Building the Base Episode 17: Lieutenant General Michael Groen, former Commander of the DoD Joint Artificial Intelligence Center

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In this week’s episode of Building the Base, BENS hosts Hondo Geurts and Lauren Bedula interview Lieutenant General Michael Groen, USMC (Ret.) to discuss the future of the defense industrial network.

General Groen emphasizes the need for consistent collaboration between our nation’s warfighters and those who are developing innovative technologies. To that end, the DoD must experience a cultural transition by acting in partnership across not only the public and private sectors, but also the varying branches of service.

Michael Groen’s Bio

Now working in the private sector, Lieutenant General Michael S. Groen is the former of commander of the DoD Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. Prior to this nomination, General Groen was assigned to the National Security Agency and served as the Deputy Chief of Computer Network Operations. In 2018/2019, he served as the Director for Intelligence, Joint Staff (J2) in direct support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Joint Staff. He also served as the Vice J2. Prior to his Joint Staff assignments, General Groen served as the Director of Marine Corps Intelligence (DIRINT) and championed the redesign of intelligence capabilities into a Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISRE).

General Groen has served in a variety of operational, ground, air, and naval units. His service has included Central America, the Western Pacific, the Philippines, the Balkans and Iraq, General Groen served afloat with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and supported aviation units in the U.S. and Okinawa. In 2003, he was assigned to the 1st Marine Division. He initially served as the Deputy Intelligence officer, then became the Intelligence Officer (G-2) in 2004. He has supported both conventional combat and counter-insurgency operations. General Groen was a principal in the redesign of Marine Intelligence to meet the emerging demands of the Global War on Terror. General Groen also served with the U.S. European Command as the Chief of Intelligence Planning for Europe and Africa.

In this week’s episode of Building the Base, BENS hosts Hondo Geurts and Lauren Bedula join Lieutenant General Michael Groen, U.S. Marine Coprs (Ret.), former commander of the DoD Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, to discuss the future of the defense industrial network.General Groen specifies the necessity of consistent collaboration between our nation’s warfighters and those who are developing innovative technologies that can be useful in warfighting. He explains that DoD must balance the capabilities of the functional community and innovative virtualization in order to maximize our warfighting capability. To that end, the DoD must experience a cultural transition by acting collaboratively across not only the public and private sectors, but also the varying branches of service.Hondo, Lauren, and General Groen go on to discuss a variety of topics, including:

  • Digital transformation
  • Competitive advantage
  • Tribalism in the DoD
  • Mission-derived capabilities
  • Patriotism in the private sector

  1. Lethality comes from precision; so be precise, lethal, and situationally aware.
  2. There is power in the dynamism of American universities and small companies.
  3. Artificial agents don’t take the humans out of the loop; they actually put humans up on a pedestal.
  4. Technology adoption is not an end in and of itself.
  5. Unambiguously, what makes us noncompetitive today is our tribalism.
  6. We need to be mission-focused with mission-derived capabilities, not tech-derived capabilities.
  7. Digital Transformation is rethinking your problems, your processes and the way you do business so that you can do things in entirely different ways.
  8. Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and guardians deserve a competitive advantage on the battlefield. The DoD must provide that to them.
  9. For so long, I think we’ve been very comfortable with the fact that we set the standard, we didn’t have to compete; everybody else would try to come into formation and compete with us. And that’s clearly not the case anymore.
  10. Government partners are looking to make money, but they also want to make the country better, they want to make the country stronger, and they want to make the country more competitive.
  11. The dialogues surrounding AI must start with the ethical baseline: how do we, as a moral society and moral military force, adhere to the laws of armed conflict?
  12. The efficiency, tempo and precision that you can achieve by just having machines to help you with the mounds of data is critical.
  13. We have to get that competitive advantage by starting to collect meaningful data and build platforms and infrastructures that allow that data to be shared.
  14. Artillery men and women know the warfighting process because life and death depend on it.
  15. Functional communities, like artillery men and women, could explode their relevance, precision and tempo through the integration of AI, but they don’t have collaborative dialogue with the software providers who have a useful new piece of technology.
  16. Small companies don’t have enough capacity or endurance to fight their way through a DoD contract application process. We have to change this.
  17. We need to help our functional experts to rethink their processes through the lens of digital transformation.
  18. The DoD needs to create an environment where we can bring artillery men and coders into a more effective and collaborative environment.
  19. The DoD’s budgetary processes and contract awarding facilitate and are enabled by its culture of tribalism.
  20. We are in an environment where Pentagon processes evolved from domain-specific hardware procurement to domain-integrated software capabilities that are evolutionary but are useless until you can scale them.
  21. There are patriots in the private sector who are just as deeply concerned about our national security and our national competitiveness as anybody wearing a uniform.
  22. If you can imagine it, then you can create the functional vision, create the processes that take advantage of data, then validate and virtualize those processes.
  23. We could build a virtualized defense environment that would be extraordinarily powerful and data driven without bending any metal whatsoever.

