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Defense Officials Discuss the Role of the Chief Digital and AI Office at the Virtual Department of Defense Digital and AI Symposium

DEFENSE DEPARTMENT CIO JOHN SHERMAN: Good morning. I'm John Sherman, the Department of Defense chief information officer, and I'm joined by my colleague, Dr. Craig Martell, the new chief digital and AI officer, or CDAO here at the Department of Defense. We're honored to be speaking with you today, and we're going to have a fireside chat to talk about how CIO and CDAO are going to work together as CDAO gets rolling here.

And just to set this up here, CDAO has been established to create decision advantage for the department from the board room to the battlefield, bringing together the best of what we can do in AI and ML, data and digital services to get after the key decisions that Secretary Austin, Deputy Secretary Hicks, our combatant commanders and our battlefield leaders will need to be able to stay ahead of our pacing challenge and any other challenges we have in front of us.

I'm looking forward to talking with you today, Dr. Martell, about how we're going to work together.

CHIEF CRAIG MARTELL: Thank you, Mr. Sherman. Appreciate being here.

MR. SHERMAN: Okay, maybe a little bit about, just briefly. Craig, I'm really interested, and I'm sure the audience is, as well, why did you take this job? I mean…

DR. MARTELL: I get that question a lot.

MR. SHERMAN: …coming in from industry and coming into a heavy lift here.

DR. MARTELL: Yeah, I mean, the short answer is the mission. The longer answer is the mission and the DepSec made it easy for me to do it. So you know, when there's not a lot of folks that have a combination of DOD background and artificial intelligence background in industrial level, artificial intelligence background. And so when the deputy secretary of defense calls you up and says, "Hey, would you take on this role?" you have to think really hard about why you wouldn't do it.

And so I did that. I thought really hard. "Well, why wouldn't I do this?" And some of the reasons were, you know, it's a pay cut, for sure, coming from industry. But the mission is much stronger than that for me. We really do need to beat our pacing adversaries.

And so it's mostly mission-driven, but I have young children. So I have an 11-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, and I'm now bicoastal with young kids. And so the flexibility that the organization has allowed for me to be virtual as much as I can, to be here whenever I need to be. That was sort of the piece that made it possible for me.

MR. SHERMAN: And most people know this, but you were, until very recently, the head of machine learning at Lyft, correct?

DR. MARTELL: Correct, and before that we ran centralized teams similar to what we want to get done at CDAO, centralized teams that build the infrastructure for all the folks building AI at Lyft, which is distributed across the whole company. We also have a set of experts similar to the ADA teams we have here that would dive in, do deep dives to really hard problems. And before that, I ran machine learning for Dropbox.

MR. SHERMAN: Right.

DR. MARTELL: Before that, I did a lot of work on AI at LinkedIn, and a long time ago in a previous life I was a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

MR. SHERMAN: At NPS.

DR. MARTELL: Yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: So you've really done machine learning at massive scale, and everything that goes into that with the data, with the teams, with getting after something so large and being able to bring that here to DOD.

DR. MARTELL: I have. I've done it at massive scale, and if you think about the number of riders and drivers there are at any given second at Lyft and how you have to match them together for the right type of car, the right type of destination, where do you want that driver to be after you drop the person off? So I've definitely done it at scale.

I've not done it at scale with the bureaucratic resistance that I predict will be here at DOD. So as you pointed out, it's like a videogame, and that's the next level of the videogame. Welcome to AI at scale with bureaucracy, and that's where we're going now.

MR. SHERMAN: That’s definitely one way to look at it there.

DR. MARTELL: So, look John, I'm really thankful for your taking the helm here as you went from IOC to FOC, right? You know, I knew I was going to take this job, I think, back in January, but there were a lot of things I had to iron out transitioning out of my other job, and I'm so grateful you stepped in. You kept your day job…

MR. SHERMAN: Yup.

DR. MARTELL: …as the chief information officer for the DOD. I'm really curious to hear your thoughts about, what was it like going from [IOC] to FOC? What advice do you have for me?

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: Like, what did I miss that I need to know? 

MR. SHERMAN: Well, I first want to thank Deputy Secretary Hicks for her vision and leadership in driving the need to establish a CDAO, bringing together these functions where we had already had wind in our sails on AI/ML front, data, advanced analytics with Advana, and then with digital services, with DDS, and bringing that together into a unified effort to move us to the next level. But it was her vision, her guidance, her backing that enabled us to really get after this. 

