Why We Work (and Why We Would Work Harder)

I was recently asked "to provide some thoughts about how contractors should or should not perform differently or be incentivized differently during wartime." The query came as part of a research project started by an acquisition officer who is concerned that they are not seeing "exceptional performance or motivation" from either the contracting base or the government's own acquisition apparatus.

Perhaps they are worried that we are at the mall with the rest of America.


I don't know who's at the mall, but the sad truth of the matter is that the average javascript programmer at a dot com circa 2000 worked a hell of a lot harder than the typical defense contractor or government acquisition person works today (speaking frankly, I know I did). The reality in this post-mobilization-age war is that America isn't at war. While it's professional class of pointy-end-of-the-spear warfighters are doing their third or fourth tour in the combat zones, the rest of us have been sort of intentionally left out of it so that we can keep the economy humming that pays for the spear. Sometimes it seems like our government just doesn't want to inconvenience us with this whole "we're at war" thing (I might add that that's an odd position to take in a Democratic Republic where the government is *of the people*).

But we defense contractors aren't just anyone in America, we're participants. So why did those javascript slinging philosophy majors work 18 hour days while we continue work, at least collectively, a lot less urgently? What's the difference?

In short, immediacy of impact. They had it, we don't.

I do not believe that money or monetary incentives would make one whit of difference. Face it, if it was really about the money we'd be in financial services or somewhere else where the money pools around your ankles. If you want your defense industrial base to work like it's at war, it has to feel like it is at war. You have to strip away the layers of industrial-age bureaucracy that makes our work feel less like winning and more like an abstract intellectual exercise. There's a reason why WWII war heros toured defense manufacturing plants.

My work is in defense IT. So, sticking at least a bit to what I know, here are some suggestions to create the kind of immediacy that will lead to meaningful performance; performance that comes from the sense that the work has real meaning.

One. Connect the warfighter to the people building stuff.

It's no mystery that direct contact with your customer raises the stakes. This is one of the reasons why scrum development works to improve the degree of customer engagement. I think of this every time I'm leaving our office and pass the team area of one team that is always here late. It might be that they just have a hard ass team leader, but I don't think that's it. I think it's the fact that the software they work on is deployed around the world and they have a direct conduit to the warfighters that use it through a 1-800 help line that is staffed inside their team. Sure they have to do standard acquisition system stuff like program reviews, but they regularly talk directly to the warfighters that use their stuff.

Remember the Automated Deep Operations System (ADOCS) story? Acquisition people hate it because it "was off the reservation," used non-standard architectures, and yada yada. But it has provided tremendous value, has served the warfighter well, and was built by engineers who were working overseas side by side with the warfighters that were using it. Let us do more of that. It works. No one in the commercial world would work as hard as the DoD does to separate the people slinging code from the people running it.

While we are at it, let's better connect our acquisition conduit to the warfighter too. There are fewer acquisition people in the DoD now than there were ten years ago, but there are still more of them than there are front line M-16 carrying troops. In an era when even Navy submarine officers are being rotated into Iraq between sea tours I think we can rotate our acquisition people in there too. They can see first hand how the stuff we are building for them is doing and gain an intuitive sense of what works that will be so useful later. Is it relevant? Is it usable? Is it providing value for the dollar? Will the operators be able to reconfigure it to meet their local needs? Etc.

CDD's and requirements documents are low bandpass filters. Being on the ground eating their own dog food in a war zone will make it easy for our acquisition folks to put the high frequency band back into the requirements comms. Be a warfighter for a while, think like one forever.

In situations where you can't put people over seas, bring the warfighter back to us through simple and available technologies like help lines, web forums, email, VoIP, mailing lists, etc. Heck, build those little active chat help things right into the apps if it is on an unclass network. Actively work to make a direct connection between the people writing code and the people running it.

Two. Add value to your customers, now.

The warfighter needs stuff now. Have us build stuff that you are going to rapidly deploy to them now, rather than spend all the money on stuff you think you'll deploy in 2011. Sure, we'd like to help build the longer term big programs that have well known and well worn acronyms, but let's get real, we're at war. If we want IT to help us stay inside our enemy's OODA loops we need to be roll out stuff our troops can use now. Imagine how frustrating it must be for the deployed warfighter to ask for something during their first tour knowing there is little chance of them seeing it before their fourth. Use those acquisition folks you've deployed into the war zone in step one to be on the ground product managers. Plan to deliver stuff to the warfighters they are embedded with while they are still there.

Put another way, let's figure out how we can deliver a range of capabilities. In the commercial world big things like an ERP system are done centrally and with a lot of oversight while smaller scale departmental initiatives are done quicker and locally. We shouldn't be thinking about how to deliver everything the warfighter needs from the center, we should be thinking about how to let the warfighter build or buy stuff locally. Need a web site to share information among all the platoons in a brigade? Let your javascripting sergeants build it locally on platforms that the center is providing for you. Enable the long tail of development.

Three. Build it incrementally.

