Interview: Dr. Raj Iyer (CIO, US Army, EE-1992)

To watch the video interview:

What are the responsibilities that the Chief Information Officer has in the day to day operations of the army?

Before I answer that, I want to set a geopolitical framework as to why the army established a Chief Information Officer. 

I’m sure you’re tracking this in the media these days, it’s no secret that we have China and Russia growing in power, in terms of their military might and disrupting the peace we’ve had from a nation state’s perspective. For the last 20 years, the United States and the army has been fighting terrorists in the Middle East, and as we have seen in the last few years, we are noticing an imbalance in the nation states, especially China and Russia now starting to, like I said, create an imbalance in the world. 

When we look at how they’re progressing and the approaches they’re taking, it’s all about leveraging technology to fight other nations. And a lot of times, when I say “fight”, it’s not even visible. The fight that I know that most countries are already in, today from some of these countries is more on the side of cyber warfare. It is really important for the United States to move from the “Industrial Age Army” to the “Information Age Army”. Fighting in the cyber space and fighting using modern technologies like artificial intelligence is how we hope the United States will retain its dominance in the world and help bring peace. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about strategic deterrence. In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was about how we use nuclear technology as a deterrence. Moving forward, it is going to be about how we leverage technology, and some of these digital technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and so on to be able to bring strategic deterrence. God forbid, if there is a war, especially in the South China Sea and other parts of the world, the United States has to be ready to protect our interests and to be able to win a large scale combat operation decisively. 

That is the journey the U.S. Army is on for the next few years. And as I said, it is really moving away from our approach to fighting wars using tanks and helicopters and aircrafts- which we will have, but to be able to actually integrate that with modern technology. This is a modernization effort that has never been seen before in the almost 250 year history of the U.S. Army. The senior leadership- The Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army, and others- made a conscious decision that they needed one person to be able to drive this transformation, and to help modernize the army, integrating these technologies and positioning us better so that we can counter these threats.

The role of the CIO is essentially two-fold. One is establishing the right framework to modernize. We have set ourselves the aggressive target of getting to some kind of an interim operational capability by 2028 (only 7 years from now) and to be ready for full scale operations by 2035. But given the pace at which technology evolves, and the amount of work to be done, and we are getting a head-start, my role as the CIO is to be the champion for these digital technologies so that the army can adopt them more rapidly and are not hindered by any bureaucratic processes or polices. Because, just like any other large organization, we have several policies that are antique and must be adapted to reflect the changing technology, and also to set a strategy.  If you don’t set a strategy and don’t have a vision for how you’re going to accomplish this modernization, then you’re going to have a lot of disconnected programmes that will just not work together.

We see that a part of how we fight in the future is what’s called multi-domain operations, through an integration of our (combat) operations on land, our aerospace operations with the U.S. Air Force, our sea and naval operations with the U.S. Navy, as well as outer space and the cyberspace. These are the five domains we are trying to integrate. What ties all these domains together is data. When you are fighting at the speed of war in the future, to us that is using things like hypersonic missiles. When you use hypersonic missiles you no longer have hours or minutes to be able to react; you’ll only have seconds. When you are fighting at that speed, you’ll have to be able to take advantage of artificial intelligence to be able to quickly look at data from sensors around the world, to be able to fuse that data and integrate them for decision-making, and then to be able to send directions out to a field, as missions to be executed.

That is my primary hat as the CIO of the United States Army. But while we do that, we have to balance that against- a budget neutral environment. The current administration’s priority is all about bringing healthcare back to the citizens, protecting the nation, building infrastructure and more citizen-facing services, and lesser emphasis on the defense budget. When you are in that kind of an environment, you have to look at how you can achieve effective modernization in a cost neutral or a budget neutral environment. Achieving this balance of divestment versus modernization is again one of the key roles I play as the CIO. While we’re doing that, we obviously have to maintain support for our current operations worldwide. I have, under me, a staff of over 15000 IT professionals worldwide, in 150 countries. They are supporting current operations today, whether it is in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and so on. 

How do we make sure we continue to maintain and support these operations through IT, especially supporting both defensive and offensive cyber operations? Obviously, protecting our networks is our number 1 priority right now. As the CIO, I am also responsible for cybersecurity and making sure we are keeping our networks and our data safe. How do we make sure to protect ourselves from both state and non-state actors? Because to us, that is a war we continue to fight everyday today. 

