Jackson [00:10:43] Max, from an insider perspective, what are your thoughts on that?
Max Reele [00:10:48] Yeah, first, I think David was spot on. I think the way that you described that everyone in the government really wants to live by a generative culture and we just can’t help but be bureaucratic. And so I, David, put a really positive spin on it. So I appreciate the way that you framed that I would to go one layer deeper into that. I would suggest that internally within the DevOps organizations of the government, we have been able to create what we think is a government-appropriate, tech sector space with our software labs and with our culture and our core values of ideas over where we’ve really struggled to get that adopted across government space so that ideas are all treated equally. Once you leave, your organization is really in the governance ranks. So across the staffs, because it’s still very much deference to the rank in the room in the senior member in the room gets to be the final arbiter on the decisions, regardless of what the test data has shown. And that, of course, goes against the grain for everything we’ve learned in the tech sector and in the agile communities. So anyway, that’s my perspective from The Insider, but I think David framed it really beautifully.
Ramona Jackson [00:12:09] Now let’s go. What about you, Emily, coming from a very Silicon Valley experience and probably not so much inside of the DoD space. What does it look like from the outside looking in?
Emily Kager [00:12:23] Yeah, I mean, I have not worked in the government as a digital service servant. I guess I actually did do AmeriCorps. So I have some experience with government work in general. Right. But yeah, I think my perspective from at least the Silicon Valley space is kind of what I think about when I think of gatekeeping is not really encouraging newbies or junior engineers in the field, not very welcoming to nontraditional paths or backgrounds and maybe not welcoming to a very diverse set of ideas and experiences. And I’m not sure how applicable that is to government work. I know you have pretty stringent requirements for even being employed, whether that’s a specific drug testing or specific things that have to be on your resume, etc.. So I think looking from Silicon Valley and maybe trying to find things that would apply to government, those are the things that I would look at when I think of it, keeping and being more open to applicants and employees from nontraditional backgrounds or have different experiences. And I think that bringing in people with different experiences always creates a better environment in the short run and the long run.
Ramona Jackson [00:13:29] And then, Amanda, you’re coming from kind of like big enterprise and having a lot of experience working with the dogs across the gamut. What’s been your experience?
Amanda O’Conner [00:13:38] Yeah, I think to get to a place like Max was talking about, like that, that open culture, that willingness to listen, it takes a lot of education. And when we look at, you know, the reason people put up those blockers and they and they stop is fear, right? It’s fear of not having the right security protocol or fear of losing their jobs or fear of not being relevant. So I think if we can build like a culture of education, our culture of learning, where people want to continue to grow and learn and be open-minded, just like you said, Emily, to new ideas, new people, that helps keep that gatekeeping down and keep that fear in check.
Ramona Jackson [00:14:18] Follow up question, then, do you feel like where we may be attracting not the right candidate or pushing off the right candidate based on some of these misconceptions or even some of the more bureaucratic leanings for some of the organizations that are actively recruiting?
Amanda O’Conner [00:14:39] I mean, in in the government space. And David, you can probably speak to this even better than I can, right. In the government space, when you bring on contractors, there are levels of experience, and it’s not necessarily the outcomes those people have produced. It’s the number of years they’ve done the job. And those things are not equivalent. So in that way, yeah, I think sometimes we do look for the wrong, you know, the the wrong solution to the problem.
Ramona Jackson [00:15:08] Definitely. OK, so there’s some some general generational biases possibly in the way in which we recruit. What about with the view of what maybe the outside applicant might see as what people that work in government tech, what they’re like? Any thoughts on that?
Amanda O’Conner [00:15:29] Oh, yeah. That is such a good question. So a couple of years ago, I was sitting in a in a briefing down at Fort Gordon with a bunch of civilians and a bunch of government people. And the General got up and was speaking about what they do at Army Cyber Command. And the civilian sitting next to me, who didn’t know anything about government. He was like, if I had known this, I would want to tried to get into this business a long time ago. I think that there is a bureaucracy that comes with government, but there is a reason for that sometimes. Right? Sometimes. But I think the government doesn’t always do a good job of explaining what they do and the problems they’re solving. And it is a cool thing. It’s not something you can get in industry. Solving mission problems in the way that the government does and protecting national security and the way the government does. You can’t get that anywhere else.
Ramona Jackson [00:16:19] So what are some of the things that we can do to support our counterparts for those of us that are working in the tech spaces to help them with that PR to say, hey, here’s a better way of describing the mission sets, the mission threads that you guys are pulling on and the amazing innovations and transformations that are going on in the space?
