Dave McDonald The Crisis CIO, Marathon Mode Part 1 - Ep. 109

Shortly after the US went into COVID 19 Quarantine Dave McDonald, Navy Telecommunications, Information Technology and Cyber Operations joined us to discuss what we have learned from the COVID19 crisis and how it will better prepare us for future crisis. 8 months later we touch base.

Episode Table of Contents

  • [02:09] Another Good Episode With Dave McDonald
  • [07:11] Resilience, Courage, and Strength
  • [13:46] The Traditional Cultural Foundation of Special Operations
  • [19:52] Do Dave McDonald and His Team Use Their Own Devices
  • About Our Guest

Another Good Episode With Dave McDonald

Carolyn: Hi, I'm Carolyn Ford. Welcome to To The Point, and I'm here with Eric Trexler and Dave McDonald, welcome back.

Dave: Thank you very much. It's good to be back. Given the time zone difference, I always feel like I'm encroaching on your cocktail hour there on the East Coast. I'm just getting my day started after the holidays, it's Monday and I'm raring to go. I've had two coffees already, but you guys are already looking at happy hour.

Eric: Carolyn, I think that's a comment about you because I don't drink.

Carolyn: I'm in Utah. It's mid-day. Okay, it's getting close. So, Dave, first of all, welcome back. We have Dave, you're CIO for the Navy.

Eric: Hold on, NCTAMS PAC.

Carolyn: There we go. I was just going to ask you to remind our listeners what you do exactly.

Dave: I'm not sure you could give me Mr. Aaron Weiss's job. He is the CIO for the Navy and what a superstar of a CIO he is. The prospect of moving back to the Pentagon or Crystal City or wherever and having that range of responsibilities. What's that phrase? It was from a Clint Eastwood movie. A man's got to know his limitations. Good on Aaron for doing it.

Carolyn: We had you in April to talk about the crisis CIO and there were so many good one-liners. You are so quotable, so this is going to be another really good episode. One of the things you mentioned when we were speaking before is that we're eight months into this thing.

Carolyn: We've left the sprint mode and we're into this marathon mode. You talked about back in April that you felt like you were the chief resilience officer now.

Failures of Imagination and Blind Spots

Carolyn: Your number one concern was your people. So first, how are you doing? How are your people doing?

Dave: Marathon, indeed. We had either failures of imagination or blind spots when it came to imagining what the future would look like. This is an ever-evolving epiphany that we've had a failure of imagination and not in a good way. That notion that this would turn into a marathon turned into a really long drawn out process. If you can call it a process, this continual discovery of just how bad a thing can be.

Carolyn: Especially this coming off of Thanksgiving weekend, we're all fatigued with this. You guys have more so than many, with all of the extra stipulations that you guys have to deal with.

Eric: You're saying the military, Carolyn?

Carolyn: The military.

Dave: We're not that much different than other significant, mission-essential segments of our economy, our nation or culture, our world. There's an idea in marathons of hitting stride. You know what the thing is going to be because you've trained for it. And you count yourself as pretty resilient, pretty tough. But there's this notion of hitting stride and overcoming pain, overcoming the fatigue.  There are some really good analogies there.

Dave: That we're dealing with the pain, the fatigue, and we're trying to dig deep within ourselves. We continue to stay on pace and stay in stride knowing that the race is essential. I think that's really key, those first foundational principles that you train on. You acculturate, you build them into your traditions, you try to recruit and hire people. Develop people to have that kind of strength, resilience, fortitude.

You Don’t Know What You’re In For

Dave: Also, a bit of humility thrown in that you don't quite know how bad it's going to get.

Carolyn: As you said that Dave, I was thinking about the marathon. You said you know what you're in for. You know that it's 26.2 miles and you train for it. The way you're talking about this reminds me of buds where you don't know what you're in for necessarily. It's such a psychological mind. I'm not going to use that word, but you know what I'm saying?

Eric: I think that's a big part of COVID, you don't know what's coming next. You know roughly, but we've never been through this. I was reading an article this morning. Due to the advances in public health in the developed world, this is the first generation who isn't prepared for pandemics like this. Who really has no idea.

Eric: All of our predecessors have faced massive death with the flu and the plague and things like that. But you don't know what's coming next. We don't know how long this will be. It's tough. So we're in our stride, I think is what you're saying, Dave. We don't know when the race ends.