What drew you to the US army ever since your PhD days? Did your work as the Defense Security Consultant for Deloitte help in you reaching the destination of the US army? How did you go about planning and joining the US army?

I actually first joined the army back in 2002, this is my second time coming back into the US army.

Back in 2002, I had finished my PhD (1997) and co-founded a startup and worked, at the same, for several years. Actually, the United States army was one of my customers for my startup. I worked extensively with the army. And as I got to understand the army and the role they played, it was interesting that (again, this was back in the early ‘90s) for about 10 years before that, the US army had basically built up its technical debt. They had reduced funding, the Cold War had just ended, so the ‘90s was a timeframe the US did not invest in the defense of the nation. And then, we all know what happened on 9/11. And we were quickly forced to move into fighting wars in places where we had never been before. 

The reason for me to join was really out of true patriotism. I had obviously, by that time, been in this country for well over 10 years. I had recently become a US citizen; I had become naturalized. I felt like I had to give something back to this country that gave me so much. When I came in as a student, got my masters and my PhD, and this country helped me build a successful start-up company. When you look at somebody coming in as an immigrant into this nation, and this nation welcomes you and gives you an opportunity, I felt like I had to give something back to this country.

I was hoping that it was going to be a short-term engagement. But as I made my way into the army, and I looked at the challenges and how they were struggling to support the fight (this was in the early days) in the war against Afghanistan and then later in Iraq. I stayed on for almost 10 years then because it was so impactful, because what I was doing as an engineer then in the army was really helping feel, build a lot of the weapon system platforms, and supporting the war effort. Tracking those days- most of you were very young- there were literally hundreds or thousands of soldiers getting killed every day because we just didn’t have the right equipment. 

It was a very impactful time for me to be there, to help build and support the fielding of new weapon systems during the effort. I’m a third generation public servant in my family. There’s always this soft corner for doing something back for your nation, whether it is in India or here, there’s a passion for giving back to your nation. I’ve got to believe that was always somewhere in my blood.

When I came back to the private sector, and I was with Deloitte for almost seven years, I still wanted to stay engaged with the defense industry. Although I was now a consultant on the private side, I stayed engaged with the army and helped advise them and their senior leaders on how they accomplish this modernization and transformation that I talked about. And then when this opportunity came along, just completely unexpected for me to be the CIO, it was not one I was planning on. When I got that call from the secretary at the army and the senior officials at the pentagon, it was hard for me to say no to that, because again, when you’re being called to save and protect the nation, you just don’t say no to that; at least I personally couldn’t. 

How does a person go about building a professional network while switching careers? How do you improve and sustain the network when you are changing organisations or positions?

The early days even though I had built a successful “.com” start-up, social media didn’t exist in the ‘90s and the early 2000s. I’d say I have personally relied heavily on LinkedIn; in fact I was probably one of the earliest adopters of LinkedIn as a social media platform and to have built my network. In fact, again, not that I was- or I knew something was going to happen in the future and how helpful that was going to be, but it felt good to be able to be a part of a virtual network of people doing similar things. 

In my case, because I had spent so much time in the defense industry over a period of time you start to build that network. You start to know who the people are, who the industries are, who the movers and shakers are. 

Soon, it became very clear that my passions were in National Security and Defense. That’s where you start to build your network. As I have changed jobs I have continued to stay in touch with people I have known, especially with people in the army. Even though most of them are not on social media sites like LinkedIn, I have leveraged many of the people I have worked with and worked for in the past as my mentors. I’d say that has been one of my, if not the best, number one reasons for success; maintaining that mentorship relationships. 

I have people that I have, since my very first job, that stayed in contact with. I continue to seek advice and guidance from them, because I can tell you that they know you better than you know yourself, and better than your family members will know you, right. I would say: stay engaged with mentors. The three or four people that have helped me in my career, I still stay in touch with them. I interact with them; I ask them for advice and they give me frank, direct advice, on whether this particular job is the right one for me. 

In fact, quite honestly, before I had made the decision that I wanted to take this job as the CIO, I made several calls to my mentors to see, “Am I the right person for this?”, “Can I really actually do this?”, given how complex the job is and how difficult this is going to be. Because, I did not think I was even qualified for this job, to be really honest. But it was my mentors who knew me, who saw the potential in me over my 30 year career. They were the ones that said, “No, you are absolutely the person for this job, and we know you can do this”. So that helped me give the confidence that I could do this.

