Exclusive: Q&A with Defence CTO, Matt Yannopoulos

Consumer applications pose interesting opportunities for Defence, the CTO says

Department of Defence chief technical officer, Matt Yannopoulos

Department of Defence chief technical officer, Matt Yannopoulos

Computerworld Australia got the chance to meet and chat with Department of Defence chief technical officer, Matt Yannopoulos, on the state of ICT reform within the department, the opportunity for consumer applications on the warfield and the difficulty of finding the right ICT personnel for the agency.

Have you explored the notion of using game engine technology to visualise the war theatre, and what other technologies are you exploring for this use?

Yes we’ve explored it but only out of our science and technology side, so kind of advanced research perspective.

What I’d say is we have a view that particularly commercial devices like iPads and particularly Xboxes, the graphic quality now is more advanced than what you’d get if you buy a normal PC or a toughbook, so I think we’re seeing whether that trend continues to see if we can make that sort of capability available to a solider, because at the moment a solider doesn’t really have digitisation on him. He has radio so he can talk but increasingly I think whether it’s iPhone; it will be something, but it will be hardened in some way so it can’t be attacked, but they’ll be able to wear it close by for virtualisation, capability to walk through.

Soldiers usually carry a gun so both hands are occupied so you need something that can be easily accessible and, as [Australian Army Brigadier, Jeff Sengleman] said, easy to use. I think we’re taking the lesson from the consumer electronics and saying what we do produce normally in military systems are not easy to use just because of the way they’re engineered and if we start to try and tip that on its head and go from it from a usability perspective, we’ll get a better outcome

I would not say we’re Apple-focussed, I’d say we’re looking at the consumer market and saying, well, they’re relatively low cost so if they break, throw them out and get another one. The lesson is probably in how the usability is increasing to make them a good tool of trade.

Banking executives this week said convenience and security could not “go hand in hand”. What is your view of how the two priorities interact?

I’m not sure I’d agree with the previous comment. Security doesn’t need to be over the top and onerous, and there’s certainly commercial encryption and indeed high grade encryption now that’s more easy to use for users. I just think we have to find the balance - what’s the risk of the compromise of that information on a soldier. because it might be very perishable in the sense that it’s value for time is in the next hour or day, versus the security that we might want to put something in headquarters which are our forward plans and all those sorts of things.

I think we’re trying to come to a more sophisticated view of security which is, it’s not that no one has access, it’s whats the risk, what would the threat level suggest is appropriate to secure and we need to try and balance rather than trade security and useability.

A few years ago I thought PKI was unusable, now it’s in our network, all of our machines are PKI-enabled. No one knows that but we would know if someone put a machine on our netwrok that wasn’t one of ours, so we’ve added security without the burden to the end-user.

In March, you slammed Defence’s use of ICT as wasteful and said:

"In the Middle East, we're trying to ask people not to pass information. They all sit in the same tent, and there's multiple terminals in there, and they can't actually share emails, they can't share websites because they're not linked to each other. It's a major, major problem. The bad guys in Afghanistan are using iPhones and applications and multiple SIM cards and are going much faster than we are."

Do you believe that has changed significantly in the last seven months?

I think the context of those comments are somewhat missing from the overall story. The difference between our enemy over there is that they don’t have any secure communications, whereas we do. Our plans and our approach to intelligence collection is highly secure, what I was more talking about is - so these lesssons that can be taken out of consumerised electronics and the speed at which new communications can be developed, how are we adopting those, rather than - as one media player put it - that we were losing the war to enemies because they were going faster. My intent is more about how do we find the balance for those strategic networks and for important intellience you have high security, but maybe for the soldier we can diminish that for virtue of the value you can give for safety outcomes and for military outcomes if that was a lower security.

I’m not a military person, I’m a technology person, but what I see is we’re doing very well over there with our communications and our technology is improving all the time. We are improving our satellite communications in the area and we are improving our systems. All of this takes time because we are digitising our army and that’s not where they are today. They are pretty much on voice, so it’s a substantial change not just technologically but their ability to operate this equipment.

In your presentation you alluded to the fact that you have at least progressed in the “Next Generation Desktops” project. How far have you actually gone?

We’ve agreed to a pilot on one of our frigates that will be fitted out this year so we’ll have a look at it in a deployable mobile environment. The bigger program, which we call “Next Generation Desktop”, I’ve had the first phase of market solicitation, that’s now down-selected to four parties and I intend, subject to me receiving government approval to proceed, to go to tender later this year. I’m hoping November, but I need to get government approval for the next step.

