AF CyberWorx has seen slower-than-expected expansion in staff and facilities, but outgoing director Lt. Col. Mike Chiaramonte is confident it’s reaching better solutions, faster — reaping greater rewards for the Air Force.
And now that the Air Force’s cyber responsibilities have shifted from Air Force Space Command to Air Combat Command, Chiaramonte sees a smoother, more predictable path to the warfighter for the solutions CyberWorx produces.
CyberWorx, a public-private design center focused on cyber capability, brings together military, academic and industry expertise to tackle Air Force operational problems using “design thinking” as its methodology. The design thinking approach focuses on rapid prototyping and emphasizes a willingness to take risks.
Air Force officials announced in June 2018 that Air Combat Command would be taking over as cyber mission lead. At the time, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said the move would “drive faster decisions as we fight” by bringing cyber operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions under the same command.
For CyberWorx, Chiaramonte said he expects the shift “will change where we get projects from, and the level of support our projects have.
“Right now we look for projects that have champions. You get champions with different levels of interest and capability for pushing something forward; you get projects with different levels of capability and funding support behind them,” he said.
“Whereas having a more solidified connection to Air Combat Command — particularly their requirements process — will give us a much better connection to their funding streams. And the leadership over there, that’s now advocating on our behalf, will have much more control of reaching into programs and saying, ‘This solution that we’ve developed with industry is going here.’ Before, we didn’t really have that. It was much more: ‘I’ve got this cool solution; the user likes it; now what do I do with it?’ It was trying to find a home for the solution, versus having that home pre-identified.”
Chiaramonte, formerly CyberWorx deputy director, took the reins when founding director Col. Jeffrey Collins deployed more than a year ago. Collins has moved to a role with NORAD-NORTHCOM, and Col. William Waynick of Air Force Space Command will step in as director when Chiaramonte returns to the Department of Computer and Cyber Sciences in July.
Chiaramonte talked with the Business Journal about recent developments, obstacles and the road ahead.
WAITING ON STAFF, SPACE
In 2017, then-director Collins told the Business Journal that CyberWorx needed more personnel. He anticipated adding 10 staff in fiscal year 2018, and growing to a total of 28 in fiscal year 2019.
That hasn’t happened yet.
Numbers currently stand at six full-time staff, two reserve staff and about five contract staff, Chiaramonte said.
“The hiring process has been somewhat backed up,” he said. “So it’s been taking us longer to get things through the system. We’re still on track to get them [28 staff; 21 working directly for CyberWorx] at some point. It just won’t be as fast as we thought.”
One new staff member will come on board this summer, two more will join in the fall, and two others are in the hiring pipeline now.
Progress on a permanent CyberWorx facility has also slowed.
In 2017, plans for a permanent, secure 40,000-square-foot facility were brought forward from fiscal year 2021 to fiscal year 2018. Now, according to Chiaramonte, groundbreaking has been pushed back to 2020.
“We’re looking at awarding a contract to the firm that’s going to build it some time later this summer,” he said, “and then once that is done they will, I believe, have to break ground by sometime early in the second quarter of calendar year 2020 — though there are potentially options for them to do that much sooner, if and when they’re ready.”
Chiaramonte confirmed plans for the permanent facility are behind schedule.
“I don’t know the details as to exactly what happened,” he said. “I know there were some contract rewrites and things like that, as they’d gone through trying to figure out the appropriate mechanism for doing that. That’s really with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.”
When complete, the new CyberWorx facility will raise capacity from three simultaneous design projects to 10 — or full operating capability. It will also boast state-of-the-art immersive labs and makerspaces for cyber training; robotics and autonomous systems; cybersecurity, networking, radio frequency and telecommunications; forensics and reverse engineering; policy, strategy, cyber law and digital humanities; and industrial controls and platform security.
For now, CyberWorx occupies a purpose-built, 10,000-square-foot studio in the Air Force Academy’s McDermott Library, where they have completed six design sprints, two additional sprint projects drawn from cadet classes, one hackathon and five prototyping projects.
KEEPING CYBER TALENT
The most recent sprint, the Air Force Cyber Talent Management project, brought cyber, IT and human resources professionals together for four days to work out how the Air Force can retain cyber professionals and develop their careers.
