The Defense Digital Service gathers top talent to work on technological projects.
The Pentagon’s start-up that drives technological innovation recently opened its first satellite office.
The Defense Digital Service brings in civilian and military personnel for two-year “tours of duty.” Its first satellite office opened on Nov. 20 in Augusta, Georgia, and was named “Tatooine,” after Luke Skywalker’s home planet in the Star Wars series. It’s located within the Georgia Cyber Center, a building owned by the state of Georgia that fosters collaboration among government, academia and industry. The building is also near the Army base Fort Gordon and the U.S. Army Cyber Command.
“Tatooine is an extension of our Pentagon office, so our teams will reflect the same makeup and talent profile,” said Rachel Breitfeller, DDS communications director. “This will include software developers, designers, product managers, digital experts and bureaucracy hackers, to complement the military service members already working out of Tatooine. Our goal is for colleagues that work in Tatooine to touch projects that we take on regardless of location. Our plan with Tatooine was to tap into the tech ecosystem and talent in Augusta and the surrounding areas, and create a secondary, accessible space that all colleagues would want to work out of.”
In 2019, about 70 people rotated through the Pentagon’s digital service with their “tours of duty.” Currently there are about 15 full-time staff members at the satellite office, Breitfeller said. “We are actively hiring civilians in our space, and Tatooine is also a hub for various projects that include our current [headquarters] staff,” she said.
The satellite office is a “big step for us,” Breitfeller told Government Executive. “We’re very much excited for the future.”
In 2015, the Defense Digital Service was born out of the United States Digital Service. Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter hired Chris Lynch to head the office, referring to him as a “serial entrepreneur in the tech world.”
Lynch, instrumental in bringing Silicon Valley culture to the Defense Department and developing the JEDI cloud program, among other things, left in April. The cloud program “attracted fierce competition” and “became so ugly that at one point a private detective company was shopping around a shadowy dossier to Washington, D.C., reporters to suggest improprieties in the contracting process,” DefenseOne reported.
Brett Goldstein, who previously advised the Navy on cybersecurity and was the chief data officer for the city of Chicago, took over as director following Lynch’s departure.
The goal of the digital service is to bring a new way of thinking into military culture. “We use design and technology to improve government services, strengthen national defense, and care for military members and their families,” said the department. Examples of projects in addition to JEDI include: a bug bounty program to help the department find security vulnerabilities, drone detection technology and a system for NATO advisors in Afghanistan to track engagements with their counterparts in the Afghan government.
Start-ups can be scary sometimes because of their threat to traditional business models, said Kevin Carter, product manager on the counter-drone project and digital service expert at DDS. “But ultimately what we see in the private sector is that established industry responds to start-ups and that’s really where we think we can drive change across the [Defense] department.” For example, the Navy decided to work with the office on a counter-drone project because the “traditional ways weren’t working,” he said.
Carter stressed that rank, grade and GS-level don’t matter in the Defense Digital Service because they are “irrelevant for the work that we have to get done”