Dave: This comes back to the people. Carolyn, your question was, how are we doing? What about the people? There are real value and lots of learning in observing people, cultures, and operating institutions on how they respond to adversity. If you look back in history, as Eric points out, you can be philosophical. You can say, well, it could be worse. It could have been doubled up with war, pestilence, and all kinds of other things that sort of go with it.

Resilience, Courage, and Strength

Dave: There've been times in our history as a people where we've had to prove a lot more resilience. A lot more courage and a lot more strength than this. So putting all that in perspective, I think, is important. But with respect to our teams, we've learned a lot about ourselves. We've learned a lot about the team culture. So I said in our last conversations, things like failure is not an option.

Dave: Our missions are all critical, we have to execute them. We are actually hitting stride in the sense that we've learned a lot in adapting to new routines. We've figured out how to host visitors that are essential. Maintenance, systems engineering visits, installation visits, things that are really critical business that have to be carried on.

Dave: We've learned how to protect our critical watches, the 24/7 operations and maintenance crews. We have learned how to do that with really remarkably good success. When we look at the numbers around us of COVID cases and so forth, even on Navy ships and so forth. We have, knock on wood, we have not been subjected to, or unlucky enough to have had a significant breakout. We've been very careful with our protocols.

Dave: We haven't gotten complacent or lazy. It's been as intense and focused as it was from day one. And it's still that way today because there's a deep understanding of the criticality of our mission. That part is good. We've taken some steps to reach out to people and really do some measurement. Some gagging through the sorts of questions on command climate surveys and so forth.

Falling Into This Crisis Mentality

Dave: Where I get concerned is how are people doing? How are they holding up? This gets to that article I cited in our email exchange. Are you falling into the trap, in this crisis mentality, of feeling like you have to be always on? Always present, always on the job. That you have to raise the standards beyond any expectation, or in any reasonable sort of level.

Dave: You worry about people collapsing under the weight of that, overworking themselves. The article was The Presence Prison by Jason Fried. He wrote that article back in 2017. If you think about how prescient that was, I don't know that he ever would have predicted a global pandemic. He was referring more to the phenomenon of ubiquitous IP technologies that allow full-featured collaboration and presence all the time.

Dave: It's creating this new standard of being always on, always in the moment. Always on the job, always responsive, being a captive or slave to the green dot. Being always available and reachable, no matter what the priority of the issue might be. It was a prescient article back in 2017. I used it some weeks ago in a correspondence to our extended team across NCTAMS to say, "Hey, guard yourself against this presence in prison."

Dave: "You want to be as rigorous and complete about work-life balance and having a complete approach to your life. This is a marathon and we need you and the missions are critical and we're concerned about you." Mental health, happiness, life balance, physical health, setting unreasonable standards for yourself or for your people. Those are things to be really guarded against.

How Dave McDonald and His Team Are Handling the Mental Crisis

Eric: I almost feel it's an unknown distance run. We're running, and you've got to keep yourself going, not knowing when it's going to end.

Carolyn: That's why I kind of compared it to Navy SEALS, the BUD/S program. Because they don't know what's coming.

Eric: You keep performing, you don't quit and you don't get hurt. And you just keep digging. That's almost what we're doing here, except it's the entire workforce. So Dave, how are your people handling it? What's the number one thing you would do, if you had a magic wand, to help them?

Dave: That's an interesting question. I think a lot of folks, especially in our culture, the military culture. I used a phrase in a recent correspondence with my team. Something to the effect of "Please don't suffer in silence." Your mental wellbeing, your attitude about work or your overall demeanor and happiness level, level of satisfaction with your life.

Dave: If it's really in trouble. If you're hopeless or you have a sense of doom and gloom and so forth, it's pervading into the different parts of your life, the request I made to my team is don't suffer in silence. Talk to somebody about it. Come talk to me about it, or talk to another leader or mentor, or advisor that you trust. Talk it out and air it out a little bit and seek advice, seek examples.

Dave: Some people can get to a level where you really want to think about some level of formal counseling. I'm a big fan of mentors and mentorship, and it's not just a work thing, it's a life thing.

The Traditional Cultural Foundation of Special Operations

Dave: I think it can be anathema to the military culture where people sort of regard themselves as warriors. Maybe they were warriors and then they retire and they become civilians or they still are warriors.

Dave: They pride themselves on stoicism and courage and taking the pain muscling through. There's a whole culture for that. Carolyn, I know you must be very familiar with the special operations community. The whole traditional cultural foundation of special operations is a silent, stoic, tough, resilient warrior.