The Air Force needs to keep skilled people in cyber career fields, but the high numbers transitioning to the civilian world suggests that jobs in commercial organizations are often more appealing.
One of the issues the sprint looked at, Chiaramonte said, is that the traditional military model for career progression is “up or out” — you move up and take on supervisory responsibilities, or you leave.
“In a deeply technical career field like cyber, is that always appropriate? When you’re building extreme technical depth in someone who’s really good at what they do, we need to look at how you can keep someone in the same place longer — or at least in the same type of job longer — where not moving up isn’t a penalty to them,” he said.
As a solution, the sprint recommended and built out a cyber career field path that was more technical than traditional. Participants also tackled other common talent management-related reasons people leave the Air Force.
“How do you get people into the jobs they want to have, versus just arbitrarily picking people up and moving them to other locations? Because when we talked to some of the folks that were leaving, a lot of it is, ‘You trained me to this job for three years, and now I’m not doing it — all those skills are going away, and I’m doing something I don’t want to do. And if I’m going to get out of the Air Force, the longer I wait, the less marketable I become as that gap continues to build,’” Chiaramonte said. “Some people do want to move up in rank and do supervisory managerial stuff; some don’t. So what does it look like to be able to service both of those communities — understanding that the pay gap between us and the civilian world is pretty big, especially in the cybersecurity space — and that what we really have drawing them into the Air Force is we get to do some missions that you can’t do outside of the military, and there’s the whole service culture that’s a pretty good draw as well. But that’ll only get you so far.”
Chiaramonte said the sprint’s recommendations will be considered by Air Force leadership along with those from other groups researching issues related to cyber talent management.
“There could be [real change],” he said. “I think the Air Force recognizes that there’s a problem. It’s a question of what they can do, and how fast are they going to address it. Then hopefully, it impacts and helps us with our retention issues.”
FINE TUNING, FAST TRACKING
Meanwhile, CyberWorx has been fine-tuning the process of delivering on the concepts developed in sprints.
“Over the course of this past year, we had six prototyping type projects going on,” Chiaramonte said. “One was a hackathon, which was the first we’ve done where we actually offered cash incentives to people to build out prototypes — and we went from an idea to a prototype in about seven weeks. The vendor that came up with that is now working with the 711th Human Performance Wing to get more data and continue developing it.”
Another major change: CyberWorx now has Other Transaction Authority, which allows greater speed and flexibility in research and prototype projects, without the constraints of a typical contract.
“It better prepares us to take something into a design activity and transition that into some kind of contractual form or industry prototype it right away, versus having to wait,” Chiaramonte said. “So our first design sprint we did, it took us nine months to figure out how to contract the partners in that to go ahead and do something — because we didn’t know how to do it; we didn’t have all the authorities that were probably the best ways of going ahead. Now we can enter those design sprints with a much clearer understanding of what the contractual transition points look like. That’s not figuring it out as we go.”
Industry partnerships are thriving, and C-TRAC continues to quickly find and vet partners for project-specific work, Chiaramonte said.
Through the partnership, CyberWorx has been able to collaborate with more than 200 companies over the past two years, C-TRAC Program Manager Kevin Kenney said.
“As an example, C-TRAC facilitated the handoff of a cadet capstone project — development of an app for scheduling flying operations — to a local software company,” he said. “This provided real world software development experience to cadets and economic benefit to the local community. Additionally, it will speed scheduling for flying units and allow AF CyberWorx to tackle new challenges.”
Looking ahead, Chiaramonte sees a continued focus on project transitions and increasing staff numbers as necessities.
“I think we now have all the contractual abilities that we wanted to have, so I think if we can figure out clean transitions — where they become predictable and repeatable, to get rid of some of the uncertainty — that’ll help,” he said.
“I think our biggest challenges still remain in the manpower side and getting the rest of the folks on board,” he added. “That’s just a capacity challenge.
“I think the other challenge — and I’m hoping the Air Combat Command shift fixes this — is still the structural issue in the government of, if I go out and do a six-month project to solve a problem that a warfighter has, it’s not necessarily looked at as an official requirement from the government perspective,” he said, “so transitioning that over is hard. Again, I hope that the [cyber mission lead] move to Air Combat Command solves a lot of those issues. I think that it will, but we won’t know until we do it.”