Top 100 execs share insights on key tech trends

Customers want to move faster and Top 100 companies are investing in ways to bring leading-edge technologies to the market that can address the need for speed, plus enhance security and capabilities.

Topping government agencies’ lists of technology needs are cloud, cybersecurity and software-defined everything, a panel of executives at federal technology companies have said.

"They (all) want to move faster,” said Glenn Kurowski, senior vice president and chief technology officer at CACI, during the “What’s Driving Today’s Tech Trends” panel that was part of Washington Technology’s June 18 Top 100 celebration.

WT's 2021 Top 100 rankings were also released as part of the virtual event.

“The adversaries are shifting. If we look at the mission space and the enterprise space, they need to move faster as an efficiency imperative, as a cyber imperative, as a citizen service imperative,” Kurowski said.

More specifically, government agencies are continuing to inch forward with cloud adoption, with some agencies making faster headway than others, said LMI CTO Sharon Hays.

One theme she sees across the board is how to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to solve mission problems, which comes down to a challenge of data -- whether it’s the right data, in the right format, clean enough to use and whether employees understand it.

Kurowski agreed: “I know we have a climate-insensitive metaphor when we say, ‘Data is the oil of the new economy,’ but the reality is investing in technologies that can liberate data, democratize data, leverage data, present data to allow it to get to actionable intel quicker are essential. That includes all the variants of artificial intelligence, as an example.”

Additionally, a rise in the complexity of cyberattacks and the behaviors of adverse actors have caught agencies’ attention, especially in light of recent significant breaches such as the hack of SolarWinds and the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline.

“There is a realization that defense is not enough,” said Derrick Pledger, vice president of digital modernization at Leidos. “We have to start going on the offensive.”

That is in line with the accelerated push toward zero-trust approaches, which the May 12 “Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity” highlights. Pledger said it also meshes with Leidos’ three tenets that drive the company's investments -- speed, scale and security.

“This year, we did something that is a little different from previous years where we amplified our investment by orders of magnitude, or a couple hundred percent,” Pledger said. “Why we did that is because there are a lot of things happening in the market as far as digital transformation, digital modernization, but the underlying theme that traverses all of that is security.”

Leidos sees opportunities in four main areas. The first is AI operations, or the management of enterprise IT environments at scale -- a cumbersome task for humans. A second is full-spectrum cyber, including cyber-physical and defensive cyber, while a third is automation for secure IT and especially making it easier to provision environments needed for work. Fourth is zero trust, which Pledger said can secure everything from end to end.

“Networks may not be secure, but you still need to have software that is operating on that network, so we have to be able to build software that is inherently trustworthy,” he said.

Software-defined everything – which makes technology more flexible by abstracting workloads from hardware – is the third area they cited. But “software” also means the agile, DevOps and at-scale methodologies used to develop technology and the set of design principles and practices that go into a software-defined architecture, Kurowski said.

Combining the methodology with the architectural and design principals to develop modern software allows for software-defined solutions.

“That means a piece of mission gear can be dynamically adjusted with its software to serve more than one mission,” Kurowski said.

For example, a warfighter takes one piece of gear into the foxhole instead of five..

But more important is the ability to address adversarial threats, Kurowski added. CACI delivered to the field in five days a software upgrade after receiving a call about a new threat. Historically, such changes took years, but moving to software models and agile results in speed without compromising existing capabilities.

“As we look at the world and our mission and enterprise customers, software is at the heart of almost everything they do,” Kurowski said.

But even as speed increases, the pace at which the government moves in adopting new technology is a challenge. For instance, the Agile Manifesto was published 20 years ago, but many agencies still haven’t adopted the methodology. Cloud has been a hot topic for a decade but only about a fifth of agencies have adopted it, Kurowski said.

“When something provides such a compelling body of evidence of its benefit, its benefit from scalability, its benefit with server-less constructs to have reduced attack surface from a cyber perspective, its ability to reduce the touch labor required, you have to go all in and you have to rip the Band-Aid off,” Kurowski said. “I think that to be willing to take that risk and go all in and partner with industry is an important construct we need our customers to get more comfortable with.”