By Senior Master Sgt. Timm Huffman, photos by Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett
/ Published October 02, 2018
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the summer of 2017 the Air Force turned to a team of Reserve Citizen Airmen to lead the rapid standup of a new organization focused on leveraging the oceans of data generated by the service.
The move was in response to a review of the Air Force’s data environment that identified a number of mission gaps between the operators and the data they needed to be effective.
Instead of waiting to start the Chief Data Office until the lengthy process of allocating manpower and hiring a permanent staff was completed, the Air Force leaned on the Air Force Reserve, which offers a ready pool of highly-trained and easily accessible talent.
Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, announced Maj. Gen. Kimberly Crider as the first chief data officer during the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in September 2017. Less than a year later, on July 1, 2018, Crider handed the organization off to the permanent chief data officer, Eileen Vidrine, at an initial operationally capable level.
“Having access to Reservists to come in on a temporary basis to operationalize the mission while the business processes mature was indispensable,” said Vidrine, adding that “the amount of work done before I got here was significant.”
Crider was a natural fit for the job of standing up the CDO and, as the mobilization assistant to the Under Secretary of the Air Force was in the right place at the right time. The general has more than 30 years of information technology experience across every Air Force major command, as well as extensive industry experience as an engineer, IT consultant and thought leader.
Following her appointment as interim CDO, Crider surrounded herself with a team of Reservists who would help her begin the tasks of building the Air Force data strategy and enterprise information model that would shape how the Air Force handles and connects data moving forward.
Among her team of both enlisted and officers was Col. Nevin Taylor, an Air Force Reserve individual mobilization augmentee who has extensive experience in the field of data science and who has authored three books on the subject. Prior to coming to the CDO, he co-chaired the U.S. Data Cabinet’s Data Interagency Working Group, which gave him a good vantage point on what was working in government.
Taylor’s involvement in the Air Force’s data efforts actually pre-dates Crider’s. He first began working on the initiative in 2016, creating a data framework to determine what initial operationally capable and fully operationally capable states would look like. Once those details were finalized and Crider instated as CDO, the marathon to tackle the Air Force’s data was underway.
The Reserve-led data effort was tasked with laying the foundations of the organization so the permanent staff could start immediately once the Air Force brought them on board. This included working with key Air Force leaders, developing governance and policy, and building a framework for the Air Force’s data strategy. Additionally, the team was tasked with tackling a number of proof-of-concept projects.
One of those proofs was solving a student pipeline problem for schools training Airmen moving into critical career fields. The CDO gathered and reviewed all of the data it could find on the placement process, used that data to identify the cause of the problem and then implemented a solution.
By taking the time to collect and analyze data and then use that data in the planning and programming phase, the schools were able to address more than 1,000 missed seats in initial skills training, said Taylor.“Data doesn’t give you answers,” said Taylor. “It gives you good questions to ask.”
In a warfighting environment where a single sensor can generate petabytes of data daily (think 2,000-year-long non-stop playlists), it’s imperative to have a strategy for how to make that mountain of data usable in a way that can inform the decision-making process, noted Crider.
The Air Force’s people and machines are creating, collecting, processing and exchanging data for specific operations but before the CDO, there was no real process to facilitate the analysis of that data to look at trends and predictive analysis of data over time.
Compounding that problem, said Crider, was a lack of clearly defined rules governing how data would be stored and tagged for later retrieval, or retrieval by another part of the Air Force.
“We don’t even know all the data we have or where it is. We don’t have methods to make data accessible; it is not well maintained and we don’t have standards to ensure its quality,” said Crider.
That’s why the CDO set five goals for Air Force data: make it visible, accessible, understandable, linked and trustworthy (VAULT).
Crider, who is an avid runner, likened the road ahead of the Air Force’s efforts to get its arms around its data to running a marathon. In the long-distance race, she said runners have to put in the foundational training, stick to a pace and exercise patience; sprinting will burn you out. A runner has to know the layout of the full 26.2-mile footrace but can only maintain situational awareness of the five miles in front of them. Sticking to the plan enables you to get through.
