Amazon may not have invented the idea of software microservices, but the company has pioneered applying this software concept to their culture by using their Leadership Principles as the “loosely coupled services” of a constitution-like social contract. I label this implementation the “Microservic-ing of culture.”
For six months this year, I traded in my San Diego Navy acquisition life to join Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Seattle thanks to the Secretary of Defense’s Cyber Information Technology Exchange Program (CITEP). Through CITEP, I investigated the “how” and “why” of cloud implementation success, which fueled the “what” of cloud disruptive innovation. In this article, I distill the lessons learned described in my paper “Cyber IT Exchange Program (CITEP) Lessons learned from AWS – 22 July 2019” and summarize my experience at AWS to emphasize the benefits that Navy acquisition and digital transformation can gain from a cultural transformation.
As of July 2019, Amazon employed more than 680,000 international employees with offices in 100 countries. It is, in my opinion, a cultural modern marvel for an enterprise of this size to be able to onboard employees in less than four hours and allow them to start deploying production-quality code within two weeks. This is what I experienced during my fellowship at AWS. The process is built upon reliable technology, which is built upon a reliable architecture, which—in turn—is built upon an innovative and agile culture.
Although my initial focus for the exchange was cloud computing, I quickly became aware that to achieve the full tactical potential of the cloud, it is paramount to create an innovative and agile (pivot speed) corporate environment. This awareness was further reinforced by my introduction to what is known as Conway’s Law: “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” Applying Conway’s Law means that the Navy’s cloud use will reflect our current communication structures as dictated by our culture. These communication structures were the basis of the Navy’s success during the industrial age, but they have not kept up with the demands of the digital information age.
During my AWS residency, I was assigned to the Migration and Transfer and Edge Compute service team of which the Snowball Edge is the star product. As part of the team, I established my first environment on the AWS Cloud, and I provisioned, ordered, received and experimented with my first Snowball Edge device. The process was simple. This is by design. I also better understood that the services I studied are physical extensions of the cloud; all provisioning, coding, design, and implementation takes place on the cloud and then ported into these edge devices.
Over the course of my investigation, I identified three basic success tenets of this disrupting company. The first I termed the microservic-ing of culture. The genius of applying a technical concept (microservices) to a culture (Leadership Principles [LPs]) made the LPs more usable than a vision, mission, or core values. LPs are simple, versatile and at times, contradictory. I used them on a day-to-day basis whether in hiring, product selection, decision-making or meetings; I lived them.
The second basic tenet is a stable and supportive infrastructure environment. At the physical core-services level, my fellow CITEP participants and I did not experience any breaks in AWS physical and logical infrastructure. The Virtual Private Network, the gates, the heating, our laptops, and the software worked efficiently and reliably. I emphasize these facts to bring attention to how much time is saved in having a stable and reliable infrastructure. Amazon uses the time saved for solving customer-centric problems, which is what the workforce is there to do in the first place.
The third tenet is state-of-the-art, dependable technology-as-a-service. As the leader in the infrastructure-as-code industry, AWS has developed the building blocks of the Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) cloud stack where services are not only offered to customers but also used by Amazon itself, just like Lego® pieces, to build customer solutions.
In the design of their services, Amazon employs unusual problem-solving techniques that seek to eliminate (rather than add) process steps by using advanced technologies. Looking at the cashier-less Amazon Go Store as an example, Amazon did not streamline the checkout process—they eliminated it. I witnessed the same problem-solving technique in the AWS Snowball Edge shipping process. Once they discovered challenges in the shipping process, the Snowball Edge team did not issue a more stringent instruction on how to label these boxes for shipping; they eliminated the need for manual labeling, making the Snowball Edge its own secure and ruggedized shipping container.
As we find ourselves at the crux of a disruptive, technologically fueled cultural change, we need to, using Amazon LP terms, have backbone, work through our disagreements and commit to a way forward as a demonstration of our bias for action. I pose that the Navy’s acquisition commands can benefit from a cultural transformation to adopt a cloud-enabling corporate environment, because otherwise, the cloud migration process itself does not have an easy button.