Podcast Transcript

BENS Intro 00:00
The business executives for national security welcomes you to building the base here thought leaders and practitioners discuss how we can ensure our shared security and prosperity. They’re shaping the future of the national security industrial base. Your hosts or Silicon Valley defense expert Lauren Bedula, along with Ben’s Distinguished Fellow and former head of acquisition for the Navy, Marines and special operators, Hondo Geurts.

Lauren Bedula 00:29
Welcome back to building the base, Lauren Bedula and Hondo Geurts. Here with today’s guest General Michael Groen. We’re so excited to have general grown with us today. He recently served as the commander of the DoD joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which we’ll definitely dig into. But it had a really incredible career in the Marine Corps, serving as Deputy Chief of Staff of computer network operations at the National Security Agency, and led intelligence for the entire Marine Corps. So thank you, Mike, so much for joining us today.

Mike Groen 01:01
Great. Thank you. Thank you very much. And thank you both for for, for doing this and all the services that you guys provide, like outside of this environment, too. I mean, you both of you are just so impressive. With Silicon Valley defense group with Ben’s with what you do at Beacon, Lauren, and, you know, Hondo legendary effectiveness. You know, in every place that you’ve been, you know, SOCOM, you know, with working with the Navy, it’s, it’s really great to be able to talk with you guys today.

Hondo Geurts 01:29
It’s awesome to have you here, Mike. And again, it’s all about a team sport here. But but my guess is when you decided to go into Marine Corps, you didn’t picture yourself running all the AI for the DoD as a three star? What got you? What was your story? What got you in the Marines? And what? What led to kind of any intelligence path and get you to where we are here today?

Mike Groen 01:50
Yeah, that’s, that’s a, that’s a really good question. And I think the, the succinct answer is a series of happy accidents. You know, like, like, a lot of people, you know, I was gonna join the Marine Corps for three years, do my Marine Corps time, do my service, and then move on to, you know, to the rest of my life. And, of course, you know, you find yourself in uniform in the service, and just norming compelling opportunities, you know, the people you work with, the institution that you’re a part of, and so like, it all just becomes a really powerful, attractive force. And, you know, and then as your career starts to starts to flow, you know, you reach all these different gates, and, you know, you have the opportunity to live overseas to go to grad school to, you know, to do systems design and engineering, work at a combatant command, you know, and kind of like, really see how theater and global operations work. Obviously, operational assignments, you know, in lots of lots of places, you get the opportunity to command like, every one of these is just sort of like, hey, what would you like to do next? Would you like to stick around to do this? Oh, yeah, that sounds awesome. I’d love to do that. Right. And so I don’t think I could have mapped a more fulfilling career, like, if I tried to, like lay that all out, but it just, it just was like, one great opportunity after another. And so I, you know, obviously, even in that environment, when you ever if you if you have a bad day, or something like that, no matter no matter, you know, even if I didn’t like what I was doing at the moment, I loved like who I was, right. And so like, I was proud of myself, and I was proud of the people that I worked with. And so, you know, it’s easy to stick around.

Lauren Bedula 03:31
That’s awesome. So I mentioned you most recently led the DoD joint artificial intelligence effort, which is fairly new effort, and as Hondo men mentioned, oversaw AI for the whole department, which is no easy task. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience, and particularly the importance of bringing in non traditional defense players to collaborate with?

Mike Groen 03:56
Yeah, so that’s a that’s a great question. And just sort of a great, you know, there’s a lot of conversation today, and there has been for years about kind of, like, does the Department of Defense like how does it acquire what is its relationships with its consumers, its sponsors, its vendors. And so like, that’s a really, it’s a really important thing. And so like, when when I look at this question, though, it really I see it through the lens of two transformations, right. One is digital transformation. And that is, you know, this is a wave that’s carrying everything right. All the industries around us in the department still isn’t quite there yet. Right? And so and so digital transformation is really important. The transformational part is what really, you have to pay attention to. Tech adoption is not digital transformation. Tech adoption is taking the latest tack and applying it to the things that you already do. Digital Transformation is rethinking your problems, your processes and the way you do business so that you can do things in entirely different ways. And obviously, you can do a mix, you know, if you have something that works really well, great, keep doing that. But but it, but it gives you the opportunity to like, rethink your baseline. And so like that is really important. And, and that is what creates competitiveness. And this is where, you know, this is a really important word for all of us, you know, these days and every day. But it really it comes into sharp focus when you think about okay, in a transformed environment, how, how competitive Are you like, Are you paying attention to your competitiveness, and you know, when before you even talk about defense, you think about like all of the American industries that have that have gone through this digital transformation, for the purpose of becoming competitive or gaining competitive advantage. Whatever industry, you’re talking about retail, manufacturing, farming, I mean, like every industry out there investing, you name it, all seeking competitive advantage. And that’s how we need to think as a Department of Defense, like our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, guardians, they deserve a competitive advantage on the battlefield. They, we have to provide that to them. Right. And so if you’re not compelled by that, then I don’t think you’re paying quite enough attention. Right. And so when there’s when there’s when there’s questions about, well, this technology, it’s hard. And I heard, you know, somebody told me that this thing didn’t work or whatever. Like, no, no, no, that’s the wrong lens, the right lenses? Are we creating the right competitive advantages for our young men and women that, you know, that are in dirty and dangerous places? That’s really important to me?