Dave: This is how some military folks end up with PTS and with other mental problems when they leave the service. Because they hold too much in, they do suffer in silence. It's viewed as less than courageous or less than honorable to go seek help, seek advice or to admit failure. So your question was, what would I want to do to help people?

Dave: Number one is, make sure they know they're part of a team. They're part of a professional family. Their leaders and supervisors and peers care about them. They should not suffer in silence if they are suffering. And there is mentorship and life coaching, life counseling type help to be found. Some of it formal, some of it informal.

Eric: The military's great at that. So ask for help. Don't suffer in silence. Reach out, ask for help, ask somebody for help.

Dave: We've communicated that message to everybody across the deck plates of NCTAMS PAC, to extended telecommunications and IT enterprise. I don't want to overplay this, by the way. I mean, we're among the most fortunate. I'm sure, see the same thing in areas where you traveled, where you live, military, intelligence community, DoD, government, whatever.

You’re Part of a Bigger Team

Dave: We have jobs, we're still getting paid, our missions are viewed as critical. So I don't want to kind of overplay this. But there’s a fatigue and a burnout that's making its way in trying to execute these critical missions. It’s making it all look normal when there's really nothing normal about it. I think really attentive in-tune leaders need to pay attention to people and constantly ask and probe.

Dave: Find out how they are doing and offer an encouraging word, some advice to be heeded, some ideas to read about. Just a sounding board to talk to and a culture that says it's okay be fatigued. It's okay to be a little depressed and perhaps lack a little bit of hope.

Dave: You're part of a bigger team. There are folks you can reach out to and sort of boost your spirits, get some spring back at your step. That's what I want to do for everybody. Make sure they're not suffering in silence and having their own personal collapse in the middle of the global crisis.

Carolyn: You mentioned the idea of coming into this not normal operating environment. One of the things you mentioned back in April, you thought by now we would be, the government being "we" would be a lot more tolerant. The military specifically, would be more tolerant of bringing your own device. Choose your own device and that we would be talking about it and allowing it more. Have you seen that?

Dave: What's that old phrase? Necessity is the mother of invention. There'd been some minor moves since the standup of this kind of free and open. They call IL2, impact level 2, collaboration enterprise across the DoD.

Trying to Tighten up the Hatches

Eric: Really dealing low sensitive data.

Dave: I would hardly suggest that our senior officials are cutting corners or playing loose here. But again, necessity has been the mother of invention. There've been things we've had to do in order to continue the missions, the operations, the business of the DoD. They've had to make some accommodations, even some compromises.

Dave: I don't mean compromise in the sense of classified information. When you turn more than a million people loose with their own mobile devices, cell phones, laptops, what have you. You plug them into a common DoD collaboration enterprise, you're taking some risks.

Dave: They've tried to tighten up the hatches. They’ve batten down the hatches in a couple of areas where they have found those risks to be more concerning. We're sort of flying on the seat of our pants here a little bit with this enterprise. My understanding is we will do so until next summer. Then the larger DOD, the combatant commands, the military departments are all going to map themselves into a much more seriously governed, tightly managed, monitored, orchestrated set of enterprise capabilities.

Dave: It'll still be roughly the same feature set that the whole CVR teams thing has brought to us. But they're going to have to figure out how to accommodate either a bring your own device or choose your own device or some type of provisioned mobile device framework that is governed as part of the larger IL5 and above, impact level 5 and above. That's the control classified and the national security systems type data. It's a higher level of protection.

Do Dave McDonald and His Team Use Their Own Devices

Carolyn: Sorry, before you continue on, I just want to make sure I'm clear. So a lot of your people are using their own devices. Are you saying like next spring, we're going to walk that back? We're going to have a different set of rules?

Dave: My sense is we'll have to. Now you'd want to interview some of the folks on the acquisition side at DISA. At the DISA policy level and the DoD CIO policy level, and I know, Eric, you've got connections with all those folks. To really get a ground-truth answer on how do you rationalize an agile, to bring your own or choose your own device governance model with a rigorous IL5, impact level 5, accreditation type of model. At my sort of low perch out here in the Pacific, those ideas seem kind of irreconcilable.

Eric: It's a hard problem. The intelligence agency is an easy way to look at it, in my mind. They've got the most classified information we have. You can't let people just take that home and work with it like we would in the corporate environment. You're talking about people's lives, you're talking about the deepest secrets we have in this country. But they can't necessarily go into the office either, to work all the time as we have in the past.

Eric: How do you allow a distributed workforce without opening the floodgates to lack of oversight control? Some level of control, but those controls have always been based on physical boundaries. Either network physical boundaries, guards, gates, shacks, things like that. How do you let someone take a top secret document home and work on it? The answer is today, you don't.

