Coming to DC, One-Day Delivery from Jeff Bezos

If you read this blog you care about government and technology. And whether you’re a technologist or not, you can see the tech forces shaping and sharpening the uses of digital capabilities in accomplishing the ends of government, whether that’s citizen-service delivery and local law enforcement, or global diplomacy and nation-state combat. I’ve worked on and written about them all – from intelligence to space to AI, or the quantification of Supreme Court humor, even “Punk Rock and Moore’s Law.”

Understanding and forecasting that radical pace of external change is difficult for government professionals, and they need help doing that. Let’s say you wanted to tap someone to offer insight. Who’d be on your dream list? At the top of my dream list – my absolute “if-only-I-could-ask” list – would be Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin.

So I’m going to sit down with Jeff Bezos on stage later this month, at the annual AFCEA Intelligence Symposium, for a conversation about areas where technology critically intersects with the nation’s response to enduring challenges and opportunities, such as artificial intelligence, digital innovation, the revolution in cloud computing, and commercial space operations. (Alongside my day job at Deloitte, I serve as national Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee at AFCEA, the 35,000-member Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association.)

photo: AFCEA Symposium Invitation

The 2017 Symposium features, as usual, a stellar line-up of top leaders in national security, with panels on Advanced Conventional Threats, the Contested Environment of Space, Terrorism, Cyber Threats from Nation-States and Non-State Entities, and Gray-Zone Conflicts/Hybrid Warfare (topic of last year’s Defense Science Board study on which I sat). All sessions feature senior thought-leaders from government and industry.

Jeff Bezos might be new in that particular mix, but you can understand why we invited him. He has been TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year (early in his career in 1999), Fortune Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year, topped the Forbes annual list of “World’s Greatest Leaders,” and our rationale for this conversation is his long track record of revolutionary contributions to international technological/economic advance, as well as to US national security. AWS is now of central importance to the public sector (including intelligence), and the broader contributions of Amazon and Blue Origin to the nation’s economic future and success are incalculable.

Jeff Bezos Space

 

If you have a Top Secret/SI/TK clearance, you can attend the Symposium – register. [Update: sorry, 2017 Symposium = sold out]

There’s a longstanding meme that government should be “run like a business.” I typically don’t think in precisely those terms, having been on both sides and recognizing the significant differences in intent and stakeholders.

photo: Lewis Shepherd; Gen. “Wheels” Wheeler (Ret.) of DIUx; Russell Stern, CEO Solarflare

Panel on Defense Innovation and DIUx

I’ve been more interested in helping each sector understand the unique contributions of the other, and the complexities inherent in their relationship. (See for example my recent post on DoD Innovation and DIUx in Silicon Valley.)

But the “run government like a business” impetus is understandable here in the United States as a reflection of dissatisfaction with government performance in meeting its own goals, and the expectations of the citizens it serves. President Trump recently assigned Jared Kushner to lead a new White House Office of American Innovation, and Kushner told the Washington Post “We should have excellence in government. The government should be run like a great American company.” Graph - Govt like a BusinessThe Washington Post (coincidentally owned by, yes, Jeff Bezos) ran a piece exploring the history of that thinking, dating its surge in popularity to the early 1980s under President Reagan – a timeline borne out by running the phrase through Google’s Ngram Viewer (see chart).

The last time I invited a smart young billionaire to come speak to Intelligence Community leaders, it worked out pretty well for the audience (see Burning Man and AI: What Elon Musk told me and the role of Art). So I’m aiming even higher this year…

If you don’t have a Top Secret clearance, you can’t get into the Symposium, and won’t be able to hear Bezos firsthand on April 27. But here’s a substitute, nearly as good: this week Bezos published his annual Letter to Shareholders of Amazon. Most people in the business world know about his legendary 1997 “first annual letter to shareholders” in which he laid out an extraordinary long-term vision for his company. The 2017 version is also extraordinary, and I urge you to read it in full. My friend Jeff Jonas, former IBM Chief Scientist for Context Computing and now founder/Chief Scientist at Senzing, calls it “the most impressive annual letter to shareholders I’ve ever read; this line of thinking leads to greatness.”

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For some parting eye-candy, here’s video from last week’s annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where attendees got a first-hand look at the historic Blue Origin New Shepard rocket booster (first to land vertically after spaceflight, first to relaunch again, and now a five-time-reuse trophy), and an inside tour of the crew capsule with “the largest windows in space travel.”

 

 

Place your bets on research

No reason to sugarcoat the Microsoft quarterly financial report issued this afternoon: it reflected the bad news in the overall economy.  Revenue down, earnings down, profits down. 