Hondo Geurts 06:40
Yeah. So so, you know, one of your jobs was being the head of intelligence for the Joint Staff, you know, arguably looking at it every day. What’s your sense of the competitive landscape at the strategic level? You know, how is that shifting? And then how does that put into focus this idea that that landscape is changing in our competitive and this is not a given? We’re going to have to keep fighting for it.

Mike Groen 07:06
Yeah. So like, that’s a great question. Right? Because the, are we actually competing? Right, right, like, you know, for so long, I think we’ve been very comfortable that, you know, we set the standard, we didn’t have to compete, we set the standard, and everybody else would try to kind of come into formation and compete with us. And that’s not it’s clearly not the case anymore. And so, like, we see so much, we can learn so much, you know, through, you know, through the lens of Ukraine, for example, you know, lens of Ukraine, like, I’m not sure that the Russians wish they had a lot more tanks right now. Right? So like, what’s the role of the tank in the in fuel? Tanks are great, you know, if you need to get out of the fire, that’s a great place to be behind the tank, right? But, but that’s, you know, if dismounted infantry men with shoulder fire, you know, precision guided munitions can devastate an armored formation, then you just kind of have to ask yourself, well, wait a second, what’s the what’s the competitive opportunity here? Right? In maybe it’s not get rid of all your tags, but it’s like, Okay, what’s the right balance of small UAS is of cyber tools of, you know, shoulder launch munitions, all of these things, you know, you rethink your processes, your warfighting processes, you can start to see how that works. So that’s like, one, it’s a, it’s a laboratory, where we’re learning things like small kills big, so don’t be big, right? You know, lethality comes from precision, right? So, so be precise, be lethal, be situationally aware, like all of those things kind of come together. That’s what you can kind of learn if you look at Ukraine. If you look at China, then of course, you know, our primary competitor, you know, articulated in strategy. There’s a, I think, I think of our competition through the lens of organization and innovation. So, so the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, are extraordinarily organized, right? I mean, that’s the nature of the authoritarian regime. It’s how they run their military, it’s how they run their economy, their society. Organization is a really powerful tool, you can be really competitive if you are highly organized, and there’s nobody that surveilled their citizens and their companies and all of their other aspects better than the Chinese Communist Party. I mean, they do this fantastic. I’m sure everybody’s seen the, you know, the videos of like, you know, the guy crossing the street, you know, and he might be jaywalking. And, you know, he’s immediately identified, you know, through six different parameters, you know, here’s his, you know, here’s his name, here’s his employment. Here’s what neighborhood he lives in. Here’s what groups he’s associated with. Here’s his health status, whose last time he had a COVID shot, like like all of that organizational power to surveilling citizens and especially you know, the weekers out west but but all Then, on the other hand, you have innovation. And I think I think we like to think of ourselves as innovating. And I think that’s actually true. I mean, just the the power, the intellectual power of our universities, of our small companies. I mean, there’s a dynamism. And it’s real, right? Like, like, you can see it, and you can feel it. So like, that really gives me great hope. Because just, you know, over my experiences in the Jake, interacting with all of those small companies interacting with some of the just the greatest universities in the world in the United States, you really feel the enthusiasm and the power. So the question really is, what’s more powerful organization or innovation? And to, you know, to answer that question quickly, I would say, you know, if you’re innovative, and you’re just organized enough that you can bring your your innovation to bear where it matters, you probably are going to be nimbler and faster and more adaptable than highly organized, you know, organization that has to maybe shift its focus or do things in different ways. I think I think you can start to create dilemmas and and take advantage of our innovative capabilities. But it’s not a given, right. I mean, this is something that we have to compete for.

Lauren Bedula 11:17
I really like your comparison to industry, where you’re saying, essentially, industry has to maintain their competitive edge to survive. So they’re evolving. They’re innovating and adapting. And to your point about the US, we used to set the standard. And I think you’d agree that the US is still setting the standard. It’s just that the US government, it’s the private private sector and industry, perhaps who are developing the best technologies or most forward leaning when it comes to innovation, as you say, and so from from your position, or were you sat at the department, or the authorities there to collaborate? Or is this a cultural issue? What’s your take on some of the challenges?

