US Air Force: Superheroes of Air, Space, and Cyberspace

US Air Force: Superheroes of Air, Space, and Cyberspace

Lauren Knausenberger, Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) at the US Air Force, discusses cybersecurity strategies and the superhero culture transforming...

Lauren Knausenberger is the U.S. Air Force’s Chief Transformation Officer (CTO). Having initially joined as Director of Cyberspace Innovation in 2017, she assumed her current position in June 2019, stepping into a newly-created role that reaches across the entire Air Force to drive digital transformation. A Wharton graduate who left her work in the entrepreneurial and investment industry to take on this new challenge in government, she is one of very few senior officials under the age of 40, and is 
no stranger to the digital space.

Upon joining the US Air Force, Knausenberger was primed to drive change at the federal government. “Everyone fails…until they don’t!” she quips. 
“I think I told you that I joined the Air Force quite by accident. I became so intrigued with one of their problem sets and the next thing I knew a few per-suasive generals had me signing up.  The thing is – I missed the mission and didn’t realize it until these generals reminded me. I was so honored that they saw something in me and thought my ideas could really move the needle on some big problems.” 

Few people know that Knausenberger began her career at NSA, being recruited as a High School student, so joining the Air Force was bringing her full circle.  “It was refreshing to jump into this role, blissfully unaware of all of the ways that many efforts had failed in the past. I wasn’t worried about upsetting anyone, and I knew that if I could accomplish even a tenth of what I saw could be done, it would make a big difference.”

As an outsider trying to drive change, Knausenberger understood the challenge of becoming part of an organization still entrenched in a traditional approach. “What the Air Force was really looking for was someone who thought differently and was passionate about the problem space, and who could convince people that we could really do it,” she explains. “At the end of the day, I simply calculate risk differently.  Most people say the military is risk averse, but from my perspective, we were taking crazy risks everywhere – by not innovating fast enough we were passing that risk to the warfighter every day. I’ve seen that way of thinking about risk change dramatically over the past three years, but we still have some work to do.”

From the very beginning, Knausenberger felt that her own ‘crazy’ ideas were embraced and that people were open and direct if they felt that one of her suggestions couldn’t work.  “One of my favorite moments was when a general told me that she knew she had to think differently when I was in a meeting,” she notes. “Just six months later, that same general told me I didn’t need to be there anymore for her to push forward and not accept the old way of thinking.”

The barriers to speed in the Department of Defense are well documented and she completed her own assessment of these in her first 90 days. “There were certainly many routes to go down. I wanted to solve a problem where there was clear pain and frustration across a diverse group of people,” she states.  “Equally important, I picked one where I felt I was uniquely poised to help – in terms of my own strengths as well as my position in the CIO organization.  Starting with cybersecurity accreditation just made too much sense. There was so much pain in the process and I was confident we could do better. So many people wanted to help make this happen I almost had to turn champions away. I was able to form partnerships with smart, passionate people all focused on a common goal – including full support from Air Force Deputy Chief Information Officer, Bill Marion - and that allowed us to do some great work. Our Chief Information Security Officer, Wanda Jones-Heath, had her team roll up their sleeves to help make sure the new constructs would stick, and consultants like Lonye Ford at Arlo Solutions helped make sure we filled in execution details in a way that traditional assessors could relate and adopt new practices.”

The US Air Force has been in the software business for some time, but until the past few years was almost solely leveraging legacy, waterfall software development practices. “Even as we adopted agile development, we were still stymied by a ridiculously arduous cybersecurity accreditation process that was ultimately not relevant to the modern technologies in use.  How could we ensure the code being delivered was safe and secure, but could at the same time be delivered at the speed of relevance?” She credits the importance of partners such as Pivotal and others who had already found the solution to part of that conundrum. “We were fortunate to have such great partners, who had already figured out how to develop safe and secure code rapidly. We joined forces to create a secure Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipeline and adopted the best practices of the DevOps Research Assessment. Our teams worked hard to constantly improve and we used penetration testing to assess our code in production as well. The premise is that if you design secure software, use a secure process, bake security into everything you do, and have a robust way to test and validate your code continuously, that accreditation should be done by the time the code is complete. So, the continuous authority to operate  (cATO) was born. This was revolutionary in the department, and really incentivized people to adopt modern DevSecOps practices. And it all started with a group of insurgents at Kessel Run.”

Kessel Run was the first true implementation of agile DevSecOps in the Air Force, and represented a departure from the standard way of doing development.  “We joked we had to ‘smuggle’ agile development and cybersecurity accreditation into the Air Force to make it happen,” says Knausenberger. “Kessel Run first got started with refueling operations in the Middle East. Eric Schmidt and the Defense Innovation Board flew over to Qatar and Schmidt asked one of the commanders what kept him up at night. The commander said ‘I’m just terrified someone’s going to erase my whiteboard’. Why? ‘Because the whiteboard is how they planned all of their refueling operations. We had pilots flying all over the Middle East, refueling in mid-air at 500mph, while someone hangs out the back of an airplane…and it could be defeated by a whiteboard eraser!’”

