Ash Carter brings on more innovators to upgrade DoD

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is filling in the ranks of a Pentagon sponsored unit aimed at bringing innovation and disruptive thinking to the Defense Department.

LinkedIn Executive Chairman Reid Hoffman, former U.S. Special Operations commander Bill McRaven and the Aspen Institute’s Walter Isaacson will joint DoD’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board, Carter announced June 10 at a Defense One event in Washington.

“I’ve charged them with keeping DoD imbued with a culture of innovation in people, organizations, operations and technology to support people who innovate; to support those creative figures in the Department who are willing to try new things, fail fast, and iterate; and to ensure we’re always doing everything we can to stay ahead of potential adversaries,” Carter said.

The trio will join Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, who is chairing the board.

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DoD established the board in March to advise the department on areas that are familiar to Silicon Valley companies, like rapid prototyping, iterative product development, complex data analysis and the use of cloud applications.

The board will be composed of up to 12 members. They will begin work this summer and have their first set of recommendations in the fall, Carter said.

“These are people who know something about innovation and have actually done it,” Carter said. “I want to learn from them things that we haven’t thought of that would be good for us. I’m not expecting them to know about defense. I know about defense, our people know about defense, that’s not my problem. I would like to know what’s going on in the outside world that I might not know about, that has proven successful, that might be applicable to us.”

Carter said he wants to hear how these “innovators” built their companies, hired the people they needed and succeeded in other ways.

He pointed to the Hack the Pentagon Challenge, which is modeled after industry challenges. It asks hackers to try to breach several public DoD websites to expose vulnerabilities.

“Why hadn’t anyone [in government] thought of that?… It’s essentially free and you get all this talent and the [hackers] are having a great time and you’re getting a security audit for free,” Carter said.

This isn’t the first time Carter has leaned on bigwigs within the tech world. He recently hired Raj Shah, CEO of a cybersecurity startup, to head the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx). Isaac Taylor, former head of operations at Google’s research and development facility is also working at DIUx.

Adding Shah and Taylor to the mix was part of a restart for DIUx after the first iteration wasn’t working up to DoD standards.

Carter defended the restart stating that failing fast and changing direction when things go wrong is what innovators do.

Carter added that it is important to keep DIUx open as a trading post and exchange area between Silicon Valley and DoD.

DoD will soon be opening another DIUx branch in Boston.

Still, Carter admitted some tech companies are still reluctant to work with DoD. The companies fear working with the government might be too “clunky” or might place to many restrictions on them.

Carter said that needs to change.

He’s running out of time to do it though. Carter will leave office with President Obama in January. Some of his innovation talk has taken hold and lawmakers have played along by granting new permissions to DoD to work better with industry and procure technology more rapidly.

But other areas like DIUx have been under scrutiny.

The House version of the 2017 defense authorization bill states the House Armed Services Committee is concerned by DoD’s “pinpoint focus” on one geographic region and the dedication of significant funding at such a nascent period of the development of the organization.

“The committee is concerned that outreach is proceeding without sufficient attention being paid to breaking down the barriers that have traditionally prevented nontraditional contractors from supporting defense needs, like lengthy contracting processes and the inability to transition technologies,” the bill states.

It goes on to say DIUx may have insufficient oversight and coordination with laboratories and engineering centers.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work was put in charge of making sure some of Carter’s ideas on innovation make it into the next administration. Work said he is trying to give as many options as possible in regards to research to the next administration.