AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Georgia Cyber Center, a public-private collaboration to strengthen cybersecurity, wants to help improve the way the military develops technology.
The two-building campus in this city about two hours outside Atlanta started with $106 million from the state as it tries to create a reputation as a “Silicon Valley of the South.” Companies, academic teams, and federal and state government entities — including varied defense contractors and some military satellite offices — rent spaces and collaborate in hopes of leading a revolution in cybersecurity.
“One of the great things about the center … it’s really about being a convener and a facilitator,” Eric Toler, the center’s executive director told C4ISRNET at the recent TechNet Augusta conference.
As the military has tried to adapt to the digital world, it sometimes has experienced a disconnect with the eccentric and creative nature of Silicon Valley and the startup world that revolve around tighter timelines for software drops. Military personnel are often siloed in drab government office buildings with strict rules, an atmosphere criticized at times for stifling innovation and hindering efforts to find and keep employees.
As a result, the military has attempted to dip its toes in this starkly different tech world and in some cases emulate its workspaces and culture that foster cooperation.
“We’re trying to make a much less constrained environment,” said Toler, a former Army cyber and intelligence leader. “You don’t have to follow necessarily, if you’re doing a development project, the exact same rules — and not that you’re going to break any rules, but we have far less here.”
While adopting a startup mentality and fostering a more creative space than standard-fare government buildings might seem trivial, some have said such efforts are important to attracting and retaining talented people, as was the case with the Air Force’s Kessel Run software facility in Boston.
Toler said the Georgia Cyber Center was designed specifically so it doesn’t feel like a government building.
“I knew that we got it right when I had a group of soldiers come in and I said, ‘How are you all doing?’ They said, ‘Whenever I come here, I feel so free to think.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! We have it right.’”
The collaborative nature of the center, which hosts offices for the Defense Digital Service and Army Cyber Command’s Technical Warfare Center, might allow the government to shorten its requirements timeline.
“I’ve seen it at the DoD level where operations from your requirements to your acquisition and fielding aren’t always aligned. We have the opportunity to get that right, at least in the cyber domain,” Toler said, adding that research being conducted at the center can be pulled into a current or future requirement.
He noted that the center has no stake in defense or government contracts, but the effort is really about bringing people together to create and solve problems.
“When people start coming together and having a conversation — it can be downstairs over a cup of coffee — it’s like, ‘Yeah we’re really challenged with this problem.’ And then you’ve got like two industry partners that say, ‘We already have a solution to that problem,’” Toler said. “‘Really? Can we buy it?’ Yeah, and guess what? It’s cheap because it’s already developed. We don’t have to go through this six-year process of articulating a requirement that no one can understand.”
On the flip side, technology the DoD has developed could be of use to commercial industry or a Georgia government department.
Exposure to how the commercial sector operates and conducts its business in the tech world can also be a boon for military personnel who work in the center. The department has discovered the power of allowing its members to participate in internships while still on active duty to gain important experience and insights in the business sector that they can bring back to their jobs.
However, Toler sees potential to make this kind of cooperation much more frequent.
“The Army has a phenomenal program where we can select a few officers and they can go train with industry for a year, but it’s very selective and it’s very small,” he said. “What if you could give every soldier that opportunity? Not a year at a time, maybe it’s two weeks. We’ve got this project going on, we want to work on a new software application for X. Hey, let’s build a team, let’s go work on it, we’ve got space to do that, and we’ll see where you are at the end of two weeks.”
As a military commander, he said he would allow soldiers take a month tour with industry. He noticed when they came back, they were very refreshed, learned new skills, met new people, and returned with ideas, all of which made the unit better.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.