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Intro

[music plays] 

Niki: I’m Niki Christoff, and welcome to Tech’ed Up. Today’s guest is Amy Gilliland. She’s a retired Navy officer and currently the President of General Dynamics Information Technology. We discuss hiring military veterans, the importance of addressing the mental health of workers, and some cool tech GDIT is building: from AI scanning for skin cancer to machine learning to catch Medicare fraudsters. 
 

Transcript 

 

Niki: Welcome, Amy. Thank you for coming on the tech debt podcast. Thank you for coming into the studio today. 

Amy: I'm so excited to be here. It's great to be in person.

Niki: It is great to be in person, and we were just talking; most people don't see this space, but it's this lovely space with exposed brick, and it's up three flights of stairs, which I told you about, and you said "I was an active duty Naval officer, I'll be fine. 

Amy: I said, actually, I think I said, the steps will be my exercise! 

[both chuckle] 

Niki: Right? It's the only exercise benefit I offer my staff is climbing these steps!

Amy: It’s fabulous. It's something; it's a place to start. [chuckles]

Niki: It's a place to start. So, which I want to talk about today. I want to talk about three things. [Amy: Okay] One, who you are, how you got the job you have, which is a very big job. Two, what your company is doing because one of my passion projects is getting people interested in joining companies that help support the mission of the United States, which you're doing. And then the last thing is talking about culture. Retaining employees, how you're thinking about it. And I think you have an interesting perspective on it, including mental health. So, those are the three things I'd like to talk about. 

Amy: That sounds great. Thanks so much for a platform to, to talk about that and share ideas. 

Niki: Okay. Sounds good! So, let's start with you.

Amy: I went to Naval Academy, so, it was childhood dream of mine. And I did go away for a period of time. And then the Navy actually brought me back here. 

Niki: Okay. So, went away. You mean you were active duty in the military? [Amy: I was. Correct.} And then you came back here, and then you made a transition that's a little tricky, which is you moved from the military into business. [Amy: I did] So, talk a little bit about how that happened and how you ended up at General Dynamics?

Amy: Yeah. I never had this huge epiphany moment that I was ready to leave the military. It was actually a really difficult decision; I think that, a little bit, led into the transition being difficult. Also, my husband was active duty military, and I had some personal priorities with family that I needed to attend to. 

So, I made this difficult decision, and I knew that I didn't want to be very far from the military's mission, which is something that I'm super passionate about. It was the only thing I'd known my whole adult life. So, [pause] went out to look at defense companies because there is a place where you could still impact the mission while not being actually in the uniform itself. And I came to General Dynamics. I looked at a lot of different companies, and I resonated with the values of the company. At that point, it's a whole new language; it's a whole new world. You're trying to figure out how you fit in and how your skills convey. And it was a really lonely time. General Dynamics was great, but I think it was more about me finding my place in the world. And it was, it was bumpy. 

Niki: I'm really passionate about hiring veterans, and I think it's personal for me. I was married to someone in the military for quite a long time. So I was an Air Force wife. And when he made that transition into the private sector, he actually used school as a pivot because it gives you that community. But I think what you're talking about is really important for employers when they think about diversity and hiring. [Amy: Yes]

I often would ask recruiters, you know, you're using, a lot of times, machine learning to scan resumes  [Amy: Yeah], and you're not getting the right words from a military resume and even worse if you've worked in the Intel community and you've got this redacted resume-  [laughing] Right?!  It’s a real issue!

Amy: We are doing exactly that. [Niki: Okay] So, how can we help veterans understand- the first thing as a transitioning veteran is how do I fit in? So, helping them understand what skills to highlight and then how do they highlight those in words, to your point, that resume scanners will, so, that they don't maybe have to go through all of the, the resume scanning and all those sorts of things. And I'm really proud, we had a great year in hiring veterans last year, and we are now focused again, not just on bringing them in the door, but also how do we keep them and really leverage their strengths and have them feel like they've made the right decision.

