The DoD-Silicon Valley Culture Divide

A panel at the 2018 Defense One Tech Summit explored the way forward for collaboration among the two contrasting demographics


“Peace and prosperity are a team sport,” according to Christy Monaco, chief ventures officer with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Office of Ventures and Innovation.

Monaco and other panelists at the 2018 Defense One Tech Summit June 26 discussed the relationship between the national security community and its tech counterparts in Silicon Valley.

The consensus? Leaders in the defense and intelligence communities must learn from the tech sector and leverage cultural practices to keep pace with the bleeding edge of technology—a necessity to adequately defend against emerging adversaries.

“I have a visual I’d like to share,” said Naval Captain Sean Heritage, acting managing partner with the DoD’s Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx).

He reached into his bag and pulled out a black, zip-up hooded sweatshirt (the stereotypical uniform of tech professionals), eliciting laughs from the crowd. Adorned on the shirt’s sleeves was the insignia of a naval captain, four gold stripes topped by a gold star.

“We live in the land where service dress blues are service dress hoodies,” he said, emphasizing DIUx’s desire to merge minds and cultures in the global capital of technological innovation.

Dress code, while innocuous, is an indicator of the differing values that drive decision-making in the Silicon Valley and national security communities. Heather Roff, an associate fellow with the University of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, attributes those differences to the contrasting demographic makeup. While the defense space is primarily populated by older, white men, Silicon Valley is more youthful and diverse.

“[Tech professionals] can show up to work with no shoes on, having not showered, and be completely valued for it … the culture is going to build itself around what is valued, and it’s going to reinforce behaviors that are valued,” Roff said.

When the two cultures clash, collaborative innovation becomes challenging to achieve.

This was evident recently with controversy surrounding Project Maven and artificially intelligent battlefield systems with the potential to aid, directly or peripherally, the taking of human lives. While many in the defense community believe AI has a place on the battlefield and is necessary to protect against emerging threats, some Silicon Valley engineers and developers refuse to allow their technology to be used for purposes they deem unethical. This discord affects the willingness of individuals, and in some cases entire companies, to partner with the federal government, which in turn can stifle innovation for all stakeholders.

Josh Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, urged both sides to find common ground in order to advance AI in the shared interest of protecting America and its allies. As democratic people who respect human rights, privacy, and civil liberties, he said, the U.S. will be called upon to defend those values against bad actors.

“[Adversaries] will use AI, and they will fight at AI speed, and I don’t want to show up with a dumb weapon on a smart battlefield,” Marcuse said.

He acknowledged AI has the potential to be dangerous, and emphasized the U.S. wants to be a safe practitioner.

“I believe the engineers who work with these companies who are taking issue with our approach should be active participants in making sure that ethics and safety are at the forefront of what we do,” he added.

To reach collaborative innovation in intelligent defense systems and elsewhere, Marcuse posited the defense community should adopt two things: speed and risk. Speed with regard to accelerating decision-making cycles, embracing new language and syntax, and adapting the institutional, concretized thought methodologies that exist in the federal space. And risk with regard to adjusting the DoD’s approach to prototype and pilot programs, as well as its approach to failure.

“Failing is okay. Fail forward. Let’s try things, let’s experiment, and let’s learn,” Monaco said.

Moderator Richard Lui, an NBC and MSNBC news anchor, asked the panelists to identify something they wish could be “thrown over the wall” from Silicon Valley to the defense and intelligence community or vice versa.

A popular response was “data.” Federal agencies own unique datasets not available anywhere else in the world, many of which are unclassified. Sharing more of that data with Silicon Valley would be a way to open the door to other forms of partnership.

“And if there’s one other thing I wish could be thrown over the wall,” Marcuse said, “It’s a modern, commercial cloud we can use to do real software development in the Department of Defense.”

To watch video from the 2018 Defense One Tech Summit, click here

Headline Image: Cupertino, Calif., the Apple campus, and the Silicon Valley garage where Planet Labs’ first Dove satellites were built. Photo Credit: Planet Labs

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