DIB wants Pentagon to hire a ‘digital people officer’ for tech recruitment

The new role would be in charge of recruiting talented people with technical backgrounds to the DOD and making sure they stick around for a while.
A Defense Innovation Board meeting is held at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., Oct. 31, 2019. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee)

The Defense Innovation Board recommends that the Defense Department create a new position at the Pentagon for digital talent recruitment.

The recommendation came Thursday at the DIB’s quarterly public meeting in Austin, Texas, and was issued in a formal report to the secretary of Defense. The board also discussed the Pentagon’s efforts to create a separate category for its spending on software acquisition.

The new role would be in charge of recruiting talented people with technical backgrounds to the DOD and making sure they stick around for a while — a challenge the government has long faced. Specifically, this position would work to break down “disparate” human resources regulations across agencies that prevent the DOD from unifying its push to hire the right people.

“We are absolutely in an incredibly competitive environment” for talent, DIB board member Jennifer Pahlka, founder and former executive director of Code for America, said at the meeting.


Congress gave DOD the authority to create and hire for a “chief digital engineering recruitment and management officer” in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Board members said Thursday the best way to take advantage of the authority is to adopt a catchier name — the digital people officer — and emphasize the position’s mission of retaining new talent. It should also sit in the Defense Digital Service and have wide authority to make needed changes, they added.

“You have to have an environment where people can actually do the work,” said Michael McQuade, vice president for research at Carnegie Mellon University. “We need to be sure the [digital people officer] has as much play in that part of the conversation.”

The board’s chair Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, introduced a separate idea that he thinks would help with recruiting and retaining tech talent in the military: Create a cyber military service academy, like West Point or the Air Force Academy. He preempted pushback by adding that it could be an online academy.

“I just don’t think that we are going to get enough software people without having them have a more traditional pipeline,” Schmidt said. The academy would require a set number of cyber-service years, just as the five other military academies do.

Schmidt brought up the idea during open discussion, but it was not included as part of a formal report passed along to the secretary of Defense on its recommendations to create the digital people officer role.


A new ‘color of money’ for software

The board also discussed Thursday how the DOD purchases code and the ongoing efforts to allocate money specifically for software purchases in its own category or “color.”

The DOD differentiates purchases of parts, maintenance and other categories with so-called “colors of money.” Giving all software acquisition its own color will allow the department to buy or update software and not have to shift between different types of purchasing categories instead of buying code the same way it buys a tank.

“When you split things into multiple pots, that is not how software works,” Richard Murray, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, said of the current system, that splits software spending into different categories.

Giving software its own color of money is a continuation from a previous DIB study on software acquisition and practices titled “Software is Never Done.”


“This is a WAY bigger deal than it sounds like,” Pahlka tweeted after the meeting. “This could help the people in the DoD develop software with vendors in ways it should be built, in ways that work!”

Murray said Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord has been extremely supportive of the giving software money its own color. But he acknowledged the challenge in making lasting changes to acquisition regulation implemented across the department. The department is planning to pilot a new color money for software across nine acquisition programs, which will be announced soon.

“I don’t know [if] I am reasonably confident anything complicated will go through,” Murray said. “It is a hard lift.”

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