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In his captivating talk at Prodacity, Adam Furtado challenges the conventional approach to talent management within the bureaucracy of the Department of Defense (DoD). With a blend of historical context and modern insights, Adam emphasizes the need for a paradigm shift in how talent is nurtured and utilized in the federal government..


Adam Furtado (00:19):

So the modern world is defined by constant inevitable change. Let me rephrase. The world is defined by constant inevitable change. This has always been true. It's not a new thing. Plato lamented that the introduction of text would lead to people not knowing anything. The Christian Church was worried about the printing press. They thought it would allow for people to share false information. In 1890, Mark Twain wrote a famous Christmas letter where he said that he wished heavens of everlasting bliss and peace to everybody except for the inventor of the telephone. People have always been concerned about change. This is Anthony Wood. He's an Oxford academic from 1677, and he thought that the downfall of society was that too many young people were spending all their time in coffee houses. So change has always been happening around us. It's not always easy to see the change in real time. Sometimes you need something to kind of stop you in your tracks that makes you realize the change that's happening around you. Movies is a good example here. Sometimes you see a movie scene, it's like that one does not hold up. This is my example of that.


I see the faces already...Blasphemy, right?! The cantina scene, the famous scene doesn't hold up. This is objectively a ridiculous movie scene that could only exist in 1977. So this is my example of that. Whenever I see this, I realize that world has passed us by. But on the other way as well, there are always things that regardless of the change around us, they stand the test of time. And for me, the DOD and the government's inability to develop digital talent...that holds up, right? This is a tale as long as time too. So we've all been doing this for years, right? There's been study after study, initiative after initiative, conference talk after conference talk. Every one of these you go to, there's the one people talk they'll throw in there just to make sure we care about it. We all come here, we listen to the problems, we enjoy it.


We all agree, nod our heads, we don't do anything about it. Then we go to the next conference, do the same thing all over again. We've created a bit of like a government needs to do talent better traveling economy, like the Warped Tour of government agenda topics. But the reality is it's because this is safe. This is an easy talk. I can come in here and say all this stuff that you guys believe. Nobody's going to disagree. There's no controversy here. But I don't want to do that. I want to say the next 20 minutes saying people are our greatest resource. We need to invest in them more. The mission depends on it. We all agree with that already. I want to know why we can't move forward and why we're still in the same place that we are. So last year I did a talk here about introducing product frameworks and product practices, and the point of it, was "okay, we take all these patterns from experts, but how do we apply it to our context and our constraints? " The uniqueness that makes the DOD as unique as it does.


I also talked about country music, made everybody listen to the same country song, five songs in a row. And Bryon told me I couldn't do that this year. So I'm going to get a little bit different...creative in a different way. But we are still going to talk about constraints and context for now... talent management.


But before we do that, I want to establish a little bit of credibility. So I've been in this DOD software game for a long time. So pre-2014, that's what I call the dark ages.


Can we go back one? Alright, the Dark Ages. There we go. This is me. This is pre-2014. This is before there was any hope that, in the DOD, we're going to have reasonable software, that our lives within the SCIF were going to be the same as the ones outside of it. We didn't really have any hope for the future. But right after this, we had the enlightenment period 2015 to 2017. We started to see these glimmers of hope across the government. USDS, 18F. We saw things at NGA. And all of us in the DOD were like, "wow, there's something happening over there. How can we learn from that and bring it into the DOD in our unique context? That'd be really great."


So that led to the rise of the software factory. This was an exciting time for everybody. All of us. We built these teams. It was really exciting. We were finally making change from within - inside the bureaucracy. It only lasted for a little while though. Then we had the revenge of the bureaucracy. This is the last couple of years. The bureaucracy got a little bit concerned about all the unauthorized change that was happening right within it. So they came and they knocked us right back to where we started from.


Now, I don't know what today's era is. I don't really know what to call it, but it feels like everybody's retreated back to their huts, trying to kind of re-strategize about what the next era should look like and how we can regroup and go back after this bureaucracy. Also, nothing tells you that you need to go on a diet more than seeing what AI thinks you look like. So this wasn't a lot of fun.


But I've seen all of this stuff firsthand, and in fact, I'm going to tell a quick story...really quickly. During the rise of the software factories, Bryon and I, we got airlifted from Hanscom Air Force Base directly to the White House to give a briefing to the President. I can't believe he didn't tell this story this morning. So, there we were, we came into the Situation Room here. We're actually here in this picture in the back.


