Building The Base

In this week’s episode of Building the Base, Hondo and Lauren join Suzette Kent to discuss the future of the defense industrial network. 

Kent’s impressive background across the public and private sectors has given her the unique ability to understand a wide range of perspectives, spanning a variety of industries. During her time as Federal CIO, she witnessed the rapid change of pace the government experienced to tackle the problems brought about by COVID-19. Kent emphasizes the importance of the public and private sectors meeting where their needs and motivations overlap in order to tackle the technology problems of tomorrow.

Hondo, Lauren, and Suzette go on to discuss a variety of topics, including:
  • Digital competitiveness and digitization
  • Acquisition reforms
  • The White House’s Cybersecurity Strategy
  • Pitching products versus ideas
  • Remote work and the cybersecurity environment
  • Cross-pollination between the public and private sectors

What is Building The Base?

"Building the Base" - an in-depth series of conversations with top entrepreneurs and leaders from tech, financial, industrial, and public sectors.

Our special guests are weighing in on a broad selection of topics such as: shaping our future national security industrial base, leadership in challenging times, experiences related to the intersection of business and national security, and personal anecdotes related to their positions of influence.

Building the base is hosted by our own BENS member Lauren Bedula who is the Managing Director and National Security Technology Practice Lead at Beacon Global Strategies, and BENS Distinguished Fellow, Jim "Hondo" Geurts who retired from performing the duties of the Under Secretary of the Navy and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development & Acquisition.

Lauren Bedula 00:51
Welcome back to Building the Base. Lauren Bedula, here with Hondo Geurts. And we're so excited for today's guest, Suzette Kent. Suzette served as an executive at Accenture, JP Morgan, Ernst and Young among other companies, and is someone I look up to so much who has gone into government to serve as the Federal Chief Information Officer from January 2018, to July 2020. Those are interesting times I know, there are a lot of stories there that we'll get into. She established the American Technology Council and focused on modernization in large enterprises, whether in government or in industry. So Suzette, thank you so much for joining us today.

Suzette Kent 01:31
Thank you. I'm excited for this conversation.

Hondo Geurts 01:33
It’s awesome to see you again. Thanks for joining us now, how does a Texas gal become such a leader in the IT space and become the Federal CIO? What? Where did you come from? How did you get to do all these amazing things?

Suzette Kent 01:57
I'll try to make this fast. I'm from Louisiana. My whole path was literally because I was so curious about everything. I went to college intending to go into medicine and ended up graduating in journalism but spent time in multiple languages and other things. I started as a consultant because I didn't know what industry I wanted to work in. And that background as a consultant led me to enjoy tackling the toughest problems and doing things that hadn't been done before I ended up spending more of my time in financial services. The problem that was to be solved then was national banking. When I started, it was still state banks only. And we were putting in national charters. How do you serve a customer consistently, at every location and across the footprint? We did crazy things like put checks on airplanes and fly them around. So how do we automate that? How do we take images and use that? How about we go international? What does that look like? And how do we do that? Every now and then have a little time with the regulators and kind of large scale big programs. But our financial services industry has cyber and data privacy and resiliency at the core. And so I built relationships with many technology companies, I've probably converted from or implemented about everything that's out there, at some point. Over 30 years and built great relationships and my time at JP Morgan, I had a lot of the government portfolios for SNAP TANF, WIC, Medicare, Medicaid, and worked with states and built those kinds of relationships. During the crisis, I met a lot of people in government that had an opinion about financial institutions, and eventually, I worked in anti-money laundering and third party risk. Throughout all those different things, it was about tackling the challenge of the day. I believe in service to this country - it's the greatest place there is. When the call came about, what do you think about doing this? I thought there were definitely some challenges that we hadn't solved. And many of the vendors that service our largest global companies are the same vendors that are working in government. A lot of it was the space I knew, and I was honored and thrilled to be able to give back some of the fantastic experiences I've had, and service to the country.

Lauren Bedula 04:43
So all that time with regulators didn't scare you away from it.

Suzette Kent 04:48
It helped set my expectations of what it might feel like So yep, but I will avoid it if possible.

Lauren Bedula 04:59
What surprised you the most about leadership in government versus leadership and industry?

Suzette Kent 05:07
People ask me that question frequently. In private sector industries, the person who's setting the strategy, and setting the objectives is the same person who's dedicating the resources, whether that's people or money. In government, there are different people setting the objectives than those who are allocating the money, and therein adds all kinds of complexity. The pace and the clarity that I was used to in the private sector does not exist in the government. And in fact, you know, I would use the analogy with people - I'm running a sprint - in the private sector there was the finish line and ran straight for it. And when I had to run that sprint and government, I had to do an obstacle course. The objectives are the same, but the process is so much more complicated. And unfortunately, not always value added.