Amanda O’Conner [00:16:41] Yeah, I think it’s it’s things like this, Romona, right, like having Max here talking about what he does and what his team does and how his organization grows and how they work. I think that’s the kind of thing it’s the press, almost. Right? The government doesn’t have the same sort of press engine that the commercial world does and helping give exposure and applause to things that are really awesome.
Ramona Jackson [00:17:05] Oh, speaking of press and approvals, I think they’ve kind of tapped on this earlier with some of the bureaucracy talk when you think about the process just to get the press out around maybe some more sensitive topics or things that are going on. A misconception is that it takes years to do what takes weeks anywhere else when it comes to the government. So getting a press release approved to celebrate an achievement within a team, within the government tech space or getting like an agreement approved to work or collaborate even with teams within the government, could take forever. What are some of the procedural or process-oriented things that you guys have seen in working in the DoD tech spaces or if you haven’t worked in that space? What are some of your assumptions about how easy or hard it is to navigate the process? Any first takers?
Max Reele [00:18:15] I’ll jump in on that. Not necessarily one of the vignettes that you just discussed, Ramona, but I mean, with the respect to recruiting people to want to come work in government space, our hiring processes can be so wildly frustrating for everybody involved. And we as an organization that fancies ourselves as a tech company, we try and do as best we can. We run our own hiring events. We, of course, run our own recruiting and try and structure our own job offers. But in the end, the hiring function has to happen all the way up through the chain of the government that we’re responsible within. And we just can’t we can’t close those timelines to be able to recruit and keep some of the best talent. And that has become enormously frustrating for us. And then I know it’s frustrating for anybody who’s watching this call, who has tried to apply with us in the past, where you get like a tentative job offer and we’re like, oh, no, it’ll be another few months before you can have a concrete job offer. And that’s no way to be able to plan your life. So regardless of how excited you are about the mission, like Amanda was discussing, or as excited as you are about maybe being able to get new breadth in a new sector, we really have a lot of work to do to figure out how to make our hiring process better. We have started to figure out recruiting, but the hiring process itself, we have to (inaudible). The CIO for the Air Force, Lauren Knausenberger, she just spoke with us last week about an initiative that she has to really try and close that gap.
Ramona Jackson [00:19:59] David and Amanda, do you guys have similar troubles in just attracting talent to work on DoD projects within your space?
David Simeon Jr. [00:20:12] I would say I haven’t encountered necessarily the challenges, I think the thing that needs to happen when you’re dealing with the government is always to go back to the mission. I think we work with a generation of technologists now that care a lot about doing work that matters and is only focused on that conversation. It’s important to make as much as the government is going to make or government (inaudible). But I find this generation’s technologists -and it’s not necessarily a generational thing- but at least my experience with this generation of technology is that they have a lot more intrinsic motivators. They want to work on work that matters. So I haven’t really encountered the challenge as much. I think, process wise, yea Max is spot on about the process. The hiring process can take a while. Everything from like the background checks, if you go for security clearance, sitting on the bench waiting for a while before you’re actually brought in. But if we focus on mission and keep people warm and good, then things, other opportunities to potentially do work elsewhere, particularly the commercial that if we have civilian projects and things that may not necessarily have the same level of cleance. I find that we haven’t had many challenges in training or recruiting.
Ramona Jackson [00:21:41] Amanda, have you guys found any creative ways to, not circumvent, but be able to still deliver value in the face of process challenges?
Amanda O’Conner [00:21:52] Yeah, that’s a really good question. I can’t say I have a great answer for it. I would agree with David. I mean, I think at VMware, we don’t have a problem really attracting talent. But it is hard to find the right specialized talent that has that desire to support the mission, all of those security clearances, and the strong technology background that we would require. So maybe finding those right people becomes a challenge. But, you know, we’ve all been in this industry for a long time. So you use your networks, you make connections, and you find people that have your same DNA and everything else can be learned. Right. You can learn the technology. You can learn the processes. If people believe in the mission and want to make an impact, like David said, then you can teach the rest of those things. So sometimes we make some exceptions.
Ramona Jackson [00:22:41] Yeah, that’s interesting. I know in my experience there is some hesitation about getting into the domain because it’s assumed like, oh, it’ll be too much to kind of understand the space. But to your point, with the right DNA or the right, like, prototype of individual, that’s a critical thinker that understands research and understands relationships, that it’s that much easier for you to be able to interchange talent and they’ll be able to pick up the domain quickly and be able to solve those problems. Emily, what are your thoughts on that as far as what you’ve seen, as far as process and the speed of change in your space versus what you’ve heard in the tech spaces?