Those are our heads though. We're not those two guys. We're the other guys in the back there. So we go in there and the President says, "who are these dudes?" And General Goldfein, at the time, the Air Force Chief of Staff said, "these are the guys from Kessel Run. They're here to help." And he is like, "if you're as good as the general said, you are, we're in very good hands." It's pretty cool, right? All right. None of this stuff ever happened. But listen, this is the actual plot, of an actual fan fiction book written about Kessel Run that you can buy on Amazon right now, using that QR code. You can check it out. It's pretty cool. I had nothing to do with this. I got no proceeds, but I have contributed the most purchases and reviews of this so far.


We don't know how this happened or why, but there are two copies of this at the Sagely booth if anybody's interested. They're both signed by Bryon and I. So you can check those out. It's pretty cool. Anyway, my real credibility I think, was in Kessel Run, I served as the chief product officer for a number of years, and that was mostly around helping our teams with delivery and that sort of thing. But I also found myself, inevitably, in all the talent management conversations. It was about recruiting, hiring, promotions, people management, upskilling, retention, firing, team composition. And what I learned there, is you can listen to all the experts and the patterns, read all the books and all the have to apply them to your unique constraints, particularly in a place like the DOD where all we have is constraints. It's what makes us the DOD.


So, what I wanted to do really quickly here was think back to this time in my experience, and kind of highlight a few of the things that stood out as unique to doing talent management or thinking about people within the DOD space. What I want you all to do, is think about some of these things, and I want you to think about your own journeys and if these have applied to you in any point of your career, whether that's individually, in your team, or organization.


We'll go through this pretty quickly. Alright, the first one, there was a lack of urgency. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was the only one who thought this was a real problem. So my entire job just became trying to convince a stakeholder or my boss or somebody that we have to invest in this area. It is the mission. And they don't always listen, but it becomes you' end up being like Charlie Brown teacher every once in awhile, because you just think, "oh, it's Adam, he's going to talk to us about agile evangelizing stuff. "


So that was really frustrating. That was a real problem we had. We also had this problem of digital atrophy. We had outsourced all of our technical talent to a bunch of contractors. So inside the government, we didn't have that natural technical talent anymore. That wasn't just for the organic product teams. It was also for all the other functions that had to know digital things in order to be effective, whether that's procuring contract and that sort of thing. So we had to really build all of that back. The military rotations we had were absolute killer. Every time we had some hot shot lieutenant that we'd finally built up, he'd finally be useful to us, he'd be shipped out to some other job where he certainly wasn't using those skills on whatever the next thing was. Also, this is a bit of an aside here, but it's kind of a wild way to work.


So imagine you're Siobhán and you're in Kohl's, and your boss comes in, the CEO of Kohl's, and is like, "all right, it's time for career-broadening. Alright? So what you're going to do is...we're going to switch your job. You're going to now be the CFO. We'll send you to Alabama for a month. You'll figure it out. But when you walk in there, just talk to the guy who's packing his office up. He'll give you the lay of the land, and he's going to go ahead to be the CTO next." Wild way to work in the way that we have to deal with all this stuff. The talent retention problem's also true on the civilian side. We had to make sure that the upskilling that happened on the civilian end didn't also just lead to them leaving because they were tired of the red tape, or the money was better, or all these other things that we had to deal with.


So we were constantly plugging holes where we had finally just developed the necessary talent we needed. We didn't really value technical skills. Pay was based more on if you took calculus in undergrad than if you could do your job. And then scaling leadership was super hard. We had to scale our organization pretty widely. So we had to push up a lot of people who maybe weren't ready for those leadership roles. And in retrospect, they did a pretty good job for what we asked them to do. It was really hard to scale leadership. So sometimes we had to take our best technical talent, push them into management roles, take them out of the things that they really liked to do. Or maybe they saw that they had to go to management because there wasn't a career path for them that would really allow them to progress.


So, this is my only audience participation ask...for now. How many of you have dealt with any of those things in your career in the DOD? Alright, that's fine. Okay, good. So I have to admit something to everybody...I've been thinking about this talk and I really wanted to do something like original and different, and I was like, "I did the country music last year..." Bryon didn't like it, which I didn't know, but I wanted to think of something...the reality was the content hasn't changed at all though. This is a really hard talk to do new, because everything's been the same. None of these problems should be new to anyone here because they aren't. In fact, we've had the same issues for a long time. So much so that every single issue I just went through is written about in this study right here. This is the report of the DOD Joint Service Task Force on Software Problems that was commissioned in 1982.