I have never felt nervous perspiration on the back of my neck when facing a deadline that was three years away (and I don't mean those intermediate soft deadlines, I mean the real ones). Use agile incremental development along with the power of product platforms to quickly and incrementally deliver stuff to the field. Give us deadlines that are three months out, not three years. Exercises don't count.

Don't think in terms of "requirement" = "tool." Think in terms of generative platforms that will let the warfighter self serve on the little problems and will let small contractors quickly and innovatively deliver on the slightly more complex problems.

How is that possible you say? How can we deliver stuff without operationally testing it first? By engaging much closer with the warfighter while you build it (e.g. like the way ADOCS was built), using product platforms that have gone through pre-certification and operational use, and etc. First, believe you can be relevant to the warfighter now and then make it happen; we would love this. We are dying to be relevant today.

Some years ago a company I was working for sent me to a career planning seminar. The instructor gave us a framework for thinking about our careers that said satisfaction comes from balancing compensation, competency, and meaning. I think many of us in this business derive a large amount of satisfaction from the meaning associated with our work. Thinking back to my time in a B2B startup the meaning came from knowing that the thing I was building today was going to be deployed and earning revenue next week.

If you want to get even more from us, help us improve the meaning dimension by making it easier for us to do work that makes an impact now. Clear out the bureaucracy, help us get closer to the end customer, and deliver stuff quickly that will really make a difference. You might be surprised what happens.

• • •

Warfare’s Long Tail – Cyber Warfare in Georgia

800Px-Long Tail

A quick summize search will take you to a bunch of articles like this one focusing on Georgia and Russia’s cyber war; the one that is paralleling the much more deadly kinetic exchange on ground and in the air. While giving the reader ample opportunity to reminisce about Estonia, the reporting raises the usual questions. Where does state sponsorship (and intent) end and “volunteerism” begin? Who is responsible for the attacks and how are they carried out? That sort of thing.

I guess I’m struck as much by who’s not talking about the cyber side of things. As you read the articles you find the intelligence reports coming from non-profits (e.g.
Shadowserver Foundation), private companies (renesys) and private citizens (e.g. Armin) rather than from intelligence agency public briefings. The defensive infrastructure is being supplied by companies like Deutsch Telekom (data links) and Google (blogs to replace downed government web sites). And, well, the offense is probably coming from the RBN.

What you don’t see are press room appearances by a NATO Cyber Defense spokesperson offering assistance or Russian military and government spokespeople talking about their glorious cyber offensives. While the conventional military channels focus on the kinetic war, the “amateurs” talk about (or participate in) the cyber campaign.

Historically, the line between professional militaries and the rest of a society were less clear than it has been since the first world war. Since then, at least in most of the industrialized world, kinetic warfare has been the domain of the professional. We civilians were expected to participate in metal drives and watch news reels and that was about it.

truncated tail

Later, the broadcast medium of television had a significant impact on how professional wars were fought by more tightly coupling success or failure on the battlefield back to the political domain. It dumped real time public reaction and sentiment into the mix and tended to shorten the cycle of political consequence. However, television did little to change who actually did the fighting.

Now it’s different. In the same way it is impacting so many facets of modern life, the Internet appears to be bringing the long tail of participation to at least the cyber domain of modern warfare. As the professional militaries continue to develop capability in this domain we may ultimately see the tail and the head link up in a more seamless manner than we’ve seen in conventional warfare for a long time.

• • •

Barcamp.mil Follow Up


The inaugural barcamp.mil went down yesterday in Crystal City without a hitch and, at least for me, was a real blast. Thanks to John Scott and Mercury Computer Systems for providing space, pizza, and even some celebratory Tsing Tao beer. The turnout was good and we ended up with strong tracks in GIS and DoD open source as well as some great sessions on security (high assurance computing), cloud computing in DoD, and enabling innovation. There were probably others but being able to be in only one place at a time… The lunchtime session on evolving open source policy in the DoD was of particular interest. There are definitely people in the department that get it which is heartening.




John and I both agree that we’d like to do more of these things; perhaps tied in with major conferences such as I/ITSEC, the annual DISA Partner Conference, or similar venues that draw DoD geeks together. If you are running a conference and you’d like to facilitate a simul-barcamp.mil let John or I know.

Some people are probably wondering how it is possible to mix the barcamp ethos with the defense space. All I can say is, you should check it out. Despite the bureaucracy we deal with in this space there is really cool work being done (and some of it can even be talked about). Beyond that, I believe there is a growing cultural gap developing along generational lines within the industry. We didn’t all grow up here and we are bringing our culture, values, and methods of working with us. From agile to open source the defense space is undergoing big changes. barcamp.mil is just another way for like minded people to connect, share ideas, and spread the culture virus.


Industrial age mechanisms simply aren’t working anymore for the connected forces the DoD envisions. We have an opportunity to really make a difference in how tomorrow’s force is equipped, but even more importantly, how it works. Hey, it’s a Democratic Republic and it’s our military too.


• • •