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Unparalleled Innovation with Jennifer Ewbank, Deputy Director for Digital Innovation at Central Intelligence Agency
Episode 2723rd March 2022 • Tech Transforms, sponsored by Dynatrace • Carolyn Ford
00:00:00 00:46:34

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Jennifer Ewbank, Deputy Director for Digital Innovation at Central Intelligence Agency joins Carolyn and Mark to talk about the unparalleled work in integration and integration she and her teams are doing. Jennifer talks about the importance of partnerships in IT, data and cybersecurity and how Digital Innovations, the newest branch of the CIA, is transforming security.

Episode Table of Contents

  • [00:58] Jennifer’s Opinions on DDI’s Unparalleled Innovation
  • [08:35] Integration of Digital Capabilities and Unparalleled Innovation
  • [16:06] Unparalleled Innovation on Cloud Computing
  • [24:04] Unparalleled Innovation in the Digital Landscape
  • [32:00] Applying Unparalleled Innovation Into Our Mission
  • [39:44] A Space Nerd With Unparalleled Innovation

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Jennifer’s Opinions on DDI’s Unparalleled Innovation

Carolyn: Today, our guest is Jennifer Ewbank, Deputy Director of CIA for Digital Innovation, also known as DDI. Jennifer is responsible for accelerating the development and integration of digital and cyber capabilities across all of the CIA's mission areas. We're so excited to hear from you today, Jennifer, and get your opinions on the DDI and its contributions to the CIA.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for the invitation, I'm really excited about our conversation today. I love nothing more than sharing a little bit about the great work that the men and women of the CIA are doing on behalf of the American people. To talk about how this intelligence landscape is changing dramatically along with the digital transformation we see around the world.

We're here on the 1st of March. I wanted to acknowledge that, as we have a conversation today about one of these topics I love tremendously. It's really critically important for the intelligence business, it is taking place against the backdrop of events unfolding in Eastern Europe. So, just about a week ago, Russian troops invaded a sovereign nation and brought war back to the European continent in a completely unprovoked act.

I just wanted to assure anyone who might be listening to the podcast that the CIA is intensely focused on our national security around the world. We're focused on that crisis and working as part of an integrated US government team to do what we can to bring about a rapid end to these senseless hostilities and the return of Russian troops to the Russian Federation.

Unparalleled Innovation on What Matters Most

Jennifer: I just wanted to ensure, whenever people listen to this, that they understand that we are focused on what matters most at the moment. I'm taking a few minutes out of an otherwise very hectic day to talk about this topic. It’s really important from a strategic perspective but is perhaps not the most urgent topic on our plates today.

Carolyn: Honestly, what you do is integral and so important to everything that you just mentioned. Let me see if I can get the words out right but in supporting the sovereign nation. What you do with the digital side of things and this mission, that cyber domain is incredibly important.

Jennifer: Yes, we've seen it play out a bit so far in unprovoked attacks on Ukrainian entities. Our role, sometimes, may not be known to those outside of the intelligence community and that's most of America. We work for the US government, we work for the US people, absolutely. But we also support our allies and partners around the globe. Any major challenge requires those partnerships to succeed. Anyway, that was my little PSA at the beginning.

Carolyn: Let's talk about your story. Let's talk more about your background, your role at the CIA. Describe the position and what the DDI is.

Jennifer: I can't imagine that most people would know what it is. I certainly knew very little about the CIA before joining it. Generally speaking, I lead the Directorate of Digital Innovation at CIA. It’s one of the five large directorates that comprise the whole of CIA. Some of these are going to be a lot more familiar to your audience and your listeners.

Intelligence Operations

Jennifer: The first is the Directorate of Operations. They conduct intelligence operations and information all around the globe. They work very closely with our partners and allies in all those countries.

Our Directorate of Analysis, they produce what we call all source analysis. Taking information from all over the place and weaving it together and producing objective analysis to inform policymakers about the key issues of the day and strategic issues. Our Directorate of Support is a truly extraordinary, probably an unparalleled innovation anywhere else organization. They do everything to keep this business running on a global scale.

So, it is HR, finance, logistics, medical services, anything you could possibly imagine and a global enterprise. Then we have our Directorate of Science and Technology which is probably our closest cousins in the organization. They develop technological capabilities to support our intelligence collection mission around the globe.

You might think of Q and Bond films but without as many high-speed chases or deadly firefights. Then there's DDI, the part that I oversee. If we think about the DS and T, our Directorate of Science and Technology, primarily focused on technology with a physical manifestation, we are that counterpart in the virtual or digital world. In essence, all the ones and zeros for the organization.