Emily Kager [00:23:24] Yeah, I mean, everyone had really great points. I’ll just kind of build on some of those. So one thing you were just mentioning that you can kind of learn on the job. And I think in most tech spaces, that is one hundred percent true. I’d much rather have someone who’s very eager to learn and interested in the job, who doesn’t maybe have the exact tech stack that we were looking for. So, yeah, I would really encourage everyone to kind of not loosen up your job requirements, but really be clear about what do you need versus what you want, because I think sometimes what you need is kind of different from what you want. So, yeah, loosening. Like maybe you don’t need someone with 10 years of a specific stack of experience, because if they’re passionate and smart, they can pick up those skills pretty quickly. I mean, that’s kind of the nature of tech jobs in general. You’re always learning. And then I also like what David said, that people want to work on what matters. And I think even in Silicon Valley, where people job hunt all the time, that we kind of are seeing that now, where a lot of people maybe it was COVID, maybe was the pandemic, are quitting their jobs to kind of find something that’s a bit more meaningful. They’re kind of tired and working on things that don’t matter, like working on Facebook ads. Right. And yeah, I’ve seen a lot of my friends and peers be leaving their jobs right now for something that matters. So I think branding is definitely a huge point. And then one quick last point. You’re talking about how it takes months just to give the perspective from Silicon Valley. I just went through the job hunting process in February and I got offers within like two or three weeks. So that’s how quickly it can happen out here. Just to give you some perspective, I know that’s not necessarily something that you all can have the power to change. But just to give you a perspective from out here, that’s how quick it’s happening.
Ramona Jackson [00:25:02] So, Emily, what would it take for us to bring you over to the dark side?
Emily Kager [00:25:07] Yeah, I mean, I think well, one good point actually, that I wanted to bring up. I did a bit of research before this and I saw that you actually do have some open source libraries. That’s a huge recruiting thing out here that people want to work on open source. They want to share things that they’ve been building. Obviously, maybe in the security space, it’s not quite that easy. It might take years to get approval to open source a library, but people want to work on open source. So that’s like a huge recruiting tactic that you could use. I would say maybe focusing on niching yourself into a space that Silicon Valley isn’t really exploring. So something like apprenticeships or giving really good internship opportunities where you can then train up those junior engineers to be exactly who you want them to be. I’m sure you’ve done some internships already, but those are just some ideas that really I think Silicon Valley is lacking in.
Ramona Jackson [00:26:05] I see Max about to take a note. Either he’s trying to bring you to the dark side or he’s using all of these insights for his next hiring event. Any other thoughts on that as far as what you guys think, Max, David or Amanda might be appropriate process or procedural things that we could do to help smooth the transition of bringing in the right talent into the space?
Max Reele [00:26:39] Yes, I mean, in my previous discussion point, I was really talking about us hiring internally like government representation and hiring events associated with that. But I think I think the other panel members have discussed even what it would take for them kind of corporately to take on government projects. Right. And so, David, you can probably speak to this really well, because you guys work almost exclusively in the government space. But most of your personnel come from different sectors within industry, and we have been hard customers to deal with. And I know that that’s true. And from David’s CEO Delali, I mean, he has told me in the past, like we choose our customer as carefully as you’re trying to choose us. And so I’ve been asking a lot of our industry counterparts, like, what can we do to be better customers out there? Because I know that we make things difficult when you’re funding timelines and our truncated to like three months of incremental funding or contract periods are cut short due to convenience or other terms. And I’m sure those are just a couple of the things that frustrate you that you may be in open air, aren’t willing to share with the government all that often, but we’d love to hear more feedback on that.
Ramona Jackson [00:27:59] Yeah, I think that is a good segue into the tech of government, because I think a lot of what I hear from I’m not young anymore, but from younger tech practitioners and professionals is that the government is just too far behind. Like, I want to work on something that’s new and exciting and have autonomy and be able to really explore all the things that I’ve learned in college or in my apprenticeships or internships or kind of those first jobs out in the wild. And I’m not going to get to do those things in the government. I’m going to be put in front of some application that’s a green screen and told to patch it up and make it work some more because we’re not getting rid of it. So what are your guys’ thoughts on where technology is and the DoD tech space and what needs to be done to bring it to a place where that it might attract people interested in actually working on it?
