WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — Last April, more than 3,000 Google employees took the extraordinary step of issuing an open letter to company leadership, demanding that the tech giant cease working on the Pentagon’s Project Maven machine-learning program.
The decision by company leadership to bow to the demand sent shock waves through the national security community, which reacted with a mix of betrayal, frustration and bewilderment that Google, in the midst of developing a special firewall-bolstered internet for China, would refuse to help defend its home country.
In many ways, the Maven incident seemed to prove the Washington establishment’s belief that the tech community will never want to work with the Pentagon, despite the teaming and advocacy that has occurred in recent years; the cultural divide is simply too big to be crossed, the argument goes.
But is that the case? Despite the high-profile nature of Maven, other major tech companies such as Amazon, IBM, Oracle and Microsoft continue to fight for Pentagon contracts. The department’s Defense Innovation Board has major names from that community reporting directly to the secretary of defense. And smaller firms are interacting with the department at increased levels, thanks to outreach efforts from the Department of Defense itself.
In November, Defense News convened a roundtable with representatives from the department and the tech community to identify whether the cultural divide can be overcome, or if the barriers are simply too high on both sides. The conclusion: The situation is far from helpless, if the Pentagon is willing to engage.
“It’s not our perspective that we’re going to change people’s minds who might be firmly against helping the military, but they should at least understand what are the consequences there,” said Michael Brown, a former CEO of Symantec who in September took over the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.
“Engaging in a discussion — that’s the American way. We have the freedom to believe whatever we believe in and to express it. But let’s make sure the point of view of the military, national security, is at least represented in the conversation.”
The perception problem
Unsurprisingly, the Maven case frequently came up during the discussion. Panelists largely agreed there is a perception problem about DoD in Silicon Valley, but disagreed on how to tackle it.
Trae Stephens, a co-founder at Anduril Industries and at principal at venture capital firm Founders Fund, describes Silicon Valley’s response to the Pentagon as a bell curve. On one end, a small group that promises to never do business with the department; on the other, a small group actively seeks to engage with the military on programs.
And in the middle, there is a “huge group” for whom “semantics matter a lot.” The DoD has made it difficult to reach that group because the department doesn’t understand how to approach them, Stephens said. As an example, he pointed to the Pentagon’s emphasis, particularly under now-departed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, on the word “lethality.”
“We just can’t use this word. You’re not going to win being like: ‘Our priority is soldier lethality.’ That bell curve is going to get destroyed,” Stephens said.
He also pointed to a targeting software program used by both the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. The Pentagon calls it ATAK, or the Android Tactical Assault Kit, while DHS calls it ATAP, the Android Team Awareness Kit.
“Suddenly it’s not a problem. Everyone’s happy to integrate with the ‘team awareness kit,’ ” Stephens said. “There’s this slight conflict of semantic culture. It’s just kind of silly, and we should like stop making unforced errors.”
That sentiment was largely agreed upon within the room. However, Josh Marcuse, the executive director of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board, warned against thinking of the issue as simply a public relations problem.
“The folks I’ve talked to you [about] that are engineers that are up in arms about this [are the] smartest people in America — they can see right through these things, and they’re very concerned that will be disingenuous. And then we’ll say this is for humanitarian assistance, but we’re really using it for violating privacy or targeting, and they know how these technologies evolve,” Marcuse said, which prompted a comparison between PR and clear communication.
Siobhan McFeeney, vice president for transformation at technology firm Pivotal, provided an example of how tech leadership can communicate to its staff the benefits of working on a project with the DoD.
The same divides in Google exist in Pivotal, particularly as the latter started picking up defense projects fairly recently. That has led to the rise of an internal plan on handling individual employees who have moral compunctions against working on military programs.
Every week, Pivotal’s CEO sits down with anyone who has concerns about a program and lays out the reason the company is involved. But unlike the Maven situation, where Google’s leadership gave into the demands of the workforce, Pivotal’s leadership makes the case for why the company is working on a project and then offers to move the employee to a nonmilitary program.
“We’re a 3,000-person company. We have the luxury, but what I think it demonstrates is just unbelievable empathy for both the customer that we’re trying to solve for — so, for the war fighter, for their airmen — and also for these employees who’ve never seen this [kind of mission] before,” McFeeney said.
That approach helps bridge the cultural divide and avoid meltdowns like the Maven affair, but it also comes with a side benefit: Those who choose to work on defense-related programs are enthused about that work and “singularly love” the military client and the mission, according to McFeeney.
“It’s education, its patience, so it’s just taking the actual time to sit down” and talk, she added. “It isn’t ‘everyone gets their way and everyone gets a medal.’ It’s ‘everyone gets heard and we have a mission for the company,’ but [workers] still have a choice.”
Communicating about America
For many in Washington, it is self-evident, if not obligatory, that the tech community should want to help America’s military. After all, those private company employees live in the U.S., and the Cold War provides precedent for industry working with the government for the national interest, so the argument goes.
Outside of the national security community, that same thinking isn’t as locked in.
Enter: patriotism — identified in some form by almost all the roundtable participants as a cultural barrier.
The tech community has thrived in the last 20 years partly thanks to immigrants. Go to Silicon Valley, said Lisa Hill, Arceo’s chief of operations, and “there’s every kind of people and language, and I think the message of ‘Come work for America to beat China or Russia,’ it’s not going to resonate.”
And unlike the Soviet Union, where its relationship with the U.S. was almost entirely antagonistic, China is a major trading partner, whose items can be found on every shelf in Walmart.
Hawk Carlisle, the head of the National Defense Industrial Association and a retired Air Force general, spent 2012-2014 leading the service’s efforts in the Pacific. It was there he got a close-up look at the Sino-U.S. relationship, where one day he would be discussing how to defend Taiwan — viewed by China as a rogue province — and the next helping to ferry trade officials to negotiate new deals with Beijing.
He recommends the message be less one of the U.S. versus other countries, and instead focus more on the need to defend the democratic world order that has benefited not just the U.S. and its allies, but Western industry.
“We are the good guys,” he said. “Frankly, whether anybody accepts it or not, China would like the world order and the rules of the world to change.”
That kind of messaging — which the panelists agreed must be buttressed by public events and frequent outreach to the community, including vocal minorities who want nothing to do with the DoD — could be the best chance the Pentagon has to reach that undecided middle of Stephens’ bell curve.
It seems that outreach component is ultimately where the department needs to step up. Brown, the Defense Innovation Unit head, has pledged to use his contacts to host events at universities and dinners with small groups from the community to explain the Pentagon’s goals.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.