DISA's Dave Mihelcic: 'Technology is easy, culture is hard'

The CTO of DISA discusses to speed tech deployment in the defense enterprise environment

The evolution of modern warfare is revolutionizing defense technology, and the Defense Information Systems Agency is at the forefront of that push. In an era in which big weapons systems are losing momentum in favor of smaller tools that give troops a technological edge, DISA is supporting the lines of communication that facilitate the network-enabled warfighter.

In perhaps one of its biggest endeavors, DISA is taking on enterprise infrastructure, a bold move that will eventually link communications and information sharing across the Defense Department and its chain of command — from dismounted troops on the ground to top brass at the Pentagon.

The agency’s chief technology officer, Dave Mihelcic, is helping orchestrate some of DISA’s most important steps as it takes on a major role in linking the defense enterprise and its disparate networks and capabilities. Mihelcic emphasized taking advantage of available technologies and getting better tools into the hands of warfighters on the ground as quickly as possible.

With saving lives as his motivation, Mihelcic is focused on getting DOD up to the speed of technology, starting with the offices inside the Beltway. Staff writer Amber Corrin recently met with him to talk about changes in the workplace, his top priorities and lessons from the response to the earthquake crisis in Haiti.

FCW: Implementing new technologies and the policies that surround them can be tough because you’re changing the way people do their jobs. How do you deal with the cultural issues and get all the stakeholders on board?

Mihelcic: That is probably the hardest problem: introducing new technology. Really, technology is only an enabler, and we’re working to change personal and business practices. So instead of focusing solely on the technology, we focus on the effect we’re trying to achieve and use that effect as the marketing tool to get someone engaged in using the technology.

Some organizations regard technology suspiciously. They believe it’s going to somehow cut into their proprietary mission or their budget, and that’s something you have to deal with. You have to be sure employees understand that the intent is not to replace them or to eliminate their functions — it’s trying to make them more efficient.

I’ve seen a number of IT programs fail that could have been successful because rank-and-file employees looked at [them] as a threat to their jobs, and they went up their chain of command and said, "This will never work. Therefore, you’ve got to kill it." You really do have to get that buy-in early.

NEXT: Best practices in pushing out new technologies

FCW: Have you learned any lessons or identified any best practices along the way as you push to implement new technologies?

Mihelcic: It’s all about understanding that technology is easy and culture is hard. You can’t assume you have the answer at the beginning. Instead, work with a pilot group to document how the technology would best be used. Actually getting end-users involved in the development and implementation is part of an agile software development approach. One of the underpinnings of agile development is getting the end-users involved very early in the development process and on a regular basis.

You can do the same thing in fielding technology. Instead of saying, "I have the perfect plan to roll this out and impose it on this organization," get users involved. Use their feedback on a rapid cycle and make changes in your plan until the plan actually meets the business expectations. Ensure that you’re adapting and ensure that you recognize what you planned may have no bearing on what actually appears — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the Army, there’s a saying: No plan withstands contact with the enemy.

FCW: You’re leading DISA in a campaign to exploit technology. What are your top priorities right now?

Mihelcic: Right now, it’s all about building the enterprise infrastructure and putting together a foundation that allows us to rapidly bring new services to the warfighter. We also want to extend those services globally through the [Defense Information Systems Network, DOD’s network for providing video, voice and data services], as well as service and agency networks, and be able to do that in an agile and rapid environment.

We need to reduce the cost of entry that we have in building and fielding software on DOD’s networks today, which is pretty high. For example, with modern framework-based software development technology, you can build a new application in a matter of weeks, but it can take months, even years, to have that fielded. We need to reduce the barrier of entry. I want to see a warfighter in the field be able to write a piece of software, take it through testing and provisioning, and [have it] be operational in hours in some cases, rather than weeks or months or years.

NEXT: Leveraging the All Partners Access Network

FCW: Going with the theme of removing barriers, you have spoken a lot about the All Partners Access Network, which was a valuable tool in the response to the Haiti earthquake. What can we learn from APAN, and how can that be applied to DOD?

Mihelcic: APAN was adopted from a network that was originally used by U.S. Pacific Command. It allowed collaboration between all the different combatant commands around the world.

One of the things we learned from that is that you can’t always understand who your partners are. One night I was on APAN, watching Haiti relief being coordinated by a U.S. Southern Command operator, and someone popped in and said, "I’m the owner of a construction business in Biloxi, [Miss.] and I have four qualified bulldozer operators, and if you can arrange transportation to Haiti, they can participate in the relief.’ And they were able to coordinate that.

The power of that is incredible. If you think about the traditional interaction with a large bureaucracy like the U.S. government or military, that situation never would have happened via phone call. So we’ve learned that your partners are going to change dynamically, and you can’t anticipate that, so you need technology that supports those dynamics and changing partnerships.

We’ve also learned with APAN that we need infrastructure based on Web 2.0 technologies, like social networking, that allows participatory content into the infrastructure.

Our warfighters work in this battlespace — they aren’t sitting in a protected zone, they’re out there with not only adversaries but members of the community in Iraq and Afghanistan. They need to be able to interact seamlessly. For the average warfighter, this is a concept they can embrace.

In the IT community, we’ve tended to build barriers and firewalls to keep the bad guys out. On our classified networks, yes, we need to have a very secure perimeter, but we also need to be able to seamlessly interact with people that one day might be a partner and the next, they might be an adversary. Or they might be both at the same time.


  • IT Modernization
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    OMB provides key guidance for TMF proposals amid surge in submissions

    Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat details what makes for a winning Technology Modernization Fund proposal as agencies continue to submit major IT projects for potential funding.

  • gears and money (zaozaa19/Shutterstock.com)

    Worries from a Democrat about the Biden administration and federal procurement

    Steve Kelman is concerned that the push for more spending with small disadvantaged businesses will detract from the goal of getting the best deal for agencies and taxpayers.

Stay Connected