A Few Stars on Your Collar

Dave: Unless you got a few stars on your collar or you're at that level. Or you have specially assigned housing that has a skiff in it and so forth. There's accommodation for that.

Eric: Even then, they have some controls. Even if the control is only to allow flag ranked personnel to take information home or some flag ranked personnel. I use the intelligence community because it's almost binary, black and white on and off. You're either in the skiff and able to work or you're not, and you're not.

Eric: When we talk DoD, when we talk impact level 5 which controls unclassified data, controlled, but unclassified. When we talk about impact level 6, secret level data, classified information. As you go up the control level, the number of controls, the amount of sensitivity, the importance of the information loosely correspond with the number of restrictions you have.

Eric: So you've almost got this push-pull. How do you let people work on the most classified information when they can't work at home? And they only have to work at home when they can only work at home? It's a tough problem.

Dave: It's a tough problem in the intelligence community, much more than the GENSER DoD community. It’s really having to wrestle with that challenge already today. It'll be by rare exception and it'll probably be by critical position, by rank.

Dave: By admission essential criteria and so forth that you do those things. Some of those things were being done today for the masses. For the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions of DoD personnel. The military, civilian contractors who were in and around organizations like mine.

Emerging Methods for Wireless Networking

Dave: I think where this is going to take us is, I've posted this topic on LinkedIn, a governed choose your own device. It's going to have budgetary implications. How do you provision a guy like me with the right computing environment at work? With the right computing environment at home or on the road.

Dave: How do you encapsulate that in an enterprise governance structure that's light, but reasonably rigorous? And how do you manage it at run time and create some assurance it's right? You guys have interviewed people a lot smarter than me with zero trust. There are some emerging methods we can use with wireless networking and so forth.

Dave: For slicing and for unique identity management, unique encryption control plan, management plan technologies. Those things are all out ahead of us in terms of likely investments. It created a lot of opportunities to be agile in the way we govern these types of freewheeling enterprises.

Dave: We're going to have to get there one step at a time. By next summer, an IL5 Microsoft Teams full-featured enterprise across all the combatant commands, all the military departments, the Pentagon fourth of state, the joint community.

A Collaboration Environment

Dave: All those tenets are going to have to get stitched together. We have all spent a year and a half by then learning our way into this full featured enterprise. Always in a collaboration environment that includes, by the way, sessions like this, external to the DoD enterprise.

Carolyn: So is that the plan or is that your dream? We're going to pause right here, but bring you the rest of our interview with Dave later this week. He goes into the bring your own device and how he sees it working. Thank you for joining us on To The Point cybersecurity. Please hit that like button and we'll see you soon.

To The Point Cybersecurity was recently named one of the 30 top Federal IT influencers  2019 & 2020  because of fantastic guests. We are always looking for great thought leaders to interview. Please email me with guests you would like to have on the podcast cford@forcepointgov.com

About Our Guest

David McDonald, Navy Telecommunications, Information Technology and Cyber Operations. Navy and Intelligence Community professional with dual career tracks as a DoN civil service leader and manager. A uniformed Navy Reserve senior officer (now on the USNR retired list). I bring 37 years of varied professional experience to the table.

With targeted expertise in strategic planning/execution, program management, project management, organizational design, professional development, mentorship. And aligning business/programmatic solutions with mission operations accomplishment. I'm a cyber professional, in the "lingo" of today, and a trained/certified, warfare qualified. An operationally experienced Naval Cryptologist and Information Warfare Officer at the core.

Career path has been fortunate, sometimes downright lucky. It took me on a path from tactical Cryptologic operations on submarines during the Cold War. Then to major SIGINT field station operations, space systems operations in the National Technical Means (NTM) community. Submarine programs management, military intelligence operations at the Joint Combatant Command level. Ultimately, in telecommunications and IT program management.

I have sub-specialized in Defense acquisition program/project management, architecture planning and systems engineering along the way. I’ve had complementary sub-specialities in Knowledge Management, Contracts Management, Training Program and Systems Development, Systems Architecture Development. And a few other things that I can dust off if the situation warrants.

I'm from the school of Servant Leadership - have read and taught literature and practice. I believe in creating organizations that are organic, defy usual bureaucratic "wire diagram" boundaries. Foster innovation, collaboration, continuous improvement and teamwork. If one has been fortunate enough to be mentored through a long career, one then must mentor, with selflessness and dedication.