The Department of Defense and Technical Talent

A series of Medium posts based on my new book, “An Approach to Machine Learning in Cyber Defense for the DoD”.

Technical talent… like precious gems
Are we hiring for today’s problems or tomorrow’s? Source.

“Do we react to the problem set and capabilities that we know today… or are generations to come going to have baked in capabilities that we haven’t yet thought about how to leverage, which will make this current world of cyber completely irrelevant?”

Technical talent is scarce. Everyone is feeling this and knows this- from commercial companies like Google to the government agencies of the highest intrigue such as the National Security Agency (NSA). An agency known for its technical prestige and elite workforce such as the NSA is even struggling to find thought leaders in the technical space to remain as researchers and ultimately leadership to lead cutting edge developments in the field. Most importantly, that talent is exiting the workforce long before it can become the leaders we actually need in the field right now- the leaders who can relate to engineers, and leaders who can enforce the right type of culture where engineer-minded young talent will thrive and remain.

The Issue of Non-Technical Leadership

The importance of people who create the workplace culture, embody it, enforce it and lead it will be the ultimate determining factor of whether the DoD can truly break into the technical fields that will alter the world as the internet did but in even MORE technical and abstract depth in years to come. Workplace culture is oftentimes set by those in leadership positions, which too often include those will no technical background and therefore have nothing to work with to gain the trust and respect of employees with technical achievements that do not match those in positions of leaderships’ ideas of achievements.

Islands of Brilliance Amongst Waters of Mediocrity

There is a common saying: “government civilians are impossible to fire.” The fact that this type of statement is followed by a range of chuckles and eye rolls is unforgivable in an organization charged with protecting America’s interest at home and abroad. Why, might you ask, do I start on this seemingly obscure subject?

Contracted Technical Talent

How can we take advantage of how technology automates jobs, and demands technical workers to be agile? Can we automate certain positions to free up engineers to learn more new things? Oh, and how about hiring some gig workers?! Source.

“If applied machine learning was never really part of the company’s core DNA, this tech talent will inevitably try to find a home elsewhere…”

Contracting out talent, therefore, does not fix the problem of mission mindset, which is ultimately one of the delicate pairs of hands that cradles personnel and talent management in the DoD.

“…The Russian government outsources its own technical talent, drawing from what might be considered unconventional areas of recruitment.”

Also, money doesn’t motivate everyone, which leads us to…

Motivation

Flexible work options is another area that significantly plays into not only engineering talent, but talent pools as a whole in the 21st century. Source.

Don’t just offer me money. There is more to life than that.

Engineers due to some weird reason actually care much more about other things: quality of life, work/life balance, ability to pursue hobbies and nooks and crannies of interest unhindered, freedom and independence to get a problem solved however they need to.

Why does stock work?

While stock is, yes, money- what it also does is offer the employee a way out of they find a compelling reason that is more than that stock is worth. This is much better than signing a contract that legally binds you (as a federal servant, literally) for three to four years to an organization or job position. What stock also does is it gives the engineer a feeling of ownership over what it is they are actually about to join.

The mission is cool… until it’s not.

Using national security related language actually proves to slow down job applications when targeting technical talent. How can we fix this? Source.

Lastly… the spirit of the engineer.

Technical talent is leaving the DoD just as quickly as it is rushing in the door (then potentially out again) of large tech companies. The spirit of the engineer is oftentimes missed by BOTH the DoD and the large tech company industry. The engineer wants to build useful tools for people who delight in using those tools. The engineer will continue to roam until he or she finds somewhere where their own flavour of innovation can thrive, unhindered and unfettered. If the spirit of the engineer is not welcomed, they will continue to leave, or never show up at all in the first place.

Margaret Heafield Hamilton- the woman who coded us to the moon. Do you get the itch to create this much?

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