A Culture Built on Moxie with Tracy Bannon

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Building a culture starts with communication and a willingness to change. Tracy Bannon Senior Principal / Software Architect & DevOps Strategic Advisor at MITRE and ambassador for the DevOps Institute talks with Carolyn and Mark about her recent event #StraightTalk4Gov hosted by the DevOps Institute. Listen as Tracy outlines ways to create a culture of comfortability in the government technology workspace.

Episode Table of Contents

  • [01:11] A Straight Talk Featuring a Culture Built on Moxie
  • [06:34] Acquisition in Government Is a Culture Built on Moxie
  • [13:34] A Collaboration Between the Industry and the Government
  • [20:17] A Common Theme in a Culture Built on Moxie
  • [28:14] Sisyphus Moments
  • Episode Links and Resources

A Straight Talk Featuring a Culture Built on Moxie

Carolyn: Our guest today, Tracy, is a returning guest. She's senior principal, software architect, and DevOps strategic advisor at MITRE. Tracy Bannon is just an all-around badass. She’s an ambassador for the DevOps Institute. We had her a few weeks ago, we talked a little bit about a conference that was her brainchild. She facilitated it.

Straight Talk, that's what we want to talk about today. Which, by the way, the conference is still on demand. You can rewatch these sessions that we're about to talk about. Tell us how it went overall, and what was some feedback that you've been getting from attendees?

Tracy: Overall, it went very well. We didn't expect the spike in folks who registered for it. Even during special sessions, when folks saw the different sessions happening. We're getting real-time registrations happening and people joining. There's such a thirst for going beyond the technology. That's what this was all about, taking a step past the technology. Overall, it went very well.

The feedback that we're getting has been, I want more, can I meet with X, Y, Z, I want to talk to Brian directly. So, folks who have done the different sessions, where they want to talk to Don, they want to meet up. They want to keep going, which is exactly what we wanted to have happened. We wanted to start those organic connections with people.

Mark: What made Straight Talk for government different than other events that you've participated in?

A Shiny Quarter Organization with A Culture Built on Moxie

Tracy: Let me track it back to why I was so passionate to get this going in the first place. Every time I deal with a government sponsor, with the government client, they'll often say, I need to do some DevOps. I need to be like this group over here. It's almost always, exclusively, pointing at something in the commercial area that's a shiny quarter organization, I want to be like Netflix. Well, do you really need to be like Netflix? What's important about that? But there's also a focus on the technical pieces of it.

I can go and get an excellent Udemy course, I can go to Cloud Guru. And I can get really awesome technical advice on how to accomplish the building of the pipeline. But what's missing is the front matter, the architecture, the engineering, the people, the process, and culture. Because I always say, people, process, tech, culture. The underpinnings of this was to pivot away from the technical pieces. Start to build out of a community that is really focused on opening the doors with the government and with industry and with academia.

We've got to make sure that everybody is on a level set. What are the real problems, what are the challenges? How is it similar? How's the government similar to industry? How is it different? Because in understanding the differences and in opening the door up and letting industry know, letting academia know, they're going to help us solve those problems that much more. We're going to build this cohesive set of examples. Real examples, that have to do with the government, instead of, I want to be just like Netflix. I want to be like Carnival Cruise, I want to be like whoever.

Trying To Change the Dialogue Around Culture Built on Moxie

Tracy: Fantastic stories that they have isolated but I'm not, necessarily, in the government space, deploying 50 times a day to a jet, for example. Because on the defense side, there's a lot of interesting things that have to happen before I can just hit that deploy button. So, that was really the kickoff moment for this or the catalyst. It’s trying to change the dialogue and really having talked to so many people in my network, talking to my sponsors, my clients on a day-to-day basis. It has just become so obvious, especially the last two years, that there's a need to bring real examples forward.

Mark: Listening to some of the discussions that were said, did you find that you were hearing pressure points that come up time and time again? I guess this goes to the culture aspect that you were wanting to address.

Tracy: What was interesting was, because it was a remote conference and that was intentional, a virtual conference. I would say, about 75% of the sessions were recorded within a couple of days ahead of time, to make sure that we didn't have too many glitches. There's a really excellent crew that the DevOps Institute had put together that was helping us. They were leading through these.

A young woman came to me outside all of these recordings and said, I'm not a technical person and I don't work at the government. She said the theme of culture is everywhere. This was somebody independent, totally outside this domain, not a techie, who heard that loud and clear, in talking to each one or in listening to each one of the sessions. Not everybody was there to talk about culture.

Acquisition in Government Is a Culture Built on Moxie

Tracy: We talked about leadership styles, we talked about acquisition, we did talk about tech. We talked about metrics, we talked about all kinds of different things but the common thread was muscle memory hurts. It's so strong and changing muscle memory takes a lot of effort. A lot of energy and a couple of change agents thrown in the mix to make that happen.

Mark: Acquisition in government is a culture.