Niki: And I think this leads to, and it'll pivot nicely into what you do for a living. So, I've worked in sort of what I would consider- [interrupts self] I mean, we both work in technology, but when people say the tech sector, they think of, I worked at Google and Uber and Salesforce. [Amy: Right]  And sometimes if you come out of, literally, you've been a combat veteran, and there's this idea of you really want to be making a difference, and you've spent so much of your career doing that. And so, if you're making an app for cats, is that really [chuckling], like, mission-oriented? And so, maybe that provides a platform for what you are doing, which I'd love to talk about, which is some of the specific tech examples of cool things you're working on.

Amy: Yeah, no, you couldn't be more right! So, first of all, I would just say, particularly with what's going on in the world right now, that it's never been a more important time for the mission. And I think there has been a perception that defense is maybe the antithesis of what you just described, where you're building apps for cats and, y’know, it's Google and all those other companies, and maybe defense is stodgy and using old technology. And that couldn't be further from the truth, either. 

Places like high-performance computing, for instance, how is the government harnessing the power of computers and only to evolve from here into quantum and other sorts of things, but how can we use high-performance computers to help the mission?

So, one way we won a contract a couple of years ago to build a new supercomputer for the National Weather Service.  So, basically, it is replacing what is essentially a mainframe today [Niki: mm-hmm] with a high-performance supercomputer that predicts the weather 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Now, I know we were laughing a little bit before when we were talking, it doesn't actually make the weather better [Niki: chuckles], but it does forecast it with better lead times and with more precision. It has three times the power of the mainframe that is being used right now. It's really important for you, where this really, [Niki: oh] if you look at the weather events that have happened, [Niki: but it’s not about me?] 

[both laughing] 

[crosstalk] 

Right, for sure, for sure. [Niki: For sure]  I, I, there's nobody that wants to know the weather more than me in the moment, but we are having some fairly catastrophic weather events across the world now. And to the extent that we have better foresight that these things are going to happen-  

Niki: [interrupts] Oh, my gosh!  I'm so glad you said that. And that's just classic, which maybe is just, I think I'm probably representative of a lot of people I'm like, I would really like to know when I need an umbrella, and you're like, “Really, We need to know when we need to evacuate people.” 

Amy: [chuckles] It's both.

Niki: It’s both!

[both laugh]

But you're working on that. 

Amy: Yeah. So, so there's an, I have other examples of high performance compute also, but let me try artificial intelligence machine learning for a second. So, we have a team that just completed a four months sprint using AI to build a tool that can detect skin cancer.

So, why does that matter, and why is that relevant to the military? Well, it's interesting. I didn't know this maybe, maybe you did, but one in five Americans will get skin cancer in their life.  [Niki: I did not know that]  And when you think about veterans and your experience personally, with your former spouse, they're much more exposed to the weather, in many cases in the sun, than other people who may work in different environments than they do.

And so, the problem for veterans often an important part about any cancer is early detection. And so, maybe they don't have the kind of care that they need in time. And that early detection is so important. So, what we did was we basically developed a tool that looked at seven most common causes of skin cancer with pictures, paired it, we put those images up in a cloud so that people can take pictures of what's on their arm, get it to the doctor. The doctor can load it up into the cloud quickly, and do a comparison, and the algorithms will identify: is this one of these seven different kinds, and what are appropriate next steps? And so, then the patient has access to a doctor early. Maybe they are talking about treatments earlier. 

Let me, let me give you one other cool thing that's relevant to COVID and before. So, we are using data analytics [Niki: mm-hmm] and also machine learning and AI to a lesser extent; you've got to really train the AI algorithms to help prevent fraud in the Medicare system.

