JAIC CTO discusses the benefits of next generation technologies

Nand Mulchandani, chief technology officer for the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, joined Aileen Black on Leaders and Legends to discuss leadership and change in adopting new technologies.

Mulchandani brings more than 25 years of industry experience and leadership, as a serial entrepreneur and senior technology executive, to his service in the government. He has helped transform DoD by adopting next-generation AI and software technologies. He started his career at Sun Microsystems as a compiler architect and holds a patent on dynamic code generation.

Sharing his views on leadership and technology, he said:

“I think the real key to any situation is taking action. There are multiple times that you can sit back and admire the situation but situations like today, like the pandemic, you need to act. The team at the JAIC saw the long lines at the food bank. We thought we couldn’t just sit back and just watch when we have all this great capability. Troops were being sent out to count water bottles. We knew we could help. So the decision was made to act and we rallied the resources and the data to help our commanders. We worked on integrating data from the supply chain to better inform the military’s response to the pandemic. This is what became the JAIC’s project Salus. We pulled industry leaders together and we were able to pull something together that made a difference with the right information at the right time with the best analytics that enabled us to deliver some great tech to solve this problem.”

Mulchandani served in various capacities as CEO, co-founder, senior executive, and entrepreneur-in-residence for a number of technology startups and companies including the venture capital firm Accel Partners, OpenDNS  — funded by Sequoia Capital and Greylock, and acquired by Cisco — as well as VMware and Determina — funded by Bessemer Venture Partners, Mayfield and USVP, acquired by VMware. He also spent time at Oblix, which was funded by Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers and acquired by Oracle.

He later co-founded and was CEO of ScaleXtreme, which was eventually acquired by Citrix, a leading provider of desktop virtualization and networking infrastructure. From there, Mulchandani served as Citrix’s vice president of Market Development and Strategy.

When asked why he chose public service when he could do anything, Mulchandani, a child of immigrants, considered himself “incredibly lucky.”

“This may sound corny, but our county is unique, you can do what ever you want and you can accomplish great things with hard work and being at the right place,” he said. “You need to reinvest in the system. I decided it was the right time. There is a need for industry executives to come back into government to keep the system working really well.”

Mulchandani proudly talked about “Kids Teach Tech,” a nonprofit which his son founded at just age 10 after attending tech camps and realizing how the cost of attendance made these programs out of reach for many children.

“He started teaching at a high school that didn’t have these types of classes. Kids Teach Tech has now taught more than 3,000 kids in the underserved communities,” Mulchandani said.

After being a successful entrepreneur in tech, Mulchandani went to “learn the art of politics” in Washington, D.C. When asked to describe this art, he said the way to get things done in politics is not same as in industry.

“Many of the joint functions in government, like the JAIC, make decisions in an incredibly different way. How you can command to get teams to get things done is very different,” he said. “You have Congress to set budgets; you have the overhead organizations that weigh in. The organization is very large and complex. The policy and decisionmaking is at a scale that is just breath taking. This can have some insane implications and the level of detail and focus is at a different level than industry.”

Mulchandani also said the JAIC’s job is unique because it spans policy on AI to intellectual property, to training and education, to acquisition policy and how to plan on how it needs to be integrated in weapons systems. He described a nebulous charter and nimble organization with an exciting mission.

“JAIC is spending a huge amount of time on the foundational elements right now. The AI work will be very impactful with this foundational work,” he said.

Mulchandani received a bachelor’s in computer science and mathematics from Cornell University, a master’s in science in management from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and a  master’s of Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he remains a non-resident fellow at the university’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

When asked if how leadership affects culture, Mulchandani shared that he has worked in a two-person organization and at organizations with hundreds of thousands of people.

“The culture question always comes up. The start-up culture in the valley grows in an easy way because it [is] easier because you hire over time to fit into that culture,” he said. “In the DoD you are bringing people from very different, strong cultures into a joint function to create a culture. In our joint command people bring many cultures in and you create a new culture. The JAIC has the additional challenge of integrating new technology. My role at the JAIC has been one of the biggest challenges I have had. Military rotate out every two years. In technology companies, people don’t rotate out that quickly — it creates some big challenges.”

The biggest battle is tech talent, according to Mulchandani, and DoD is no different. The department is the largest consumer of software, and he said it has hollowed out its talent.

“We need to be able to acquire and run the best of technology. Unfortunately our cost structure runs different than internet scaled companies like Google [and Amazon Web Services] run,” he said. “We are just starting to get that going. The talent problem is related. We need to set up the conditions so that great talent [can] contribute in a great way. We need to fix that.”

Related Stories

Comments

Leaders and Legends

Leaders and Legends

Host Aileen Black interviews federal leaders who have left their mark on government and made a lasting imprint on the nation. Hear what goes on behind the scenes in the nation's capital and why working for the federal government is so unique. Subscribe on PodcastOne.

Sign up for breaking news alerts