Also want to give a big shout-out to Mr. Jim Mitre, who I think we'll be seeing here later, very shortly. Jim, a long time DOD official was out in the private sector came back in for a while to help us get this set up, and there was a lot of pick-and-shovel work in addition to the big muscle movement of bringing organizations together. But how do you stand something like this up? And I want to thank Jim.

But another key part is the leaders in the constituent organizations that now comprise CDAO. Your team, Craig, have really leaned in, have really thought broadly about, how do we get more out of where we need to go with this? And so that made my job as the acting CDAO, for a time, easier to work with such bright minds, such great leaders, and the workforce coming together. And as we said, we were building the plane as we were flying it.

Ukraine has been going on. We've had real-world operational needs to get after, as well as other things that don't quite get the coverage perhaps, but on things like business analytics; things like counter unmanned aerial systems, or un-crewed aerial systems, UAS; things like strategy; things like data governance, which, as you know, is such a foundational activity.

DR. MARTELL: Absolutely.

MR. SHERMAN: In terms of also key leaders, I want to Ms. Margie Palmieri a shout-out. She's going to be your, not only, wing person but also, I think, a shepherd here. She's so seasoned here in the department, coming over from the Vice CNO's staff. She's been the deputy CDAO now for a couple months, now. And I think she's going to continue to be a key asset for you.

The other thing I've been privileged to do, Craig, is talk about CDAO, the promise of what this new organization is doing and will do at places like NATO, as recently as two weeks ago. Some of our allies are considering CDAO-like efforts, and also talking to the media and others about what we're doing and where we're going to be taking this. But I've got to tell you, the excitement, Craig, about you coming in here to really put the afterburners on here is the sense I'm getting from everybody.

On the advice, I would just say we've got an amazing team. They're looking forward to working with you, to you setting a North Star here. And I think the entire department is as well. And I think you've got a willing team ready to work with you here, sir.

DR. MARTELL: Yeah, that's exactly what I, I've only been here three days, right? And so I've officially been here three days. And it's been a fire hose. But apart from being really overwhelming, it's been extremely exciting.

In particular, I've noticed all these things that you said, the willingness, the great leadership. The constituent teams that make up CDAO have really great missions. They are delivering; they are executing; they are bringing real value to the DOD.

I think the value that I would like our org to bring on top of that is exactly what you said. What's the North Star, in particular with respect to balancing tactical and strategic, right? We can have a bunch of tactical wins, and we can win against our pacing adversaries today, but we need to win 10 years now, too.

MR. SHERMAN: Right.

DR. MARTELL: We need to win five years from now. We need to win three years from now. So we need to be spending a lot of time thinking about how do we balance those two?

So, when we deploy; when we do something like ADA or with the Ukraine, how do we then make sure that the architecture we use today is going to serve us tomorrow? How do we make sure that the AI that we build today is using a foundation that's going to make us even better five years from now?

MR. SHERMAN: Right.

DR. MARTELL: So these are the, I think, the tough things we need to think about.

MR. SHERMAN: And maybe before we get to the next question, the other thing I would add in here, too, and maybe just addressing this up front, I know we've gotten questions about the institutional heritage of some of the constituent organizations. And they have made great impacts, the Joint AI Center …

DR. MARTELL: Absolutely.

MR. SHERMAN: The CDO, Defense Digital Services and Advana team. And I know being in a military organization here, where we have military units with such key heritages, when they come together or there's some reorganization, there's always thoughts, are we, kind of, quote, "pacing the colors," as it were, or bringing together? But I would say really the synergies we're going to get together out of this, and where we respect that which came before, and the efforts over the past few years, but the understanding -- and your experience in industry will certainly inform this -- our pacing challenge in Beijing, other concerns in Moscow and elsewhere, they're not standing still, in terms of how they're moving out on AI and we mustn't be too heritage-focused in terms of, "Well, this organizational name or whatever," and I think the workforce is ready to lean in on this. So while we respect which came before, we're also going to create new here. I think you would agree with that.

DR. MARTELL: I completely agree. But we're doing to do that without, it's not scorched-earth.

MR. SHERMAN: Right.

DR. MARTELL: We're going to find the things that have been working and we are going to take from this organization, a particular organization, and we're going to take that cultural heritage and spread it out over all of CDAO.

MR. SHERMAN: I think that's a spot-on point. Well, that, kind of, leads to the next question, Craig. So you've been here three days, hitting the treadmill running here. And you mentioned this a little bit, but a little bit more on your impressions here, both, kind of, in the tactical level of getting in the door here to being in DOD?

You've taught at NPS. You're a professor there, but now, here in the building, kind of, what are your impressions of all this?