Hondo Geurts 06:22
Yeah. I'm sure you were able to take some of your experience trying to tighten or modernize a very regulated industry, which is often compared to the auto industry? Were there the same kind of regulatory challenges or even worse, because you're trying to self-regulate your own sets of organizations?

Suzette Kent 06:51
There were a lot of similarities. Any time that you have legacy technology and custom-built technology and things that have evolved over time, you have the same kinds of challenges. The vendors were the same. The actual technology was very similar, how you made decisions about what to change, how to move to those things were different. The modernization process is actually the same, the parts that were hard and government kind of had to get back to that funding and multi-year commitment to do certain things. And it’s difficult to do things like that in government, things that move cross multiple years, and especially things sometimes in modernization where you don’t see immediate benefit. And if you're not delivering benefits today, sometimes people get less interested.

Hondo Geurts 07:54
We often talk about how to get our digital competitiveness as a nation in large enterprise industry, small industries, and government. What were the two or three things you saw that were successful in aligning in a resource allocation with decision authority. Were there other things you saw that carried across any of these large enterprise transformation efforts?

Suzette Kent 08:26
I talked about places where we made an impact. In cases where we digitize paper forms, and citizen feedback told us that this is great, faster, and more meaningful. In the VA (Veteran Affairs) we collapsed, a whole lot of websites into singular websites. That was significantly better for the Department of Labor, who are able to digitize the process to get workers into certain roles. We could do things that had previously taken months very quickly, and that was really exciting. And for all the many negative things that happened during COVID, one of the things that was very positive was the technology that we had in place to support hybrid workforce or to deliver services in a digital manner that were maybe small and not used or under pilot. But we scaled them all the way. And I hope we never go back. The success of that was thrilling, because from a technological standpoint, we knew it would work. It was about the people adoption. And it was about “I'm used to doing it this way. And I really don't want to use that new thing in serving citizens meeting their expectations.” So, those were some of the things that I think power charged our digital capabilities.

Lauren Bedula 09:59
We've often talked about culture as a barrier on our show. It's interesting to hear about your experience with COVID. And maybe something we'll come back to on the culture piece. But while on the topic of COVID, I wonder if you could tell us about those first few weeks, like what happened, any stories? How did you deal with that?

Suzette Kent 10:19
That experience was one of the hardest, but it was also one of the ones that was probably most fulfilling and impactful. One of the things when I came into the federal government was that 33% of agencies have a common email system, cloud-based email systems or collaboration tools. And I came out of industry, I was like we tackled that a decade ago. And that was one of the priorities. And I had some people externally asking if we were setting the bar low. My response to that was that basic work tools should be an expectation of every federal employee. I'm trying to get the basics, right. Yes, we have some lofty goals, but we're trying to get those basics right. And we should give credit to the entire CIO Council, and some tiger teams, I borrowed a few from other agencies who'd done what brought them in. And those tiger teams went around and ensured that we moved everybody up the scale. I actually had one agency secretary say to me, “I can't even email people in my own agency, because there's 41 different email systems.” We did all that work. And you know, that's not the glamorous stuff; maybe it wasn't a thing that was in the press. But when COVID happened, because every one of the agencies had done that, I had sessions with all the CIOs and their teams from every agency multiple times a day to say here's what's happening, here's what we're going to do. And here is how we were going to move into the virtual environment, that investment in tools allowed us to do that. Because it was a very basic tool. And we were ready. And we worked together. And like I said, every single day, multiple times a day, you know, there were iOS and things like that. And I got some senior executives to use a digital signature on some of the things. We were making progress. We didn't sign a piece of paper and pass it around an agency. Necessity drove adoption. But the collaboration and focus that the CIOs and CISOs, for all the agencies had had really paid off. And it was an incredible experience, but it was when people say government can't move fast, absolutely not. You can when you have to think about the economic impact payments, the PPP loans, and taking the largest workforce in the world, virtual, we did it. And we did it in days and a few of those hours. And it proved that when you focus and you get a great team all on board together, you can get it done. And so, it was a great experience.

Lauren Bedula 13:33
And I think there's so much to learn from it too, especially this piece about necessity driving adoption. We can look at that period, and how much it's sped up digitization of so many agencies, but maybe now I can ask my question about the culture piece, too. As a leader, you talked about in the beginning, people setting priorities aren't necessarily the folks setting budget are some of the disconnect there. Do you think more acquisition reform is needed? We typically talk about it in a DoD sense, but what about from where you sat? Or is the majority of the hurdle around adoption, cultural, like what's your take on culture versus policy?

