Defense Digital Service Emphasizes Results for Service Members

Chris Lynch calls working at the Defense Digital Service a “deployment,” saying it is a “tour of duty for nerds.” In fact, the organization’s website lists his job title as the service’s “fearless leader.”

The idea behind the Pentagon office is to bring in world-class talent for one or two years “and take their incredibly precious skill set and use it to do things that matter, and go as fast and as hard as you can to attack these problems,” Lynch said at the Defense One Tech Summit here today.

Lynch, who spoke alongside Edward Brindley, the Pentagon’s principal director of cybersecurity, is the poster boy for the Defense Department’s digital effort. He literally wears the difference — last year, he showed up at this summit wearing a hoodie, and this year, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a Star Wars “AT-AT” vehicle wearing a “cone of shame” around its neck.

He is the “anti-bureaucrat.” His office stresses results and repeatedly emphasizes that its personnel are not there for the career, but to solve problems and increase capabilities for men and women defending the nation around the world.

Changing the bureaucracy is a problem, because across DoD, five people over 60 have IT jobs, as opposed to one under 30.

Lynch said the office hires four types of people. The first is the most obvious: software engineers. “But when we are looking at a software engineer, there are a couple of things we are looking for,” he said. “One is, you have built and shipped products. That’s sounds obvious, but it is not common.” They also look for people who use modern frameworks, modern languages and modern platforms. “We don’t want to continue using languages like Ada in modern acquisitions, but it happens,” he said.

The office hires designers – not just to concentrate on what a product looks like, but also on how it moves and how it actually flows from start to end, Lynch said.

“We hire product managers, somebody who actually thinks about the perspective of the users: ‘How is this going to work?’” he said. “We should be designing software with users, not for them.”

The age of the personnel is not that big a problem for Lynch. He wants people who have shipped products on modern frameworks.

Culture of Learning

The idea is to give personnel a culture of learning, Brindley said. “[What we’re] looking to do in government is give people the chance to fail,” he explained. “We want to develop a culture where you are given the opportunity to work on something and if it fails, well, you learn from that and move on. And we want to do that quickly.”

Brindley said he wants to bring the culture he has seen in tactical situations transplanted to DoD writ large. “When you are at the tactical edge, innovation happens often at a pace the headquarters element can’t handle,” he said. “Sometimes, out of necessity in a tactical environment, you have to innovate quickly. We have to capitalize on that culture.” 

Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, transnational criminal gangs and individual hackers are all dangers to the nation. It is incredibly complicated, Lynch noted. “We run one of the most technical mission sets in the entire world,” he said.

“There’s nothing more important than that — it is literally the defense of the country and young men and women all over the world who are working on that goal,” Lynch said. “We need to give them the best available tools we can to do that mission. Our adversaries are not hindered by that bureaucracy once you get around the domain of hacking and security. We need to be at the top of our game across the board.”

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)