Fix Our Computers: A Look Inside the Air Force’s User-Fueled IT Modernization Push

Rumblings of frustration surrounding the Department of Defense’s information technology shortcomings quickly grew into a roar last month as military service branch operators, warfighters and federal leaders took to social media to shed light on the severity of the department’s widespread IT issues and the urgency of solving them.

In January, Michael Kanaan, director of operations for the U.S. Air Force and MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, penned an open letter titled “Fix Our Computers,” which he posted publicly on LinkedIn, that outlined some of the daily IT challenges he faces.

“I wrote an email the other day that took over an hour to send,” Kanaan said. “I opened an Excel file today…my computer froze and needed to be restarted.”

Kanaan’s post described how simple, yet essential computer tasks can take hours, and increasingly debilitating computer issues are contributing to the Defense Department’s talent shortage.

The computer problems that service members and federal government employees face, Kanaan said, prevent them from effectively or efficiently carrying out their critical duties.

“Ultimately, we can’t solve problems with the same tools that made them…and yet somehow fundamental IT funding is still an afterthought,” posited Kanaan. “It’s not a money problem, it’s a priority problem.”

The open letter quickly gained nearly 400 comments and over 2,000 reactions, garnering the attention of the DoD community and its high-ranking officials. Air Force Chief Information Officer Lauren Knausenberger, a 2022 Wash100 Award recipient, commented on the post, “I echo your open plea to fund IT. It’s the foundation of our competitive advantage and also ensures every single person can maximize their time on mission.”

Other DOD officials and employees joined the “Fix Our Computers” conversation with similar posts of their own. Artem Sherbinin, a U.S. Navy navigation officer released a statement urging the Defense Department to fix its software, too.

Sherbinin said hundreds of thousands of U.S. sailors are using decades-old software to complete daily administrative tasks. He said service members know what new technologies and software updates are needed, and some of them are even capable of building these innovations themselves.

“This isn’t about quality-of-life improvements, it’s about winning the next great power war,” he said in the post.

In early February, the DOD Office of the Chief Information Officer released a statement, posted on LinkedIn, that addressed the “Fix Our Computers” letter and outlined some of the actions currently underway within the department to improve the user experience.

The co-authors of the post – Knausenberger, Army CIO Raj Iyer, DOD CIO John Sherman, Navy CIO Aaron Weis and Acting Principal Deputy CIO Dr. Kelly Fletcher – said the department is working to enable telework capabilities, provide users with higher-performing laptops and eliminate redundant cybersecurity policies.

“We’re aiming to provide DoD users with secure, best-in-class performance so you can get your missions done,” the post said. “We know we still have work to do, and rest assured that we’re going to keep up the press. We value the candid feedback and, believe it or not, we remember what it was like before we were CIOs and on the user end of things.”

The DOD’s response coincided with the Pentagon’s newly released Software Modernization Strategy, which is expected to help facilitate the delivery of software capabilities at “the speed of relevance.”

Lauren Knausenberger, who has long championed IT and software modernization, is slated to keynote GovCon Wire Events’ Second Annual Air Force: IT Plans and Priorities Forum on March 9.

Knausenberger will speak alongside other prominent figures within the Air Force and industry, who will convene to discuss some of the service branch’s most urgent digital transformation initiatives.

Click here to register for the Air Force: IT Plans and Priorities Forum hosted by GovCon Wire Events.

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