After hearing this, Schmidt was certain there could be an algorithm created to combat the problem. “And he was absolutely right,” Knausenberger confirms. “Kessel Run was born out of that problem – we turned a whiteboard into an algorithm, and amongst many other successes we’re now saving over $250k a week in fuel. This team of incredibly motivated, and relatively junior, personnel was creating such innovative software, and an Air Force cultural revolution to go with it. We have developed such an incredible insurgency and have gained support by a broad part of the organization that I don’t think we can call it an insurgency anymore. We’ve won. It’s reached irreversible momentum. And that’s incredible,” she adds.  “Since Kessel Run got its start, the Air Force has stood up a number of agile development capabilities - Platform One, Kobayashi Maru, LevelUp, BESPIN, SoniKube, Tron, Ski Camp, and others who are doing amazing work and reaching across the community to share best practices.  Finally, we have hired a Chief Software Officer, Nicolas Chaillan, who has been a great partner to drive forward so many of these initiatives.”

“The revolution didn’t stop at just software development though, it was actually much broader. Spark Tank is an excellent example of that,” Knausenberger continues.  Established in 2017, Spark Tank acts as a catalyst for agile US Air Force engagement across the industry and encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. A partnership between AFWERX and Airmen Powered by Innovation, Spark Tank allows Airmen to submit their ideas in a pitch competition format directly to their most senior leaders. Airmen share their ideas and the roadblocks they face to making them real. 

“It brings together three key elements: a powerful network of innovators within the Air Force, a group of people who are doing everything to empower those innovators with tools and connections, and the senior-level support needed to break down policy barriers,” she comments. “Airmen submit hundreds of ideas and we whittle them down to just six finalists for the live show. Many of these Airmen joined at 18 and don’t have college degrees, and they are some of the smartest, hardest-working problem solvers around. They know their mission, and have unique insight into how it can be done better. This competition showcases their awesome ideas and also gives our senior leaders a chance to really model how we should be supporting innovators.  Our Secretary, Chief of Staff, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force are inspiring leaders and never disappoint in their support and advice for these Airmen.  And we have leaders like Darlene Costello and Rich Lombardi as senior advisors who really know how to get things done in the Air Force and help ensure projects can grow to appropriate scale.”

Knausenberger recognizes the talent at the US Air Force’s disposal and believes her organization is doing things that you simply won’t see anywhere else. “We have incredible people that have brought lots of intellectual firepower and who all work very hard,” she says. “We are doing some of the coolest things in the world, with software, airplanes, satellites, and technology that would blow your mind. There are things that you can do in the Air Force that you can’t do anywhere else.  But one of the biggest lessons from Spark Tank was the value of collaborators - the new superheroes in our Air Force.”

Knausenberger devised a ‘superhero chart’ to lightheartedly convey how important it is to support warfighters. “The Air Force has a hero culture. People join to make a real difference and put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe,” she explains. “Captain Marvel is our superhero - she’s off saving lives and on the frontline of the mission. There are also the sidekicks (think Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox) - the unsung heroes that support the superheroes to deliver those incredible mission effects. Then there are the supervillains (Megamind) and henchmen (Wormtail)! In the world of innovation, the supervillains are those that sometimes get in the way of others trying to do good things – they are undoubtedly trying to keep people safe, but can get overly diligent in enforcing rules that no longer make sense and are often misunderstood. I joke that we have a supervillain-to-superhero conversion program. By harnessing all of that policy knowledge and enabling innovative warfighters, you can be a hero too.”

We asked if she had a favorite a real life super hero.  “I have to say one of my favorite unsung heroes is Air Force Vice Chief Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson. He works very hard to perpetuate a culture of innovation and put in place the constructs to support innovative Airmen.  He inspires me too.” Knausenberger values how people can ‘earn their capes’ and understands the importance of collaboration to help make others stand out and succeed. “A lot of the time it isn’t because you had a great idea, it’s because you found someone who had an awesome idea and you used all of your knowledge, connections, and abilities to help make that person shine,” she explains. “That’s actually even more important.”

Over the past few years, the US Air Force has made a concerted effort to widen its partnerships with the defense industrial base, having previously worked solely with a small stable of very large, long-standing partners.  “Our Head of Acquisition, Dr. Will Roper, regularly talks about our desire to expand our defense industrial base to organizations that have never done business with the Department of Defense, and even to drive deeper partnerships with the investor community,” she says. “In the United States, we have some of the largest, most well-respected tech companies in the world, and they didn’t work with the military for a long time. Now, all of the household names are working with us. For the most part, I think that people within the tech companies realize that we’re on the same team and all want to be safe. And, of course, we want to continue to partner with our large defense contractors and appreciate their efforts to transform with us. The other cool trend is that more tech savvy outsiders are jumping into government to support the mission for three to five years. A few years ago, there were very few outside of DDS, and now we have a growing club and even a few alumni who have done their stint in government and have now returned to the commercial world with a new perspective to bring to the mission. One notable alum is Chris Lynch, who founded DDS, and has now launched Rebellion Defense to bring together the best of the valley with super smart engineers who really know DOD systems and are passionate about delivering national security capabilities. This type of cross-pollination is critical to our future success as a military and as a country.”