Alright, so this blew my mind when I read it. And shout out to the Defense Innovation board and their SWOT study. There's a whole page in there of former historical studies and things that kind of led to our state today. But I never read the source material until recently, and this thing blew my mind. As you read through this document, it reads like the last 10 years of my life. Okay, so can I ask one more question? It's the second time, sorry. Can you raise your hand if you were born after 1975? Look around real quick. Alright, basically that's basically the whole room. There's a lot of people in the room. Alright, so remember that as we check out these quotes, we're going to go through it pretty quickly here. Alright, so this is 1982, okay? Alright. Problems of a shortages in qualified software professionals not perceived to be an issue pressing by the DOD.


Alright...managers possessing little understanding of software. Heavily dependent on contractors, creating problems with skills within the government. Military rotations disrupts qualified personnel. Cool, I'm going to keep going. There's a whole bunch of them here. Inappropriate contractors who don't know about software. Cool. Acquisition managers not understanding software. 1982...still going.


Alright, we don't have career paths for engineers - haven't solved that one in 41 years. Pretty cool. Alright. Excellent technical people are promoted out of their fields of management because there's nowhere for them to go in their careers. Alright...still going. Confident personnel are overworked. That doesn't sound very new either. This was out of control reading this document. You guys should all read it. Again, it read my career. It was all the same. This study was commissioned in 1982, but it was based on 26 previous studies that dated back to 1975. 46 years, right? It's absolutely crazy.


I would say that I would recommend reading this, but it was honestly really depressing. If I'm getting serious for a second. This study made me feel like a fraud, a complete fraud. The last 10 years I've been walking around with all these great ideas and I've created this persona of the guy who's going to solve all these software problems. I didn't come up with any of this. I was 35 years late to people who had already solved and come up with, had these ideas and original thoughts in 1982. Earlier in this talk, I said I was here at the beginning of the DOD software journey in 2014. It's ridiculous. So this study again, dates back to 1975, which is, you can guess it, two years prior to the original Star Wars. It's pretty crazy. So the cantina seen, in my opinion, doesn't hold up, but our inability to affect change certainly has. So, if nothing substantial has changed in 46 is that possible, right? Well, the reality is, the system is working exactly as it's intended.


The entire function of a bureaucracy is for predictability and stability, and to withstand change and uncertainty. And we're in the world's biggest bureaucracy. So it moves even slower. We can't shout, "why won't this place ever change?" when it's doing exactly what it's supposed to do. Its natural inclination is to thwart your disruption. The whole point of the bureaucracy itself is not going to change. Let's look at how it reacted to the rise of the software factories. The bureaucracy is like an organism that treats innovation like a virus, sending antibodies after it to try to keep it from spreading. But it's not some evil plan that's concocted by people in the bowels of the Pentagon. It's just biology. It's the point. It's the whole function of the bureaucracy itself. So I'm hear to tell you that the system's not going to save us here. There's no cavalry coming. This will not be fixed.


Yikes. So, it's the end of day one and I just told you all of your efforts don't matter. Nothing's going to work. So he probably should've let me do the country music talk again, I guess. But that's not really what I'm saying here, right? I'm talking about constraints and understanding your context. And the whole point of Prodacity, and this event, and the community, is that you guys wouldn't accept that as a way forward anyway. These are the change makers and the doers and all that stuff. So we're going to make an agreement here...that we're not going to complain about the system being unfair or too hard. We're not going to blame nameless, faceless bureaucrats for just doing what the system incentivizes them to do. And we know we're not going to change this overnight, probably not in 50 years. But we can change the teams that we are in and that we're around, and the unfortunate reality here is that the bureaucracy doesn't care enough about you to care what you're doing in your teams. And that's how you turn a constraint into an advantage. Alright?


So let's talk about that. How do we cultivate high performing teams within the constraints that we have? So I want to talk a little bit about software engineers/software conference - we'll use this as an example. So let's imagine that what you're seeing here is a list of skills that a software engineer would generally have. Things like architecture, design skills, ability to refactor CSS...I don't know. Imagine these are the skills that a software engineer would have and the breadth goes across horizontally. And this is the depth of all of those skills for an individual software engineer. So for each of these skills, they can get this deep in each of them. This is how good they are. Full of data people. Sorry that it's going down I know that's freaking people out right now.