Suzette Kent 14:09
It's some of both. You know, when you hit on a point on, acquisition. I do think acquisition reform is needed, in many cases, to look at buying and acquiring capabilities. In line with the lifecycle technology moves faster when if I'm going to buy a table, it’s not going to change that much. Right? If I'm going to buy technology, when I'm buying today is going to be different in six months. And so there is a different level of nimbleness. We've talked a lot about time or you know, cybersecurity is a big point right now, ensuring that security is a primary focus and then when we ask people to buy American and have secure products that we buy that way, as a government, we don't waive those requirements. Those are things that we should do. And under the alignment of how money is allocated versus how it is spent, and how benefits are recognized. When I had the honor of lighting up the TMF and actually establishing the process and beginning of the law had passed. I held the meeting the third day after I was sworn in. And that process is very different. But it was put in place to help provide funding at the pace of technology. And one of the questions I asked someone is what does the benefits-recognition look like? And they were like, what do you mean by that? What's the time so what's the timeline of the spend, versus when we're going to see benefits and how those match. It's a core part of TMF. It was not an exercise that many of the agencies and financial teams were used to doing in that way. We actually kind of got to change the paradigm about how we talked about it. I've been thrilled to see the success that the current federal CIO and team have had, since they got a billion dollars, but it's helped agencies actually move the ball. So that was a great example of acquisition and funding moving at the pace of the objectives you're trying to achieve.

Hondo Geurts 16:33
So many of our listeners may not be familiar with serving in the government, some will. And they may not be familiar with the leadership challenges in a position like you have accountable for everything, but maybe not responsible for all the agencies. And you know, when you talk a little bit about cyber, and you know, how to how to help work with influence control, align all these different agencies operating with different visions, how did you attack that problem? from a leadership perspective? Because that's a little bit different. I would imagine then being an industry where the lines of accountability are a little bit more clear cut, how did that kind of surprise you when you came in? And maybe what were some of the styles you use to try and work your way through the controlling, aligning all the all the other things you do in these kinds of shared leadership kinds of positions?

Suzette Kent 17:32
Well, I started my career as a consultant, right. And the great part about being a consultant is that you're often brought in on the really big strategic things that matter. So you have to spend a lot of time understanding the stakeholders and understanding, you know, who's involved? And in any of these things, I kind of follow that, and human nature of why, what is the why, why is this group going to be motivated or not motivated? And how do we do this in a way that everyone's successful, and that we can see visible wins, and that's going to kind of encourage us to go on. And I who was one of my first lessons, though, and we had a particular location, where they had moved everything to the to the cloud, and we automated a bunch of tasks. And we made from a technology perspective, we had a great success on the series of projects, from an efficiency perspective, it's more efficient, and the workforce was happy, and then I went to talk to one of the representatives for that region, and I'm like, you want it, we're going to celebrate this, you want to come? And he said, well, you look at that as success. But I see that as you don't need more jobs. And it was an interesting lesson for me in that, I really must think about everyone's perspective. And some of the work, we did a lot of work on shared services, they still are, but you know, actually, some of the structure that we use for shared services was a memo and a process that I was deeply involved with. And that is, you know, for folks who aren't in the governance of everyday, doing the common things across every agency, you know, at a central point, instead of having every agency must do their own. And as I went and visited many of the sites who provide things for like example, we have five payroll systems, and 124 Time and Attendance systems, you know, or at least that was the number of things. But we all have to follow the same rules, like is there efficiency opportunity if we consolidated those, but there were some who weren't interested in that because it was a big workforce in a certain region, or it was, this group of software that you know, was homegrown in my state. Or oh, well, we've always done it this way, and I want to spend my money on something else. There were a lot of reasons, you know why not. So, the public sector and private sector thing that is exactly the same is figuring out why someone cares. And if you actually can answer that question, maybe you should be asking if you should be doing it anyway.

Lauren Bedula 20:21
That's a good one. And something that comes up often when we talk about strengthening collaboration, it's translation in improved communication, and just closer ties between the public and private sectors. You mentioned cyber - Hondo mentioned cyber. So, I want to get your reaction, the White House just released last week, their new cybersecurity strategy. Any thoughts on top lines or Takeaways there?

