The Problem with Dull Knives: What’s the Defense Department got to do with Code for America?

Photo courtesy of Seniju via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

We wrapped the 7th Code for America Summit on Friday, and are delighted with the forward progress we made together as a community. It was an energizing and galvanizing event, and I’m so proud of the team that put it together.

I wanted to address one note of criticism, focused on a presentation by Air Force Col. Enrique Oti of the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (or DIUx) about the software development approach recently introduced at the US combined air operations center at the Al Udeid Air base in Qatar. A couple of tweets from attendees questioned why Code for America would be featuring the work of the military. I’d like to clarify a few things, and share two responses to this critique, a professional one that represents Code for America as an organization, and a personal one.

First, the professional response. Why did we include a case study from the military? The thrust of the talk was about transformation in the world’s largest bureaucracy: the U.S. Department of Defense. As Raj Shah, Enrique’s co-presenter, said in the talk, “The real lesson here is not how to build a tanker tool, but how do you build modern software in [the world’s largest bureaucracy]?” The talk shared how this team took a $750 million program that was entering its 11th year without delivering a line of code to an actual user, and instead shipped code in 12 weeks, with 10 people, for less than $1.5 million. The previous project, they explained, had also been making mistakes with lives on the line. Raj and Enrique shared five lessons learned from the project, all of which are applicable to the work of Code for America and our fellow travelers.

Code for America’s focus is reinventing the safety net for our country’s most vulnerable, but a pillar of our work has been breaking the stranglehold of large IT projects that don’t take the needs of users into account and increase the costs of administration at the expense of the people these services were designed to help. This project did exactly that. Raj and Enrique took the same kind of agile, iterative approach, and the resulting software has replaced three trips a day that cost $250,000 in fuel each, and will save millions more as it spreads. This story follows a pattern we see in the digital transformation work we and others do in government services: its results made others (in Congress and elsewhere) take notice, and helped to justify and even initiate changes in other acquisitions and in broader acquisition strategy. The takeaway: If the Air Force can make real change with this approach, so can the rest of government, including those parts of government responsible for supporting our most vulnerable populations.

Reshaping the government contractor ecosystem was a major and very visible theme of the event. In addition to this presentation, we had rousing treatises on the topicfrom Rafael Lopez (this is a must-watch! especially if you love Hamilton), Dan Hon, and Greg Gershman on the mainstage and several breakout sessions on the topic. I am impressed with DIUx’s track record of shaking up the military contractor ecosystem, and the lessons of that work are valuable, and strengthen our understanding of how change happens in government. We shared other lessons from outside of Code for America’s work on the safety net as well, including from fields as far flung as skateboarding (watch Rodney Mullen’s talk here ) and technical infrastructure for selling handicrafts on Etsy (John Allspaw, former CTO of Etsy, on blameless postmortems ).

A few people heard the talk and mistakenly took DoD’s presence at the event to mean that Code for America was working with the Department. We are not. Regardless, for some folks, the introduction of a military case study into the Code for America Summit was concerning. Others, some of them former and current members of the armed forces who participate in the civic tech world and in Code for America, felt very differently. I hope that everyone in our community makes an effort to see the issue through others’ eyes and treat each other with respect.

My personal take

Now I’d like to share my personal perspective on this issue, not as the executive director of Code for America, but as Jennifer Pahlka.

Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. Grandpa Arnol was a fighter pilot who flew 56 missions over Germany and occupied France, and was shot down over enemy lines twice. The first time he managed to make it back to a crash landing in Allied territory; the second time he ended up a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. Grandpa Harlan served in the Navy in the Pacific, and tells stories of dodging flying wreckage from Japanese kamikaze pilots crashing into the side of his ship. I’m immensely proud of their service to this country.

When it came to my parents’ generation, the war they faced was in Vietnam, and the response was different. My father joined the Navy in order to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam, and marched in uniform in antiwar parades. My uncle went further; he burned his draft card on the steps of the Oklahoma State Senate, and then continued acts of civil disobedience by destroying the draft records of low-income and predominantly African-American communities en masse (yes, he and his friends broke into draft offices at night) in order to slow the machinery of the war and mitigate the unequal burden of the draft. He spent a lot of his twenties in prison for these acts, and it’s a miracle it wasn’t most of his life. I’m proud of both my father and my uncle, and their own way of serving their country, according to their conscience.

For most of my life I have taken my cues more from my parents’ generation than my grandparents’. I’ve never been called to serve in the Armed Forces, but when the US and allies started dropping bombs on Iraq in April 2003, I channeled my uncle and went out and protested. I was eight months pregnant at the time, and was arrested and booked for blocking an intersection, gigantic belly and all. There were no consequences to me, short of the disapproval of some of my then-colleagues (most of whom were annoyed at the traffic jam the protests had caused) and later, having to explain this on my record during my clearance process to work in the White House. I consider myself enormously privileged to have made that political statement and suffered no repercussions.

