Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Going Native: A Career Pipeline For U.S. Military Success Out in Silicon Valley

Just as we needed people who could interpret for us in Afghanistan and Iraq, so do we need soldiers who can do the same for us in Silicon Valley and other centers of technological innovation across the country.


By CPT Brent Chapman and CPT Frederick “Erick” Waage

Best Defense cyberpersonnel policy columnists

By CPT Brent Chapman and CPT Frederick “Erick” Waage
Best Defense cyberpersonnel policy columnists

Just as we needed people who could interpret for us in Afghanistan and Iraq, so do we need soldiers who can do the same for us in Silicon Valley and other centers of technological innovation across the country. Headquartered in spacious office space adjacent to the Ames Research Center located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the DoD’s liaison office, titled Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental (DIUx), is looking to capitalize specifically on this center of innovation. Reflecting on history, the location is appropriate given that DoD laid the techno-economic seed corn for the region at Moffett Field over half a century ago. Since then, Silicon Valley has become vitally important to the economic success of both California and the United States as a whole, with a GDP of almost 200 billion dollars in 2015. Now DoD is asking Silicon Valley to return the favor by increasing research and production of dual-use technologies.

As the DoD, and its service components, matures its presence in the Bay Area, it must set the conditions for its success by investing in its people, rather than technology alone. Military personnel must not only be able to speak the language of entrepreneurship and business, but also understand the values of the start-up community. There are two steps the Military should focus on in developing its Silicon Valley bound personnel. The first is to identify and select the “right” talent, and the second is to create a comprehensive pipeline to both train personnel in the region’s lexicon and business practices and inform them of the values that drive the community. Today, there are only a handful of off-the-shelf individuals in the DoD who have the experience and background to thrive in Silicon Valley. To both sustain the DIUx platform and to increase much needed diversity of expertise in the military, DoD must put forth a concerted effort in expanding and its pool of Bay Area interpreters.

DIUx is meant to bridge the divide between the Department of Defense and Silicon Valley with its ever-evolving coagulation of technical start-ups. As the DIUx initiative becomes more seasoned, DoD should develop entrepreneurial teams and enable them with the appropriate training and exposure to the Silicon Valley culture. Mimicking the skill-set combinations of successful entrepreneurial teams – the Jobs-Wozniak team being the most infamous – these teams should aim to strike a balance of technically expert and managerially savvy individuals. Therefore, to replicate Silicon Valley’s best practices, a DoD entrepreneurial team should, at a minimum, consist of two soldiers: a technical expert and an operations expert. Though the traditional military personnel file doesn’t currently provide the requisite visibility on these skill areas, there is significant work being done across the DoD to address the issue. DIUx recruiters can be part of the effort to improve talent management while also identifying these talented individuals early in order to deliberately establish a career pipeline.

A well-crafted training pipeline is critical to a successful and mutually beneficial relationship with the Silicon Valley community. With the candidates identified, the pipeline should be optimized to take advantage of military operational experience, augmented with regionally relevant skills, to produce technically-savvy, business-minded leaders who are as comfortable in the classroom as they are in the boardroom or on the battlefield. The below figure is recommend phased approach to developing and employing DIUx entrepreneurial teams:

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.26.01 AM

This three phased plan consists first of identifying a two-person team where each individual is a proven military expert in either the technical or operations fields. Once identified, individuals first attend a Bay Area graduate program to gain additional entrepreneurial skills, credentials and local networking in their respective fields. Through environmental immersion, during this period these “right” individuals should process and gain a full understanding of the unique ethos that governs Silicon Valley and its environs. Upon graduation, entrepreneurial team candidates would attend a short intensive course at the Defense Acquisition University designed to instill a better understanding of what DoD acquisition mechanisms are available to enable accurate brokering of future business partnerships. Finishing the career pipeline, entrepreneurial team candidates should complete a two to three year utilization tour of duty serving in DIUx. If things are done right, the individuals produced at the end of the pipeline have gone native in Silicon Valley and will likely be an asset to DoD whether in or out of uniform.

The more natives this pipeline creates the better. Even if they choose not to return to the military once they complete any additional military duty obligations, they’ll likely be a strong node in the in DIUx’s Bay Area network. If they stay in, then their experience will no doubt pay dividends for DoD as they progress in position and authority. A better path may even be a deliberate off-ramp of active duty members into the reserve component with their professional and military duties intersecting at DIUx. Regardless of where veterans of DIUx go at the cessation of their duty there, the DoD is largely relying on a pool of active and reserve outliers to shoulder this task. This effort alone may prove unsustainable and a poor long-term investment in its people given that commercial leadership of rapid technological innovation doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

CPT Brent Chapman is a researcher at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. A former Signals Intelligence Analyst, Signal Officer and Network Engineer (FA24), he recently made the transition to the Army’s Cyber branch. He is preparing for a move to California as part of the Army Silicon Valley Cyber LNO Team. CPT Frederick “Erick” Waage is a Cyber officer and researcher at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, NY. Erick served with the 75th Ranger Regiment from 2010 to 2015 including multiple deployments. He most recently served as the Regiment’s Chief of Technical (Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, Army Cyber Command, the Department of the Army, U.S. Cyber Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1