Mike Groen 11:59
Yeah, that’s, that’s another great question. Because I, I almost hate to say this, but I think it’s almost 100%. Cultural. Right. And because it is, we have great universities, we have great corporations, we have great small startups, we have great innovation, smart people who want to support defense. I mean, this is the other, you know, the other thing like that, this is not, you know, this is not a mercantile relationship that they’re looking for, they’re looking for, obviously, they’re looking to make money, but they want to make better, they want to make us stronger. They want it to make us more competitive. And so like, how do you bring those kinds of partners, you know, into the question. There’s a lot of conversations about acquisition, and, you know, acquisition authorities and the PPBS process and all the rest. And those are legitimate conversations. But honestly, I mean, Hunter, you’re a living example of this, right? Like, you know, in like console calm, and other places, you know, you you can succeed, you can be innovative, you can make a difference in the rule sets are the same, right? Like a lot of people say, well, so calm, they have a service like authority, so they can do these things. Well, services have service like authorities, right? That’s what they have. And so like, how do we how do we spark a fire to, like, get people to innovate, and that’s a, that’s a, you know, that’s not as easy as you might think. Because you have to, you have to work your way through the ppbe S system, you have to recognize that there are there are competing priorities. I mean, you know, the Navy again, as you know, Hondo, like the Navy’s struggling, I mean, has some really large fiscal challenges, right, that. And so it’s not, it’s not enough to just say, well, you should just go invest in these, you know, innovative things. Because you still have to, you need Navy afloat, you need a navy under the sea, you need airplanes to fly. And so like, like, none of that goes away, when you’re trying to innovate. But there’s a real important cultural thing here with, I think we have we have a guide, right? Famous technologist, Abraham Lincoln, who said, in 1862, as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country, like, okay, a completely different context. But here you had an 1862, a nation that was enthralled with all these political machinations and legal machinations and foreign entanglements. I mean, you know, the nation was enthralled by all these things. I would submit that we, in the Department of Defense, and maybe more broadly, are enthralled by things enthralled with our acquisition process, enthralled by the idea of maybe competition between vendors rather than collaboration, enthralled with the idea that well all these small companies that are all around us. have all the answers and we shouldn’t just like throw it all over to them. That’s not true either. Right? But like all of these in thrall moments, keep us I think from you know, from shifting the dynamic. And there’s a core of I have to say this of what it means to be a professional. This is what really resonates with me. What is a profession? Right, what is a professional, it’s a group of people that profess something. And I think the things that we profess have gotten skewed right, like we profess things that were relevant in the industrial age. And we’ve we haven’t crossed the bridge to how do we profess a different way? Like what do our communities of professionals, great civilian and military folks inside the Pentagon on outside the Pentagon working hard to make us competitive? But they’re, they may be doing it in ways that aren’t really productive? Right. And that’s, that’s something we have to there’s voices are missing that we have to bring into this conversation.

Hondo Geurts 15:55
One thing, you know, you brought up SOCOM, and it’s an interesting example. And one of the things I think, since you’re saying about is one they tried to go down to digit they were forced to, by the war, go down a digital transformation path, pretty early in the in the war to be successful, because quite frankly, that was one of the enablers. And then they viewed themselves as much an importer of ideas and technology than an exporter. Right. And they are really good at importing an idea from wherever it came from. And that might be an interesting analogy. But the final piece, I would say is it was really outcome focused. And one of the challenges in big bureaucracies, they confuse outcomes with activities, and they confuse Well, we are we’re really busy. Okay, but are you generating an outcome that matters? So it from your view of AI? What is what is, you know, in a relatively near term? What is the outcome? Assuming we get the digital transformation? Assuming we start working through some of the culture and bringing all the right voices? What’s the outcome you think AI does practically for either on the battlefield or for the nation? You know, because this can be this, this giant term that can sometimes mean lots of different things to lots of different people?

