An F-35A Lightning II and two F-16 Fighting Falcons fly above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, July 28, 2021.
Photo: Air Force Staff Sgt. Kaylee Dubois/U.S. Department of Defense

Why the US Air Force chief software officer just quit

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: Nicolas Chaillan's frustration with military tech inertia, a big day for Box CEO Aaron Levie, and why Cal — not Stanford — is the new enterprise tech launching pad.

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The Big Story

Wild blue yonder

Over the years it took for the Pentagon's much-hyped JEDI cloud contract to reach its unsatisfying conclusion, the U.S. Air Force was quietly at work on its own modernization effort, a multicloud strategy based around concepts like DevOps, containers and Kubernetes. But that project hasn't been without its own problems.

The Air Force's software officer quit out of frustration with the military's overall progress on IT modernization late last week. In a scathing post on LinkedIn, Nicolas Chaillan — who leads software for the Air Force and is one of the key architects of the broader military IT plan — chastised the military establishment's approach to critical IT projects. His departure follows an address earlier last month that took a slightly more diplomatic tack but still called out the military brass for a lack of funding and focus.

  • The scale at which the Department of Defense operates — with 1.4 million active-duty service members and more than 700,000 civilian employees — presents a daunting IT management task for even the most motivated teams.
  • However, "some are starting to use the size of the DoD as an excuse to claim that Enterprise Services cannot succeed in the Department," Chaillan wrote, bemoaning the lack of support for concepts that might be new to the Pentagon but are old hat in Silicon Valley.
  • Still, like any large organization, different teams within the DoD have different priorities and wind up developing their own approaches to IT challenges.
  • "We have silos within silos," Chaillan said earlier in August at a luncheon, as reported by Air Force Magazine.
  • "We have people reinventing the wheel, whether for good reasons or bad reasons, whether it's ego-driven or for little kingdom-building exercises, and so it's been a challenge to start bringing everybody together, to realize that if we want to get to the all-domain vision that we keep preaching for many years, that's not even really new, we need to start having a cohesive cybersecurity and IT capability stack," he said.

At the heart of this is a lack of understanding. Under Chaillan, the Air Force rolled out Platform One, a software-development platform that incorporated a number of open-source technologies backed by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation and support for both AWS and Microsoft Azure's cloud infrastructures. But it faced some big roadblocks.

  • Much of that effort took place while the JEDI contract — billed as a one-vendor moonshot modernization strategy — was being discussed, debated and eventually litigated.
  • Platform One gives developers and ops professionals across the military a standard set of tools for building applications.
  • But in his resignation letter, Chaillan suggested that the current military leadership ranks lack enough expertise in modern enterprise tech matters to understand why adopting departmentwide standards for modern tech will improve operational speed and security.
  • "Please stop putting a Major or Lt Col. (despite their devotion, exceptional attitude, and culture) in charge of [key enterprise projects] for 1 to 4 million users when they have no previous experience in that field – we are setting up critical infrastructure to fail. We would not put a pilot in the cockpit without extensive flight training; why would we expect someone with no IT experience to be close to successful?" he wrote.

This may be familiar to lots of companies embracing cloud computing and other modern software-development concepts: New enterprise technologies require cultural shifts in how software teams are assembled and managed to reach their full potential.

  • For example, DevSecOps — another in a long line of unfortunate, but relevant enterprise tech buzzwords that Chaillan urged military leaders to embrace — is more a mindset than a technology practice.
  • It holds that developers, operations teams and security professionals need to work more closely together throughout the entire software development process to achieve the best result.
  • As in any line of work, people who are used to doing things a certain way don't necessarily want to change.
  • But if there's an organization that has expertise getting teams on board with directives from upper management, you'd think it would be the military.

And there's a reminder for us all here. As a new round of proposals and debate begins over the military's still-pressing need to modernize its infrastructure, Chaillan's letter underscores how throwing a bunch of enterprise technology over a wall without leadership just isn't going to work.

  • "There are 100,000 software developers in the DoD," Chaillan wrote. "We are the largest software organization on the planet, and we have almost no shared repositories and little to no collaboration across DoD Services."
  • These issues matter more than the eventual winner of the vendor bake-off.

— Tom Krazit


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Five Questions For...

Manoj Leelanivas, COO, Juniper Networks

What was your first tech job?

I had the fortunate experience of being one of the four in the first batch of college graduates Cisco hired in the mid-'90s. It was a dream job in networking for an engineer because I had a front-row seat to the formative years of the internet.

What was the first computer that got you excited about technology?

The PC XT with Microsoft DOS in my school opened a whole new world of possibilities – from simple programs to interactive games. As a budding engineer, this PC brought endless sources of inspiration for me and eventually helped me kickstart my career.

If Protocol gave you $1 billion to start a new enterprise tech company from scratch today, what would you do?

All enterprises, traditional or tech, are reeling from the sharp increase of technologies, processes and data. What I'd want to achieve is the equivalent of what Nest did for thermostats, [but] for the IT administrator. Simplicity and experience should trump everything else. Needless to say, if I was granted this opportunity, I'd also make sure that this company would embrace both cloud and AI as these are the two basic ingredients of delivering simplicity in today's complex tech world overwhelmed by a data deluge.

Which enterprise tech legend motivates you the most?

Eric Yuan, who I was lucky to have met at Stanford, is definitely someone who I see as an inspiration. His clarity of vision, the simplicity of Zoom and his relentless mission to delight customers are all legendary. To top it all, he comes with an ocean of humility I have not seen from other tech stalwarts. Without the long-lasting impact of Zoom, the world would not have been able to manage through the pandemic. Period. It has connected many families, allowed people to work and earn money, allowed children across the world to continue to learn and has allowed for basic human connections to thrive.

What will be the greatest challenge for enterprise tech over the coming decade?

Without doubt, the biggest challenge will be navigating the precarious balance between data privacy and the comfort provided by AI and data-driven enterprise tech. On top of that, we'll have to solve who owns the last say in that balance — the private enterprise or the state or customers.

Around the Enterprise

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