‘Most start-ups are attracted to really hard problems. The military has these in spades, so it’s an almost seductive problem space.’

14th January, 2020
‘Most start-ups are attracted to really hard problems. The military has these in spades,  so it’s an almost seductive problem space.’

An interview with Lauren Knausenberger, chief transformation officer of the US Air Force.

Q: What is your role with the US Air Force (USAF)?

Chief transformation officer.

Q: Is the role significantly different from the private sector?

It is the type of role that exists when a PE or consulting firm comes into an organisation that wants to change in a big way. The biggest differences are the sheer size of the US Air Force, and the challenge of the scale that comes with that, and the regulatory environment that must be carefully navigated to ensure lasting change without running foul of regulation.

Q: There is a growing awareness of IT security, but threats proliferate. Are new techniques and technologies catching up?

Absolutely. However, it's a cat and mouse game. There will continue to be new threats, and new protections to mitigate or avoid them. There will be new protections and threats will adapt to defeat them. Cybercrime is expected to be a $6 trillion market by 2021. As long as it remains profitable, people will continue to steal data and attack digitally connected assets. And there will continue to be a large market to counteract the threat.

Q: Does government have the edge over the private sector in IT security, or vice versa?

It depends. In my opinion, when it comes to large-scale IT for general use, the most well-respected, large technology firms have an edge. Start-ups are often much more focused on innovating at a faster pace, testing functionality, and providing an acceptable level of security for consumers. In the US, if a smaller firm is able to complete one of the rigorous cybersecurity accreditations, they are often viewed more favourably by banks and other customers which value security due to the rigour involved. The government has large resources to protect its most critical assets and, like private corporations, makes decisions on where to spend those dollars. When it comes to protecting those types of assets, governments have an edge and also some of the smartest minds in the world who are focused on proactively protecting assets from current and future attacks.

Q: Large companies have worked with governments for many years, but is it easy for start-ups?

For example, do small companies find it is hard to navigate tenders or deal with security clearance? Let’s face it, all companies struggle with doing business with the government, any government. You've heard about the long sales cycle, outdated requirements, and expensive proposals. Large companies hire staff who specialise in working the government proposal process and those who have relationships within government. Additionally, they set aside large budgets to prepare long proposals. Small companies can't compete on that type of deal. That said, most small companies know this and, instead, use mechanisms that are set up for them. The USAF has done an excellent job of providing mechanisms – most notably Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants – for small businesses to get easy access to small contracts that can then scale into larger contracts if the work proves useful and timely to a customer.

Q: Likewise, what is the experience of working with start-ups like for government?

Again, it depends. At their core, most start-ups are attracted to really hard problems. The military has these in spades, so it’s an almost seductive problem space. For a forward-thinking government employee, it’s refreshing to work with folks who are motivated to solve hard problems and who are unencumbered by barriers that don't exist in the nongov world. We do often have companies that think problems are easily solved at scale because it's easy to do a pilot. Many start-ups really struggle to get things implemented beyond the pilot stage and that’s frustrating for everyone. Companies also sometimes hesitate to invest in the cybersecurity rigour that is required to do business with the government, or change their minds when they see what is involved. On the whole, I am thrilled with the way the USAF has been able to reach out to new partners – small businesses and tech leaders who have not previously done business with the government. We’re expanding our defence industrial base and getting more tech talent involved in all parts of government. It’s a great thing.

Q: Is IT security going to continue to grow as an area? What about the skill shortage?

Hold on a moment while I consult my crystal ball. It says that in the short and medium-term, IT security will continue to grow as a field; however, in the long term, the skill shortage will be mitigated by increased automation and Artificial Intelligence, making way for a new wave of tech jobs. Of course, the crystal ball blew it on predicting Brexit.

Lauren Knausenberger, chief transformation officer of the US Air Force, will speak at Beyond IoT on January 20, at Cork Institute of Technology. Beyond IoT takes place on Monday, January 20 and Tuesday, January 21 in CIT. The rapidly growing global tech conference, now in its third successive year, takes place at Cork Institute of Technology’s Nimbus Research Centre.

For details, please email [email protected] or

visit www.beyondiot. Ie

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