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Talking STEM at Howard University

Talking STEM at Howard University

By: Keith Jones

Mike Waschull, IC CIO Senior Advisor for Acquisition and Program Management, knows about transition. As an Air Force enlisted technician working communications and computers, he transitioned to the role of an Air Force intelligence officer. While serving as a Captain, Waschull was the founding Program Manager for the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) at DIA. During his five years at DIA, Waschull retired from the Air Force and transitioned to his first role as a government civilian employee becoming the Network Engineering Branch Chief and continued to bring JWICS online.

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He has since transitioned to many high-profile assignments during his second career as a civilian employee, to include ensuring DoD systems were compliant with Y2K prevention efforts prior to the new millennium, working missile defense under former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He then served as the Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) prior to his current assignment. Here at the ODNI IC CIO Mike is working the Machine-Assisted Rapid-Repository System (MARS) a transformational program bringing big data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to bear on the Foundational Military Intelligence (FMI) problem within the IC.

That wide breadth of experience is why Waschull was asked to speak as part of a panel about the latest professional skill sets needed or valued by IT professionals to key educators at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) National Security Information Technology (IT) and Research and Development (R&D) Summit at Howard University in Washington, D.C., April 5.

“There was once a time when a young person could get a generic degree in IT and that would be their ticket up. But today, we can buy all the IT we need as a commodity good. There is less and less demand for IT professionals managing their organization’s on-premise hardware and software,” said Waschull.

“The real challenge – and opportunity today – is deriving value from the vast amounts of classified and unclassified data streaming in to organizations. There is more data coming in from a variety of sources than ever before and that takes more and more time to sift through,” he continued.

“The IC is looking to employ artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to help sift through raw data to organize, index, and curate that data,” said Waschull. “So if you want a career today, the more important skill set is to help make sense of the data that’s out there. That’s data science.”

Data is the New Currency

The panel was moderated by Dr. Lenora Gant, the National Security Executive Senior Advisor for the Howard University School of Business. Other panel members included retired Navy Capt. Christopher Page, SES, ONI CIO, and Victor Gavin, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy now serving as Amazon Web Services’ Head of Federal Technology, Vision, and Business Development.

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“Science and technology researchers had discussions on what capabilities people actually need to meet their missions,” said Gavin, “and they settled on the four ‘I’s: improvement, invention, innovation, and information sharing – especially in the realm of cybersecurity.”

Gavin went on to say that 90 percent of the world’s data had been generated in 2018. The pure volume of data created in 2018 alone – from websites and streaming video, to postings and selfies– was nine times the volume of all data digitally created and annotated in the past 5 years and more than the totality of data generated and collected digitally in all years prior.

“In the past, we (the IC) would build exquisite and expensive capabilities to collect specific phenomenologies (products of intelligence disciplines),” said Waschull. “Today, that take is dwarfed by what’s available in the open source data ecosystem. All sources of information, harvested and cloud-stored in a huge aggregation of data, provides an indisputable analytic advantage – if we can sift through the clutter.”

Pairing Government and Academia

The moderator asked the panel, “How can academia engage government in a meaningful way?” Waschull immediately responded that’s why they were all there, and shared a story of trying to recruit soon-to-graduate George Washington University adult graduate students to work for the government.

“I told them all about how what they did would matter, and their career would be far more interesting and compelling than business, and I appealed to their patriotism. It seemed to really strike a chord until the subject of money came up and they all had job offers of at least $150,000 annual salary – to start. I couldn’t come close with what I could offer them as Navy civilians,” said Waschull.

Waschull went on to say that government will have to be more creative in attracting talent at the entry level and if HBCUs want to carve out a market for their students, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, including Ops Research, applied statistics, and advanced mathematics coupled with data science, would be an unbeatable formula.

“The market is exploding. HBCU grads would be very competitive in securing their first jobs out of college within the DoD and IC – and as that first job can likely become a career, the DoD and IC may retain that talent going forward,” said Waschull.

Gavin offered a more immediate approach.

“Any engagement between the government and academia, or industry, is going to come through the cloud in some way. In our time it’s no longer a competition of resources, but a competition of ideas – whether that’s between industry, academia and government, or the United States competing with friends and enemies alike throughout the world,” said Gavin.

Waschull is currently involved in setting conditions for the formation of a new Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) predicated upon Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“While Howard University may be the current centerpiece, the confluence of the 102 HBCU ‘land grant’ colleges across the United States is an untapped national resource. The DoD and the IC will benefit greatly from an FFRDC that can provide access to this talent pool,” said Waschull.

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