Pentagon’s CDAO aims to scale ‘different operating model’

The Pentagon’s new chief digital and artificial intelligence office is quickly bringing together multiple tech specialists under one roof in the latest bid to scale a “different operating model” for delivering digital technologies across the Defense Department.

The CDAO hit full operational capability on June 1 and is hosting an online “DoD Digital and AI Symposium” this week. The office merges the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the Defense Digital Service, the chief data officer and...

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The Pentagon’s new chief digital and artificial intelligence office is quickly bringing together multiple tech specialists under one roof in the latest bid to scale a “different operating model” for delivering digital technologies across the Defense Department.

The CDAO hit full operational capability on June 1 and is hosting an online “DoD Digital and AI Symposium” this week. The office merges the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the Defense Digital Service, the chief data officer and the Advancing Analytics (Advana) platform that originated in the DoD comptroller’s office.

Margie Palmieri, the deputy chief digital and artificial intelligence officer, compared it to a major merger and acquisition activity in industry.

“Companies go into mergers and acquisitions to be competitive,” she said on day one of the symposium. “And that’s exactly what the Department of Defense is doing. We are increasing our competitive advantage by bringing these different groups together. And for the first time in my career of over 15 years in government at this point, all the right levers of change and influence are coming into play in the CDAO.”

While recognizing that DoD’s industrial age acquisition approaches are still appropriate for the thousands of aircraft, ships and vehicles the Pentagon buys every year, Palmieri said software, digital technologies and data analytics require an alternative approach to scale across DoD. The various organizations coming together under the CDAO all have experience in piloting alternative approaches to the Pentagon’s traditional development and buying processes.

“This team coming together to show what a different operating model looks like is one of our top priorities,” Palmieria said.

Who’s on the CDAO team

In late April, the Pentagon announced Craig Martell would be the first chief digital and AI officer. Martell was most recently head of machine learning at Lyft, previously led machine learning at Dropbox, and he led a number of AI initiatives at LinkedIn. He also was a tenured computer science professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

“I’m doing it because of the mission,” Martell said during the symposium. “It’s extremely important that we get this right. And there are not a lot of folks who have the intersection of AI and a government background. And when the deputy secretary of defense calls you up and says, ‘We would like you to take this job,’ you have to think really hard about why you wouldn’t take the job, and not the other way around. And I think getting this mission right is extremely important.”

As the No. 2 at the CDAO, Palmieri has more than a decade of DoD experience, most recently as special assistant to the vice chief of naval operations. She was also founding director of the Navy Digital Warfare Office, a relatively new organization focused on data analytics and Project Overmatch, the sea service’s contribution to the military’s Joint All Domain Command and Control concept.

The CDAO also has filled out its ranks with officials from the JAIC, DDS, the CDO’s office, Advana and other DoD organizations:

  • Clark Cully, previously DoD’s deputy chief data officer, is now the deputy CDAO for policy, strategy and governance.
  • Sharothi Pikar is the deputy CDAO for acquisition and AI assurance. She joined the JAIC in the spring to lead acquisitions. She also previously held positions as acquisition executive at U.S. Cyber Command and as the associate director for cyber strategies in the office of the under secretary for research and engineering.
  • William Streilein, who had a long career at MIT Lincoln Labs before joining the JAIC as chief technology officer this spring, is now CTO for the CDAO.
  • Joe Larson, currently chief of Project Maven, is leaving the project to be Deputy CDAO for Algorithmic Warfare. Larson helped co-found Project Maven, the Pentagon’s AI pathfinder program, which is now transitioning to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
  • Greg Little is the deputy CDAO for enterprise capabilities. He was previously deputy comptroller for enterprise data and business performance. Little was also program lead for Advana, a big data program that now falls under the purview of the CDAO.
  • Katie Olsen, who was the deputy director of the Defense Digital Service, is now the deputy CDAO for digital services.

The DDS in particular excelled at bringing tech talent from outside the government into DoD for temporary tours of duty to work on high-profile problems. Recently, DDS led Project Rabbit, an effort to allow employers to verify their previous or current Afghan employees seeking asylum in the United States.

Olsen says she think the CDAO can help scale the DDS model.

“We’ve been a ragtag team of 50 to 60 people, give or take, for the past seven years,” Olsen said during the symposium. “I’m excited about being part of the CDAO because I think it’s an opportunity to replicate and scale that talent and the [idea that] when you give smart people agency to do things, what can happen.”

CDAO operating model

Palmieri said the groundwork laid by CDAO’s predecessor organizations have helped establish good practices for how to approach digital and AI technologies within DoD.

“The good news is everything that the department has to do to scale digital analytics and AI is relatively known at this point,” she said.

In particular, she said determining the right “feedback loop” between users and developers will be key as CDAO looks to tailor the budget, requirements and acquisition processes to its technology goals.

“We really see the opportunity for the CDAO to put together a different operating model for how do you actually deliver these types of capabilities in a meaningful way to users and create a more rapid feedback loop where requirements, acquisition and funding are all in response to that capability need, instead of driving the pace, as happens today.”

Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told Martell he should avoid a wholesale reliance on prime contracting. Schmidt has been highly influential in driving DoD’s technology organizations and strategies in recent years as chairman of the Defense Innovation Board and then co-chairman of the National Security Commission on AI.

“My guess is that at the end of the day, your success will be your own software people in the government, as well as essentially small firms where you’re essentially contracting with a firm, but it’s really one person. And then you’ll have some priming. If you start with a full private approach, you’ll never get there.”

Martell said it will likely be a combination of in-house coders and contracted work, suggesting a collaborative approach.

“We’re not going to grow the talent fast enough to have all of the coders in government to do what we need to do,” he said. “We’re not going to replicate these agile new AI companies. But if we have the authority to say, ‘You’re sitting with us, and you’re our agile team, and you’re going through the loop with us as we’re building it,’ I think we have a greater chance of success.”

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