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Trusted Advisor: 3 Steps for Partnering with the DoD

James Ebeler, Chief Technology Officer for DoD, Iron Bow Technologies

March 11, 2019  |  IT Modernization

For decades, the Department of Defense drove technological innovation. From the development of the modern internet to GPS and stealth aircrafts, DoD components like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency quietly led us into the information age.

Along the way, the tables turned and the private sector, with access to more money and top talent, started to outpace government as the leader in innovation. Cloud computing, software-defined networks and AI-driven automation were born form the minds of industry.

I spent the better part of my military career working on improving DoD networks, with the last two years serving as the Army’s CIO/G-6 Chief Technology Officer. In those two decades of service it was made clear to me that public-private partnerships are essential for the future of the DoD. The modern warfighter needs—and deserves—the most agile, flexible and resilient technology.

The DoD has already reached out to Silicon Valley, partnering through initiatives like the Defense Digital Service, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Innovation Advisory Board. However, the onus shouldn’t be placed solely on the government to determine the best in IT innovations to meet our warfighter’s missions. Industry must step up and become a trusted partner.

This isn’t an easy task on either end. Due to its nature, government moves and accepts change more slowly than the private sector. On the other hand, tech companies need to invest the resources and time to understand the unique agency requirements in order to provide the best support. That’s why it’s so important both sides take the time to sit down, collaborate and listen to each other.

In my new role as CTO for DoD at Iron Bow Technologies, it’s my responsibility to make that happen. To be that go between. I’ve been on the other side and understand first hand, the frustrations our clients have when a  company  comes in for a sales call and pitches a solution without understanding the distinctive needs of the military. We were always open to new technology, but often the products that worked for the enterprise sector and civilian agencies needed modifications to be useful in defense.

A few key takeaways I can provide to those looking to better partner with the government;

  1. Do your homework

In order to help the military modernize, private sector entities must do the research to understand how all the varying government IT plans nest together. The federal IT strategy, DoD strategy and individual services strategies all work together, in concert.

Before they even set up a meeting with defense procurement officers, companies should do the hard work to dissect what those modernization plans mean and if their solutions will be a good fit. As Army CIO/G-6 CTO my first question was always, “Have you read the Army IT modernization plan?” If they hadn’t, I knew they weren’t serious about helping us, but were there to simply sell products.

  1. Listen to their needs

Beyond digesting the underlying IT strategy, industry needs to identify DoD pain points. That means sitting down with the service branches and listening to their stories. Go talk to them as people, without an agenda to sell anything. When people did that with me, they always got a follow-up call.

The DoD understands that vendors need to sell products and they aren’t averse to a sales pitch. But that should come only after the company takes care to understand the specific IT pain points that need to be addressed.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Last, ask the right questions. What information does the warfighter need access to? In what situations do they need it? How can we operationalize products meant to be used in civilian situations? If we, as industry, don’t understand what kind of data is being passed to the lowest level, then we can’t offer the right solution. These are life and death situations and troops on the ground need to know that the IT tools they rely on were built with their mission in mind.

I understand this kind of change isn’t simple or easy. Tech companies need to meet sales goals to continue funding innovation. Slowing down to understand the complex needs of the DoD takes time. But this work up front can be hugely beneficial on the back end. Enabling the modern warfighter is a mission that goes beyond technology. It’s fundamental to keeping our country safe, secure and thriving.

For more on this, I’ll be talking about how the private sector companies can become trusted defense advisors at AFCEA Belvoir Industry Days in March. (Thursday, March 21, 2019 at 10:15AM, Exhibit Hall – Potomac A&B.

For more information on how Iron Bow Technologies help the DoD.

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