In a bid to drive innovation, the US Air Force is determined to work more closely with startups.  “They innovate at a faster pace than anyone else,” Knausenberger affirms. “We’re working with an increasing number of businesses with a startup mentality that are focused on innovation. It’s hard to survive in the US tech market because every entrepreneur thinks that they’re going to be a unicorn but, in reality, very few succeed.  The competition is tough.”

Knausenberger states that a key reason why the US Air Force wants to adopt this approach is to not only support small businesses but also to embrace an alternative type of talent.  “It’s important we bring diversity into the defense industry,” she says. “And that’s diversity on every level: mindset, abilities and all aspects of background. It’s important to recognize that we’re not going to be able to achieve what we want if we always work with the same people. It’s also a really great business line for them, and we have really cool, complex problems that can’t be solved anywhere else. The startup community is often telling us ‘we want the coolest, most wicked problems that you could throw at us’, and we have those in spades! It ultimately makes for a great, synergistic relationship. “The Air Force also finds incredible synergies with our allies,” Knausenberger explains.  “Our Air Force’s Strategic Studies Group is a key part of the brain trust for for driving innovation across the force, and includes our Exchange Officers from Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.  And through those networks we tap into much richer perspectives then we may otherwise get by looking at purely American views. We also have a great time working together on big ideas.”

In a bid to counter cyberattacks and increase resilience, the US Air Force has sought collaboration with another non-traditional source. In partnership with the Defense Digital Service, as well as cybersecurity firms such as BugCrowd, HackerOne, Synack, and Dark Wolf, the organization is embracing the hacker community. Each of those companies has done large scale events, hacking the Air Force Cloud in addition to other public facing websites for the Air Force. “In the past, hackers looked at the Department of Defense and considered it a great prize to hack. But most people didn’t try it lightly because it’s also a great way to get arrested,” explains Knausenberger.“ We’ve started to embrace the hacking community because although we have some great cybersecurity frameworks in place that lots of people benchmark against, we wanted new partners who approach problems in different ways and who could explore new threat vectors in a creative way. It’s been invaluable - we’ve learned a great deal and it’s been a wonderful partnership.”

Knausenberger sees the true value in encouraging hackers to cause as much havoc as possible and believes it is mutually rewarding.  “I feel much more comfortable if I’ve had a hacker team come in and see what they can break without any rules, than if someone’s just gone through the security checklist,” she explains. “Real world hackers don’t follow our checklist. We’d rather have friendly hackers who we’re paying to break systems, and that allows us to fix things as they find it. Our systems are stronger for it, and the hackers love the chance to legally break into national security systems.”

While having much success today, Knausenberger understands how critical it is that any cultural change implemented is built to last. “I’m very aware that any change I make must be something that can last after I’m gone,” she explains. “I didn’t join the Air Force intending to make a career of it – but my intent was to make a huge and lasting impact. Therefore, it’s very important that the things that we do aren’t just personality dependent. Not all software has to be sustainable. There are some things that we use once and we throw away; however, it’s vital that the organizational structures that support an innovation culture have staying power. It’s important that we’re able to do the simple things well and that we put the right processes in place to replicate those early successes at scale.  We have a dream team in place right now – from senior leadership to key positions throughout the Force to make this happen.”

Looking ahead, Knausenberger has a clear vision of what the future will hold for the US Air Force.  “I’m very excited and I see us finalizing a lot of the big IT modernization and transformation efforts that we’re currently going through, as well as deploying the next generation of mind blowing Air and Space technology,” she states. “I expect we’ll more aggressively leveraging automation to liberate Airmen from repetitive tasks and free them to focus on mission innovation. And we’ll continue to do the awesome things that the Air Force is known for: maintaining superiority in the air, space, and cyberspace. There’s lots of cool stuff happening.” What really excites and drives Knausenberger, however, is making life easier for Airmen.  “I joke that we can hit the back end of a fly from half way around the world, but when it comes to deploying new tools – Whew, that’s tough!  We have a phenomenal workforce that can do incredibly difficult things with ease. I can’t wait for them to not have to work so hard on the silly things that we take for granted in the commercial world. We are so close to making that a reality. What really fuels me is seeing the innovative power of these Airmen and the way they come together to accomplish anything they need to do, despite the roadblocks.  Our future is in great hands, and I see an inspiring next generation of leaders ready to continue our work as the world’s most powerful Air Force, and move beyond to new frontiers.”

Our Partners
View profile
View profile
Sequoia Holdings, LLC
View profile
Dark Wolf Solutions, LLC
View profile
Arlo Solutions
View profile
View profile