Mike Groen 17:17
Yeah, that’s, that’s a great question. And you can you can see sort of IT professionals, you know, military professionals, like wrestling with this, like, you know, hey, I’ve heard, you know, I’ve heard that failed, or I’ve heard that didn’t work. And so like, now I’m, I’m, I’m backing away, because like, I’m not, I’m not comfortable with where we are. So it’s really important. We have the right dialogues here. Right. And that starts with, I think it has to start with the, the ethical baseline, right, like how we, as a moral society, we as a moral military force, we adherence to the laws of armed conflict, we have to ensure that our technology continues to comply with those things that we profess, as a professional military, like that’s like that is on, you know, you can’t challenge that, that has to be something that you put in place first. So like, if you if you build, so the department spent a lot of a lot of good, I think healthy time thinking through that. And if you think, you know, extending that, beyond just AI to like human machine teaming writ large, like how, how are we going to do a human machine teaming? And what does a, what does a machine teammate look like? And what rules does it live by? And how do we interact with it? You know, all the rest, right? So we could talk about that off the tape. But But, but like, how do you build? How do you build an environment then that you can start to use these tools effectively, like in the human machine, teaming space, for example, everybody has a picture in their head of, you know, a little robot dog or something that will go look around the corner for you. Here’s the thing, human, the machines that we team with, there will be 1000s of them. And only very few of them will actually have a physical form. They’re going to be information teammates, right? Because this is where humans lag. Right. And so I’ve heard it characterized, you know, artificial intelligence and what it does for you, I’ve heard it characterized as eyeglasses for the mind, right? Were, were no kidding, in the vast enterprise of data that you’re surrounded by, that you purposefully collect and curate. You can’t see clearly what that what’s in that data unless you have these kinds of classes, right. And so what that means, you know, practically on the battlefield, for example, so if you have, you know, overhead imagery, for example, satellite imagery, being able to detect objects, being able to identify objects, being able to do change detection, being able to now pattern activity. Hey, you know, the last time those airplanes left that airfield, this is what happened. Do you see any collaborating information that might tell you that and being able to have that kind of at your fingertips, right, so you have these agents on that, you know, artificial agents that are that are your teammates and helping you understand your digital environment around you. So that comes from a culture of measurement, a culture, a culture of collecting data, a culture of using data to drive decisions are informed decisions, it doesn’t take the humans out of the loop, it actually puts humans like up on a pedestal, right, because humans are going to take advantage of all of these, you know, all of these different algorithms that are out there, a commander doesn’t have to get on the radio and ask about the logistics posture of Bravo Company, right, because that data is already exists. And there’s an icon on his display that says, you know, Bravo Company is green, like that, kind of the, the, the efficiency, and the tempo that you can achieve, and the precision that you can achieve, by just having sort of machines to help you with the mounds of data is really critical. And then you can start to extend from there, right, so then you can start talking about, you know, warm drone swarms that, that now can accomplish missions, for example, you can talk about, you know, loyal wingman, you know, so, you know, one airplane can actually, you know, have, you know, 10 different components that can now you know, have have a much greater range of effects, like all of all of these things, start from, like understanding your environment. And then being able to act quickly, I will make a reference to the OODA loop, right. So here’s the thing in UHD in Gouda, so we’re always talking about accelerating that little loop. If you’re always observing, and you’re always oriented, your OODA loop gets really, really short, right? Because you’re ready to decide an act like right now, right? Indicator, bam, indicator, bam, threat response. So that’s what AI will do for us, right. And it’s not ready for primetime today. But we have to get we have to start doing the same things that our industry has done to achieve digital competitiveness, right is you get that competitive advantage by starting to collect meaningful data, we’re starting to build platforms and infrastructures that allow that data to be shared. You know, in our world, an air force sensor data from an Air Force Sensor should flow automatically to, you know, an army a tacroz battalion, for example, right, like like that, like that should be enabled in a digital environment so that you can fight fight with precision and tempo, that just like outclassed anything that we can do today.

Lauren Bedula 22:31
So Mike, some of our listeners are companies who are trying to navigate how to provide these types of solutions to the Department of Defense. And I know we talked about the cultural issues on the DoD side, but I think industry can make some improvements. And I’ve heard you give advice that I think would be really helpful for our listeners to hear, and I’m probably going to butcher it. But I really want to prompt you to get into this. So there were two parts. One was, don’t just talk about your technology really talk about the solution. And so the problem it solves, and then to something like object detection, if it’s an ornament on a Christmas tree, how do you provide the full solution? And to me that it means partnerships are thinking through on the industry side? How do we get together so that we’re providing a stronger product? So could I have you talk a little bit about that, of course.