So I would say that is very- both the close relationship with your mentors, but then a larger group of professionals in your area of expertise, and making the relationships and communications, and staying in touch with the industry and what’s happening. Because, as technology changes so fast. Keeping track of who is doing what in the industry, I think is going to be the key to success.

You’ve talked about mentorship and the position of the CIO as such. In your career you have held various leadership positions for the good part of it. What do you feel are important traits a leader must possess to be successful in what they lead- the teams they lead or the organisations they lead?

As engineers, I believe we seem to think that we have to be problem solvers first and we have to solve problems ourselves. Because that is mostly what we’re taught in engineering schools. I’d say over my career now, I have come to the recognition that that is really not the case. It is about how you are able to work together in teams and how you are able to successfully solve problems in a group setting rather than individual effort. 

As you start to move up, it’s all about, now how do you work together in teams. As you move up even higher, it’s about even larger teams where those teams may not work for you. You now have to work with peers. When you get to the position where I am now, which is very, very highly strategic, where I am essentially like the CEO of a 15-20 billion dollar company with 15000 employees, I cannot be the problem solver. It is about really how you set the strategic vision, it’s about how you are able to bring about change that’s a grassroots level change. At that point, it’s all about your ability to communicate your vision, your ability to motivate and incentivize people to do the right things. It is making sure that you create the same passion that you have in you in other people, so they can give you their 100% best every day. It’s not about how you control them, it is how you empower them.

When I first took the job as the CIO and I came on, as engineers I think we have a tendency to want to be able to touch and feel things and to solve problems ourselves. Quite honestly, when I came to this job, I actually wrote down a list of a hundred things I want to do. I realised within the first 30 days that I’ll never get to solve the hundred problems. Not that I don’t know how to solve them, I just will not- there’s just physically not enough hours in a day to be able to solve them on your own. And even if I did solve those problems on my own, what I have not solved is the problem of how I bring the entire workforce with me along the way. And if I’m not able to do that, I have not been successful. One person cannot be the bottleneck for an organisation. 

I have been a strong believer in that- you can’t have one person that is the smartest in any office, in any company, that is controlling and hogging everything and is being the bottleneck for progress. And again, over my career, that has ever happened to me where I had one person who was doing that, I have let that person go. Because it is better to do that rather than create the risk of somebody who has now become the bottleneck and is holding up everybody else’s progress.

Try to understand the role that you play, the job that you have right now, how does that relate to the bigger picture. Do you see that? Do you understand that? And that’s one of the things I do at all levels with my staff is, “Hey, when you go into work every day morning, and when you come out at the end of the day, are you able to at the end of the day say the work that you did today, how that meets the mission of the army? Can you explain that?”

Because if you cannot explain that, then that’s where you get people becoming demoralized, and if they cannot see how their work is actually helping the mission. I would ask each of you and others to say, how do we- what role do I play, even though I may be one person in a hundred thousand person organisation, doesn’t matter how big it is, you’ve got to be able to make that connection. And that will start building you- giving you kind of this feel for a strategic context, which is so important. And then, like I said, it is how we work in teams where it is not your ego that is driving who gets credit, it is about how the team gets credit. And that is an important context.

Now, you’ll always have people who say, “Hey, I’m going to take credit for this”, and that kind of thing. But that is okay. Because I can tell you, the people who feel like doing that in a team will never succeed in the long run. They may have succeeded in the short term, but in the longer run, they will never succeed. The humility, and the ability to talk about “us” rather than “me”- and you guys should all watch this: if you’re in any conversation in a team and someone says “me” or “I” and not “us” and “we”, then you’re in the wrong team. Again, these are things that you don’t see when you’re young and in the early days of your career. 

But in my case over the 30 years, what I have found is that there are traits in people that you can tell early on whether they are going to be successful and are they willing to make the changes that they need to to be successful.

You’ve worked both in the private and the public sector extensively. What would you say are the differences you have observed between the two?

Yeah, I’d say- so in the private sector, let me say, it is all motivated by- the things that you do are all motivated by metrics. I won’t say money; I’d say motivated by metrics. There is a clear understanding when you come into work in any private sector company that you are held accountable and responsible to achieve a certain outcome and that is measurable. You can’t say, “Hey, I went into work today and I got ‘work done’”. ‘Work done’ is not any indicator of success. It’s just- ‘work done’ is just expending energy. What did you accomplish, and how do you measure that? 

