Top priorities for the Air Force’s new chief technology officer

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The Air Force has a new chief technology officer. Jay Bonci (BAHN-see) took his first government leadership position in August, following a career as a technology executive at Akamai. He takes over for Frank Konieczny — the former long-time CTO who retired earlier this year. Mr. Bonci joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Federal News Network’s Jared Serbu to talk a bit about the technology challenges he sees for the Air Force, and what he hopes to achieve in the position

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: Jay, thanks for taking the time and congratulations on the new position. Let’s talk a bit about what the job actually is because you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the Air Force CTO position is really codified or constrained by statute in any way. So you and the Air Force and the Air Force CIO have a fair amount of latitude to decide what the job is. So what’s the answer to that question as far as you see it so far? What is the position of Air Force CTO, and how do you want to tackle it?

Jay Bonci: First of all, thank you, it’s a great opportunity, I’m really excited to be here. I truly believe the Air Force is kind of at the right place at the right time, both from a structural perspective, but also a cultural perspective to help drive the department forward. I’m working on some incredible things that are going to change the way that we respond to problems in the world, and it’s an incredible honor to be selected for it. That said, you’re correct. The CTO position here inside of the CIO office, or SAF/CN as it’s kind of known, is fairly open ended. What we chose to focus on, however, is to create a kind of a cohesive technical roadmap for enterprise IT across the Air Force. And the goal is to have that roadmap allow us so that all the different technical implementations that are happening across the department for enterprise IT will kind of know their left and their right. This is going to help us deconflict things further on down the road, it’s going to help us contextualize pilots, it’s going to help us really, in kind of the words of the chief of staff, really ruthlessly prioritize what we’re going after. The the demand for IT is infinite, and so we really need to focus and drill down on those areas that are going to be of highest impact. And so, this roadmap product is going to be, we hope, a key kind of guiding light, to be able to help us figure out where our funding priority should be, and where the kind of technical order of operations is going forward. So we’re really excited to put that together. It’s not something that there appears to be a true analog elsewhere. And so I think we’re really kind of leading the way in the way that we are thinking about driving cohesion within those services.

Jared Serbu: And you wrote on LinkedIn, I think the day you started this, this new position that you thought, before you join the Air Force, that the road that they’re on was directionally correct. Do you want to expand a little bit on what you meant by that?

Jay Bonci: Sure. There are a lot of things inside the Air Force that have the right foundation. There are places where we need to shore that up. But there are efforts underway that demonstrate that the Air Force recognizes the problems of modern IT. So, Steve Haselhorst in Air Combat Command/A6 is incredibly focused on zero trust, right? And we understand that as an organizing principle, zero trust has a lot of other things associated with it. People are incredibly focused on the ICAM (Identity Credential Access Management) pieces, the innovations, both on the technical and on the contractual side alongside Platform One are incredibly important, and we’re seeing its impacts really felt absolutely everywhere. Air Force was first really to adopt Office 365 as a service, Microsoft Collaboration Suite, Cloud One. So there are a number of places where the Air Force has recognized where the industry is going and has kind of led the way. ITAS (IT-as-a-Service) as well, both as a contractual vehicle, but also the service delivery model for enterprise IT is a future. The Air Force started that, a lot of other services are continuing their experiments in it. And so the Air Force is, in a lot of ways, like to think a thought leader. There are many, many places where we can improve, but I’m proud to be kind of serving in this capacity and project — kind of add momentum to the kind of pre existing direction.

Jared Serbu: Lots of Air Force organizations that have a hand in enterprise IT, and the flip side of where we started, there there not being any sort of statute to tell you what the job is, the flip side of that is there’s no statute that gives you authority to tell people to go do things. So it seems like this is one of these jobs where you’re going to be heavily reliant on building relationships and cooperation across the organization. What do those most important relationships look like to you as you start this job, and how do you plan to kind of work through others?

