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'Swat Team of Nerds' Tackles Tough Tech Challenges

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The Defense Digital Service is a team of 82 engineers, data scientists and computer scientists, working on some of the hardest problems in the Defense Department.

A man speaks virtually.
Brett Goldstein
Brett Goldstein, the director of the Defense Digital Service, speaks virtually to the Center for theNew American Security in Washington, D.C., Oct. 21, 2020.
Photo By: Screen Capture
VIRIN: 201021-O-ZZ999-001M

Brett Goldstein, DDS director, said they're a "swat team of nerds." He spoke remotely today to the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

A big advantage of DDS, he said, is that it reports directly to the secretary of defense.

That means the team is able to quickly answer the call if any tech issue arises. He also said that they could work on large projects rapidly when needed.  

A sailor does maintenance on a computer.
Maintenance Work
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Dean Caniban conducts maintenance on a computer in the automated data processing help desk center of the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, Oct. 9, 2020.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Quinton A. Lee
VIRIN: 201009-N-WS494-1025

DDS has worked on the much-publicized "hack the Pentagon" program, which looks for vulnerabilities in the department's information technology systems and comes up with ways to fix them, as well as to improve software and hardware.

Currently, DDS is partnering with the National Security Agency to cyber-protect Operation Warp Speed's search for a COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

DDS has also partnered with the medical community to develop COVID-19 symptoms checkers, which DOD personnel and their families can use to figure out if they need to get medical care, he said.

Another important ongoing program is the counter-unmanned aerial systems initiative, which addresses the problem of being attacked by swarms of small, hard-to-detect unmanned aircraft systems. Goldstein said that a rapid response team is on standby to fly out to remote areas should the problem arise.

A woman wearing a mask works on a computer.
Cyber Operator
North Carolina Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Latrica Quander-Freeman, a cyber operator assigned to the 263rd Combat Communications Squadron, updates a computer as part of Cyber Shield 2020 held Sept. 24, 2020, at the North Carolina National Guard’s Fort Fisher Training Center in Kure Beach, N.C.
Photo By: Robert Jordan, Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200924-Z-OU450-1078

For example, when the USNS Comfort and Mercy hospital ships were aiding in the COVID-19 effort, DDS personnel were helping to ensure small UAS were not being used to attack them.

DDS is also working with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to advance AI and machine learning, he said.

Most DDS employees recruited are civilians coming for two- to four-year terms, from the Silicon Valley world. The selection process is very rigorous, he said, because those who are selected will be working on the hardest problems in the department. 

Person tests network.
Squad Test
Army Sgt. 1st Class Patrick O. Huggins tests the squad area network capability during the Network Modernization Experiment taking place at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Sept. 10, 2020.
Photo By: Jasmyne Douglas, U.S. Army
VIRIN: 200910-A-OL973-637

Goldstein said the team members are given the most "wicked" projects to work on and they're okay with that because "engineers love challenges."

Some advice Goldstein has for information technology leaders in the department: "We need to sometimes talk a little less and execute a little more. Sometimes we'll be dead-on and sometimes we'll fail, learn from the failure and then be okay with the failure and just try again. Like that's the type of environment we need to encourage. Americans are innovative. We need to foster that innovation here."

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