Tracy: It has its own. We actually did a training session, a 101 on acquisitions, so that people understood. So many small businesses or so many startups, they have fantastic, amazing ideas, they should be helping the government. They also need to understand that, the way allocations are happening, the money that we're spending on tech right now was approved two years ago. The money that's getting approved right now for the government, will be spent in two years.

People need to understand those kinds of crazy things that you never think about. You just go to think, I've got a really great idea, this is going to help the war fight or this is going to help the taxpayer, this is going to help the CDC. Well, yes. And we have to figure out how we make that happen credibly and quickly but within those budget cycles or change the policy. Or change how acquisitions happen. There's some good things happening in that way.

Carolyn: Changing acquisition processes?

Tracy: There's something called the adaptive acquisition pathway. It's created about two to three years ago, at least. It's all about changing it from being these waterfall approaches where you've got tens, maybe thousands of requirements, all set down.

How Can I Buy Features Instead of Systems to Have a Culture Built on Moxie?

Tracy: Forecasting what you need for three or four years, breaking it down so that you can do things in a more lower case agile, a more nimble fashion. So, how can I buy features instead of systems? How do I no longer buy a project but I buy a capability that inserts into my program? It is a different way of thinking, it really is.

Carolyn: Is it fair to say that, the acquisition processes, in general, really were developed 200 years ago? A lot of them don't serve us anymore. Some of them still good or am I simplifying it too much?

Tracy: It is so complex that I have folks that I turn to that keep me walking straight and narrow. I am not an acquisition specialist. It's like living in a house with your parents who are techies, so you just know the language. Or your parents are doctors, a nurse and you know the language. I'm around it, I'm associated to it. I've put together RFPs and responded to the acquisitions. The intentionality of it has always been to make sure that there's fairness.

That all of the acquisition, all of the scaffolding around it, comes down to mandating or legislating or policying. To force people to behave well, to force people to not collude, to force there to be equality. It's like many things that we do. We start out with a good idea that we should probably narrow this down and make it an even playing field. Then we have to add on to it because people come up with interesting and new ideas and ways to skirt things. There's some goodness there, there definitely is goodness there.

Getting People’s Attention

Tracy: Especially when we think about some of the laws that we should have and do have about foreign trade. I can't automatically allow a foreign country to provide technology to the federal government. That would not necessarily be in our best interest. Interesting article that came out today. It’s talking about an assessment that was done of our power grid and the number of foreign components, Chinese components and specific, that are part of our core power grid. Well, goodness, imagine it, our tech. What pieces of technology are coming from foreign folks?

Mark: That's great to get people's attention. It already has.

Carolyn: I love what you said, coming from industry, if you don't know government well, it's easy to have this knee-jerk reaction of, acquisitions process is just stupid. They don't deploy 50 deployments of code a day. You're like, there's a reason we don't deploy 50 deployments of new code to a fighter jet a day. That's the idea of bringing industry and government together so we can understand the different cultures. It's not all bad, what you just said, there's some goodness in there, let's keep the goodness.

Tracy: Absolutely. This is not a negative, government is bad, industry is bad, it's actually the opposite. The opportunities are endless for us to work together. Now, industry has been working with the government. This isn't as though it's brand new but the upstarts, the number of folks that are coming out of universities, the number of folks who are working in one field and have an amazing, bright idea, it's not all about the big firms. In some areas of government, not all of it, it's been the big players for a long time.

A Culture Built on Moxie Have Better Results

Tracy: The big players, whether they're big system integrators or whether they're some of the big defense contractors, they have entire departments that are specialists in acquisition law. They have entire departments that understand how to engage in protocols. That's a lot different.

So, if we can open the door, providing that aperture for smaller, private startups, academics, whoever, to get in the mix with this, we're going to have better results. Now, that also means that we have to really pay attention to security and cyber risk. Making sure that we're very laser focused on understanding lineage of software.

In one conversation that we had was about something called SBOM, software bill of materials. People are probably aware of some of the things that happened this spring, with there being bugs or back doors, to the SolarWinds. Well, I think about open-source and how beautiful and wonderful open-source can be. I also need to know who's contributing to that open-source.

Even though my best friend is living in a foreign country and what they intend to do with that piece of code provide goodness, we, as the United States, as a government, especially if we're talking about securing the sovereignty of a nation, have to double-check, why was that code change made? What's the lineage of that? So, there's a lot of goodness because we shouldn't be throwing out open-source, we should be embracing it. But with making sure that we're dotting our I's and crossing our T's, that's all.

A Collaboration Between the Industry and the Government

Carolyn: You said, this collaboration between industry and government is not new. What did you do at Straight Talk that would be good to carry over? Or what lessons might other conferences take from Straight Talk, to facilitate this open collaboration even more?

Tracy: I'm hopeful that we're able to take forward the asynchronous conversations, whether it's a Slack channel, whether it's Mattermost. Being able to not send emails back and forth, not necessarily always have to pick up the phone. But be able to have that async community conversation, where we're tagging things and we're going back and forth. We're jumping in and weighing on each other's conversation. That has started and that's something that I would like to definitely see move forward.