Jay Bonci: We’ve already started down the getting to know people route in kind of my first 100 days here. The five families are a key set of organizations to get to know. I’m up in the Boston area so I’m local to Hanscom in the HNI efforts and so have already got a chance to meet ACC/A6, CCC (Cyberspace Capabilities Center), and hopefully going to get down to San Antonio at some point next month. But to understand each of their perspectives and each of the places where they are contributing to the enterprise future is important. Some of it from the outside was admittedly a little bit opaque, but I have an excellent appreciation for the great work and the dedication that those individuals bring. That said, it’s important for me to think of myself kind of as a customer executive for enterprise IT. One of the key things the enterprise needs to export is credibility. We want to take enterprise IT and have the continuum go from business systems all the way up through the high end weapon systems. We want to be able to reduce the variance across the enterprise, enable people to get more for the highly constrained funding environment that we’re in. And so that means having to understand the needs of PEO BES (Business and Enterprise Systems), which has a very wide portfolio and has a lot of smaller mission systems, all the way up through, like I said, the weapon systems, the ABMS’ (Advanced Battle Management System) is of the world, and GBSD (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent), other large major programs, and to be able to make sure that we’re meeting both of those needs. And so, again, kind of my first 100 days — meeting those executives, meeting those key kind of lighthouse customers that we need to make sure that we are answering the mail for, really performing for is key. We understand as well that whenever somebody adopts an enterprise service, there is a natural trade off between cost and perceived performance, rather than fielding a service that you control yourself and have direct influence on. And so we have to create the right service structures, be transparent about our roadmap, to the previous point, but also make it so that we are accountable to those incredibly important customers you’re trying to get their mission done.

Jared Serbu: That concept of sort of erasing the line between enterprise IT and warfighting IT is a big one. And I’m not sure anyone in DoD has really even conceptualized how you do that well. What’s some of your early thinking about how that actually works in the real world? Because they have, I think, historically really been thought of as separate domains or disciplines.

Jay Bonci: Yeah. So the one thing I’ll say is our adversaries don’t think of the designation any differently, right? And so, there are a number of systems — we can’t fly planes without logistics systems, we can’t repair plans without business systems, right? There are things that support the total force, and while not every application is the tip of the spear for certain activities, we do need to understand that the network is a service that is provided to everybody that systems run on top of. Identity is a solution that everybody needs to have. As solutions get more complicated, have more requirements have more things that they need to do, there is going to be a tendency to centralize or to have the enterprise bolster it. So there’s a few strategies that we’re thinking about for how we get after that flattening. The first of which is to create service structures that the service has consumed. So things that are developer friendly, API (Airmen Powered by Innovation) driven, things that allow for SRE like monitoring capabilities, so trending, alerting, errors, latency, to have services that the consumers can independently monitor, can intimately understand what’s going on, that’s going to be key. So as we get more sophisticated consumers will have to meet those demands. The other thing is to be able to place designations around enterprise services so that we understand whether or not certain enterprise services are acceptable as a sole provider, whether or not certain services are acceptable as a series of federated providers, where we manage interoperability instead of like a loan service. And right now what we’re trying to do is put thinking around the types of circumstances. Each of those delivery strategies is important. And over time, the goal is to simply reduce the variance in the enterprise. And we understand that reducing the variance takes enablement structures, it takes teams that are going to help people adopt those enterprise services, it’s going to take the right financial backing and the right business backend systems so that those systems can acquire the services and they’re aligned with the financial goals of the Air Force. So there’s a lot of things to think about. We are trying to pull apart what makes an enterprise service an enterprise service today. The hope is that within a few months, we’ll start to be able to publish some guidance around what that looks like.

Jared Serbu: Very interesting. Just to start to wrap us up here, Jay, there’s going to be a huge learning curve obviously to this job, but you’re not coming into a completely blind — I know you did a lot of support for the Air Force in your previous job at Akamai. Do you talk just a little bit about what you came into this job with in terms of experience with the Air Force and enterprise IT at large, and why you took the job?

Jay Bonci: Yeah. So I spent my previous 14 years at Akamai in a variety of roles, really the last 10 or so directly supporting the Air Force. Akamai is a great place and there are a lot of lessons to learn from a company that does a huge percentage of traffic on the internet. Akamai, first and foremost, is a scaling company. And to understand that they really think about upscaling, both in terms of organizations and in terms of technology, in a very unique way. And I’m happy to bring those lessons forward. That said, I took this job because I thought it was, again, I think it’s the right place at the right time to be able to help push the country forward. I think it’s an incredibly interesting mission set. I’m really inspired by Ms. Kay’s leadership, and what I think we’re going to be able to accomplish in the next few years.

Jared Serbu: Jay Bonci is the Air Force’s new chief technology officer.

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