David Simeon Jr. [00:29:01] So just so I always find that an interesting comment, what I hear when I hear that from Silicon Valley. One of the things that I always find interesting about it is that many of the innovations that led to the rise of Silicon Valley kind of came out of the DoD and places of that nature. So when you think about, like the iPhone. Right. And the touch screen that came from actually a DoD project. When you think about things like GPS and how do they use it, that’s all right. Now, the Air Force today. Right. There are so many pockets of great technology that’s actually going on within the DOD space. And are the things where they’re behind? Obviously, there will be. They are going to be those kind of things. Yeah, but in many ways, I would say that where the lag is not necessarily just on tech, it’s on the process. That’s why groups like Kessel Run…that was instrumental in some of the tech was really there using open source material to build new applications and things of that nature, the existence of platforms and ways. But it was bringing it together is the thing that was that’s my perspective on what I’ve seen, Max. And then it kind of a little bit more about what you think tech is within DoD.
Amanda O’Conner [00:30:49] Yes, I think that was really well said, like I think there are so many amazing pockets of innovation in the defense and national security. Around branding, people just don’t know that technology comes out of the national security space and the DOD space. No one is ever too far behind to catch up. Like, I don’t believe that. I do think we have to continue to push to focus on outcomes above the technology. We should be looking at those mission workloads. We should be looking at those applications and making sure that they’re achieving what they need to do. And they have to do that on a bunch of different technologies. You’re never going to have one standardized technology across the government. It doesn’t make sense. So, you know, kind of like leaning in on those outcomes will help drive that almost that guiding light of what’s working and what’s not working. But to say that the government is too far behind to catch up, that’s not fair.
Ramona Jackson [00:31:57] Is it more of a PR thing, then, that people believe that because of maybe the experiences they have? With government agencies like the Department of Government Services or other places where they’re like, “man, there’s all of this opportunity for the government to utilize better technologies to make things more streamlined”, that there is a misconception that, to David’s point, a lot of innovative things haven’t come out of the space.
Amanda O’Conner [00:32:26] Yeah, it’s just not quite that simple, I don’t think we’re going to write like there’s contracts that wed organizations to products long term. And when technology changes, the contract doesn’t necessarily allow them to change. There’s colors of money that lock people in on how they can spend what and when. So it’s a little more nuanced than that. Then they just the government just doesn’t want to use new technology, I think they very much do. We see a lot of organizations leaning in on how to bring opensource into their organization in a secure, appropriate way. So like “we’ll agree with the bureaucracy from a security perspective. And you secure supply chain to bring opensource into our organization?” And we see a lot of groups leaning into that. Maybe not at the same speed as Silicon Valley, but they’re working on it. They’re getting there.
Ramona Jackson [00:33:19] What about you, Max, what have you seen in your travels in different programs as far as technology and innovation is concerned?
Max Reele [00:33:26] Yeah, I think we came into it a little nearsighted. So as for the Air Force, I’ll speak only for that sliver of the government. I’ve bounced around in what is considered innovation or software delivery entities for the last several years. And I -just to Amanda’s point about education- I don’t think we had the right education to make some of the architectural decisions that we’re faced with now. So we were having to create a lot of nightmarish tech point-to-point interfaces to legacy systems and that is just a beast and it crushes the soul of your engineers and your product people because nobody wants to be designing for that. So I think we’re waking up to that now. And we’re at a place where we’re trying to put architecture above architectural outcomes, above individual product outcomes, so that we can start to piece together the right API platforms or data fabric that’s necessary and build the right connectors, as opposed to trying to go point to point to all these legacy systems. So that should open the aperture for the modernized software development teams to not have to fight through what is considered traditional legacy government stuff like sitting in front of a green screen or creating an interface off of that. The government is just rampant with legacy monolithic systems that exist out there and a lot of sections of the government, what we’re doing is getting them off of mainframes and moving them to the cloud. But, you know, that’s going to be a slog. Overall, though, I think we have the cart before the horse and now we’re catching up. To and this point again about it never being too late, I think we are catching up. Many of the services are developing their API standards and now they’re trying to do that in conjunction. I’ve been in several sessions recently, and more to come, about exactly that. And so I think that does expose the government or at least in the Department of Defense, the work in the Department of Defense on modernized systems, that it exposes you to be able to just work what you’re trying to greenfield in your modernized system for your users, for the outcomes that those users need to be better at their job. I think we just took too long to understand our architectural shortcomings.
Ramona Jackson [00:35:53] I see some comments about so I know David mentioned that a lot of what we know today came out of DOD projects and programs, but I see comments about how organizations like Kessel Run are referring to Uber for AirPower. And I think other organizations across the DOD use what they would call commercial references or commercial baselines when they’re looking to do modernization or innovation efforts. What are your thoughts on that interplay between leveraging commercial examples for a way forward within the tech spaces and vice versa? Let’s start with Emily, what are some things that you think maybe Silicon Valley can learn from the DOD tech spaces?
