After working in the cyber field for 25 years in the Air Force, Col. Jeffrey Collins knows the ins and outs of the evolving domain: solving multi-level network security issues downrange, commanding air traffic control, developing future cyberspace strategies at the Pentagon and now heading the CyberWorx unit at the Air Force Academy.
As director, Collins said the keys to staying ahead of the enemy are imagination, agility and the right mix of people and perspectives.
“Me thinking about a problem is going to be much slower than me explaining what I think the problem is to 15 people and then asking them to give 15 different ideas on how to solve the problem,” he said. “Just the speed with which you can find bad and good ideas is increased.”
The 48-year-old from Indiana arrived for his third assignment at the academy in August to set up CyberWorx, where cadets and faculty have been collaborating with industry this semester through a design thinking course.
This week, Collins spoke with the Business Journal about his career, its challenges and the future of CyberWorx.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Lafayette, Ind., where Purdue University is. I enrolled in ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] and was commissioned right after that. My first duty assignment was at Holloman Air Force Base — there is a test group there, and among other things they have a rocket sled track. It’s 10 miles long, where you get sonic booms off of a rocket. At the time, we were trying to get to Mach 10 and each time one of the stages of the rocket fired off, you would get sonic booms going up through the Machs, and it was really exciting.
Ever since, I’ve had this heart for research, and for pushing, ‘Where can we go? And what is the best way for us to get there?’
Why did you join the Air Force?
The Blue Angels performed over my hometown when I was about 6 or 7 and from then, I wanted to fly. I went to Purdue and at the time, the Air Force was experiencing the peace dividend; the Soviet Union was falling and the Air Force was really drawing down. My eyes went bad; I lost my pilot slot and it looked like I wasn’t going into the Air Force. Fortunately, the colonel there saw something in me, and I was able to graduate, enter with my class in 1991.
How does it feel to be back at the Academy?
I never expected to be back in Colorado Springs, but it turned out that the Air Force had different plans. It’s nice this worked out because it feels like home.
It’s my third assignment at the academy. I applied here as a second lieutenant; they hired me to get a master’s degree, which I received from RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] in technical communication, and then came back and taught at the academy for three years. I taught the freshman research and composition course, advanced speech to cadets, and technical writing to STEM faculty.
Then the Air Force sent me for a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University; I finished that, and then did a bunch of operational assignments. I finally returned to the academy, and then left three years ago to serve at the Pentagon doing cyber strategy and policy.
What is CyberWorx’s vision?
It’s to deliver capability to the Air Force and to make sure we’re educating the next generation of officers so that they understand problem-solving methodology.
Some big benefits of approaching cyber this way [through partnerships and design thinking] is we increase the diversity of people attacking the problem.
Cyberspace, unlike the other domains in which we fight, is one where we can change the space. We can create sort of virtual mountains that the enemy has to fight through to get to us. We can create mountains that make the enemy aircraft have more difficulty doing what they’re trying to do.
And we’re not really limited like other domains by physics so much as just by imagination. So to increase that amount of imagination, we need a broader range of people who are willing to come in and help us solve these problems. That cross-pollination is important because we get that diversity of thought in solving real-world Air Force problems. And that makes our solutions better.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I’d say one of the biggest challenges has been that fear of failure — it’s safe to just follow the rule. I’m not advocating breaking the rules, but the learning lesson is to be forthright about limitations and opportunities up the chain. In terms of giving the truth up the chain, that goes back to one of our core values which is integrity first. It takes people willing to think and question, and then deliver the good and bad news.
What is your next goal?
My goal is to lead the Air Force toward small solutions — we start on wicked problems so that we find out faster what works and what doesn’t, and then evolve in more of an agile way than we have in the past.
Our goals next semester are to do at least two more design sprints, but also figure out ways to include cadets in those, such as develop an innovation club where we have cadets interested in solving these problems.
What is the status of the CyberWorx secure facility?
CyberWorx is in Fairchild Hall, and we can do one major project in our design studio. There is an elevator on the outside of the library, and we are renovating two floors where CyberWorx will move. A secure facility will be added that will allow us do two to three design projects, one classified and the other two unclassified. It’s still a few years away, but that’s OK because we’re growing. Right now, we have a total of nine people on the team but plan to grow to 28 people over the next two years.