But imagine this is the depth of those skills. This is a reasonable person, a reasonable engineer. They're pretty good at most of the things and they have some strengths. So now let's imagine that we want to extrapolate that out into a cohort of people. So multiple engineers, the same skills. Now you just have multiple people plotted on it. Alright, so this the represents the breadth and depth of people's skills. So this is like, imagine a group of Airmen going through the software engineering tech school as an example. Could be self-taught savant, mixed in here with non-technical people, with some aptitude. We don't know. So a bunch of people in a group. So that first person we talked about, this is how they would plot within the larger group. So you can kind of see those pink lines there.


And when we think about the nature of a bureaucracy and how that applies to talent management, is that, we just talked to, the bureaucracy wants to have predictability, wants to limit volatility. They want repeatable teams that exist kind of in this red box right here. It's kind of like the sweet spot. So if you're the bureaucracy, you want to be able to affect the most amount of people to some degree with the littlest amount of effort, with the most predictability. Alright, so this is how it kind of manifests. We have certain curriculums, you only go to a certain level. So coming out of this tech school or training program or bootcamp or what have you, you have this software engineer that you can plug and place and replace whenever you need to. Okay? So it's the generally lowest common denominator approach to training and mass, which makes sense: limited budget, great bureaucratic economic decision.


So this box is where they focus. And in many industries and missions, this is all you need - where you need repeatable, identical replacement work. So imagine you are an infantry battalion. You want to know the guys who are coming on that next boat onto the beach, can plug into your strategy, and your communication, and your system, without heavy overhead, and change, and volatility. But I think you would all agree, it's not really what we do. The idea of product building ,and technology, and knowledge work, really aren't those situations. In fact, the entire way that those teams are good, is all the other stuff. It's all the uniquenesses about people. The diversity is the value. So instead, we need to understand better what people are good at. Alright? So, positive psychology research tells us that when people work from their strengths, it makes their goals easier to achieve, less stress, improved well-being...and people who have the ability to do what they're good at work each day, are six times more engaged in their jobs.


Most people think that you can grow more in the places that you're weak, but the data shows the opposite. You can actually grow more if you're working on your strengths than your gaps for your opportunities. Somebody who does this really well is Bill Belichick. So Bill Belichick, the GM and the coach of the New England Patriots. He has a unique way of doing drafting and prospecting. Most GMs look at potential football players and they'll say, "I have my system: this guy's too small, too slow, his hands are too small." Belichick can look at those same players and say, "there's one unique thing that this person does, and if I put him in the right place to be successful, it'll work out." So maybe he can hold the edge on the run on the early downs, or tackle on punt returns, right? Because Belichick knows that everybody doesn't have to do everything.


He just needs the team's collection of strengths to be better than the other team's collection of strengths. He needs to build a full stack team. All right, so let's go back to this person. Reasonable engineer. OK at most stuff, good at a couple. We want to think, instead of trying to hire these full stack engineers...there were a couple of talks today...we talked about how unreasonable that is - it doesn't really exist. Instead, we want T-shaped people to formulate full stack teams. So this is our "T" right here. The strengths of somebody kind of makes up that vertical on the T. And we want to identify what those strengths are for all of our people, and then use that to our advantage when building teams. These are the strengths that make that T. So, those are the strengths there. So we have that engineer. So through a quick recap, we have a full cohort of people here.


Now the bureaucracy wants us to have these teams, but what's missing here is in order to do what we do, this team really can't do it. This limits upside. And it limits upside because you took away all the good stuff. This is all the missed opportunity - in depth, and breadth, and skills. Because we haven't cared about that. And the uniqueness thing here is the people haven't changed. So these skills might still exist, but we just don't know what they are. So that means we can't utilize them to our advantage. And we probably have people doing things that aren't their strengths, leading to six times less engaged workers throughout our organizations, probably losing them over time. And this is a great thing to think about because when we're in a position of strength, our job is to ring out as much value as we possibly can. And this is a place where you don't need a policy change or an approval or any money, to understand your people's strengths better and organize them effectively to make better teams.


So imagine you have this engineer right here, and here's six of them. This is five other friends. They all have their unique strengths as well. If we understand these better, we can put them together into a full stack team whose cumulative abilities far surpass what the bureaucracy would've stamped out in their kind of, factory-line training approach. And you can see kind of the upside here with that pink dotted line over where it should be. So that's what we want to do. And you have the ability to do that within your teams today, right? It is just understanding your people better than you do right now. But in talent management, just putting the teams together effectively is kind of the table stakes. It's the starting point. Then you have to worry about growing them and improving all day long, or continuously, right? Because this view is only as good as today.