Mike Groen 23:16
And so I’ll if I go down the wrong, the wrong lane, then please correct me. But here, here’s, here’s the thing. And I’ve I encountered this now, now that I’m kind of in the place that I am. But I did a bit before in the Jake. And that is like I talked to small companies almost every single day. And they like, we have this brilliant thing, this this is this this awesome algorithm, the Department of Defense has to have this why? Why won’t they buy this algorithm? Right. And at the same time, in a different place, you have functional expertise, you know, the artillery community, the Navy, you know, the surface ship community, and they’re saying, I have all of these functional problems. And I know those companies are like, right outside the gate, why can’t we, you know, why can’t I get access to those things? And so here you have, you know, functional communities desperate for solutions, who actually know the warfighting process and the values that you know, go into those value chains, right. This is not, this is not science. It’s art. Like, you know, the, you know, artillery men now are totally familiar women, like holy cow. They these people know process because life and death, right depends on it. And so like, like, those kinds of communities, functional communities that could just explode their relevance, their precision their tempo, through the integration of AI, they don’t have collaborative dialogue with the software providers who think that they have something really cool and maybe it is cool. It’s just not relevant to the problems that our functional communities have. Right. So like, gaining functional relevance is really important. And this is why in our requirements in the things that we produce it In our pitches as we’re trying to try to pitch technology, it’s really important that we, that we articulate the end state right? Tech adoption is not an end in itself. Optimization of process, accelerating tempo, in all of the other beneficial aspects that technology can bring to our warfighting. It has to be done in a collaborative environment with warfighters. And technologists. And today, like the, our environment just doesn’t support that, right, because you have winners and losers for contracts, you have large tenders that major companies can, you know, they have the big teams, and they can do all the work to do that small companies just don’t have that. So they don’t have enough capacity to or endurance, to fight their way through a process. So like we have to, we have to create an environment where those small companies actually have the opportunity to collaborate with their functional peers, so that we can actually get good tech.

Hondo Geurts 25:59
Yeah, so I really love this idea of, we have to be digitally in our digital competitiveness, because you might argue we focus for many decades on our industrial competitiveness. But at some point, if we don’t get the national security enterprise up to some threshold level, all these great tools and opportunities we can, we can capture them. But let’s talk a little on talent. And you know, you’ve been in the Marine Corps for a long time. And you’ve seen I always tell folks that are worried about the future of our country go see some young women and men serving and in how are they how are they coming into the force as more digital natives now, whether it’s in cyber or using these new tools? Do you see the hunger from them? So I really want to get after this? And is there a way we could better employ their, you know, talents and service stuff to help us in this transformation?

Mike Groen 27:01
Yeah, so great question. And you know, that, you know, I think everybody sees, you know, what you’ve seen what you’ve seen, Lauren, what I’ve seen, you know, that is just just inspiring young men and women who, you know, they’re capable, they’re smart, they’re focused, right? They want to do, they want to do the right things here. And so like, that’s, that’s not a problem, per se. Like everything else, though. And this gets back to the kind of the cultural artifacts, you know, it always comes to the frozen middle, right, like, you know, every service chief, you know, especially like General Brown, you know, Admiral Gill day, I mean, like, like, the comment on the Marine Corps, and like, the service chiefs are all pounding the table, like, I want more of this, and I want it faster. And the youngsters that are coming in, you know, in the, you know, the junior ranks, they’re they’re pounding the table saying, I want more of this, and I want it faster. So like, how do we unfreeze the frozen middle? Right? And the answer is not. And this is, this is something I, you know, I thought a lot about like, the answer is not to turn all of your artillery men into data scientists, right. Like, like, it’s so like, we have to, like, hold on a second, we actually need the functional expertise to be functional experts, we need to help them rethink their processes through the lens of digital transformation. But But, but it’s, we don’t want to just pull them all out and turn them into you know, coders. Because we have coders, we have access to lots of them, right? We just need to create the environment where we can actually bring them in more effectively in that collaborative environment. So so it’s like I like the army, for example, is doing fantastic things with digital training. I mean, it’s amazing what they’ve what they’ve been able to do in a short time. And I think that’s really good. But we just have to watch like the scale of that right? When you start when you start taking away all your functional expertise to focus on just technical artifacts, then then you start to lose the warfighting expertise underneath that really is, you know, the the glue that holds it all together.

Hondo Geurts 29:00
Yeah, I think, you know, one thing that that may work a little bit of the old standard crystal team, but teams is, is getting these diverse teams, whether it’s from industry stumped small startups, big companies, young, young folks in service and a couple of commanders kind of oriented go solve this problem. Don’t go reorganize to a better organization go you know, kind of task force 59 oriented, do you see that as as a way to, you know, start breaking down problems and just have folks isn’t, you know, working on him or, again, we have to watch the chaos theory of lots of new level silos that we can integrate,