When you work for the government, there are very few metrics that are defined. Then again, it is mainly because most government agencies have not matured to that level yet and they see themselves as bureaucratic organisations that “have to get work done”, right. They’re in support of getting work done. The change in culture that I am trying to bring about is for everybody to be much more focused on being outcomes driven and to be able to measure their progress- individual progress, team progress, as well as mission progress. To me that is one of the things that is a big change. 

The second change is if you are able to measure yourself, then how do we incentivize you to do even better? In industry, you can have stretch goals, you can say, “hey, you achieved this kind of benchmark or metric this year, next year if you achieve 25% better or more, then I’m willing to incentivize you with compensation or other ways to be able to show that you’re able to take that risk. You’re taking that risk and accomplishing it, so I’m going to incentivize you financially or monetarily.” We don’t have that in the government. A lot of the time, moving the goalposts to the next level is hard because there’s no incentive for anybody to do better or more than what they’re doing today.

That’s why it’s so important to talk about reframing that discussion for me in terms of mission impact. Because at the end of the day, most people that come to work for the government don’t come there- some of them may come there for job stability, but most of them come there because they have a passion for public service and they want to do something for the nation. There has to be some other emotional factor that is driving them to accomplish better and more than what they are doing today. 

So, understanding that tie-in to the mission to the organisation, how the role that they as an individual can play is important- because that is the only incentive that they have. That’s the only incentive you can offer to them, because so much of it is going to be not monetary in nature.

Given the rapid pace of growth in your areas of expertise, how do you adapt to new developments and implement them in your work? Expanding to students, do you think the education system is industry-relevant, and what additions could they make?

I would say keeping pace with technology is really, really tough. If you look at- and by the way, it used to be 20 years ago or 30 years ago that there were centres of- centres where technology was growing rapidly like in Silicon Valley. It was easy to say, “Okay, I am going to focus on the Silicon Valley and what is going on there, and all the start-up companies and what is coming out of there”. 

Now, today, it is a worldwide thing, right. Technology has really democratized youngsters around the world to be able to pursue their passions and develop new technologies. It is much, much harder now to be able to keep track and pace with this changing technology. I think we will all continue to struggle through that. I don’t believe there is an easy answer to that. 

You are building a network, a good virtual network and help in some ways because you are tracking what others or your peers are doing, and you share information with each other. But still, I feel like that is just the tip of the iceberg and there’s just so much out there that will be much harder to adopt. In the army for example, we rely very heavily on the private sector, the commercial industry to help us with that. But again, even that is hard, because when I was in the private sector, the problem didn’t really go away. 

I mean maybe you have a little more exposure to new technology advancements but it is still tough to always keep track of what is happening. That’s why it is really important to prioritise and pick-and-choose what you want to focus on, because you really cannot be doing everything. I’ve seen a lot of CIOs fail, because they go chasing after every new shiny object that comes along, and when that happens you lose focus. Sometimes you have to make that conscious choice that’s about, “Hey, it’s okay that I’m not in the leading edge or the bleeding edge of technology, right. What are my current challenges today, and how do I crawl or walk around?” Because you do not have to be the first adopter every single time.

Your second question, what schools can do better- thinking back at my own four years at REC- I am positive and I’m hopeful things have changed, but so much of it was just individual competition.

It was all about, “hey, how do you compete against somebody else in your class? I spent, I’d say, almost the entire 100% of my time being a bookworm while I was on campus. In hindsight, if I could turn back time, I’d say I probably would have learnt much more if I had spent more time with other students, understanding dynamics of groups, understanding how you navigate politics, understanding how you work with personalities of different types all the way from bullies and egotists, to others, and how one works in such an environment without taking it personally. I think there is something to be learnt from that in terms of life-skills – it is easier to do so when in college than after you graduate.

So I would encourage everybody to do that – that doesn’t mean ignoring your academics, which is still very important. But I think, the Indian education system has changed to the point where things are much more collaborative and it should be more ‘team credit’ instead of ‘individual credit’. Because that’s how things are done in the real world. You’re never put in a situation where you solve problems individually, you solve problems in groups. You either win or lose as a group; not an individual.

This interview was done in collaboration with NITTSAC.

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