DR. MARTELL: So let me say honestly that the bureaucracy is real, I've noticed that in three days. I've been here three days. I still don't have a CAC card, for example. So I still have to wait in line at the visitors' entrance. And so that's real, and it's also, as I was watching the symposium, there's been a lot of comments, or comments on LinkedIn, about press about CDAO, that will say things like, "Well, just wait until he hits the bureaucracy," you know, "He'll be out the door yelling, out the door screaming like other folks have been, of late."

And my attitude is slightly different. We're not going to change the bureaucracy of the whole. That's not a challenge I want to put before the team. We need to find the right gaps, the right places where we can leverage value. And then that value is going to drive a virtuous cycle of change. And, you know, a lot of folks think that DOD should be more like industry. Some of that is true. There's a lot of things about the DOD that can't be more like industry. And we shouldn't try to force that square peg in a round hole, right? We need to find out how to keep it the DOD but also make it more efficient and work better.

MR. SHERMAN: You know, if I can, to riff off one of your points about the CAC card and, you know, we talk a lot about user experience. And that was one area in CIO, we're going to be working closely with you on. And we've heard loud and clear the "Fix our computers" narrative that's been out there for a few months. I was just talking in Huntsville yesterday at a SAP IT conference, and this resonates in a big way with us, that, you know, I think about the airmen down at Tinker Air Force Base. She's trying to get her maintenance report ready…

DR. MARTELL: That's right.

MR. SHERMAN: … and sees the spinning wheel going on and, you know, wonders, she's doing maintenance on a tanker aircraft and wondering how we're going to beat our pacing challenge if we can't get the IT up. I want, and I know you feel the same way, and you created, working in industry, positive user experience. And this is something we take to heart. So your recent knowledge of this coming right into the building here, I think, will inform this well.

DR. MARTELL: I'm in total agreement. One of the particular areas that I'm excited about is ADA.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: So Artificial Intelligence and Data Accelerator. And I know that you've had a big part of helping to get that where it is today. So I'd love to know a little bit more about it.

MR. SHERMAN: Sure.

DR. MARTELL: And where do you think it's going, and its successes?

MR. SHERMAN: Absolutely. So the ADA initiative, which I know, Craig, will be one of your flagship activities as well, started quite a number of months ago, and again, with Deputy Secretary Hicks' full backing, and working with the combatant commanders across the COCOMS. Being able to get out to the various locations, be it Honolulu, Colorado Springs, Miami, Stuttgart, you name it, to be able to get into the COCOM space with AI data and visual service experts to really see what the problems are for the respective combatant commanders and what they need to be able to get after and unlock their data, think about what sort of AI and ML capabilities would help them get ahead of their particular problem sets, which will admittedly vary, whether it's the pacing challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, whether it's Ukraine, for EUCOM and General Wolters, or whether it's transnational criminal organizations that SOUTHCOM is working with partner nations on. And the key thing I've really been impressed with, Craig, and I know you will be too, as you really get settled in here, is the work that's already underway. We've talked a bit in the media about the logistic support for the flow of weapons and so on…

DR. MARTELL: Right, right, right.

MR. SHERMAN: …into EUCOM AOR to support the Ukraine situation and really seeing how, for example, Advana working together with the data folks and we've got AI experts working this, and then DES coming in there to be able to look at, for example, a registry, (inaudible) on things that are needed for Ukraine needs both for different types of support, lethal/nonlethal. This is where the real rubber's meeting the road. I think there's more work to do, but ADA is going to be a flagship achievement here.

DR. MARTELL: So now I think you pointed out a really good point, which is I didn't know what to expect with respect to the number of initiatives that are actually…

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: …in play and being effective, and I've actually been really impressed by the number of things that the team is doing.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, and ADA is one that's continuing to evolve. I think there is much opportunity to continue to flesh this out, and I think one thing you will be able do, and Margie and the team, will be the surface up certain trends, certain enterprise-level activities and needs that will transcend the commands to be able to, as you're thinking about the next AI capabilities, working with the services, working through the governance that you will have established now and that you will probably want to refine going forward. But ADA is going to be such a key fulcrum for that.

DR. MARTELL: Yeah, I think that's right. I think that's right. So one of the reasons I took the job is because of our early conversations.

MR. SHERMAN: Yup.

DR. MARTELL: And it was really clear to me that I'm going to need full support of CIO to make CDAO successful, and I'm completely confident that we're going to work together great, but I'd love to know your opinion about what's the best way for us to go forward as a team.

MR. SHERMAN: Well, in addition to meeting and talking frequently, because when we first met, I remember, you were out for your interview with Dr. Hicks. She sat in my office and I said, "Our teams are going to meet together regularly. We'll cohost a corporate meetings."