What I did find most interesting was the silver lining as Business Week points out in its coverage. Like most of Wall Street apparently (MSFT stock rose in after-hours trading), Business Week was impressed with some of the positive steps taken by the company:

Maybe the most striking news is Microsoft’s crisp cost-cutting. Who knew this Midas of the computer industry knew how to scale back so well? In the quarter, administrative costs fell by more than $1 billion, from $2.3 billion to $913 million. And the company completed its first ever general layoff, of 5,000 people. The company did not cut into its R&D budget, however. Spending there rose from $2 billion to $2.2 billion.”

It’s that last point that I’m focusing on, as it demonstrates that the company is living up to CEO Ballmer’s pledge to increase our annual R&D spending – amid this deep recession – from $8 billion a year to over $9 billion.

At a time when most budgets are hurting, that’s quite an investment.  If you’d like to know what we’re getting for that, check out http://research.microsoft.com, or for the most up-to-date reports, use Twitter to follow @MSFTResearch – this week, the Twitter feed has focused on papers and demonstrations we’re presenting at the 18th International World Wide Web Conference (WWW2009).

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Way Ahead and Far Behind

Today’s Washington Post has a story on its front page: “Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages.”

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.”

“What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.”  -Washington Post

Some say that whoever has been responsible for information technology in the White House itself should be fired — but then perhaps the change of Administration just took care of that  🙂 

Overall, this situation is familiar to anyone who has worked in what I call “Big-G  IT” or the information technology of a federal government agency. I’ve argued about its challenges and sub-optimality before: see my previous pieces on “Roadmap for Innovation: From the Center to the Edge,” and more specifically “Puncturing Circles of Bureaucracy.”  In that latter piece back in March of 2008, I wrote about the “the defensive perimeters of overwhelming bureaucratic torpor,” and the frustrating reality within much of Big Government: “Federal employees have an entire complex of bizarrely-incented practices and career motivations, which make progress on technology innovation very difficult, not to mention general business-practice transformation as a whole.”

Here’s the truly frustrating, mind-bending part: it isn’t always true!  Other elements of the White House have cutting-edge, world-class technologies operating day in, day out.

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Amazon and Microsoft Intersect in the Cloud

So today Werner Vogels, the much admired CTO of Amazon, has a post over at “All Things Distributed” which directly exemplifies his blog’s subtitle (“building scalable and robust distributed systems“).  The post is “Expanding the Cloud” and describes today’s announcement that Microsoft Windows Server is available on Amazon EC2. As he sums it up, “We can now run the majority of popular software systems in the cloud.”

This means two things.  First, we were able to con cajole convince Amazon essentially to host a beta test for something big, which will indubitably become much, much bigger.

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San Francisco’s Wild and Wacky World of Technology

Fact: San Francisco’s municipal IT continues to self-destruct, according to new reports this weekend.  According to an IDG story (San Francisco hunts for mystery device on city network), “With costs related to a rogue network administrator’s hijacking of the city’s network now estimated at $1 million, city officials say they are searching for a mysterious networking device hidden somewhere on the network. The device, referred to as a terminal server in court documents, appears to be a router that was installed to provide remote access to the city’s Fiber WAN network, which connects municipal computer and telecommunication systems throughout the city. City officials haven’t been able to log in to the device, however, because they do not have the username and password. In fact, the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) isn’t even certain where the device is located, court filings state.”

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Cuil’s Hockey-Stick Decline

The new Cuil search engine, which was the beneficiary of a lot of buzz just two weeks ago, is not yet showing evidence of viral growth, according to new stats from Hitwise tracking service. Quite the contrary.

In fact, in the last few days Cuil has only ranked 34th among all search engines surveyed. 

Admittedly, it’s very early, too early to dismiss them (StartupMeme.com says “Cuil made a fool of itself“).  

Cuil has a cushion of VC funding to pursue the long slog. 

But they’ll never get better press and more media attention than they did over the last 10 days, and despite that I’d venture to say that Cuil’s carving its way into the wrong end of a “long tail.” 

Hey, folks at Cuil: you’re holding the hockey stick the wrong way!

 


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Invisibility, Mind-Control, Great Coffee, and a New OS

Lots of interest and blogoshere commentary beginning about “The Mojave Experiment.”

The reaction is reminiscent of one of those Obama or McCain provocative ads posted online, generating far more attention and buzz than the attention they get on the natural by being broadcast.

Sure, it’s a sales pitch, and pretty narrowly geeky at that (thanks GoogleFight!).

But at least it’s an innovative one – as the Wall Street Journal puts it today, “Give Microsoft people credit: They did it with humor, and they weren’t afraid to air the negative stuff.”

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