Emily Kager [00:36:44] Yeah, I think just to follow up on maybe the last point to Max’s point, engineers don’t like working on legacy systems where they’re dragging through all these interfaces and having to work with legacy code, etc. But I think people are going to be extremely disappointed if they think if they go into big tech, then everyone’s going to be using the latest and greatest tools and beautiful new code and you’re never going to have such legacy systems. Like, that’s just I mean, that’s kind of just the reality of working in tech. There’s always gonna be a legacy system that you have to hook up to, and it’s a huge pain in the ass. And that’s just life as an engineer, right? I will say I maybe have a similar external feeling from someone looking into the government that I would expect the tools to be a little bit slower, I think, just from the impressions that people have that every government computer is like running windows 95 or something. Right. I think that’s kind of what people see from the outside. And when you think about that, like, well, you’d be able to use the (inaudible) do I have to do everything on some random green screen? I don’t even know what I’m working with. So I do think it’s a marketing issue. But I will say a common thing I hear even in Silicon Valley from a lot of engineers is, wow, it’d be so cool to work at NASA like the mission would be so cool. And they don’t seem to care about legacy systems because they know the mission and they know what they’d be getting into. And so I think for a lot of these things, if you’re not building direct-to-consumer apps or services, people don’t know what you’re building and they don’t even know to be excited about it and to overlook maybe the legacy system issues.
Ramona Jackson [00:38:23] There’s the misconception that working in Silicon Valley is going to not have you interacting with legacy systems. And that is a misconception in tech. That’s what’s going to happen. I think one thing that I want to poke on there about what you said about, “hey, I want to work for NASA, I think that would be great. I’m going to be building something for a user that I know and or can see or conceptualize.” There’s a question in the chat about thoughts on the higher purpose draw of the DoD tech space. Like NASA, that’s a good one that you mentioned there. What are some other ways that you think that we might market the purpose of some of these other mission applications that might not be as sexy as NASA, but they still have users like warfighters and operators within the DoD tech space that are serving the American people?
Emily Kager [00:39:20] Yeah, I will say in terms of maybe recruiting directly from Silicon Valley, it might be a hard sell. I think a lot of people here tend to kind of shy away from military contracts. It’s kind of a taboo topic, honestly, to be to be quite honest, that’s a lot of discussions have been going on with GitHub and ICE, etc. And I think obviously, whichever side of the issue you stand on, it’s definitely kind of a taboo topic. So NASA, I think even though they’re working in a similar space, people can be like, “oh, it’s just sending rockets into space. What a romantic idea.” Whereas I’m sure there are a lot of projects that aren’t directly contributing to sending a rocket to space or moon exploration. Right. But, yeah, I think, again, it’s probably a marketing issue. So figuring out how to market your projects in a way that you can via from all the security issues that you’re dealing with, but also. Yeah, appealing to people’s higher purpose could work. Just have to be careful I think is what I’m trying to say.
Ramona Jackson [00:40:17] Hmm. That makes sense. David and Amanda, do you guys have thoughts on that kind of working in enterprise in the tech space?
Amanda O’Conner [00:40:25] Yeah, I think there are some very mission-specific things that happen in defense and security, but there are some very generic things that happen everywhere, right, like logistics are logistics, whether you’re the Army, the Navy or you’re UPS. And those are very intricate, complex data-heavy problem sets that that are ubiquitous across all of those fields. We can probably come up with a bunch more of them. So maybe talking about those in a way that makes more sense, connecting them in a way. And I think in the DoD especially, we get really bogged down with DoD jargon. And it just feels natural for people who have been in that space. We use acronyms and people get lost if you can communicate just normal in a normal human language like using regular vernacular that more people would understand that haven’t been in the military space or been around the military space and might also help you connect with what we’re really trying to achieve.
Ramona Jackson [00:41:28] The alphabet soup, right?
Max Reele [00:41:37] Ramona, I’ll kind of throw this one back at you. I mean, what has your experience been working for military projects, especially in systems where we believe very strongly in the user trust model. And so that means we send the development teams out to the user sites so that they can engage directly with the users that are feeling these pains. And they just want to be much better at doing their job and not fighting with the right systems.
Ramona Jackson [00:42:05] I feel like it’s for me it’s been transformative, like being with a product team on the ground, actually implementing all of the design thinking buzzwords and frameworks that we enable in this room somewhere in some conference room, somewhere with, in my case, Airmen. But actually getting to the outcomes that Amanda spoke about and understanding the real problem and seeing with our own two eyes the challenges that the users have with what they have today and then being able to craft solutions like that, powerful not only for me as like a non-government employee and just a contractor but also for my civilian and Airman counterparts that I worked with. Where I’ve struggled is, as you glide a little bit up the chain away from your first line of defense, almost your product teams that are building applications. And you get into what you guys spoke about earlier, the bureaucracy of trying to connect those teams and connect those systems and create these ecosystems where innovation can actually thrive like that frozen middle and above is frozen, like frozen, frozen. And there’s nothing really there to thaw it. So I feel like, In my experience, there are all of these great things that are happening at the ground level, but it’s staying there and I haven’t really seen it crystallizing anywhere else, but that’s just my experience.