Suzette Kent 20:46
Well, first, I'm thrilled that it's another, this is our third, and it's continuing to raise the bar. Right. And that's important and set some objectives that are going to give us create the reason to convene, and continue the conversation about things like ensuring that products are secure by design in ensuring that cybersecurity is not just for those who can afford it, making, tools more widely available. And those are all great things. I'm looking forward to a lot of conversations. But and I think there's going to be a lot more to come, you know, and the implementation side and the tactics of how we achieve some of those things. And like said, I'm, I'm glad it's out. And now I'm ready for next year a series of how do we get this done?

Hondo Geurts 21:41
It's, it'll be really interesting. In your role, particularly, as a federal shero, you are probably also exposed to a lot of technologies, companies wanting to bring you things. What were some best practices you found, when companies would come talk to you, in terms of how they could be successful trying to get their message across what, what was meaningful to you to discuss with them versus what was just, you know, interesting, but perhaps, or relevant to what you were working on, you know, any advice you'd give to those, either smaller, big companies engaging with the with the government, folks,

Suzette Kent 22:25
I'm smiling as you say this, because if anyone who's listening, who ever came to see me, this is going to resonate with them. I literally had a board that I kept behind me all the time that had all the priorities, the things that were in the PMA, during an executive orders, and I said, if you're not going to talk to me about something that's on that board, we're wasting each other's time. And then I would ask them things like, did you read the the data strategy? Did you read the cyber strategy? Have you learned the last EO, did you? Did you look at the agency strategic plan, and even today, when I work with different folks, they'll say, Oh, I'd love to do work for this agency. And I'd say, did you read their strategic plan? Did you look at their objectives? And if they can't say yes to those things, like, Okay, call me when you have, call me when you have something relevant about solving the problems that are my priorities, and not being trite. But it is as simple as that. And companies that would come and they were kind of like, you know, on the they were repeating verbatim what was on their marketing sheet. That's not helpful to anyone. And if you want to be a solution provider in government, but also if you wanted to talk to anyone in private sector, bring the story about how what you can do will help them achieve their agenda.

Hondo Geurts 23:55
Yeah, I think the other thing I noticed over time, you know, as you get more senior, you get a little bit removed from the day to day decisions. And so I would also remember the person you're talking to and the problems she or he is facing, not what you might do for a lower level program decision or something, which is outside purview. So, you know, understanding where you're pitching product versus where you're pitching idea, or concept, I think is also important.

Suzette Kent 24:25
I would also love sometimes to because as the Federal CIO, I really had no money. Right. And I was obligated, right, it was it's a policy role, you know, but deeply involved with all the agencies and how they use technology, but I didn't buy anything, you know, myself. And in fact, if I took a meeting with any agency, or I mean with any software provider, I had to provide equal access that was actually to anyone else. So if I talked to one I had to talk to their Are the 30 friends. Right? So it? They were very purposeful conversations but focused on, you know, what are you going to do that can help the federal enterprise?

Hondo Geurts 25:13
And it's interesting. So, you went into the role pre COVID, you came out post COVID? How has the industry changed now that you've seen industry kind of in, in both roles are they different? In the way they're attacking these problems? Maybe then, when you were with industry prior to your government service,

Suzette Kent 25:34
The one big shift I've seen in industry, and even across different sectors, is they're still trying to figure out this workforce, you know, situation to so whether it's remote, or you call it hybrid, or it's in the office these days, like what how do you ensure that you have the same productivity and the same types of outcomes that you're trying to achieve. But when the workforce mix is different, we also saw across lots of different industries that specifically technology, when jobs were remote, people moved to the place they wanted to live, versus being very close to maybe a primary location of this or that. And that has manifested itself in very different ways. In some cases, many companies that were more remote had access to skill sets that they never had before. And in some cases, others reached in and grabbed that talented population out of places. So, the workforce has been significantly more dynamic. I've also seen in industry and it was funny, I turned on the news this morning, there was a story about same thing here in Washington, the valuing experience, versus necessarily, you know, a formal college education and again, in technology, looking at certification programs, because it moves so quickly, how important it is for somebody new, or even somebody who's in the workforce that wants to continue to evolve. And, you know, for a while some of the technologies aren't staying stagnant, because the technology already always changes, but they weren't changing at the pace that it is today. And, you know, I've seen some shifts to that as well. And it doesn't matter what the industry is delivery of things by digital platforms. And you know, whether it's mobile or online, in many cases is shifted to their primary channel, which I'm now seeing that ripple through considerations for, whether it's, you know, footprint of buildings, work schedules, or how they approach things like collaboration and design.

Lauren Bedula 28:17
I want to come back to talent, but first, on the piece about remote work and spreading out, there was this worry at first, that this would complicate the cybersecurity threat environment. And so you talked about more of the policy side and the strategic approach to cybersecurity, what's your take on the current state from a security posture, especially as we think about the industrial base or critical infrastructure? Are we keeping up and maintaining the threat pace? Or where are we on?