Applying this marathon mentality to the Air Force’s data opportunities holds tremendous potential, she said. However, if the Air Force doesn’t go the last mile to act on the insights that data and analytics reveals, then it’s not fully completed the task to deliver operational and competitive advantage from data.
“It’s the last mile in a marathon that makes you a true runner,” said Crider, to underscore the importance of the Air Force following through on operationalizing the insights it gets from data. “If we never do anything with the results of the data analytic efforts, we’ve only exercised the process, not truly transformed to a data driven organization.”
In addition to Crider and Taylor, four Reserve enlisted Airmen contributed heavily to the effort. Chief Master Sgt. Sarah Faith, Senior Master Sgt. Eric Londres, Tech. Sgt. Malo Jones, Tech. Sgt. Janitza Colon and Senior Airman Corey Speight carried a lions-share of the workload, from keeping the moving pieces of personnel matters in order to providing executive support to leadership.
Speight, who is a fuel cell maintenance Airmen at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, found the position in the Volunteer Reserve System while working as an executive assistant at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. With a degree in hospitality management and extensive management experience in the restaurant business, Speight was a natural fit for the team.
The enlisted Reservist is like the oil in a machine, keeping everything moving smoothly. He is primarily responsible for managing schedules for CDO leadership, setting up workshops and handling daily operations. Because no one has ever done what the CDO is doing, the team must be fluid in their thinking and actions in order to take the organization to the next step, he said.
“The Reserve enlisted team are -- and have been -- the backbone of the CDO,” said Crider.
The CDO also has six Reserve data liaison officers strategically placed across the major commands. These Reserve officers are the CDO’s eyes and ears on the ground, building relationships and identifying areas where the CDO can come in and make things better for the Air Force.
Col. Maureen Carroll, whose Reserve assignment is IMA to the Air Force Network Integration Center commander, has also served as the CDO’s data liaison officer to Air Mobility Command. As the CDO liaison officer, she has focused on coordinating with leadership, working several use-cases, and facilitating AMC’s data governance, policy and strategy development.
Two of the major projects Carroll worked for AMC were with the communications division (A6) and the analysis, assessments and lessons-learned division (A9). For the A6, she has helped break new ground in the area of accessing data; with A9, she is helping design a series of use cases to access and bring together data in new ways to optimize global mobility planning.
The colonel, who has a data security background from the civilian world, said that while it can be challenging to help guide the adoption of new business processes, she finds the work exciting.
“The evidence shows that this is the path to go down,” said Carroll. “The way we’ve been doing business, we can get by, but we can do so much more with data.”
As the CDO strides towards its fully operational status, Reserve involvement will decrease. That doesn’t mean their support wasn’t crucial to getting the organization to where it is today.
According to Vidrine, standing up a new organization in the Department of Defense is a demanding task and the Air Force Reservists who brought the CDO to initial operating capability did an outstanding job.
She added that the team was committed and willing to be on the leading edge, even if it meant learning new skills, developing partnerships and the ability to adapt in an evolving environment.
Vidrine, herself a former U.S. Army Reservist, said the agility demonstrated by the Airmen who stood up the CDO is not an easy skill to attain but is one she believes serving in the Reserve nurtures. In the Reserve, you have to learn agility to balance work, life, family and your military commitment.
“The amount of work done before I got here was significant, these Airmen continue to rise to the challenge and what they have accomplished is truly exemplary,” said Vidrine.
For Crider, who is still involved but is wrapping up her CDO work, the outcome was worth the effort.
“Data is the future of our force,” Crider said. “Being part of the CDO team was an exciting venture… unlocking and unleashing the power of our data is going to keep the Air Force at the forefront of mission success. We must take full advantage of data so we can sense, learn, decide and act faster than our adversaries and ensure the maximum effectiveness of our force.”
(Huffmann is chief of content management and training with the Air Force Connect Office.)