Max Reele [00:43:51] I thought the purpose of this panel was to try to get people to come work.
Ramona Jackson [00:43:57] I told you guys on LinkedIn, I will not mince words, but no, like I said, that’s my experience. I wouldn’t say that it’s not possible. To Emily’s point, I feel like anything is possible with the right person. I think actually Amanda said this. If you bring in people with the right DNA to make change who will come in and understand the domain and build relationships -because I think our first topic today was people and that’s really where it starts- that you could do anything. But it will take time, just like it takes time to change and to get the clearance and your CAC cards and all the other things that you need in order to operate in this space. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take great people. And the biggest thing I’ve heard you guys say today is that mostly it’s a people thing. It’s being able to market and communicate things in the simplest possible terms, not using the alphabet soup and being able to appeal to the purpose of some of the things that are being built, but also to say, hey, this isn’t as complicated as you think it might be. We’re just trying to move this equipment from spot A to spot B, and you’ve done this before when you worked for Uber or if you’ve worked for CSX Transportation, the railroad, company or anything to that effect. So I feel like it’s all ones and zeros, no pun intended, as far as it’s it’s the very basics of communicating things effectively and building relationships with people so that you can see that transformation grow past just the product level with your application teams.
David Simeon Jr. [00:45:38] If I could, I want to just build on things said about the people and that frozen middle and how those changes can occur. When I when I worked in government, when I was working on citizenship and immigration, we were working on a transformation project that I think it was already like 10-12 years old. And still we still were transforming. Right. And we brought in folks from digital services. And one of the young men that worked with me was Eric (indaudible). Eric came from Google. Eric and I worked together pretty closely on a number of things that the administration wanted to do. I wanted to try all the crazy ideas, like I wanted to do A B testing an Eric would just reel me in in and say, you know, David, unless this site is going to do blah, blah, there’s no reason for you to do A B testing. And it took some time, but eventually we got to the point where we had the entire -of course with our CIO being the leader- Mark Schwartz, we were able to actually change the way that agency did business. We changed the way that all the folks that had been in government twenty five, thirty years business. And now today you could look at CIA as one of the more advanced operations that do everything from Serverless. They have to use averages for the API, for an API gateways. They do in our (inaudible), they’re doing pretty much everything. Right. And then that young man that we talked about, now he’s the CIO of DHS. He came from Google. So I think the change can happen as long as you said when you put you have bringing the right people and have them in positions where you can actually make change. And the thing that was powerful about that for us was that they put those folks, we brought them in Silicon Valley. We actually gave them the ability to make the changes and they had top cover from the top leadership of the organization. So then you put those types of conditions in place. It is possible to move that frozen middle to broadening, but it can happen as long as you have the right folks in the right places and as well as the right top corner and support from the leadership of the organization.
Ramona Jackson [00:48:19] There’s a question for you, David, in the chat since you’re speaking, and I think Max has something to say, too. I saw the pen twirl. It’s about the taboo of defense. So Emily spoke to this. I have seen this in other spaces that I’ve worked in where someone says, hey, because of my own moral compass, I’m not interested in working on anything military related. How have you and your team at Fearless navigated that where you might have contractors who may or may not feel like they are able and as individuals work on defense projects? How do you kind of navigate that from an ethics perspective?