So, we have over a billion dollars of savings that we have helped the government with. So, it's the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid that, that we have this contract with. And so, we've been doing that for a number of years. You think about it, you could train a machine on what these claims should look like, and if you have a lot of claims from one particular clinic, or if two claims, during COVID, understandably, they had to have some leniency and exceptions in the system. And so, that is to, in order to, get people to healthcare they needed quickly, and that is a place that could be ripe for fraud. [Niki: Yes] And so, we are using that same, even more sophisticated, and tweaking the algorithms to identify fraud, particularly with respect to, to the COVID period with, with great success.

Niki: I'm going to say something. I don't even think this is controversial. Lately, I’ve been saying things that I don't think are controversial, I said people should have good manners on Twitter, and I got trolled with scary clowns. [chuckles] [Amy: Decency is good!] [Amy: chuckles] Making my points, but I'm gonna say something controversial, which is, I hear people sometimes say, “AI, the government using AI, freaks them out,” but let's remember if we're preventing fraud for things we're paying for as taxpayers that's a positive. Yes, that's good, that's good governance. 

Amy: Or taking care of our people's healthcare.  [Niki: Absolutely!]  There are a lot of very healthy, reasonable, and national security-improving missions that you can use AI for, and that's, what's so cool about this, this intersection between technology and decades of experience with the customer. You can, you know what the mission is, and you understand the problems of it and technology is coming really fast. Well, how do you bring that into the environment to the betterment of the mission?  For things that are good and decent and not snooping on you or any of the sorts of things that people might associate AI with. 

Niki: And actually, I'm glad you brought up the snooping because I think there was a moment again, having- I was sitting at Google's offices here in Washington when I got a phone call about Edward Snowden. [Amy: Yes] And, I'd never heard of Edward, no one had! No one had heard of Edward Snowden [Amy: That was the thing!] and it was kind of a thing. Right!  And there was a pivot that I could see in the industry and among engineers. And then maybe even in some ways, worsened during the political, I'll just say calamity [chuckling] of the last few years…Doesn't really matter what your politics are! 

I have always been; I'm not going to short the United States. I'm long on America. I've always been someone who feels that technologists should be working to help the government. But I think we're in a moment where, especially with what's happening in Ukraine, especially since we know there's going to be some sort of cyber attack on our critical infrastructure. It's a matter of when not if; we know that what you were talking about with climate, these models are incredibly important, and it is the government who tracks these things and will show up and will help.

And so, I think we have this opportunity to get people in tech excited about some of the tools we're building that maybe were dormant for a while because they were going to start-ups and going to these platform companies. And if people are disillusioned being at the Big Tech companies, for whatever reason, this really has a geopolitically critical opportunity.

Amy: It's, it's such an interesting point when I go out and talk to employees and really try to understand; I think all employers are looking at their value prop right now. Why GDIT or why Google or, or why, whatever it is. As you have the shuffling, I agree with you that being able, in this moment, we haven't been at peace in the decade before this, but in this moment, right now, being able to affect the mission so quickly and you can see it, and feel it and read it in the front- I can give you many examples of how what we're doing is impacting what's going on in Eastern Europe right now.  That resonates. And so, we sometimes see, we have employees that leave us to go work for tech companies, and there's a lot of boomerang there  [Niki: mm-hmm] because it is six degrees more separation from the mission. 

Our folks are oftentimes sitting at the same, in the same, office space or adjacent forward deployed, we're global, have employees everywhere. And so I, in those settings, you're right there, and somebody is not telling you what the mission is, you're experiencing the mission. And I find that that really motivates a lot of people, as we all reconsider, like, why do we work? [Niki: Right?!] Why do we, why do we come to work? Why do we do what we do? The mission is-  and passionate about it myself, but it does, it does excite employees. And to the extent that they can understand that it's pretty cool technology, cutting edge technology that we are working on, I hope that that will, incentivize more to come into the group because there's the downside of it: security clearances, spaces where you can't have your handheld devices- 

Niki: [interrupts] I know! I know! You actually said you were talking about how I know from being a military wife about deployments and skin cancer, and I thought he, well, he was in a SCIF, his entire career he's probably getting rickets before he gets skin cancer. 

