The Department of Defense has a talent management problem. The Pentagon is struggling to attract and retain talent for technology-centric jobs related to artificial intelligence, coding and software development.

To exemplify this talent management issue, Josh Marcuse, executive director of the department’s Defense Innovation Board, asked attendees at a November roundtable hosted by Defense News in California to raise their hand if they knew how to write a line of code.

About half the hands went up. Then he asked how many with their hands up have been paid by the DoD to write a line of code.

No hands went up.

The DoD must identify personnel for high-tech positions, train them and allow them to use their skills in rotational opportunities, Marcuse argued, otherwise they’ll walk out.

The Air Force in particular is looking track personnel that can speak coding languages such as Python, similar to how it identifies personnel with formal language skills such as Russian or Mandarin.

Before it was officially launched, the service’s Kessel Run project released a solicitation for engineers and coders to join the Air Force. Kessel Run seeks to change how the Air Force — and by extension, the DoD — develops and delivers software based on best practices from industry.

Initially spearheaded by what was then the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the service identified four airmen, none of whom were in a software or engineering field, but who on their own practiced in these fields, according to Raj Shah, the former head of DIUx.

While Kessel Run has made some strides, Marcuse and Kessel Run personnel have noted major obstacles as the lack of a direct career path and temporary personnel.

“They might get the Air Force to loan them a person for six months and we’ll teach them, [give them] the best software training education in the world, and at the end of that time, they’re done. They’re out of Kessel Run,” he said. “There’s no place for them to go, there’s no flexibility on their career path and if they’re lucky they’re given the opportunity to be a SharePoint manager. That’s the best we can offer them.”

Jyn, another pilot program — this one under Army Cyber Command and run out of the Pentagon’s Defense Digital Service — seeks to leverage top technical talent from the private sector through DDS and pair them with their counterparts in ARCYBER, Nicole Camarillo, executive director of talent strategy at ARCYBER, told Defense News.

The Defense Digital Service recruits individuals from the private technology sector for a limited “tour of duty” with the Pentagon.

“There are a lot of complexities to the culture within the military and both properly supporting tech talent and being able to invite best practices from the private sector into military and government culture is one of the major challenges,” Camarillo said. “DDS was an opportunity to leverage the top technical talent they already brought in from DoD from the private sector and pair them with the top technical talent that we were identifying within Army Cyber.”

Marcuse said that through the Jyn program, DDS discovered someone who had “an extremely esoteric skill set” in calibrating sensors. But beforehand, the department was unsure how to properly utilize him, and so he was assigned to count pushups.

By coincidence, DDS had discovered him, and he’s now developing the kinds of low-frequency devices that detect and neutralize the threat of drones that drop grenades on special operators.

“I think these pockets [of talent] already exist [in the DoD], we just have to identify them [and] cultivate them because the best will get frustrated and leave,” Shah said.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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