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🚀During his opening remarks at Prodacity, Bryon Kroger shares his personal experiences and insights on building effective software and teams to overcome bureaucratic challenges. Dive into a journey of transformation, resilience, and the power of empathy in the realm of GovTech and digital transformation.


Bryon Kroger (00:14):

Thank you everyone for coming out. Really appreciate you being here. This community that we're building together is about ensuring that fewer bad things happen because of bad software. We help our organizations deliver good software and we don't just build great products. We also build great teams and organizations that are prepared to overcome bureaucracy and challenges, learn on the fly, and move at the speed that our users demand. And bad things do happen because of bad software. I've got my own personal story here. I started in the Air Force. I served for 10 years as an intelligence officer doing primarily targeting operations. And for the first seven years, I like to say that I used really terrible software. And I saw that software cause mission failures. I saw it result in troops not coming home. I saw it result in innocent people dying as well.


And the turning point for me was the Kunduz Hospital incident in Afghanistan, where we struck a Doctors Without Borders outpost, and killed between 30 and 40 people, including staff, doctors from Doctors Without Borders, patients, and patient family members. And a lot of things went wrong that day, as always does. And I can't say that software could have changed the course of it, but I certainly felt like it could have. And I decided that I was going to do something about targeting software. So I got myself assigned to a targeting program office. I became an acquisitions officer, procurement - quite the career change to go from target intelligence to acquisitions. But, it was from there that I reached out to DIU and started the journey that would become Kessel Run. And Kessel Run fundamentally transformed how the Air Force builds and delivers software. And from there, I started Rise8 to help other people do the same.


And there's something that I've noticed throughout that journey, and that's everywhere I go, people feel powerless. So the first thing that I want to talk about today is power. There are three steps to powerlessness. And the bureaucracy is really good at these three steps. They get you to focus on things that you can't control. They get you to focus on all the things you don't have, and then they get you to focus on the past, and the future. "We're waiting for that acquisitions reform, oh, those guys 10 years ago...." We're always doing that. And we do it to ourselves too. It's not just the bureaucracy that does this to us. And so, if you're feeling those things, I like to tell people a little bit tongue in cheek, congratulations. You've just adopted an external locus of control. You are now a victim. The world happens to you.


That's not where we need to be. Us as a community, we need to take back control. We need to focus on what we can control, starting with first, ourselves. The first thing you can control is you. And then you can find other people like you. Some of them are around here. And build a team, and an organization, and a community. And then you have to focus on what you do have. You see, everybody told me all the reasons that we couldn't do continuous ATO, for instance. And I dug into the RMF, and it turns out we could do continuous delivery with RMF. Acquisitions regulations, dig into the FAR and you find out the FAR tells you to do all of the things that everybody's telling you you're not supposed to do. And every single time you'd be surprised what you find. So I like to tell people, "screw reform." And sorry for all the reformers in here.


We do need policy change. There's no doubt about it. But you don't need it today. And that's what I want you to focus on. Not the past, not the future, but present action. For future impact, yes, but present action. And the last thing I'll say is, you have to do what's necessary, whatever that is. And there's this really horrible thing about life and that's the fault and responsibility don't go together. It might not be your fault that the acquisition regulations are difficult. It might not be your fault that the bureaucracy is so difficult. It might not be your fault that it's hard to get an ATO, but it's your responsibility to do something about it, about all of it. Not just your little world, not just developing code or even your little program. Everything that it takes to get your capabilities into the hands of your users, is your responsibility, no matter how much that sucks.


And if we can embrace that, we can adopt that internal locus of control, we have the power to change a lot more things than we realize. Now govtech transformation is hard and nothing illustrates that better than this book from Jennifer Pahlka, Recoding America. You have to read this book. I make a lot of book recommendations, but I usually stop short of demanding it. I'm demanding that you read this book. If you really want transformation though, buckle up, right? You're going to need passion. You're going to need perseverance. The amount of effort that's required to do will take every ounce of passion and perseverance that you have. You need grit. And you're going to need a community like this one to pump you back up again, and get you out on the waves when the bureaucracy has you deflated. And that's why I wanted to create Prodacity.


I really wanted, to not only cultivate the knowledge and passion that I think govtech change agents like you all need to grow and to become successful, but I also want the community to help pick you back up when we fall. I had a recent thing, shortly after Kessel Run, where I needed help getting back up. This is my father. My dad had me when he was pretty old. He was 50 years old. He was born in 1938. So...he still had a lot of life left in him. This [photo] was taken just about a month before he passed away. And what was frustrating for me is, my dad had really bad continuity of care in the VA medical system. And because of that continuity of care, they ended up sending him home the night of his death. He went in with chest pains, clear signs of a heart attack, died three hours later after they sent him home with Advil.