DR. MARTELL: I think that has to be the case, yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: It's going to be the case. So more functionally, what we're going to be doing, a lot of what we're doing right now with digital modernization will directly empower the CDAO. What we're doing, for example, with any foundational infrastructure, things like transport, the Defense Information System Agencies, DISA, that's deploying…

DR. MARTELL: Right.

MR. SHERMAN: …and working with our service colleagues, getting that out there. But also at the enterprise level, what we're doing with the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, JWCC, multi-cloud, multivendor; all three security classifications from CONUS out to the tactical edge.

DR. MARTELL: Love it.

MR. SHERMAN: Not only for compute workload storage, but to enable AI and machine learning across the combatant commands, which will be critical for Joint All Domain Command and Control, JADC2, which you, I know you will have a key role in.

Cybersecurity, as we secure our data and algorithms, our systems, we talk a lot about zero trust, a new philosophy there that assumes an adversary is already on our network. How do we micro-segment our networks so to prevent that adversary from moving laterally? And we're going to be working closely as we leverage AI to help us get even better as we employ zero trust.

Those are some of the main big things, but there's going to be innumerable other things as we look at leveraging commercial SATCOM, as we look at other C3 areas, and as we work together just to make sure that CDAO has the very best technology to get after your mission sets.

DR. MARTELL: So I was smiling through all of that because, you know, this is one of my largest concerns, is if we're doing important AI at the edge, how do we get that data? How do we make sure that data's fresh? How do we make sure it's quality? So these are exactly the kind of things that CDAO is going to need. In particular, I sort of see us as a car that's driving on the road that you're building…

MR. SHERMAN: Yup.

DR. MARTELL: …that you're building for us. And so this relationship's going to be extremely strong. In addition, I like that you're leveraging the relationship with industry, because it doesn't make any sense for us to build things that we shouldn't be building here. If industry's got a solution, that's the solution that we should use. One of the things that I want us to spend a lot of time thinking about though, John, is how do we not just go to the big players? How do we make it easy? How do we create a marketplace for startups, for medium-size, for small businesses? Because particularly in the AI space and I'm sure in many other spaces as well, there's a lot of innovation happening in two-person shops or five-person shops. You know, a good brain with a good idea, we want to be able to leverage all of that.

So when I start hitting some of those roadblocks, I'm going to be coming to you for advice on how to get past those.

MR. SHERMAN: And, we welcome that, Craig, because you've got such recent experience in a very large company that's highly-successful, but also your, over many years, working with small, and medium-sized businesses. As we work with Dr. Bill LaPlante, the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, Ms. Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary for research and engineering.

DR. MARTELL: Right.

MR. SHERMAN: And I've got to tell you, Deputy Secretary Hicks has been such an advocate for this as we do better in this space. And one other area we'll have an overlap there as we look at cybersecurity for the Defense Industrial Base too, not creating undue burdens on the small and medium businesses.

DR. MARTELL: That's right, yeah. That's right.

MR. SHERMAN: That's a whole other area there that also affects how they're able to work and provide contributions. We were talking before this about how we really see U.S. industry as our secret sauce, our special advantage here in the United States that gives us a leg up on authoritarian governments and others who we may have to face down at some point. And your knowledge on how to really speak industry and not come at it as a government person would, is going to be critical, Craig.

DR. MARTELL: Well, I'll absolutely do my best, John, I promise. One of the things that I have noticed is that we're starting to think about an important piece of this puzzle, which is the talent pipeline.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: And so I'd love to know your thoughts on the ways to get great talent in. I mean, we can't pay what industry pays.

MR. SHERMAN: Yup.

DR. MARTELL: But we have a mission that people are going to get behind, and so I'd love to know how you've been navigating that.

MR. SHERMAN: So, and this is such a priority for us. The technology is important, but as you've noted so often, it really is the women and men who…

DR. MARTELL: That's right.

MR. SHERMAN: …comprise our workforce. We have to think differently about this in terms of, the 30-year career in government probably won't be the way ahead on this. But as you've noted in other venues, the mission here in the Department of Defense, doing our national security is so important. It's not to say you can't do similar things in industry, but to be able to get the mission experience supporting our service members, the department is unique with that. But we've got to have a way where people can come and go between DOD and industry in a way that has been maybe not as easy as it has been, and then maybe coming back to government after some number of years in industry where a person like yourself, you know, who's taught at NPS, done things in industry, and now comes in in a very senior executive role. We have to have personnel and other systems that allow security and everything that allow for that because we've got to do this, because we try to stick to a 20th century sort of hiring and upscaling and retention model. We're not going to be able to compete with the nations we need to, but what are your thoughts on that, Craig?

