On Friday, December 2, 2016, the ACG National Capital membership, along with other local business leaders and technologists will come together for the Washington Technology Showcase.
The Showcase, which has been themed, “Building the Innovation Bridge,” will feature local small, startup and emerging growth technology companies that are working on innovative and exciting new technologies for both the public and private sectors. It will also feature panel and keynote discussions from some of the local areas top thought leaders and decision makers, discussing some of the different technology fields and areas that are seeing rapid innovation and growth, and the government’s process for acquiring these technologies.
One of the moderated discussions during the Showcase is entitled, “Innovation and Technology in the Government Acquisition Process.” And, one of the participants in this discussion is Dr. Bill LaPlante, the vice president of the Intelligence Portfolio in the National Security Engineering Center, a federally funded research and development center that MITRE operates on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. LaPlante to discuss the technology priorities of the federal government, the government acquisition process and what attendees at the upcoming Washington Technology Showcase can expect to learn.
Here is what he had to say:
Corporate Growth, Capital Style (CGCS): The theme of the upcoming Washington Technology Showcase is, “Building the Innovation Bridge.” What innovative companies, technologies, and solutions are we seeing emerge in the National Capital region that are garnering attention from public and private sector IT decision makers?
Dr. LaPlante: In the DC area, the good news is that our marketplace for technology solutions is thriving. Today, we’re seeing a concentration in anything related to cyber, cyber security, automated hunting for threat analysis, quarantining, etc. We’re also seeing a lot of innovation in companies offering big data analytics as a service, autonomous systems and more recently, solutions around the Internet of Things (IoT). When it comes to the IoT, we’re just getting our arms around the potential implications for cyber. Recently, major sites like Twitter, Netflix, and PayPal suffered a significant outage purportedly due to a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack against Dyn’s Domain Name Service infrastructure, using connected devices.
Federal CIOS are navigating through all of these tools and issues. They’re coming to realize that our contracting, technology development, and deployment processes are too slow and, candidly, we’re just not as fast as our potential adversaries. They’re actively looking for solutions and, specifically, looking for companies that demonstrate that they can deliver quickly.
CGCS: What trends and challenges are federal agencies and military branches currently focused on? How are these ongoing programs, technology trends, and challenges impacting IT investment across the government? Are these consistent across the government?
Dr. LaPlante: The first trend we’re seeing is that, not surprisingly, budgets for IT infrastructure are on the decline. This is forcing most agencies to migrate their infrastructure to the cloud in some fashion or another. The Intelligence Community (IC) is ahead of the Department of Defense (DoD) in moving to the cloud, and civilian agencies are even farther ahead than the IC and DoD.
This is a good thing since it reduces costs and also provides a stable platform for rapid application development and innovation. I see two larger challenges that will come about as a result of this migration. First, can agencies quickly build or acquire the killer apps that take advantage of all the cloud has to offer, like fast access to data that was previously unavailable? And next is the user. Are we investing to make sure we build interfaces and experiences that provide maximum benefit and usability?
The other trend is a focus on cyber resiliency. Everyone is realizing that no matter what cyber security you’ve put into place, it’s probably not enough. But how do you improve cyber resiliency in a cost-effective way? It’s clear that our systems are fragile. You don’t have to look too far to find reference examples in the media, the recent OPM hack for one. The more you look into our legacy systems and the vulnerabilities, the story doesn’t get better. Fundamental to all of this is the need for solid resiliency metrics, which currently don’t exist.
CGCS: How has the role and use of commercial technologies in the government and military changed? Are they seeing more adoption across the government? Will this trend continue?
Dr. LaPlante: If you look back to the push in the late-90s through the Clinger-Cohen Act, I would say it’s a mixed bag. Many of the leaders who advocated for it were disappointed with the pace of adoption.
Today we’re seeing a renewed push through the National Defense Authorization Act to make it easier to use commercial technologies. Even in the IC they’re using commercial cloud in a classified domain. Where the DoD struggles is how to couple the desire to increase commercial acquisitions with requirements to pay a fair price.
With emerging technologies—where there isn’t a vibrant commercial market just yet—it’s a challenge to convince auditors that you’re paying a fair price. The other issue is: if we can buy commercial, then our adversaries can too. So how do you integrate commercial technologies while still maintaining your competitive advantage? The key is to figure out which technology components we need to keep as government-only and where we can augment them with commercial technology to get the best of both worlds.
One positive trend is that we’re seeing greater recognition that open standards and modular systems are the way to design systems. Open standards shouldn’t necessarily be dictated by the government; for example, 802.11 isn’t a government standard but it’s widely adopted.
CGCS: Has this impacted the relationship between government and industry, and the way government and industry work together? If so, how?
Dr. LaPlante: We’re seeing an increased interest in tapping into the speed and innovation of the commercial sector through programs like the Secretary of Defense’s Silicon Valley outreach (DIUx) and organizations like In-Q-Tel. Many agencies have similar outreach initiatives; they’re just not as well known. For example, in my former role as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions, we hosted a collaboration with George Mason University called PlugFest “Plus” where we brought companies together to look at a problem set we had around the redistribution of multi-level data. Participating companies were able to come in and demonstrate their capabilities. When you add fast-contracting mechanisms like Other Transaction Authority to the mix, these types of efforts provide a powerful platform to introduce new capabilities to agencies that they can quickly acquire and deploy.
It’s important to note that the business case for the transaction needs to be evident on both sides. The government needs to look at everything from contracting, to pricing, to competition, to open standards to build the best acquisition strategies. Industry needs to look at the fact that most of the money spent on solutions isn’t spent on development, but on procurement and sustainment. Commercial firms that aren’t accustomed to working with the government will need to factor total lifecycle cost into their designs and proposals. If they haven’t factored in ease of sustainment and upgrade, they’ll be at a disadvantage.
CGCS: You’re going to be one of the speakers at the upcoming Washington Technology Showcase. What can attendees expect to learn from the showcase? What will you be speaking about, specifically?
Dr. LaPlante: There are three things I’ll emphasize. The first is the harsh reality that we’re finding that our technological and operational advantage is being eroded. Our potential peer adversaries have watched us for 30 years. They’ve studied us to identify our “seams” in cyber, in space, in the electromagnetic spectrum. At the same time, we continue to acquire highly complex systems that are fragile, slow to build and deploy, and expensive to sustain. We must reverse this trajectory.
Second, agencies need to partner with industry to accelerate the pace of innovation and inject simplicity, interoperability, and speed into our acquisition processes. I’ll share examples of how companies with the best technology solutions can get engaged. For example, over the last six months, MITRE has executed our first UAS challenge, and our IoT challenge is under way. Challenges are a great way to enable companies to show off their products to government and sponsors in real-world scenarios. But it’s not just technology, for technology’s sake. Think about solutions like autonomous systems. Just because you make a system unmanned, for example, it doesn’t mean you’ve made it cheaper or better. We need to find the place where autonomy truly makes the difference, and then use humans for what humans are best at, and automate those things that are best suited for automation. This is one small example. Companies need to be able to answer why their technology improves mission outcomes.
Lastly, I’ll share key recommendations for companies that are just getting started:
1. Seek out the parts of the government that are trying to move fast and deliver quickly to their customers.
2. Find opportunities to demonstrate that you can deliver something of value at their pace or faster. For example, imagine how compelling your value proposition would be if you could say that in a 45-day sprint on software you can raise the cyber hygiene of a system.
3. Hire carefully: “A’s” hire “A’s.” “B’s” hire “C’s”. The best people seek out the best companies and sponsors.