In 2016, I was asked to join the Defense Innovation Board, a group of advisers from outside the military formed by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to propose creative solutions to the structural, operational, technological, and workforce challenges of the DoD. (The DIB has continued under Secretary James Mattis, with the same members.) I thought almost nothing of it when I immediately said no. I didn’t decline based on principle so much as on the feeling of having other priorities, and a vague sense that this “wasn’t me.” I knew next to nothing about the military, and rarely thought about the work they do except when I went to the movies, talked with my grandfathers, or, I suppose, protested. I now see that lack of lack of thoughtfulness about my response also as a form of privilege, one I’m not proud of.

I changed my mind one night while at an event with retired United States Army General Stanley McChrystal. I don’t remember exactly what General McChrystal said, but I recall realizing that the considerations he was describing weren’t something I as an American with privilege should pretend I wasn’t party to. He spoke in part about the significant deficiencies in our current military, and I could see that they were kept from meeting the needs of their users largely by the same forces that hold back the government services Code for America works on. Naturally, General McChrystal reminded those of us who haven’t served of the sacrifices made by those who have and do serve.

Though I grew up knowing few veterans and service members outside my grandparents’ generation, I had recently married into a family with quite a few active military personnel, and that proximity made me increasingly aware of the incredible commitment our Americans in uniform make, as well as the leadership they must demonstrate to survive and succeed. General McChrystal evoked these qualities alongside his plea for bringing our military into the network age, but his description of the state of this institution also evoked a personal memory for me, this time not about my father and grandfathers, but of my mother.

My mother’s relationship to the military was complicated. My sister and I were both born (17 months apart) while my father was serving in the Navy. My mom, whose friends and relatives (including the aforementioned uncle) were protesting the Vietnam War, lived on the base, where she sometimes felt isolated. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, my mother, pregnant with my sister, went out to protest; none of the other Navy wives would join her. I’m not sure how she feels about my role on the Defense Innovation Board, but something she said to me once is part of why I changed my mind and joined the board.

I have a distinct memory of being a kid in the kitchen with my mom, awkwardly and probably dangerously wielding a knife, trying to cut some tough vegetable, and defending my actions by saying the knife was dull anyway. My mom stopped me and said firmly, “ Jenny, a dull knife is much more dangerous than a sharp knife. You’re struggling and using much more force than you should, and that knife is going to end up God Knows Where.” She was right, of course.

This is not actually me, in case you were wondering.
Photo courtesy of Janice Cullivan via Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

It’s important to distinguish between American foreign policy, military strategy and policy, and the fitness of our military to do its job. I have frequently in my life disagreed with the decisions of our leaders to wage war or take other lethal action. I’ve used my voice (and my body) to make my views known and hoped to influence our leadership towards a different course of action. But what I realized in that memory that came back to me during General McChrystal’s speech is that as much as I don’t want wars with which I disagree waged in my name, I also don’t want them waged with a dangerously “dull knife.” That’s just another way for service members and innocent civilians to get needlessly killed. I don’t for a moment doubt that there are other ways that civilians are killed needlessly; instances of abuse of power and other atrocities are well-documented, and I recognize there are probably others that go undocumented. But having poor tools doesn’t make us fight less; it makes us fight badly.

There are lots of moral and ethical questions that come in my work, both with the Defense Innovation Board (where I serve in my personal capacity), and with Code for America. I’d rather grapple with those issues, face the world we live in, and make the best decision I can, even if it means I’ll sometimes be in conflict with friends and colleagues who might make different decisions. I expect my friends and colleagues to do the same.

I’m proud of the work I do with the Defense Innovation Board, and my biggest regret is that I wish I could spend more time on their efforts and be of greater help. While the protester part of me can take action against policies and practices I disagree with, the government reformer part of me has something to offer to the job of equipping the men, women, and non-binary people in uniform who are acting with integrity and doing their best at the job we have asked them to do. The time I give the board is in their honor, and in the honor of the people they engage around the world. There are many aspects to getting that engagement right, be it military force, diplomacy, or other efforts, and I know that I’m not always going to agree with my country’s choices. But when I am my grandparents’ age, I want to look back and be able to say I did what I could to help our country get it right, on all fronts.

The Defense Innovation Board in 2016, after landing at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan (I think). That’s me in the middle. I proudly participate in the DIB in my personal capacity, not as a representative of Code for America.

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