[both laugh]

But there are people that, which is another kind of hardship, right? You're being; really, these people had to go into the office every single day during the pandemic.

Amy: I was just talking to employees on Friday. I went to visit some employees in our Intel business. And so, they work in, many of them work in, a SCIF on the second floor of that building. They, they did not get to work from home throughout the pandemic. They had to come in. These are tight spaces, you know exactly. 

Niki: [interrupts] People might not know what a SCIF is. 

Amy: Oh! So, a SCIF is a secure room that you have to have a special clearance to get in, so it allows the discussion of classified information within the confines of that. And so, these employees that I was talking to, they didn't get to work from home. They had to come into this small dark space throughout the pandemic, at the ebbs and flows of it. And they didn't have their cell phones in there. 

I was trying to get to the heart of, so why do you, why do you do what you do, and you know, what can we do differently? Well, one thing that they're encouraged by is we did learn that we could be a little more flexible [Niki: mm-hmm], so that, that means maybe we can do more unclassified development work that doesn't have to be done in this classified SCIF space. But on the flip side of it, they said, “Amy, I got to see during this period how what we do matters, and being in that seat is what caused me to come to work everyday.” 

Niki: And I'd also like to talk about, and I'm glad you said this, but one of the other things I find really interesting is your perspective on how you retain employees and how you think about not just that they want to do something that’s integrated with their value system [Amy: mm-hmm] and the mission, you know, which is a word you're using, and I'm using but I think even people who've never been in this space know what it means to be working where they're really making a difference in something meaningful every day. 

But you talked when I, the first time you and I ever interacted, you said, “How are you?” And I said, “I'm good. Good!  Busy, but good.”  Which is what everyone says, and then you said, “How are you really?”  And I said, “I don't think, I haven't slept in five years. I suffer from terrible insomnia.”  And I thought this woman has such a high EQ!  And I didn't know that it's an actual Initiative that you have. And I want to talk a little bit about how you're thinking about wellness at work and mental health at work.  

Amy: Sure! What do people want? They want to know that you care about them and that you care about their careers. And so, we are focused on a couple of different things in terms of, do you care about them? That's kind of where the mental health piece fits in. People are forever changed by the pandemic. It's going to have impacts for years to come. They're exhausted. Everybody's either lost somebody, something they're grieving, something in the aftermath of the pandemic.  And you could see it; you could see it in their faces. And so, if ultimately what our job is, is to support our customers, you have to take care of your employees so they can take care of your customers.

 

And, y’know, quite honestly, I was taking vacation. We talked to our employees a little bit about that; it was last September. I started vacation on Sunday, and on Monday morning, I got a call that we had just lost another employee to suicide. And I just sat there thinking “This has to stop!” I had just heard that my neighbor had a friend who had lost somebody through suicide and it just seemed to be more prevalent than I had personally remembered it before.

And I came back and just talking to our communications team and our culture and engagement team, “We need to start talking about mental health at work because it's real and it's here.”  And so, oftentimes, somebody asks you like I did, “How are you? “ And you give a perfunctory answer,  [Niki:Right] but really retaining employees and, and having them feel like you see them is “How are you, really?” I actually care about the answer that you're going to give me, and we have a lot of resources to offer them. So, what I like is that it has gone viral in the company. Every time I go out to see an employee, they pull, I have somebody pull me aside and say, "I just want you to know that that really resonated. I have this going on in my life, or I have that going on in my life." 

I feel passionately that people have to come to work as themselves, and we're bringing more baggage to work than we had two years ago. And we should be ready to talk about that because it's real.

Niki: I really like what you said, and I think it's so smart, about, we know that people are suffering from mental health issues. It does feel like suicide is on the rise, but certainly, we must, it must be true that addiction and alcoholism is on the rise. And when you look at statistics of how many people are suffering from some sort of alcohol use disorder, and then you look at how many people are at your company, some of them are hiding that issue, right?

