The DoD Brings on Tech’s Brightest Minds—and Problems by Matt Simon

The DoD Brings on Tech’s Brightest Minds—and Problems by Matt Simon

The government is sick of people thinking it is old and lumbering and bogged down in bureaucracy. Sure, it is all those things. But it wants to change. So it’s looking at the blazing-fast ying to its octogenarian-on-horse-tranquilizers yang: Silicon Valley.

This is particularly true of Department of Defense boss Ash Carter, who is trying to lure the Valley with promises of lucrative contracts. And yesterday, the DoD dropped news that it’s expanding the so-called Defense Innovation Advisory Board it established in March. Joining the list are big names like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, scientists and technologically disruptive types meant to help bring the DoD into the 21st century.

The Defense Innovation Advisory Board isn’t about helping the DoD build missiles and things. This isn’t Darpa. In fact, members of the board will have no part in military operations. Instead, they’re supposed to help streamline the DoD’s culture, turning it into a sort of federal Google. Indeed, Google’s Eric Schmidt chairs the board.

Joining him are people like Danny Hillis, the famed engineer, and Marne Levine, chief operating officer of Instagram. That is to say, this is a group of people with the kind of minds that can drag the DoD kicking and screaming into the 23rd century, where Star Trek happens. (Or something. Nobody, including at least one person on the board, seems to be sure exactly what kinds of projects they’ll be working on.)

And boy, does the DoD need it. Remember that time China hacked the US bureaucracy, making off with millions of federal employees’ personnel files? “We the people have to make the government work,” says Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and one of nine new appointees to the board. “We can’t stand aside and say, ‘Wow, government’s not working. That’s someone else’s problem.’”

Of course, along with Silicon Valley’s solutions come Silicon Valley’s dysfunctions—like its dismal institutional diversity. Pahlka is one of only two women on the DoD’s 15-member board.

In tech, poor diversity means not only poor opportunities for women, but poor decisions about products. Sure, the DoD is a fundamentally different beast, but for an organization that’s going out of its way to be progressive, two out of 15 sure seems like an odd ratio.


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