David Simeon Jr. [00:49:02] Sure. So we actually have a checklist of things that we go through when we’re reviewing projects. One of those checklists and one of those items includes whether or not we’ll be contributing to the projects we are potentially within with like lethality and kinetic force and things of that nature. So the first thing is we look at the project, right, we take a look at what is it that we’re being asked to do? What is it that the military wants to accomplish here? And if it’s not in line with that, we don’t go after it. We don’t try to pursue that work. However, we have a whole slew of projects that we’re currently working on with the DOD down in Montgomery. Also Kessel Run, where we’re working on projects that are, you know, these administrative systems, these systems that help the Air Force carry out some of their missions that don’t have anything to do with force. Right. In terms of deploying weapons or anything like that. And there’s a ton of that in the military, these things like that. My previous work where we’ve done projects with the Navy, it was about health care, right. Health care, as well as child care systems to allow them to allow mothers, military mothers to be able to have a place for their children to go during the day and be able to match them up with a spot where they could do that. I mean, there those projects exist and they’re plethora of them in the military. So I think it is probably a bit probably a little bit too much of a stretch to think that the military is just only about the lethal force side of it. You also have the military carries out humanitarian missions and things. And it just, I think broadening that aperture a little bit in terms of the mission space that the military covers and helping folks understand, that would go a long way. I think we kind of demystify some of the or at least give away some of the stereotypes people would be attracted to what the military is all about. So that that’s how we navigate checklists first fit that. And secondly, once it is something that we think we will go after, which doesn’t mean we’re not dealing with any sort of kinetic force or anything like that. We pursue it and we work on it and we work side by side with the airmen and people that that work with us in terms of development used in modern ways of building software. The have built mobile development platforms. Right. So they can actually roll out mobile apps themselves. So it’s we haven’t we haven’t come across that. Some of the the challenges, I guess, that folks think we need to present it when it comes to working with the military.
Emily Kager [00:52:05] Just just to follow up quickly on something David said earlier too when you were talking about your coworker who had come from Google, and he kind of had the space and agency to kind of change processes and change the stack and kind of modernize a whole team or a whole process. And I think people have this desire not only to build products, but to build change. And if you can kind of leverage that and give people the space and agency and say you can actually come in and create these improvements and really have the time and space to do this, I think that’s also a really powerful opportunity that you could give people too.
Ramona Jackson [00:52:42] Absolutely. Max, I want to get back to you because I thought you had a thought. Did you capture it?
Max Reele [00:52:50] Yeah, you caught my tell, I guess. Take note of that. In the spirit of kind of why you asked for this panel. I think there’s a couple of just very quick anecdotes that I think are important to share. And they really relate to what David spoke about, too. We’re in the business of a lot of things. Right. So we are the United States Air Force. We do conduct mission for the Department of Defense. But so much of what we do is humanitarian relief or is emergency disaster recovery and disaster response and some of it’s warfare. And and those things all do blend together when you’re talking about air campaign management and what’s the fastest way to load a jet with pods that can do surveillance of a disaster zone or load that jet with weapons that can persecute a target? We’re not going to make any bones about that. Not when we’re trying to bring in people to be our partners on contracts, not when we’re trying to hire people to come in and work in here because everyone has their own moral compass that they want to follow. And if that cuts, if our mission cuts against that grain, it’s probably not the right spot. And that’s OK. Right? We still are excited for you to be a great American somewhere else, some other sector. But the two quick anecdotes I wanted to share are, you know, from our experience working directly with our people directly on the flight line. And these are aircraft maintainers who are their sole purpose is that when a jet lands from conducting its mission, regardless of what that mission was, they need to turn it as fast as possible and have it ready for the next air crew to get in that jet and go. That is defined as readiness, like are we ready for next mission? And you wouldn’t believe the amount of parochial steps that have to go into place and documentation has to go into place to get that jet ready again. And not all of that is maintenance. Most of it is not actual maintenance. So us putting our vendor partners, our contractor teammates out on the flight line, literally, like take off all your jewelry, don’t wear any hats, like you’re out on the flight line, like you don’t want to get sucked into an engine. Like they’re out there with our airmen and even our coders who have never been on an Air Force flight line before. And they’re being shown everything that the aircraft maintainer has to do to turn this jet. Meanwhile, jets are taking off behind you. You can’t hear anything. That’s a that’s a different experience than what Silicon Valley has to offer. Second anecdote is you go back into the conference room after that and you watch them in their debrief. And so then you pull up the app and whatever your your high fidelity prototyping tool is -Figma, let’s say- you call it up the screens and you’re like, what? What about this was like what you were stuck on while you were trying to enter your data. And it’s like, oh, I need a missing a field. I needed this to be an alphanumeric or like just a free text field. You had like a dropdown. I couldn’t find what I needed. So now I have to put in a trouble ticket to get a whole new thing added to the dropdown. It’s like, all right, we’ll fix that. We’re back in two weeks and and it’s fixed or We’re back in five weeks to be realistic in government timelines. And it’s like now pull it up in your app and like your TextField is there. You have a whole new field that you need. The same exact story, literally just different setting happened in my next job here in the command and control facility out in Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and the person’s missing a free text field that they need. One of our designers happened to be there working through their app adoption with them at that time. Calls back over the lunch break they’re Al-Udeid, so back here, it’s nighttime. They literally pushed the probe. Within an hour, he comes back, he’s refreshed the page after page. And this guy’s text field is there. That doesn’t exist in the government. Literally, they have problems and they have stopped asking for fixes because it just goes nowhere and it just takes too much of their time to ask for a fix. But now, in terms of recruiting people to come work in this space, like you can be part of that solution! We are doing that now. And to see the excitement on these operational mindsets, when you change something for them that quickly that they know is just going to make their life that much better. And just like every time we can do that, you’re just building and building and building against that user trust model. That’s very exciting. And to see it in that operational environment, where the energy around you, the buzz around you, whether it’s from jet engines or command control operations going on, like you cannot replicate that in Silicon Valley. You cannot replicate that building furniture at Wayfair. You can only do that here.
