Silicon Valley Exec: ‘Innovation Isn’t Magic’

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

As the Pentagon continues its push to reach out to high-tech companies around the country, one Silicon Valley executive said the government must be careful to not treat innovation as if it were a magic pill. 

Air Force reservist Karen Courington, manager of product data operations at Facebook, said Defense Department Secretary Ashton Carter’s efforts to court Silicon Valley companies are important. “A lot of people are noticing and I think there’s a lot of energy there.” 

However, “innovation isn’t magic,” she said during a March panel discussion at the New America Foundation’s Future of War conference in Washington, D.C. “I sometimes feel like the department is treating it as such.”

When Pentagon officials come to Silicon Valley looking for new technology, they need to be specific about what is needed, she noted. “I think what we run the risk of, coming from Washington out to a place like Silicon Valley, is saying, ‘We’re looking for new tech’ and people are kind of like, ‘Well, as a means to what?’” she said.

Even referring to the Pentagon’s much hyped “third offset” strategy — a plan to maintain the United States’ military overmatch through investments in emerging technology such as autonomy — isn’t specific enough, she said. “If you say ‘third offset,’ unfortunately, that might fall flat.”

Last year, Carter established the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental as a way to better tap into the work being done in Silicon Valley. In April, he announced the creation of a technology manufacturing hub that would develop new fibers and textiles, with the Pentagon pledging $75 million toward the effort.

Courington encouraged Defense Department officials to try to steer away from unnecessary processes and bureaucracy as it looks to field new systems. “What I’ve noticed in the tech community is there’s not a lot of process, and process is a four letter word. So get rid of it, kill it, break rules where you can unless it’s … illegal,” she said.

Gen. David Goldfein, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, said while companies like Facebook answer to shareholders, the military has a responsibility to taxpayers.

“There, therefore, is a certain amount of oversight that we will always live with that may not be the same in Silicon Valley,” he said during the panel discussion. “It’s different pacing. You have the ability to perhaps move faster in Silicon Valley in some areas, and we’re going to be more methodical here in terms of how we’re going to move forward as we continue to report our process.”

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Science and Engineering Technology

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