Pentagon’s designer of RM41.4b JEDI Cloud is stepping down

WASHINGTON • The Pentagon official who developed a controversial US$10 billion (RM41.4 billion) cloud-computing project is stepping down after four years of efforts to upgrade the Defence Department’s information technology systems.

Chris Lynch (picture), director of the Defence Digital Service, told his staff in an email that he was ending his “nerd tour of duty”. Brett Goldstein, Chicago’s former chief information officer, “will be leading Defence Digital Service (DDS) through its next phase to grow and expand this incredible work”, he said.

Lynch was behind the development of the planned Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure contract, or JEDI, which has faced criticism from some large technology companies that fear the winner-take-all award will squeeze them out of the federal market. The Pentagon has narrowed the field of contenders to Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp. A decision isn’t expected before mid-July.

“JEDI is coming (the nerds have won my friends),” Lynch wrote in the email obtained by Bloomberg News. “You’re all the really critical part of that. You always have been and always will be. Keep delivering. Keep getting s*** done. Nothing else matters.”

Lynch was one of the longest-serving members of the digital office, which is designed to encourage temporary tours of duty for technologists. He has been working with Goldstein, who starts this week, on the transition to his leadership.

“Under the leadership of Chris Lynch, DDS has hacked the bureaucracy to strengthen our national security and improve the lives of service members and their families,” Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a statement on Monday. He said Goldstein will lead the team as it continues “to disrupt and transform technology” at the Defence Department.

Lynch is leaving as DDS is expanding efforts to modernise the Pentagon’s technology, including increasing its reliance on cloud computing, hiring more skilled technical workers and simplifying internal systems.

A former start-up founder, Lynch joined the DDS in 2015. At the Pentagon, he and his crew stood out in their hoodies and sneakers among the military uniforms. Their fashion statement — and the JEDI acronym invoking Star Wars — signalled a determination to bring fresh thinking from Silicon Valley into the Defence Department to modernise its ageing and bureaucratic systems.

The technology-focused division is part of the White House’s US Digital Service, which was established by the Obama administration after the botched launch of healthcare.gov.

The DDS has launched a slew of initiatives. The group started “Hack the Pentagon”, a programme that brings in outside hackers to hunt for vulnerabilities in the Defence Department’s websites and technologies. It also created an internal talent programme that recruited technically trained officers and soldiers to work alongside their civilian staffers on projects such as developing a programme to detect drones.

Other projects included a new electronic records programme to replace a mainly paper-based system for transferring records of military recruits and a revamped system to coordinate military families’ moves.

Lynch drew the ire of some traditional technology companies that disagreed with his approach on the JEDI cloud project, which involves transitioning massive amounts of Defence Department data to a centralised cloud system.

Tech companies banded together in an informal coalition last year to urge the Defence Department to split the contract among several suppliers. The department has said making multiple awards under current acquisition law would be a slow process that could prevent it from quickly delivering new capabilities to warriors. A mysterious dossier suggesting that the Pentagon, including Lynch, had rigged the bidding process in favour of Amazon even circulated in Washington.

“To say that this has been the greatest detour of my life would be an incredible understatement, but starting this team and working with you has fundamentally changed my life, and I believe the lives of so many others as well,” Lynch said in his email. “The impact our team is ma- king all across the Department of Defence and for our service members is mind-boggling and profound.”

Goldstein, Lynch’s successor, brings yet a different resume to the Pentagon job. A former director of information technology at restaurant-reservation company Open Table Inc, he became a Chicago police officer after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks. He later created CivicScape, which uses data analysis to anticipate areas where crimes may occur — a technology that’s won praise but also criticism from those who say it risks turning policing into a video game. — Bloomberg