DR. MARTELL: Well, you mentioned upscaling. I think a piece we really need to think about is to make someone's time in government valuable to their time in industry.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: So when they come to government, we have to give them the right skills. We have to give them the right experience so that when they're done, Silicon Valley or industry in general is willing to grab them, right? I'm not quite sure now that when I leave government, people aren't going to say, "Oh, you've been in government too long, and you're going to be stale, and you're not going to be on the cutting edge."

We want to create an environment where people who come to work for us, when they're done, many doors have opened for them to get back to industry.

MR. SHERMAN: That's a great point. And one of the things we've been working on at CIO and with our colleagues and personnel in readiness, and I want to partner closely with you, is going to be a new digital workforce strategy.

DR. MARTELL: Yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: And it started as a cyber strategy last year, but really getting at these issues, how do we think differently about this; how do we leverage the authorities that we already have at our disposal, that Congress has already given us, to really hit the accelerator on that? But then how do we do things like increase diversity, recruit in different areas, think really hard about educational baselines? Are we excluding folks that could contribute here? And then think broadly again about how there could be fungibility between government and industry, in a way. And how do folks, as you've noted, make themselves marketable in industry?

DR. MARTELL: That's right.

MR. SHERMAN: I think, and with our congressional overseers, with the executive branch, with others that can have our backs on this, to be able to be competitive in a 21st Century environment here, and I think particularly in the CDAO portfolio, to get after the talent you have and that you will need going forward, this will be so critical.

DR. MARTELL: I couldn't agree more. I think that, if we do this right, we can actually create a diversity pipeline for Silicon Valley, and they will be pounding down the door to get to that. So I think this is a really key initiative that we need to look into.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, and so, absolutely, the people piece, there's so much we have to do on that. And I really appreciate the partnership with you on that. Well, I know we're about…

DR. MARTELL: About time, yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: …getting close to time here, I believe. But, Craig, I just want to thank you for coming into government service. I mean, this really speaks to service in its purest form, I mean, to have someone like you come in from industry to make sure we're postured, as you noted, not only for this year but for the next 10 years.

DR. MARTELL: Yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: And team CIO and I are absolutely ready to support and work with you. And when I say "team CIO," it's not only at the Office of Secretary of Defense level. I work so closely with our military department CIOs, who I really consider key allies in this, the J Sixes, as they're known throughout, the defense agencies and field activities and the combatant commands. This is gonna require a team of teams. And whatever we can do to help leverage that community, already well-established and in many, for your areas, too, for the data officers and so on, we look forward to leaning in on that.

DR. MARTELL: Yeah, thanks so much, John. The work that you've already set up, and getting us from IOC to FOC, I mean, I couldn't have done it, I couldn't have stepped into the role the way I have without you. I appreciate that. For me, one of the things I'd like for us to be thinking about pretty strongly is how do we convince other folks to come in from industry for a tour of duty? This is going to be a tour of duty for me.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: I'm not going to be here for 10 years, right? I'm going to be here as long as it takes to make sure that we are strong and set for the future. But eventually I'll go back to my family.

MR. SHERMAN: Right.

DR. MARTELL: Right? So I really like this tour of duty notion.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: It's actually, sort of, permeating industry now. People, they do a tour of duty at a company.

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah.

DR. MARTELL: We should try to work really hard to figure out how we can have folks do tours of duty here and make it really valuable for them.

MR. SHERMAN: I think that's a great point. And hopefully there are, in other disciplines, in other parts of where we have needs, folks are maybe looking at you, going, "All right, I can step up on this."

DR. MARTELL: "I can do that, yeah."

MR. SHERMAN: Whether it's coming out of talent management, whether it's coming out of other sectors…

DR. MARTELL: Product management.

MR. SHERMAN: …Product management. You know, on that. And one other thing, while we're on this here, I don't know if they'll have a chance to see it, but I do want to thank your family, too. I know there's, any time someone steps up like this, it's a family team effort here…

DR. MARTELL: Yeah.

MR. SHERMAN: …for your spouse, your children. And so I just want to thank them, too. And, Craig, we're blessed and lucky to have you on team DOD here.

DR. MARTELL: Thanks, John. I'm honored to be here. I'm honored to have the position. Thank you. Thank you all.

MR. SHERMAN: Okay, well, I think this is going to wrap up our fireside chat here. I appreciate everybody tuning in today and look forward to seeing everybody, as we get rolling here on our continued modernization activities.

DR. MARTELL: Thank you all.

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