Amy: This is such a great point. I think I learned this in spades during COVID because if you track the national trends, we all look at the COVID page, and you can see cases are up X percent. GDIT is a microcosm of that. So, we follow the COVID trends, and we follow all the other trends also, we're just a little piece of, of, the United States.

Niki: And I think this is a really,  I love this, that you're leading in this way because you just know that people you work with are experiencing domestic violence and that they have alcohol use disorders and they have depression and anxiety. It's just statistically the case that that's true and providing a place where they can get help. I heard you say on another podcast, even set aside an average company, if you have a company where people need security clearances, there might be even more of a reluctance to come forward and say, I'm actually not feeling. 

Amy: Yeah, no, there is definitely a stigma around that. Whether you could, whether you would lose your clearance, which is a very profitable certification for an employee to have if you have a problem. And I said it on Friday; it is not true that because you have a clearance, you can't have a mental health issue. [Niki: Right!] And government has, those are not mutually exclusive. And people have mental health challenges, and there is a way to do this.

Y’know, something else just on the retention piece. That just, that made me think about, because it hearkens back to the military days.  What we learned in spades through COVID and what I learned in the military is what you need is trust. People have to trust you that you care about them, that you care about their career and that you will empower them to do their jobs.

And we, we had a, that was our business model, but we really had to try it out during COVID and it worked. And so, we talked to our leaders about how can you build trust? Because trust is really where people feel empowered to do it, to bring themselves to work and be able to have these honest conversations, but also to do their jobs.

Niki: I love this. And again, as someone from, kind of, the Silicon Valley tech, when people say, bring your whole self to work, I'm sometimes like, “No, don't bring your whole self to work.  [Amy: laughs] [Actually, [chuckling] you actually don't have a right to free speech in this office where you're giving me so much feedback from like [chuckling]  but, but that's very different than showing up when you have elder care, you have children, you have a health issue, [Amy: Yep] you have a child with a health issue. And I've even heard you talk about diversity, being accommodations for people with different abilities, which is something we also don't talk about. So I'm here for bringing yourself to work in that way. 

Amy: Well, we did; I have, I have a just-turned four-year-old, she Zoombombed many of my staff meetings. So, people know her at work. I have a daughter with disabilities, and that has definitely framed the lens through which I look at accessibility in the workplace. And I'll have to hand it to our teams; we have an employee resource group, they communicated that some of the simple things, like, did you know that, y’know, you, some of the basic things that we use in emails to communicate, they're not great for screen readers. So, we, we can fix that. We just have to know about it. 

So, it is. It is a time when people need to feel, like, and people have for the last couple of years, we have had more insight into people's homes. And I think it became more acceptable to have conversations, and we need to carry, that is a good thing from COVID. We need to carry that forward. We can't just pretend like, okay, it's 2022, and everybody's coming back to the office, and we're going to go back to the way that we were in 2019: “I don't want to see your kids. I don't want to hear about your kids. You can't have elder care problems because COVID is over, et cetera.” That, that, that would be unproductive. 

Niki: Before the pandemic, we already had blurred the lines between work and, and, home. I mean, I am often so jealous of my dental hygienist because she doesn't have a phone during the day. [Amy: chuckles] And then when she's done, she does not have her Blackberry.

[both laugh] 

Niki: I can’t believe I just said Blackberry! Sorry, I just teleported [Amy: I still miss that typing]  

[both laugh] 

Niki: Thumb typing! [Amy: Oh, I miss that!] I missed the thumb typing. She doesn't have her [pause] smartphone pinging with work things, but for people in tech, you're never off.  [Amy: No] And so having an awareness of what your whole life is like, we have seen people's homes [chuckling] for better or worse. We've seen their homes, [Amy: Yes we have] we've seen their animals, we've seen their kids, and yet there are still things people are hiding.

