WASHINGTON — A group of tech industry heavyweights believes the Pentagon needs to protect tech experts and innovators from the department’s traditional up-or-out career path if the department has any hope of keeping up with a wave of new technologies.

The Defense Innovation Board, or DIB, a group empowered to report directly to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on the best way to grow America’s military technological edge, believes the traditional system simply is no longer viable for meeting technological needs.

Instead, it is suggesting a pair of workarounds that can be built into the existing system: a brand-new career specialization track for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals, as well as a “tech elevator” that would sequester the best and brightest innovators in the department into a special workspace to develop new ideas.

Rebootcamp Recommendations

Since forming more than a year ago, members of the board have spent time traveling and getting to know how the Pentagon operates. While they have made recommendations for changes in the past, the ideas laid out during an Oct. 24 public event reflect a more radical approach, though one that Eric Schmidt, the head of Google parent company Alphabet and the chairman of the DIB, thinks is long overdue.

“The system is designed to allow for exceptions and waivers and things like that, and they need to be fully utilized,” Schmidt told reporters at the event.

Added astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, there will continue to be resistance to change “until enough people recognize that China, North Korea, whomever else is just kicking our ass in cyberspace, in the innovation space, in the tech space. And then it will happen quickly.”

“If you don’t do it proactively, you will do it reactively,” he added. “That’s for sure.”

A STEM career path

While the idea of creating a specialized career track for high-tech jobs was described as a recommendation, statements from the board members made it clear they think it is past time for the Pentagon to move in this direction.

Marne Levine, chief operating officer at Instagram, laid out the rationale for the new career track, saying that a lack of specific career fields for tech experts hinders both recruitment and retention.

Much has been made of the fact that the Pentagon is in a fight with the commercial sector for talent. And with tech companies already fiercely competitive among each other for skilled workers, government simply can’t draw the level of talent it needs.

But Levine argued that a big negative for those experts is also the lack of “a clear and viable career path for STEM specialists,” as many in those fields simply want to do what they are best at, whether it be coding or cybersecurity.

Similarly, those talents who do enter the military often leave early because they find there is no room to grow their specific skill sets, and if they want to be promoted, they need to leave their areas of expertise for an unrelated role — at a time when the Department of Defense’s leadership openly talks about how they need to fill these key areas of talent.

“All of this seriously undermines the department’s ability to build the force that we need to address the emerging technical challenges,” Levine concluded.

The solution: to build a new career track, akin to those for musicians or medical professionals within the military. The fact that similar exceptions already exist was hammered home by Schmidt to reporters after the event.

“Do they take the doctors in the military and then turn them into programmers? Do they turn them into technicians? I don’t think so. Do they take the lawyers in the military and make them doctors and so forth? It’s insane,” Schmidt said. “So it seems to me it’s pretty obvious we should have a path for people who are highly valued and highly technical, and allow them to continue” in those areas.

Several times in his comments, Schmidt seemed bewildered by the way that the military will train experts such as pilots only to force them out of their specializations and into other jobs if they seek to move up in rank.

Members of the Defense Innovation Board listen to comments during a public meeting to discuss innovation opportunities for the Department of Defense. (Cmdr. Patrick Evans/Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs)
Members of the Defense Innovation Board listen to comments during a public meeting to discuss innovation opportunities for the Department of Defense. (Cmdr. Patrick Evans/Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs)

“Where is the logic where you take expertly trained cybersecurity people — we’re short of them — and you transfer them into something that’s not cybersecurity? That makes no sense. That’s analogous of taking expertly trained pilots and making them into something that’s not a pilot. Which they do, but that doesn’t make any sense either. Last time I checked, there’s a pilot shortage,” he said.

Rising to the top

Discussions on the Pentagon and innovation tend to argue that the “five-sided box,” as former Defense Secretary Ash Carter liked to call it, is where innovative thinking goes to die.

However, board member Jennifer Pahika, founder of the nonprofit Code for America, said the problem isn’t a lack of innovate thinkers, but the ability of those thinkers to follow through on their ideas. And as a result, the board wants to create a new cell to allow innovators to experiment, develop and grow their programs without worrying about the up-or-out nature of service time.

While that system has “many wonderful” aspects to it, Pahika believes the setup means anyone coming up with an original concept is forced “to move on from those ideas instead of being able to pursue them, own them and carry them through to fruition.”

Hence the board’s suggestion to create an innovation “elevator,” which would essentially serve as a startup incubator for new ideas. It would be headed by five to seven individuals, drawn from both inside and outside the Pentagon, who would serve as a sort of board of directors and funders to whom service members can to pitch ideas.

If selected — and Pahika emphasized this would have to be a very hard criteria to pass — a service member would be removed from the traditional military career advancement path and now be put in charge of developing this program. And they would stay with that program until it comes to its conclusion, “whether because it was killed and it didn’t work … or because it was adopted and integrated.”

If the idea is adopted, the group taking it up — say, Army Cyber Command or the Air Force’s office for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — would be encouraged to bring the original inventor on as a special adviser to the program, so that the ownership of the idea continues forward.

In theory, this means a junior officer could come up with a new program or concept, be given several years to develop it, nurture it, test it, fail with it, be given the time and backing needed to recover from those failures, perfect it, and then go follow that program and help integrate it into the wider department, all without suffering in their career.

It’s the startup model brought to the DoD, but a model that would only work if high-level leaders buy in and protect the individuals from what board members called “DoD antibodies.” And following that analogy, the goal would eventually be to infect the broader DoD, said Milo Medin, a former NASA official who is now vice president of access services with Google Capital.

“It’s funny, the comment about zero defects — I have not seen any zero-defect systems that come out of this existing process, even though the zero-defect mentality is driving them,” Medin said. “So it is clearly not working the way it is right now, and the question really is how to change that. That would require leadership, which this secretary is putting in place, so we’re hopeful.”

Which gets back to the core argument the board seemed to be making with these ideas: Change is necessary, and it’s time to try something new, even if one skeptical observer at the event referred to the ideas as putting a Band-Aid on a cancer patient.

“I think 20 years ago, if you were slow and bureaucratic and it took a long time to get the weapon system out there, you didn’t fall behind — you just didn’t get to where you wanted to soon enough,” said J. Michael McQuade, senior vice president for science and technology with United Technologies Corporation.

“The absolute reality right now is if we do not substantiate through a series of Band-Aids, which ultimately become culturally inculcated, we will objectively be behind, because the world is moving much, much faster than it was.”