Suzette Kent 28:49
It's certainly complicated the environment and increases the threat surface, and we're keeping up in some spaces. But if we continue in this environment, we're going to have to do it, and I believe we will. There are other things that we're going to have to do because many groups harden their security based on a physical place, right, think about the way that we do command centers or things like that, right? It's based on that. And we have to change those protocols. We can't. It's just another technology project, and it changes behaviors. So, I'm actually seeing some of that in the private sector, especially in places where someone is dealing with personal and identifiable information or healthcare information, and they are working remotely. I'm seeing changes to those protocols in both our technology, and the authorized activities that they can perform.

Lauren Bedula 29:54
It's good to hear because, as we talked about a lot on our show, innovation and really the frontlines of this national security environment right now are within the private sector. So, it seems like there's greater awareness thanks to efforts like yours to sometimes greater funding on talent, what's your take on how to drive more talent towards tech towards service, any thoughts on that?

Suzette Kent 30:22
I feel like I beat this to death, like, I'm always talking about this topic. And I use the analogy, in another discussion about, you know, the movie, everything anywhere all the time, you know, just every single thing. There are so many pathways, and I'm so glad that the National Cybersecurity strategy around cyber actually used the word pathways, there are so many pathways into technology roles. That’s why it's exciting, but we have to invest in all of them at the same time. And we have to generate interest in a very different way. And explain the parts of the job that are actually really exciting and interesting. And that often means exposure at earlier ages, you know, and that's in the K through 12 environments to say, hey, this is a career path that a diverse population can be very successful at. And these are fantastic jobs, here's the art of the possible right to get them interested. But we also have to create on ramps, and those could be technical schools, they could be traditional higher ed, they could be certification programs, they could be continuous learning programs that are in different companies, and in companies, individuals who are in technology roles. I looked at the duration of tenure of many federal employees, and the fact that the federal government spent so very little on continuing education in that space. That's not what you experience in the private sector. It's not what we should experience, in the in the federal government, but even incredibly talented technologist would tell you today that the pace is tough, that's coming out of like, they must keep consuming something new, new, new. So we have to, to get people interested in new and creative ways, we have to reach into all kinds of populations that might not traditionally consider a technology career, we have to provide learning pathways to start that cross many, many different areas, and we have to ensure that those who are already in the profession continue to get the training they need and the motivation to stay.

Hondo Geurts 32:44
Yeah, I think demonstrating and showing the pathways and, in many cases, people don't understand the opportunities that are in front of them, because it's not, you know, it didn't come from their experience or their family's experience or their friends experience. And the way technology is changing. You don't have to be a PhD in computer engineering to be a valued part of the cyber workforce. I mean, there's lots of different activities that way. You mentioned early on this idea of curiosity, and I'm struck every time we get together by two traits you really have, one is curiosity. And the other is, I would say, enthusiasm, right? Getting fired up for things. How did you get that by nature? There in Louisiana. I was going to make a Texas joke about Louisiana. But how are those treats for you? You know, fired up and moving? And I don't know, if you had mentors that helped you along the way, or you just, it was natural to you, but how have you leveraged that I would say is you've kind of gone through, you're very successful.

Suzette Kent 33:59
Yeah. You packed a whole bunch into that question of, I've always been curious by nature. I have been very lucky and blessed with many mentors. And we're just people who would say, go ahead and chase that. I had some latitude to pursue something, and I genuinely got excited, solving problems and challenges. And it's motivating. It's exciting you know, it's one of the reasons that coming into government was a risk. I was in a wonderful place. I had a phenomenal career in the private sector doing cool things. And this was like kind of a total change, but it was an opportunity to make an impact and to do something and I do get enthusiastic about every time there's a conversation, or a chance, to solve the problem. And the reason I stay in this space and why I do think it's for everybody, is if you are curious, there's always something going on. There's something interesting and yeah, you talked about you don't have to be, you know, a PhD in computer science. You could be a digital visualization person, digital design, a detective. All those types of things are skill sets that you need, you know, in delivery technology and cybersecurity and finding the bank as

Lauren Bedula 35:33
well. Those traits I think are contagious. So, we're so glad to have the chance for you to tell your story on our show, because we want to encourage more cross pollination between the public sector and the private sector. So, thank you Suzette, so much for joining us and your passion for service to the country as well.

Suzette Kent 35:50
Thank you. This was really fun. I appreciate it. your awesome