We are the agency's newest directorate and our mission spans are really broad spans. We've got data, data science, artificial intelligence, enterprise information technology, cyber security, cyber collection, cyber analysis and open source intelligence to support the CIA's mission in all aspects. We also have another really important role, we have established DDI University. That is a learning enterprise dedicated to raising the digital acumen of the CIA workforce as a whole.

Leverage the Unparalleled Innovation

Jennifer: So that we actually have a workforce that's ready to leverage all of these capabilities, whether they're technological experts or not. In terms of my background, I did come to this role through a non-traditional path. My own career spans well over three decades. Initially, as a foreign service officer with the State Department serving overseas with our diplomatic corps. Then later, and for the bulk of this time with the CIA but in the Directorate of Operations.

That is the organization that is posted all around the globe, working with our foreign partners, collecting insights that we feed into our analytic products here in Washington. Prior to this current role, there were a couple of key roles, I think, were formative. They do inform how I approach this job. One was spending the majority of my time overseas and serving as a chief of station. That is the officer that's charged with leading these integrated teams in the field. I do have, let's say a favorite job. I'm not supposed to have favorite jobs but I do along the way.

One of those roles was working in Washington overseeing all of the CIA's engagements inside the United States. Think about all of our partnerships with intelligence community counterparts, with US government departments and agencies, and with academia. But most importantly, I think for our conversation today, with the US private sector and industry, finding those valuable partnerships for both sides.

It's only six years old at this point. The DDI, as you call it, is, I would say, changing the very way we approach the intelligence mission. We're focused on this deep and meaningful integration of digital capabilities across all of the CIA's mission areas.

Integration of Digital Capability and Unparalleled Innovation

Jennifer: My role as deputy director of CIA for digital innovation is just that, the integration of digital capabilities across the entire mission. In that role, I have the opportunity, the pleasure of leading probably the most talented, creative and mission-focused workforce that I've ever seen.

Mark: You hit on a few things there. In a recent article that you did with the Cipher Brief, you mentioned how the DDI approaches partnerships with industry to create innovation hubs. Well, you didn't mention that but you talked a little bit about industry partnerships. Can you talk a little bit about how that partnership has helped contribute to the mission of partners harnessing data and artificial intelligence?

Jennifer: For context, and maybe this is implied in what I've said already, but DDI's work driving innovation and forging closer partnerships with industry is really essential to the future success of the CIA. Our focus continues to be on identifying those best in breed, cutting edge capabilities, commercially available solutions and exploring how we could rapidly leverage those to meet our evolving mission requirements.

There was a really great article on unparalleled innovation a few years ago in the MIT Sloan Management Review. It had an important line in there and it said, quote, long term organizational success depends on developing and implementing new ideas. It's funny because it's complete common sense. You would think, "Well, how is that not known?"

But in any large organization, I think, surprisingly, it's an easy thing to forget. For us, recent research that we've explored really identifies a need to find new ways to enable what has been called an adaptive space.

Networks and Organizational Structures

Jennifer: It’s thinking about networks and organizational structures that allow information, resources, and ideas to flow across in a way that can foster unparalleled innovation. For us, that often starts with small entrepreneurial teams and then later, bigger programs and structures.

That's what we're trying to do at DDI and that's one of the many areas where the industry is tremendously a helpful partner. Our outreach and connections with the industry are helping us do this. We’re finding new ways to bring in new ideas and rapidly put them in the hands of our officers to enable success in our mission.

We are partnering with companies in the industry to create the so-called adaptive spaces that allow us to rapidly experiment. To do so in a flexible, often unclassified, laboratory environment and that's what I mentioned about the innovation hubs. Those environments allow us to test out new ideas and capabilities to fail fast, to iterate, to rinse and repeat and innovate ultimately.

Artificial intelligence is a critical piece of that but I would say it's not the only one. It is an important one because industry's leading development is in that space. But our partnerships are more than, let's say, sharing the latest algorithm or model. Although that's important, it's also about working smarter and working side by side to create and deliver solutions to protect national security.

Just a last thing because I think it's an important disclaimer. DDI isn't alone in this, there are other elements of the agency that are working in these new spaces. Not long ago, we created CIA Labs which was a really exciting effort to reimagine how we engage with industry and national labs in particular.

We Are Home to Unparalleled Innovation

Carolyn: I love that quote from the article. To your point, it seems like it's a no-brainer. Yes, you've got to constantly be bringing in new ideas or, to quote my dad, there's more than one way to skin a cat. We have to remember that and it's so easy to forget. I love that your team, it sounds like, not only embraces this idea, but you're setting up these environments to foster and grow the ideas. It sounds like you're sandboxing.

Like you said, fail quickly, rinse and repeat, all of that in a very safe environment that can then go out. It brings me back to this point of all the mission areas. So, you're responsible for pushing out this digital innovation to all CIA mission areas. How do you see technology evolving in the CIA and government agencies overall? Six years your department's been around, right? What have you seen?

