Aging IT weighs on Pentagon leaders seeking change, says Google’s Dahut

WASHINGTON — A week after Karen Dahut discussed digital transformation and information technology investments at the Association of the U.S. Army conference, she’s back on stage. This time, though, it was in the ballpark: The Google Public Sector Forum.

Dahut leads Google Public Sector, which launched in June 2022 with the goal of modernizing government and the technology needs of national security. He previously served as president of Booz Allen Hamilton’s global defense business.

Dahut sat down with C4ISRNET on the sidelines of the Oct. 17 forum to discuss her experience with the company, government adoption of AI and the cloud, and the ever-changing cyber landscape. Google Public Sector on the same day announced that it is partnering with Accenture Federal Services on a cyber center of excellence.

Portions of the interview below have been modified for length and clarity.

How is Google Public Domain shaping up just over a year after its launch? What or what were some of his biggest areas of focus?

I’ve spent the last year, really, traveling, visiting clients and prospects. There are three things they say, loudly, that they need and want.

One is that they have to move quickly. They need to move boldly and they need to move away from legacy IT.

The second is that they need built-in security. I don’t know if you saw Mandiant CEO Kevin Mandia speak earlier this morning, but the number of cyber incidents is quadrupling, the number of zero-day incidents is just growing exponentially, and our audience – industry customers are experiencing that and they see. They need built-in security.

Then the last thing is they don’t want to do it themselves. they really need strong technology partners to support them.

I use that as a basis to say that we’re really trying to address those needs for our public sector customers. Bringing the modern cloud to the table, bringing an IL5-compliant cloud that’s truly differentiated because we believe US Google Cloud is entirely on IL5 and has security and AI built in by design. By default, security is built-in.

What we really evangelize with our customers is that we are the right partner for you. We are the fastest growing cloud in the industry for a reason. We want to bring that cloud and those feature sets to really help you, whether it’s security challenges you’re facing or digital transformation using AI.

In your experience, how well are government or defense agencies adopting the cloud, something like the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability? What else can be done?

First of all, it’s quite variable, it depends on the technology leaders who lead the different agencies, how fast they’ve moved to the cloud. I think the number is somewhere under 20% across all governments that have actually moved to the cloud and are using the cloud in a meaningful way.

JWCC is a great contract vehicle, right? It is a conventional vehicle that the entire DoD can access and leverage. But technology leaders within companies must first of all commit that they want to move to the cloud and want to use the cloud and artificial intelligence and security as a way of modernization or digital transformation.

You were in AUSA. If you look at how the Army is really evaluating the cloud, moving to a multi-cloud organization, really embracing AI and developing use cases to accelerate the mission, it’s extremely exciting.

There are other agencies that aren’t nearly as far away, so it really works as a continuum, depending on who you talk to.

How has your defense experience — at Booz Allen, for example — shaped your Google Public Sector pursuits so far?

I ran the defense business at Booz Allen for a long time. And what I know to be true is that there are a lot of really serious defense leaders who want to modernize and move forward quickly.

I think they are saddled with legacy IT and technical debt that they cannot resolve in a single financial year. They have incumbent providers who are extremely aggressive. So how can they overcome it? And then, thirdly, there’s an example of risk around technology, and particularly AIthis must be overcome.

As Jinyoung Englund said on stage this morning – she’s the chief strategist for the algorithmic warfare directorate for the chief digital and artificial intelligence office – there’s risk in everything.

Let’s not get stuck on assessing all the risks. Let’s pick a few use cases that aren’t complicated, that don’t pose a high level of risk to your organization. Maybe it’s a back-office use case, maybe a security use case. It is something. Let’s start like this.

My advice to all our clients is “get started and move fast”.

Now, to the point you made a distinction between an integrator and a Google, I think the integrators they own many of the dollars spent on technology annually. Our commitment is to work very closely with integrators and be the first partner so that we can really help them bring the best technology to their customers.

How would you rate the state of AI today, particularly for government or defense consumers?

Well, I’m going to argue and say that the state of AI, globally, is that commercial companies are adopting it very, very quickly. I think that should tell you something about No. 1, the financial benefit it provides, as well as the shipping benefit it provides.

A significant number of our commercial companies are not experimenting with AI, they are implementing and adopting it. When we have these conversations with federal and state and local customers, we say, “Let’s take some of the use cases that we see in our commercial sector and apply them and use them in the government sector, because we think there’s not a lot of risk in some from these proven use cases.

Now, where they are challenged is, in some cases, they haven’t moved to the cloud yet. To really reap the benefits of AI, you need to be in the cloud, because that’s where the computing power is.

Sometimes they have to back up and say, OK, in order to do what company A, B, or C is doing, we have to go to the cloud first, move our data to the cloud, so we can leverage our data business to implement AI.

It may be a longer route for them, but it is still very doable.

What is the cause of this lag in adoption between the private and public sectors? The Department of Defense has been frustrated, for a while, about the slow adoption of the new technology.

I think that’s what I was talking about earlier.

It’s technical debt. They need to move to the cloud and get there fast. Of a risk discussion who have.

Prototyping is great, but they also have a scale problem. Therefore, you need to move from prototypes and pilots to real, scalable implementations. And that scale at DoD is a very dramatically different scale. So taking the lessons learned from a large Fortune 50 company — how they did it — and applying the same approach.

What are you reading about the shift to zero-trust cyber security? Do you feel it is as bulletproof or revolutionary as some officials make it out to be?

Google is a zero trust company. We became a zero-trust company, we were really the pioneers in zero-trust, because we got hacked in 2008, 2009. Familiar story. We can send you the YouTube links.

But we, Google, decided at that time that we had to adopt a completely different security architecture because it was an existential threat to the company. We have, for the past 13 years, truly adopted and implemented zero trust across the board.

It starts with identity and access. This is very difficult, sometimes, for the government to get its head around.

If I can identify you as a user — what do you have…

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