Mike Groen 29:38
I think if you purposefully did it and you so you created an environment where all those little silos had a place to point their outputs, for example, what’s killing us today? What’s making us non competitive today? I mean, unambiguously, what makes us non competitive today is our tribalism. Right? And so that it’s an it’s a natural human thing, right? So it’s not like You know, the Pentagon is full of evil people or anything like that. But but but tribalism, our budget process budgetary processes facilitate and are enabled by tribalism. Our contract awarding is enabled by tribalism, everything is it goes back to this tribal culture, somebody was really smart in the 1960s, they knew there was going to be a Space Force. So they designed the Pentagon with five sides. And that way each, there’s five corners. So each service has a corner that they can back into, and defend their budget, right. So like, that was brilliant, they, how did they know in 1960, that that was gonna happen. But here we are in an environment where, you know, the Pentagon processes that evolved from like, domain specific hardware procurement. And, and now, we are in a domain integrated software capabilities that are evolutionary and always that, you know, they’re, they’re useless until you can scale them, well, in a tribal environment, where one service will refuse to share its data with another or one, one service will will not work on somebody else’s platform, or share a training environment or invest in a, you know, in a set of quantum computing, solutions, whatever it is, like when you when, when you when everybody is backed in their corner, and they’re forced into this through our culture, right, the PPBS culture, then you don’t, you don’t start to like really start to achieve the integrative effects that are necessary. You know, like our acquisition processes focused on hardware systems. What we need is integrated software environments, and software tools that are perpetually changing and data that’s perpetually harvested, and then you know, and then and then used for function. We know how to do this, our industry partners know how to do this, we just haven’t been able to cross the cultural bridge to say, yes, we’re going to fight as a team. jointness is a compromise. That’s not it’s, it’s great. It’s a great compromise. But it’s not sufficient for what we’re trying to do, or what we will need to do to become competitive.

Lauren Bedula 32:15
We’ve talked about your amazing career in service, and you’ve been out now for almost three months, or just about three months, a very short period of time. Have you learned anything in the private sector? Any surprises?

Mike Groen 32:27
Yeah, I think I’m just as busy, but I’m much happier, right? I don’t have to worry about my parking spot at the Pentagon. But but but I did to be fair, I, I loved working at the Pentagon, just because I love the people that are there. Right, like, like, throughout, the thing that has motivated me throughout is just especially like working with young, you know, Intel analysts, you know, at one of the Intel agencies, for example, or work with young marines, you know, to solve a problem, I mean, that just, like, just fires you up, right? And if, you know, if you if you’re not on fire, you know, when you have those kinds of interactions, then you’re, then you’re asleep, right, then you really need to kind of pay closer attention. So, so the on the on the private sector side, like one of the things that I’ve that I’ve discovered in this is fantastic, right? Like is, you kind of, you know, You’re conditioned inside the department that you know, well, you know, outside the walls of the Pentagon, there’s these evil organizations, they’re called companies, and you know, some of them are big, and some of them small, they all want to take your money and feed your proprietary, you know, junk, so that they can charge you again, like, like, and I found the exact opposite to be true, right. Like I found patriots, who are just as deeply concerned about our national security and our national competitiveness as anybody wearing a uniform, and they want to help and they want to do it. And they’re earnest in in, you know, their earnest in their, in their eagerness to like, okay, how can I get in there, I have some really smart people that I work with, I really want them to work on your problems. And we haven’t created the venues for them to do that. It’s enormous. I mean, you know, you can’t you can’t talk to like a small, you know, software startup company and not walk away excited, like, holy cow. These guys are really good. And they they want to help. I don’t know, we have to figure out how to do that. And, you know, again, it’s a cultural thing, but how do we empower them? And the current process isn’t adequate to do that.

Hondo Geurts 34:29
One of the things and I see the same thing, I mean, there’s so many folks that want to help and in fact, how hard they fight did want to help in spite of us in the department, not always leveraging which is actually laudable and their persistence. But one of the things I also see is a lot of really talented leaders and and teammates on those teams. But they haven’t had the experience of military teaches you in terms of how to attack professional development and how Gotta keep growing, as you work through your career, and you know, some of that can be mentorship, some of that’s, you know, trying different things. What if you as you look back on your super successful career so far, and I want to think some of this, the military just does, but doesn’t always talk about doing what are some, what are some of the things when you look back that really helped shape you and, and grow you that would be useful for whether it’s folks coming up through the government service, or founders or, or folks in startups to be thinking about as they want to grow and achieve their goals?