And I tell that story just to let you know that...let me take a pause here real quick...that it's really easy to lose your empathy. The most important part of this journey is empathy. Empathy for the people in government. If you notice the subtitle of Jennifer's book, it's why Government is Failing and How We Can Build a Better Digital Government. And it's really easy to lose empathy for government. And we have this happening in our society right now where, there's such a lack of empathy people are ready to just throw it all away. Go with the most extreme version, like "government's not working for me, get rid of it." And I certainly felt like that on this first day. And it reminded me of my early journey in Kessel Run. When I showed up at acquisitions there at Hanscom Air Force Base, I thought "who are these dumb people that have been delivering me horrible software for all of these years? What is wrong with them?"


And I found out that they were people just like me. They were incredible people. They worked hard every day and they were a part of a broken system. And, it took me a minute, but I started to think about the VA, and the people that I had run into throughout my involvement with the VA. And I knew it was the same problem. Broken system, a lot of broken software - a lot. And I decided that day I was going to do something about that. I had started Rise8 to really transform defense. And I said, I need to do more than just defense. We need to focus on all of govtech and with Prodacity, I want to do the same. But I'm also going to tell you one little just personal thing too. I have this weakness. I am terrified to fail in front of people.


And I did this with Kessel Run. When I started Kessel Run, I didn't tell anybody about that backstory I just told you. That's like an after-the-fact story that I finally started telling of why I left to go do this thing. Because I thought if I fail, that's going to be embarrassing. And there was a real good chance that I was going to fail at the Kessel Run. And so I didn't learn that lesson and I decided I wanted to help transform the VA, but I didn't say anything about it. And you make all these rationalizations - I didn't say it was because I was embarrassed to fail in front of people. I was too proud. I was like, "oh, I need to focus, I have a startup. I have to focus. I got to focus on defense. Maybe I'll do that in a few years."


And I kept delaying it and delaying it. And now I can say that last year, we helped the VA ship the first continuous ATO in the VA. I believe it's one of the first in all of government. And I'd like to say that it was because I finally decided to go for it. But the truth is, they reached out to me. And if they hadn't, I could still be waiting for that. I could still be waiting for my moment to help fix the issues that I feel like helped contribute to my father's own passing. So, I tell you all that to say, have bravery too, to stand up and say, "I'm going to do this." And you might fail. We talk about psychological safety, making it safe to fail, all the time in building our software. We make hypotheses, we do experiments, but it's really hard sometimes to do it at the meta level.


And I know there's a lot of big change agents in this room, and I just encourage you to share your story. And even if you do fail, let's just say I said right off the bat, I'm going to fix the VA and I lost the first three contract opportunities, and then the next two projects didn't go well...that's the story everybody needs to hear too. And a big thing that I want Prodacity to be, we have this tagline, "no sales, no theater," and that's not just for the salespeople, for sponsors, that's for everybody. I don't want government people to get up on this stage and tell stories either that aren't true. We can't learn from those. So we need to be able to tell these stories from the start, share our journeys along the way, so that everybody can learn and grow. That's my "why." Now, I did ask Jen to be here, and she unfortunately had something come up, but she recorded a few segments, and I want to share this one with you. I asked her about this concept of "why" and the passion and perseverance that it takes:

Jennifer Pahlka (10:47):

Passion for the mission. I mean, that drives it all. Why? If this work is as hard as it is, and we know it's really hard, it's the why. And I think that drives Marina. I think it drives Yadira. I think it drives everybody in the book. If you can make sure that you connect back to the why of what you're doing, Yadira desperately wants to improve the health of our country through these programs. Marina's work now is on child welfare, and she just desperately wants these kids to have a shot. And you keep going back to that, and you have that empathy, you got two of the pretty important building blocks for change.

Bryon Kroger (11:35):

Those are the two things that we need to start recoding America, that passion, which I know you all have, and we've got to keep that empathy. And I just want you to keep that in the back of your mind throughout the talks. We've got a really great lineup today, but today is all about taking you through the leadership journey. And we're going to start with "why." We're going to get into some of the organizational aspects of how you organize and reorganize to be able to deliver, how software is a part of that, and how we enable really great software delivery for change.