Pentagon's 'rebel alliance' chief seeks to boost digital prowess

  • A sign outside the office of Chris Lynch, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Defense Digital Service, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 23, 2016.

    A sign outside the office of Chris Lynch, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Defense Digital Service, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 23, 2016. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

  • Chris Lynch, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Defense Digital Service, in his office at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 23, 2016.

    Chris Lynch, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Defense Digital Service, in his office at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 23, 2016. Bloomberg photo bgy Andrew Harrer

Posted9/17/2016 7:16 AM

Chris Lynch is easy to spot walking the Pentagon's sprawling corridors: He's the guy wearing a hoodie and sneakers amid all the crisp military uniforms. Instead of a placard with his name, the sign outside the office he leads says "Rebel Alliance."

With its open rows of Apple computers, whiteboards and "Star Wars" imagery lining the walls, Lynch's free-flow work space at the Pentagon's Defense Digital Service would be familiar to Silicon Valley programmers. But it's atypical for federal agencies, and that's the point.


"It's the fight against the bureaucracy," said Lynch, 40, who founded several technology startups. "How do we think of new approaches to things that in some ways have remained unchanged for very long?"

While the Defense Department has to fend off North Korean and Russian hackers and counter Islamic State recruiters online, it also has to process personnel requests, travel vouchers and job applications more efficiently. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has vowed to yank the Pentagon fully into the 21st century -- moving increasingly toward cloud services, modernizing computer systems and adding more mobile products. Lynch, whose office reports directly to Carter, helps make that happen.

Part of Lynch's new approach meant landing Matt Cutts, a 15-year veteran at Google who, as the head of the company's web spam team, had the power to help determine whether companies flourished or floundered by tweaking the algorithm behind online search results. Cutts' role at Google -- he's now on leave -- was important enough to the world of webmasters, public relations specialists and computer engineers that he attracted 516,000 followers on Twitter, 80,000 more than Vladimir Putin's English feed.

"I did take a pay cut but that's OK, because where else do you get a chance to have an impact like this?" the 44-year-old said.

Since it's the Pentagon, not everything Cutts and Lynch do can even be discussed publicly. But among the DDS's unclassified projects is a review of problems affecting the new ground-control system for the next generation of GPS satellites as well as veterans' health-care records and the Defense Department's travel system.

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With their set pay scales and buttoned-down culture, the Pentagon and other public agencies must compete for talent with tech companies offering lucrative salaries and laid-back work environments. Their longer hiring process is also a turnoff. And then there's the broad distrust of Washington in Silicon Valley after Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance and the FBI's unresolved fight with Apple over encryption.

FBI Director James Comey said his daughter encapsulated the government's problems in recruiting, describing his role as "The Man."

"And I thought that was a compliment so I said, 'Thank you,'" Comey told attendees at a Symantec Corp. cybersecurity conference Aug. 30. "And she said, 'Dad, I don't mean that in a good way. I mean you're The Man. Who would want to work for The Man?"'

It all adds up to a high hurdle for the feds.

"Federal agencies' lack of cybersecurity and IT talent is a major resource constraint that impacts their ability to protect information and assets," U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott and other Obama administration officials said in a July statement.


Some of that shortfall starts with the paycheck.

Cybersecurity and information technology workers usually enter the federal government at salaries from $53,000 to $84,000, according to the Office of Personnel Management. That compares with average cybersecurity salaries of $116,000 at Google and $140,000 at Facebook, according to Glassdoor Inc., which tracks company pay.

Plus, companies offer additional perks, from free snacks to stock options.

The U.S. Digital Service, which brings in technologists for short-term programs at federal agencies, points out to recruits that federal salaries are capped at $160,300.

"Sooner or later the federal government, if they're going to get people, they're going to have to pay higher salaries," said Martin Libicki, a senior management scientist at Rand Corp. who wrote a report on the cyber workforce. "But that means more taxpayer money."

The demand for cybersecurity professionals began to overtake supply in 2007, and the shortage is primarily among those with high-end skills, who can fetch salaries of $200,000 to $250,000, according to Libicki.

Some federal agencies are better off than others. The CIA, NSA and FBI as well as other military and law enforcement agencies tend to have an advantage because of the prestige associated with their brands, analysts say.

It's more challenging for some civilian agencies as "their mission might not be that sexy," Shawn Henry, a former FBI executive who is now chief security officer and president of services at CrowdStrike Inc.

Two years ago, the government was a "scary black box" for Phaedra Chrousos, 34, who founded and sold two startups in New York. The MBA graduate took a chance and joined the General Services Administration after being courted by friends in the government, eventually serving a stint as the commissioner for its Technology Transformation Service.

"There's tremendous misconception outside of the government when you're coming in," Chrousos said in an interview. "I was told, 'I can't believe you're entering the government. Do you think you'll get anything done?"'

To help fill the 10,000 cybersecurity jobs the Office of Personnel Management says are needed in the next few years, the White House says the federal government hopes to employ an additional 3,500 more people for cyber and IT positions by this January. It's also proposed spending $62 million in 2017 to expand cybersecurity education, including scholarships to college students.

Some agencies are trying to tackle the dearth by going to the source, setting up outposts in Silicon Valley and testing short-term programs to give outsiders a taste of government cyber work. The Department of Homeland Security lets companies "loan" an executive for as long as a year as an unpaid agency employee.

On Capitol Hill, Travis Moore was struck by the lack of tech expertise while working as the legislative director for former representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California. Moore created TechCongress, a nonprofit that started a nine-month fellowship this year, paying a pair of technologists $70,000 stipends to work on technology policy in Congress.

"There's a belief in Silicon Valley, 'if only we could get smart people in the government like us we could solve it all,"' Moore said. "It's a lot more complicated than that."

Cutts had a rough start on his first day at the Pentagon's DDS, as staff hustled to find him a computer. But he praised the office and other opportunities that are sprouting throughout the federal government.

"There's a third path now," he said. "It used to be academia or industry, and in the last two or three years there's a much clearer path to serving your country and joining government and that is new."

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