Join in the conversation, it's transparent and open and that's a goodness for all of us. The second part will be listening to the different voices. I sought out voices that hadn't necessarily been heard but I knew their messages, I had heard their message but I hadn't heard it broadly yet. So, some of the content was from folks who had not yet been on quite as broad as stage but need to be. There's some advocacy that I'd like to see. The people who are putting together the different sessions, they're putting together these different conferences. They’re trying to shine the spotlight in a number of different places.

Mark: If you could summarize two takeaways from the event, what would you say?

Carolyn: A couple of things that jump out.

Mark: Or 10.

It’s Not About Having a Culture Built on Moxie

Tracy: We've said the word culture, we've sprinkled the word culture. One of the things that needs to jump out is, it's not about culture change. Because if you say to me, Bannon, Trace, you need to change your culture. First thing I do is, my head starts to bob and I get a little bit of an attitude. Like, excuse me, I need to change my culture. But if you say to me, Trace, let's get together and let's figure out how we, together, need to move forward.

What we're talking about is culture building and it's a joint thing that we're brought into. That's probably one of the biggest takeaways of all of this. It's not about changing culture, it's about building a world together. It is about building a professional culture together. That is the number one thing that came out of all of this. The second thing is, it's okay to debunk myths, urban legends, tech legends, DevOps legends. It's okay to look at those things and say, maybe not.

What I'm bringing up there is a friend of mine, Brian Finster. He was working with a global retail corporation. Then he's looking for a bigger challenge, something even more complex and has started to work with the Air Force. He and I have a gnash and talk, at least once a week, about things that need to change. Where he's really landed on is the weaponizing of metrics, the weaponizing of how you measure. People talk about DevOps. They're like, I need your burn down, I need to know your velocity. Are those really the right metrics, are those really the things that we need to be focused on?

Applying the DORA Metrics

Tracy: They'll look at some of the wonderful industry published publications, like the Phoenix Project, Accelerate. They will look at the door of publications and they'll say, we need to apply the DORA metrics. What Brian took away or should I say, what Brian brought to the table was that, we need to question this. So, the second big takeaway is, don't be afraid to question because it's good to question. It's good to have that diversity in the conversation, diverse thoughts to get a better answer.

Mark: Speaking of the Air Force, one of the sessions that you had at your event was by major Austen Bryan, from Platform One. The subject of the session was, it's not about the tools. Can you explain a little bit more about what that was all about?

Tracy: Austen is the chief operating officer and he's been there since the beginning of it. Now, they have over 250 people, acquisition and engineering teams, all responsible for delivering Platform One and the services that they're providing. In his role, he's delivering to all four military branches, so Platform One is Air Force but it's Air Force at the end.

Manpower and People Power in a Culture Built on Moxie

Tracy: He was really passionate and he was one of the first people who said, I really want to be a part of Straight Talk. He want to talk about manpower or people power, whatever we'd like to call it, whatever is appropriate there. Hiring not being the biggest problem but how do we retain? How do we retain talent, if there's not a career path? In the Air Force, you may rotate. I may have six months working on something that I love and it's amazing. This is where I want to go with my career, from a technology perspective and then, I'm rotated because that's what happens.

He was really passionate about talking about career paths, to help with the retention, developing, moving people from being entry-level developers. Helping them with a career path that gets us to those mid-level and senior-level architects and engineers because the demand is high. The experienced higher numbers are not as high as what we want them to be. Second thing that he talked about was acquisitions, he was all over acquisitions.

Now, we didn't talk about the colors of money because that would be really huge but modular contracting mechanisms. Doing active market research to understand different approaches to acquisition and being more dynamic about it, not having a four year run-up to it. How do you get the smaller tranches, smaller acquisitions, and multiple smaller acquisitions? The third thing just blew me away. This really lines up with some of the things that we've been seeing. LinkedIn posts, the chief software officer, has put in his resignation.

A Common Theme in a Culture Built on Moxie

Tracy: What’s really a common theme across what Austen was talking about as his third point and on Nick's resignation is, leadership style. What changes when you're building software? Command and control type leadership is absolutely core. It’s central to the military but a lot of times when we're building the software, it's not the same life or death situation. It will be used by warfighters in a life or death situation. However, that's not the same style that you need to use as a leader, it's much more flattened.

There's a lot more autonomy given for decisions, decisions to be made at a more junior level. Those are the three big things that Austen really wanted to talk about. Manpower, the retention of manpower, looking at creative and innovative acquisition alternatives and helping to evolve leadership styles.

Mark: That's interesting. Kind of gets on the broader themes that you were talking about earlier.

Carolyn: Those are great. I'm a yoga instructor, so I saw that you had some yoga sessions. That took some moxie to put that into your conference. Talk to me about that.

Tracy: I would love to claim that as my idea but I actually learned it from my buddy, Jayne Groll. She's the CEO for the DevOps Institute. And in their...

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