Jennifer: Certainly, we have been on this digital journey much like many other organizations. I like to think we're a little bit ahead of some in the government, though it's not a race. We just happened to get in the race a little bit earlier. Sit back just a little bit to say that one of our strengths as a country is that we are home to unparalleled innovation.

That is one of our greatest strengths as a nation, what industry brings and new capabilities. We were talking about phones earlier. I look no further than the phone in my handbag to see how technology has evolved dramatically in the past 10 years. Then think about where it's going to go in the next 10 years, it's almost unimaginable.

How Technology and Unparalleled Innovation Is Evolving

Jennifer: I'll take one little slight tangent, when we're thinking about how technology is evolving, its use, its focus in government. I think it would be a real mistake and some people do this.

It would be a real mistake to think about this whole second machine age and digital transformation as some sort of a fancy modernization effort. I think about elastic cloud computing, big data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. These things are transforming the day-to-day life in America. In many ways, they're doing the same to the intelligence mission.

Our digital journey, as I said, it's well underway but we have a long way to go. I think the next few years are going to bring tremendous change. And so, I think about what's coming, this is my sense based on the work that we're doing. I see the maturation of AI capabilities across the intelligence community. With that, an ability to really harness the true power of data for us, we save for operational advantage and analytic insights.

I see AI and automation in particular taking routine tasks off our daily calendars. They’re freeing up time and mental energy for officers to devote to higher order cognitive functions. The things that only a human brain could do but are tied up with the drudgery of routine business. I see for us and many others the expanded use of augmented and virtual reality. If you think about the intelligence mission and what we're required to do all around the globe, different cultures, different languages, different environments, you name it, AR and VR can be really powerful tools in that mission.

Unparalleled Innovation on Cloud Computing

Jennifer: Cloud computing, of course, continues to be the foundation on which we're building all of this. But by thinking about how things are changing, we're going to need to develop new, let's say, forms of edge computing. To enable this processing at the edge and, for us, the edge is global so that's a real challenge.

Another one that folks may not think about, but just as with any organization that is devoted to work all around the globe, further refining and building our natural language processing models is going to be really critical. Particularly, as we want to embrace this flood of open source information that's so readily available on the internet and you name it.

We're going to have to be able to collect it, translate it, structure it, tag it, filter it, prioritize it, add in your verb and do that all at scale and at machine speed. One of the last things I'll mention as an emerging area for us is digital twins. Thinking about all these other capabilities, digital twins might actually give us a really productive and cost-effective environment in which to experiment, innovate, fail, et cetera and do so in a safer environment.

Mark: What do you mean by digital twin? You mean like high availability backup?

Jennifer: I'm not a huge expert on this but setting up what's, in essence, a digital record of some other issue, event, place, you name it. Then using that in a sandbox environment to explore how you would really tackle this challenge.

Carolyn: When you do this digital twin stuff and even the sandboxing, this is a little bit of a tangent.


Carolyn: I'm fascinated by the metaverse coming online and augmented reality and virtual reality. Have you got to play with that?

Jennifer: I have played a little bit with VR, for sure. People are excited about showing off what they're doing. It has been eye-opening. You think about putting yourself in the position of another person's perspective. It's been powerful for lots of things. These are early days in the space. But it might put me in a different physical environment where I can become familiar with a different country, different environment, et cetera.

It's great for foreign language practice, that's great. It's interesting just in terms of the inclusive and positive management environment we want to create, it also has applications in that cross-cultural organizational way. Put yourself in the mindset, in the person of somebody that you're trying to understand, empathize, support. What is it like to be blind?

Mark: Or psychological.

Jennifer: What is it like to be deaf, to experience it as best you can? VR can do that. There’s one thing that I also want to mention, just because the CIA is unique in this area. I think it's valuable for our partners elsewhere to think about this. Just as we are focused on leveraging these new technologies and bringing them to our complex mission, we also do so against a backdrop of adversaries who are investing in the same technologies and deploying increasingly aggressive versions.

Think cyber-attacks that we see these days, think ransomware, think supply chain attacks. There are a lot of other actors out there who are leveraging these same capabilities and doing so in a way that is not in our national security interests.

Monitor and Control an Unparalleled Innovation

Jennifer: There's a subset of these actors, whose governments I would characterize as digital autocracies. They're developing and deploying these capabilities first to monitor and control their own societies. Their own societies end up being the guinea pigs for this experimentation. Those capabilities can easily be projected around the globe at adversaries like us.

If I think about that balance for us, we need to leverage or, let's say, understand, deploy these capabilities to support our mission. We need to defend against their use by adversaries seeking to do us, the US, our...




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