Ramona Jackson [00:57:38] There’s the commercial, I think that clip, and we’re going to put it on every channel stream and have you on Netflix, Hulu. That’s how we bring people in – real stories like that. Max, I’m glad that you told that story and I’m glad to have experienced that story firsthand. Being on flight line without my earrings, with my earplugs watching, just go by. But actually seeing a problem and being a part of the solution and then seeing the results of that. Just like that in two weeks and not five. So we are at time for today. There was one other question that I want to get to before we wrap up. I want to see if Amanda can answer this question. So there’s a question about talent beyond American borders and some of the fastest growing tech hubs in the world, Silicon Valley, have a reputation of cherry picking global talent. What has been your experience working with VMware in the DoD tech space and being able to leverage global talent in instances where I know sometimes you can’t, but there are opportunities where you can? Do you have any anecdotes or stories about that?
Amanda O’Conner [00:58:54] Yeah, I think VMware takes a lot of a lot of pride in being a diverse company. So there we do try to leverage the best talent across the world and everywhere we can. Now, when you pull that into government work, there are protocols that the government has put in place right there. Not nothing VMware can control that stop some of that talent from coming into the government space. And that is what it is. There’s there’s security reasons and bureaucracy in place, sometimes for a reason, sometimes not. But when we talk about building technology and building solutions, you do want to source the best talent in the world and then you just need to validate from a secure supply chain perspective. And we do all of our validation in the United States to make sure that it meets US government requirements.
Ramona Jackson [00:59:50] So I think we, I think, captured most of the questions from the comment section. Thank you guys so much for actively participating across the different platforms. I want to give everyone a 15 second sound bite for each of you to give your last thoughts about what you think are our next steps for attracting the right talent. And so I’ll start with Max.
Max Reele [01:00:20] I think I just kind of gave that pitch, but but I think probably we need to get better at our marketing game for how we can explain what the experience is working on some of these federal projects relative to what you get in industry. And we’re excited for people who work in industry, too. I wasn’t trying to downplay that. It just depends on what your passion is.
Ramona Jackson [01:00:39] Absolutely. And then I’ll kick it to David next.
David Simeon Jr. [01:00:44] Yeah, I definitely think from that point, I would say the need to look at the process, expand things such like direct hiring (inaudible) government does have that power, which essentially is almost like Silicon Valley, where you can literally what private sector employer walk up that day. You could be your resume or do an interview. You’re hired. I, I think that’s one of the things I would definitely recommend government look at doing to really speed up the process and also focus on the mission space.
Emily Kager [01:01:22] Yeah, I think you can do a lot to try to capture some of the Silicon Valley benefits that everyone is raving about, whether that’s extending some working situation, flexibility or exploring people with like nontraditional backgrounds and being a bit more loose about the requirements and the hard requirements that you actually need to be hired by the government. I know they can be pretty strict. And yeah, I think just to follow up, like marketing, like if people know what you’re doing and they’re excited by it and they see a cool project and they’d like to get involved, that’s the best way you’re going to find your people, right?
Ramona Jackson [01:01:57] Absolutely. And then last but not least, Amanda.
Amanda O’Conner [01:02:00] Yeah. I mean, I would emphasize everything everyone’s already said, I might add, when you’re building contracts to bring in partners and vendors, build them in a way that’s flexible, that allows organizations to go get that best-of-breed talent and bring it to your organization. And I would say to everyone who’s kind listening, if you think you can make an impact, come give it a try. There’s no harm that can come from coming to try and learning a little bit of a new sector and learning some new, you know, some empathy for the folks on that side of the that side of the fence.
Ramona Jackson [01:02:37] OK, well, awesome. Well, thank you all so much for participating in this panel. I’ve learned a lot from you all. I hope that all of our viewers have learned a lot. And I hope that we continue these conversations on all of the social platforms as we, I don’t know, maybe get a CMO in here to market the old tech spaces better and bring in the right talent. So thank you guys again. And hopefully we’ll talk again soon.
David Simeon Jr. [01:03:06] Thank you.