Chief technology positions are not new in the federal government writ large. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s approach to the role and its placement within the agency’s hierarchy stands out, however, as the NGA’s newly created CTO position reports directly to the director and the deputy director as opposed to the chief information officer.

NGA’s new CTO Anthony Vinci recently sat down with C4ISRNET’s Mark Pomerleau to discuss how the position is helping NGA, one of the government’s leaders in technology, tackle agency transformations and become a better adopter of forward-leaning intelligence solutions such as automation and machine learning.

C4ISRNET: What are some of the priorities and projects you’re focused on as CTO?

VINCI: There are two or three big pieces to it for me.

One is being the chief technology advisor to the director and the deputy director … [to help us] understand where technology is going, particularly commercial technology.

So, think AI [artificial intelligence], computing, Big Data – those kinds of forward-leaning technologies.

Secondly, I see [CTO] as a chief evangelist or champion of technology within the agency and then outside of the agency talking about what we can do at NGA with GEOINT [geospatial intelligence] technology, what’s possible, where we’re going and taking that role, which I think you can see a lot in CTO roles in commercial industry.

And then, the third big piece is tackling some of those technology transformations in the agency that actually have nothing to do with technology and that require that cross-cutting approach to implement to adopt and to get into operations.

There are just no possible ways that human beings alone can ingest, digest analyze all the information that is at our fingertips right now, so we have to adopt AI and automation technologies, so I’m really pushing for that … but it’s not just a technology issue.

There are workforce issues that have to be addressed – training, recruitment, new work flows, new processes in order to take advantage of those technologies; it’s not just adding an icon to a desktop.

It’s a fundamentally new way to work with technology when you start using … machine learning.

C4ISRNET: Was it your sense this position was created to harness emerging trends in the commercial market to help data analysts and military intelligence to shrink the decision loop against competitors and adversaries?

VINCI: I absolutely think that part of it is driven by that.

We have to adopt these technologies because they make us more efficient, more effective as an agency to do the mission that we’ve always had.

In order to adopt these new technologies, we have a lot of the pieces already there, but we do need to adopt new ways of thinking about it.

NGA and every other government agency has always worked with commercial industry … what’s new here is different types of companies now with different types of technologies, so you need different types of leaders and different approaches by the agency.

A good example I would bring up is a lot of the technology that’s interesting to us – computer vison, machine learning, deep learning, artificial intelligence, as a few examples – moves very quickly.

[To move quickly] you need to bring together a lot of pieces in a way that we traditionally haven’t always done where we could take months or even years of time to adopt technology.

C4ISRNET: As that evangelist, are you and your team working directly with operators to better understand their needs as you advocate for the adoption of commercial best-of-breed technologies?

VINCI: Absolutely.

I think to get to that … you have to start by understanding your customer and designing your solution for them.

What I was discussing with the director in the new role, I said look, I need to go on a listening tour and what I would call almost like a marketing tour with our customers from day one. That’s what I’ve been doing and I’ve been on a lot of travel to go out and meet our intelligence community and Defense Department customers, understand what they need and let them understand what’s possible because not everyone is up on every piece of technology out there – that is another big part of the role – understating what’s out there … or what will be out there in the near future and then understanding what people need and problem sets are and trying to make that match.

Then … going back into the agency in a cross-cutting way, figuring out how to deliver those capabilities.

C4ISRNET: Are there any examples of ways in which you’re looking toward machine learning to solve a particular intelligence or analyst problem?

Vinci: One example is when we start looking at some of the commercial imagery providers out there that we’re working with, the pure density of their collection [increases].

When you’re talking about that much data, you need new ways to work with it; you can’t just simply look at every image, you have to adopt some form of change detection capability, some sort of object identification capability. I think the best way to get at those kinds of capabilities, what I’m seeing industry do, is deep machine learning … where the system uses data sets to train the system to get better and better … at recognizing change.

What I’m looking to do is taking advantage of what’s happening in commercial industry more, where they’re developing capabilities we can use towards those mission we have to use and get them adopted, get them in the door.

C4ISRNET: What are ways that you’re looking to overcome some of the institutional challenges that exist within government? How are you looking to change the culture or perceptions at NGA to help adopt some of these better practices?

VINCI: I see it happening in a few different ways.

A big one is process and it seems strange, but we actually need some bureaucracy and process around adoption and around incubation of technology development of demos and prototypes and then turning those … into operational capabilities.

I’m actually trying to build some bureaucracy and some process.

We created an office called the Office of Ventures and Innovation. Its purpose is to help us to set some standards and processes for people to take in new technology during our development from commercial industry, and then test and evaluate it, get it funded, get it in workflows and make it a standard operational product.

Part of it is adding that process into the agency, and we’ve been working on that.

Another part of it is cultural. It’s creating a more inclusive environment for adoption of technology by reminding people it’s not just something that happens in an IT department, but it’s something everybody can take part in.

C4ISRNET: What are some of the areas of achievement you see within the space?

VINCI: I think we’ve set ourselves some hard goals that we’re trying to achieve, especially when we talk about the five-year time frame.

For example, we’ve set a goal for ourselves to automate 75 percent of what we currently do within five years.

I truly believe that agencies across the government need to have CTOs in strong leadership positions for the same reason that companies have adopted them as direct reports to CEOs. You need someone in these agencies that’s thinking about the future, thinking quickly, bringing some of the new ideas from industry, working closely with chief information officers and chief data officers, taking that champion, evangelist approach.

Most importantly, we need to be working together. What I’d like to see in the near future is other CTOs working together the way that CIOs work together on a regular basis within the intelligence community and the DoD.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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