Mike Groen 35:35
So great question. And kind of like the, I mean, the first answer I would tell you is, you know, the focusing on outcomes, and like really understanding what you’re building, right, and like how it is going to be used and what your outcomes are. Every, every business should be doing that anyway. Right. But so that’s, that’s a really important thing, right? It’s like mission focused, Mission derived capabilities, not tech derived capabilities, if you get my meaning, right, like, no kidding, why are we doing that technical thing? It’s really cool. But why are we doing that? And what does that help us do? So that’s really, that’s, that’s really important, just from, from a cultural shift. I would say this, though, the most important thing is people, you know, and you guys won’t be surprised to hear me say that. mentorship from below is such a powerful force. Right? And when you when you as a leader, when you create teams of people, and those those teams, you know, when they’re looking up at you and saying, Hey, Colonel, what do we do now? Or, Hey, Captain, what do we do now? If that? Doesn’t this light your heart on fire? Right, like you will do anything for them? Right? Like you will do anything to lead them to mission success, you will do anything. And, like the best mentorship that I’ve ever gotten, has been from, you know, young kids. Right, right. From from, you know, at all ranks. Everybody’s young to me now. But, but but but but young people and those, you know, 360 degree mentorship, seek it, right? Like, this is not something that, you know, gets thrust upon you seek it, right. And then, of course, I just had the fantastic fortune to work with some of the most just incredible legendary leaders. You know, General Mattis, for example. You know, I was I was GE to Iraq. And holy cow, that guy had vision, that guy had focus, that guy could, it could lead a large organization to a large effect. I just remember, like, we would just in amazement, something would happen. And, and we’ve go wait a minute, three days ago, he said that was going to happen, how did he know? Right? Like, and it wasn’t, you know, one, one off here and there, like almost every day, we were like, how did he know that we were going to be in this position. General Dunford, another, you know, I was when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I was fortunate enough to be his Jay to Oh, my God, the, you know, I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but maybe the greatest human being I’ve ever met. Right? Right. Like, like, no kiddin selfless, brilliant patient, you know, all of the attributes that that that just just like make you, you know, we would sneak in like, we were already working, you know, 60 hours a week, 70 hours a week, we would sneak in more, because we would refuse to fail, we would refuse to let him down. Right? Because we knew that he worked so hard. We knew that he you know that he was wrestling with these really difficult problems. When you can get when you can live in an environment where, you know, your box is so good that you’re you know, you’re sneaking it on Sunday morning, so that you get a couple more hours of work and, like holy cow, that’s the kind of commitment that those leadership that those leaders do. And, you know, I could go down the list, you know, general steward, you know, from from dia, General Kelly, you know, the former national security adviser I mean, like, like, I just had a really great fortune to work with great leaders, but also work with great people. Young dia analysts, Yun, Nga analysts, young NSA analysts look like holy cow. Powerful.

Hondo Geurts 39:16
Yeah, and, but it’s only powerful if you’re curious and paying attention. I mean, the only thing I wouldn’t add on to that is for folks is pay attention to what’s going on around Watch, watch what other folks are doing learn, you can learn so much, just by being curious and then, you know, creating that willingness to learn not that not that you have to arise. So Mike, we we didn’t talk about vitamin i We can’t have this podcast without without you mentioning vitamin I give a give me a little vitamin I.

Mike Groen 39:44
Yeah. Okay, so some vitamin i. So here’s, here’s when I when I think about like, like, what one of the things that impairs us, right. Like what, like, why don’t we digitally transform, why don’t we take a page from industry? You know, the Bezos letter you know that that are that directed? Everybody use the same API’s across little Amazon in 2001? Like, okay, what 20 years past that right? Like, what? What is it that stops us from like, like being successful in integrating, you know, and transform our technology? And I honestly think it said vitamin I deficiency, right eye being imagination. We have not listened to President Lincoln’s words about thinking a new acting a new disk and throwing ourselves. Like if we did that, and you actually had a vision for what does it like a software driven enterprise that’s connected across all the services and all the warfighting functions look like? Holy cow? You if you can imagine it, then you can create a functional vision for that like, oh, okay, yeah, it so it’s gonna look something like this, create the functional vision, create the processes that take advantage of data, validate those processes, processes, virtualize those processes. I mean, we could build a virtualized defense environment, that would be extraordinarily powerful and data driven, right. And without bending any metal whatsoever. Right. But we just have to imagine what that looks like. I do think that there’s an opportunity in what’s articulated in the national defense strategy as campaigning, if there was a campaign, if we needed one campaign today, it would be a campaign to be competitive with the People’s Liberation Army. So let’s have that campaign. Right. Let’s organize it. Let’s let’s put banners on the sides of the Pentagon, right, let’s, let’s get some neon lights, right like that. It’s that important to us as a nation, it’s that important to us as a military. Let’s get the imagination about how do we actually bring this about? Because there’s nothing more important that’s on our plate?

Lauren Bedula 41:47
Wow. Well, on that note, Mike, you had so many great ideas. One thing that stood out to me was on the industry side, it’s not just pitching your Technologies, a sales pitch really turns off the department. And you’re almost seeing some division today, where leaders at the department are talking about frustrations towards venture capitalists or towards tech bros in division is exactly what our adversaries want. And I think we see it’s on all sides. Everyone likes to solve hard problems, wants to come together and work this. So it’s understanding do these problems in a way so you know what your technology solves, and then continuing to chip away at the cultural issues at the department so that we can have this stronger collaboration. So, Mike, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mike Groen 42:31
Awesome. Well, thank you both. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed every opportunity to talk to you too. So thanks for your leadership in this space.

Outro 42:38
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