It hasn’t been awarded yet, but in a more full answer to your question, we are favouring thin client presentation tools because of the cost reduction that it will achieve in our various bases and sites and regional infrastructure.

How have you seen your role as chief technical officer and the wider ICT in Defence landscape change since you come to the position two years ago?

I think the big change has been we’ve actually delivered some of the key capstone documentation now on where we’re trying to head to, I call that the single information environment. We’ve been building the architecture across the intelligence space, the warfighter space and the corporate space, so now what I’m finding more of my time doing is ensuring that major programs are building out and realising or implementing the architecture.

So I have personal responsibility for the next-generation desktop and our data centre work, because I’m all about a single network, single data centres, the pleasant term we use is ‘drink our own champagne’ which is, if I think we should do this, then I may as well be responsible for implementing it and seeing it through. The summary answer has shifted from - how do we set the future defence IT and now we’re getting on with implementing those major reform initiatives.

How long do you expect it to take before Defence sees a single information environment?

I think it’s a target that probably moves, but I would have thought substantial tranches of it will be in place within the next three years. We intend to have a new network provider that brings the network together within two years, we’ll have the new data centres in place, we’ll have a new desktop environment, we’ll also have the service orientation plumbing.

But how many projects - because we’re running a few hundred projects - there are many that are happening over the next decade that will deliver services so to really realise it, we wouldn’t have custom bespoke applications anymore so I’ll have retired long by the time that’s completed, but the core elements I think we’ll have in three to five years.

One of the criticisms to come out of the Force 2020 report released mid-2009 was that the Defence chief information officer, Greg Farr, could only see roughly half - or $700 million - of the agency’s overall ICT spend. Has this changed since then?

Now he has full visibility of defence ICT spend, at least I would say close to 100 per cent. The way we’ve done that is we now have what we call the integrated program of work - it’s not very sophisticatedly [sic] named - but all ICT change in Defence now goes on that plan, and that is agreed to by our Secretary and Chief of Defence Force, so that you aren’t able to grant IT projects outside of that. It doesn’t mean that Greg controls all the money yet, but it does mean that Greg has the principle IT advisor to secretary CDF sees it all now.

The other thing is we have adopted the annual AGIMO baseline survey, so AGIMO has every agency fill out against a fixed set of service towers all of their IT spend and we do that across the organisation, so we’re now able to gather up all of that and get visibility of it and again through that integrated program of work, we’re finding the spend and we’re starting to tune; ‘we’re spending stuff on communication links, we’re already doing that, you don’t need to do that anymore, we can get economy of scale by adding your thing to our contract’.

From when it was begun... since the mid-09 we would have I would say a fairly mature program of work where you can see the whole spend and substantial priority calls can be made across the entire IT budget.

So largely a part of your work to meeting the recommendations of the Gershon Review?

Yes, that and being consistent with our ICT strategy which is we want to work closer with our stakeholders, we want to have visibility of all the work, we want to adopt the enterprise architecture - that’s my bag - and we want to professionalise our workforce.

The workforce being one of the challenges you have identified previously. Is it still a challenge to find the specialised skills you need in Defence?

I’d say it’s still a challenge, it’s particularly a challenge for project managers, business analysts and architects, and some of that is Canberra because there’s a lot of other major government agencies in Canberra. We have quite a diverse workforce in IT in Defence, so we have people across the country but still most of our major projects are run out of Canberra because that’s where senior people, so we are looking at strategies like looking at other sites, other cities, we joined the ACS primarily to try and increase the professionalism of our own IT staff but also to start to put Defence out there as ‘we’re not some behemoth that doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore, we have a plan, we have a whole host of new leaders and there’s a whole host of new IT that you can do here’. I would say that it’s going to remain hard to get those scarce skillsets but we are, I think doing better than maybe we would have done two years ago.

How are you trying to compete for potential employees with other government agencies and particularly the private sector?

We can’t generally compete on salary but where we are trying to compete is benefits, so things like ACS membership - if you join us we will pay for your ACS membership - we’re providing a whole host of training across new platforms and what I hope is by me speaking at events like [spaital@gov], there’s someone in the audience who thinks ‘Defence seems more interesting now, I might try and get in’. I think we’re trying to make it a better place to work and hopefully we’ll continue to grow.

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