Cloud adopters follow the same process of cloud migration by assessing their infrastructure holistically, and dividing their services according to the "6 Rs" of Retire, Retain, Re-Host, Re-Platform, Repurchase, and Re-Factor. As our naval acquisition programs reach for state-of-the-art cloud technologies, it is imperative that we empower this culture of innovation and agility with state-of-the-art communication skills including contracting strategies, funding vehicles, and automated metrics collection and reporting.
I am not proposing that we reinvent our culture by blindly copying Amazon or any other company. Our culture should be transformed by us, for us, using the lessons learned from our industry partners as guidelines. For we know that cultural change and the adoption of a new technology are not impossible tasks, as we have already accomplished similar scale efforts such as Data Center Consolidation, the implementation of the Navy and Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) and the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise System (CANES). The idea here is to perform the next big move in a more efficient manner.
My hypothesis is that our immediate challenge to transformation is that our current systems are powered by and built on a construct that includes contractual and funding principles and processes successful in the industrial age. Trying to force agile processes, agile products, agile thoughts, and agile organizations through the current contractual and funding structure is making the task of modernization exponentially more complex, if not impossible. That does not mean that the actions taken by our acquisition commands are wrong, nor am I saying that how the government conducts business should be replaced by the commercial version.
My observation is that our current processes, which are a manifestation of current cultural communication mechanisms, are not sufficiently agile or efficient to meet the demands of current and future challenges. We are not moving at the speed of digital information. In the instances where the warfighter’s time-sensitive need is in contrast with the approved acquisition documentations, the documentation-update process wins—and the update process does not reflect the speed of digital information.
My hypothesis is in line with a statement by the Hon. James Geurts, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN RDA), at a talk titled "Risk-Taking in Leading.” He said that we have to have velocity, not just speed, which is to say it is not enough to be going fast, we have to be headed in the right direction as well. To achieve pivot speed, we have to respond quickly to the fleet’s capability needs, which means we have to update our systems quickly, requiring us to be efficient communicators employing agile contracts, agile funding mediums, and agile technology. To accomplish this in edge computing, it is imperative that we first address our current limited knowledge of the actual workings of the cloud culture.
Given the opportunity to transform our organization into the next big technological success, I propose our workforce commit to reshaping our enterprise services as follows:
- Workforce communications-skills reeducation: A cultural transformation is a necessary precondition in the areas of conflict resolution techniques, efficient time management, and metric-based programmatic updates. These training investments must be core to the workforce skills training process, not an elective. We train as teams, not as individual volunteers.
- Workforce-wide technical training: The task of developing a capability on the cloud, creating a machine image and transferring it onto a portable cloud-based unit does not need to be re-proven, it needs to be adopted to design warfighter-centric solutions. We need a fleet of certified cloud practitioners and architects.
- Tooling: Common tools are essential for efficient communication.
- Metrics: Metrics count when they reflect the experience of the customer.
- Funding: Funding vehicles need to reflect the agility of the services they empower us to acquire.
- Contracts: Learn to implement contract vehicles that are in support of enterprise-level services, as well as specific programs of record. We know this is already feasible, as we have learned through the report of the Air Force’s Project Kessel Run and most recently Space CAMP (Space Commercially Augmented Mission Platform). What would Contracts-as-a-Service look like?
- Unified warfighter-centric presence: Guided by the single AWS portal implementation, implement a centralized user-facing interface-based portal representing the acquisition commands, such as one place for all warfighters to interact with mission support products.
I close with the following two calls to action. First, use these lines of effort mentioned to guide the enterprise-wide cultural transformation. Second, use the CITEP program to the maximum extent possible with the purpose of diversifying our knowledge of culture and tools at all levels of our organization, especially for the civilian acquisition workforce, not just at the engineering level; for it is critical for managers to understand what they are managing.
Roland Feghali is the technical director for the Navy’s Carrier and Air Integration Program Office within Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (PEO C4I). To request a copy of the complete paper he wrote about his time at Amazon, or to reach him about other matters, email him at email@example.com.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States Government.