The needs, the trends, the technologies, the people are all going to change forever. So we have to continuously do this as we go forward. And one way we can do that is taking coaching and applying coaching to whatever training programs that we're using. The Air Force, the DOD, the government...really good at doing training, whether that's in a schoolhouse, or a bootcamp, or whatever. If we apply coaching tactics to training, research shows, we'll get four times better return, and productivity improves by 88%. So you can get that today from within your team. It's a great economical decision to do that in limited constraints, when you're in your constrained environment. In the commercial space, coaching has become more ubiquitous. 86% of organizational leaders consider coaching a must have and espouse the benefits of it. And you don't need to be a subject matter expert in the thing that the person does that you're trying to coach.


It's about understanding them and their goals, setting out reasonable goals for them, and then holding them accountable, which to me just sounds like being a good leader. You don't need to be certified coach to have this mindset either. Though, if you want to go that direction, there's a lot of great resources. So we agree the mission requires upskilling. The bureaucracy's not going to do it for us. So we need to work within our constraints. We need to understand our team's strengths. We can build a full stack team, and then coach those strengths. But wait, who coaches them? I can't possibly afford to go get executive coaches for everybody on my team. We have to find a way to scale this. But I think I have an idea... Crossing Guards. This is my idea. So we mentioned a couple of times that we need to use the bureaucracy's constraints to our advantage whenever possible.


Another feature of a bureaucracy is a function of its design. And that's the idea that we've set up these large scale bureaucracies that have middle managers situated throughout them. Just the way that it works. It's created an entire specialty of these middle managers that in my opinion, should be a relic of the past. I think a Slack DM has replaced 80% of the value of a middle manager in most hierarchies, but that's not an actual study or anything. But there's a type of leader within this group that really drives me nuts. I like to call them the information mover leaders. These are people who are concerned about compliance, and passing information from - bridging across organizations. They love to be at the crossroads of organizations. They are the crossing guards of your organization because they want to collect as much information as possible. And you'll hear these people say things like, "well, I have to maintain context in order to help people." If you ever hear that, know who you're talking to, but it really isn't their fault. They likely don't even know they're doing it. It's just a response to what the bureaucracy is expecting of them. But not only do they provide no value to your organization, I'd argue they provide negative value. And there's a lot of them. So let's think about where we are. We have a need to scale coaching support throughout an entire organization. We have an obsolete infrastructure strategically placed throughout that same organization.


So when cell phones became ubiquitous across London, the city was left with a problem. They had these iconic red phone booth that were throughout the entire city. It was interesting though. They were strategically placed throughout the city, mostly where all the people were. That's where they needed phones. So after much deliberation, they actually started transforming the obsolete phone booths into WiFi hubs. So they found a way to repurpose dated infrastructure to meet the needs of the present. So what I want to do, is I want to retrofit the obsolete legacy infrastructure of the middle manager, and repurpose them into coaches. That's my platform that I'm running on. And we have thousands of thousands of these leaders who are mixed throughout the bureaucracy. Some better than others, some more willing than others. But what we can do is now say, now this is your job to extend this idea of understanding your team's strengths, putting the full stack teams and doing the coaching work to improve them to get that return.


Because we're under constraints here so getting that four times return with coaching is really important. So that's you. That's what we want...the leaders guys can go be those coaches to get that return. So this is your call to action. Stop being a manager. Be a coach. Plato, Twain, Wood...they were all right that change was happening around them, but what they were wrong about was that the downfall of society isn't the change itself. It's that our lack of willingness to change would be.


Alright. Let's wrap this thing up. So has anybody had a baby this year? Like this calendar year? Oh, a bunch of people. Oh, okay. What's your baby's name? "Irina." What is it? "Irina." Alright. Congratulations. Beautiful. This is not my baby. This is, well, this is my wife when she was a baby, so I got...but anyway, my wife's, my wife's 41 years old.


She was born three months before this study came out, right? 1982. So the bureaucracy will do what the bureaucracy does, right? Its job is to withstand change. Its entire function is to wait us all out. And so none of these efforts that we hear about to fundamentally change the system here are going to work. We have 46 years of data that tells us so. So, what we can do, is we can go affect change in the places where we have control over it, within our teams, and within our organizations. And I mean real change. Not like going to the working group every other Thursday afternoon, or replying to people on LinkedIn so your algorithm gets a bump, or blaming the bureaucracy for doing what the bureaucracy is supposed to do. Talking about real change, within your organization when you leave here. And this room needs to be the ones who affects change. Because if we don't, Irina is going to be in Washington, D.C. 41 years from now, she's going to be doing yet another talk on DOD talent management at Prodacity 2064. Thank you.