 And I think having a shame-free space and a trusted space is a, honestly, it's a great benefit. It's a great benefit to have a leader doing that. So, I’m for it. 

Amy: That, that the flexibility to be able to do that and, and demonstrating that at the highest levels of leadership so people know it's okay. It's important. Yeah. 

Niki: I mean, my therapy has been, for years and years and years, a public item on my calendar because I think it's okay for people to know. I mean, they know [Amy: I love that] that I go! Yeah, I've always had it public because I want them to know that they don't have to pretend they're going to the chiropractor or whatever.

[both laugh] 

Amy: Like, well, you're at the chiropractor a lot! 

Niki: Right! No, I'm glad you're getting help for whatever you need to talk through. ‘Cause, we do all have so many pressures.

Amy: We have, we have a cool new resource. It's called Wealthy actually, and we've, we just sent placards to employees in the mail about it, because I think it's, that it's a rare benefit, but it is targeting caregivers. So, whether it be veterans, there's caregiving that goes there, whether it be children with disabilities, whether it be elder care, there's so many people that are taking care of their parents right now. And, and they have resources and people to talk to help with giving care to others. I could use that in a hundred ways. And I've talked to a hundred other people that could use that, and people just have to acknowledge, we can't do it all ourselves. 

Niki: Yes. Yeah. And actually, this is the last thing I'll say, this is sort of a personal thing but really made such a difference when I worked at Google, my stepdad, who I didn't qualify for family medical leave, ‘cause he wasn't really still my stepdad, but who had raised me, had dementia and I needed to go take care of him. And Google just said, “Just go, like, we'll figure it out. Yes, you don't technically fall under the policies, but just go figure this out.” And I will never say a bad word about Google [chuckling]. They have a loyal employee for life because it, it was hugely important. It gave me the relief to address something really complicated, so then when I came back to work, I could focus on work.  

Amy: We won't end on policies, but I'll have to say bereavement. If you have a miscarriage, you're you are, you need two weeks at least of bereavement leave if you have somebody that dies that may have raised you like a parent, but aren't actually are parents, or I need to see that you are, you know, genetically related to them to allow you to go grieve? Those are the kinds of places where companies have the ability and need to exercise it to do exactly what happened to you.

That is the decent and right thing to do.

Niki: Well, because it builds trust [Amy: yeah] to your point.  It's a trust-building exercise because, you know, they've kind of go you-

Amy: They actually care about you! 

Niki: Yeah. Well, we can end on that. That's not really process or policy. [chuckling] [Amy: It isn't? It’s so fun to chat with you!]  It was so fun to chat with you. Thank you for coming on. 

These are sort of heavy, weighty topics, but I felt when we, the first time we talked, I thought there's something really special about this leadership style.It's sort of seeing people and knowing sort of what's going on. And I think that that is a great benefit and also again, I'll say it again. I'm long on the U.S., so please come, go work, and help! We have a lot happening. Not just whether or not I need an umbrella for the day. [Amy:  chuckles]  Like, what's actually happening macro. 

Amy:  I'm long on the U.S., and I, y’know, I would just argue it's never been a more important time to be thoughtful about the leadership that is out there. And I just want to; I want to thank you for your focus on tech and bringing it to so many people that are interested. It is making a difference in society, in defense, and outside of defense. And so, I'm long on tech. 

Niki: Oh, good! Me too. Well, we're agreed. Well, thank you so much. 

Amy:  Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

Outro 

Niki: Last week, I appeared on the Money Reimagined Podcast to talk crypto in D.C. The link is in the show notes if you’d like to listen. Since I’m doing more guest appearances on other podcasts these days, Season 3 of Tech’ed Up will kick off on a bi-weekly schedule – and our first guest is a former FBI field agent who explains why she joined a crypto company to keep fighting the bad guys. Be sure to follow the show, so you don’t miss an episode.