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‘We’re Allowed To Fail’: DoD’s Silicon Valley Outpost Truly Experimental

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

George Duchak

PENTAGON CITY: “The Pentagon’s an impatient mistress,” George Duchak told reporters yesterday, “so we have to have some early successes.”

He’s not kidding about the “early.” Duchak is director of the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental (DIUx), the Pentagon outreach office in Silicon Valley that’s all of two months old.

“We grew 50 percent last month and so that set off all kinds of alarm bells in OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense]. That means we hired one more person,” Duchak told an AUVSI conference, the audience erupting in laughter. It took seventy days to hire the first civilian “highly qualified expert” (HQE) — which is admittedly fast by government personnel management standards — and the core staff will max out at himself, his deputy (a Navy SEAL and Harvard MBA), 4 HQEs, and an attorney, plus about a half-dozen detailees from the four armed services.

“We’re just in full startup mode,” Duchak told reporters. “I’m happy if I’ve got a chair to sit in.” And Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, at least, has embraced the Silicon Valley startup ethos — including the idea that some things you try will fail, a novel concept in the risk-averse, “zero defects” Defense Department.

“The key word in DIUx is experiment. We are, as Sec. Carter calls us, his start up,” Duchak told the conference. “When he came out at the end of August, he told us… we’re allowed to fail.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Silicon Valley

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Silicon Valley

“We’re going to try to a variety of different ways to engage DoD and to engage the startup community and the innovation community,” Duchak said. “Some will work and some won’t.”

So , I asked Duchak after his talk, what does survivable failure look like?

“The experiment is with our engagement model: how we’re going to…engage the innovation community,” he told the gathered reporters. “So an epic fail would be we do a fast pitch event” — trying to bring companies with innovative technologies together with venture capitalists and potential Defense Department users — “and I hear crickets.”

And what’s success? Duchak says DIUx is already having some, early as it is, though it’s hard to measure. “Just about everybody that we engage with, we do a followup with someone at one of the [DoD] labs or one of the acquisition organizations or one of the user organizations and make that connection,” he told AUVSI.

“Where we’re short on collecting a metric is the what’s next,” he went on. “After we make that connection, we don’t know — and we haven’t figured out a good way to track — did the user say ‘yes, I’ll fund you to do this or ‘let’s talk some more'” — or just say “no”?

DIUx itself does not have funds to give out: It’s a connector, not a venture capital outfit like the intelligence community’s In-Q-Tel. “We make matches, we just don’t make investments,” Duchak said.

In the short term, that means match-matching between individual innovative companies and particular agencies in the Defense Department. In the long term, that means match-making between Silicon Valley and DoD writ large.

“The large companies, I’ve seen a sea change in their willingness to work with DoD. I’m going to say probably since the Sony hack,” Duchak said. “I think they see that…working with the US government has some benefit to protect some of the things that they’re doing.”

“Google’s been very receptive,” he said. “Not so much with Apple.”

“What we want to take back to the Secretary is to show him we’re up and operating, and we’re immersed in the ecosystem, and the natives there view DoD as part of their ecosystem,” Duchak told the press. “That would be a raging success right there, [but] that’s a year or so off.”

In the biggest picture, Duchak’s mandate is to punch holes in the walls of bureaucracy the Pentagon has built up around itself and let innovation in. At a round table between Sec. Carter and about 20 Silicon Valley leaders, Carter said DIUx’s job was “to hot wire the system,” Duchak recounted. His interpretation of the secretary’s words: “Business as usual isn’t working and you have to find a way to go around.”

What way is that? Well, finding it is what the word “experimental” is about.

What do you think?