Conversation with Lt. Col. JJ Snow
Good day, and welcome to episode 111 of our Digital Leadership podcast, produced by, for, and about Digital Industry leaders. Today I’m excited to introduce a special guest, Lt. Col. JJ Snow, the Chief Technology Officer at the United States Air Force AFWERX program.
Lt. Col. Snow has over 18 years of successful military leadership and management experience, in the Defense and Intelligence community. She’s a recognized team builder, an innovator focused on tackling the nation’s toughest problems by leveraging non-traditional unconventional solutions and collaborating with world-class innovators who are driven to make a positive difference.
What a great intro JJ! Welcome to this… so the backchannel on all of this is, I was in the US military in an enlisted status, so we were just joking how difficult it is for me to refer to an Officer in the military as anything but their Officer rank, and so she’s given me permission to call her JJ through this. So, welcome JJ, it’s great to have you on this podcast.
Oh, Ken thanks so much, I’m really delighted to be here, and I really appreciate the opportunity to share more about what AFWERX has been up to, just so excited. There are so many cool initiatives going on, and it’s great to be able to get that out to the public, so thanks for having me today.
Absolutely. So, let’s start with a little bit of your history because I think it’s quite salient to what you’ve developed. Tell us a bit about your background, and really how it has informed your views of innovation and technology.
Yeah, definitely. So, I have a bit of a diverse background, I actually started off as an Intelligence Officer and predominantly worked special forces, or special mission units, almost my entire career, absolutely loved it. What I will say is, by being in these types of really leading-edge environments, we were constantly challenged by emerging technologies, we were constantly learning and doing, and we had a great degree of freedom to experiment and try new things. I would definitely credit that background to my success as an Innovation Officer now.
It seems that from an early age you were destined for government service, I saw originally that you worked in the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and then the US Military. What attracted you to serve your country as you do?
A couple of things. The majority of my uncles and both of my grandfathers served in the military, and so, when I was growing up, I always had a sense of pride about that. I remember any Memorial Day, Labor Day, July 4th, Veterans Day, we would go for the different parades, and my relatives, my uncles, my grandfather, would point out, “Hey, this unit did this, this unit did that. I know, some of my buddies are here”, and they would tell their stories. That was really inspirational for me. There were a lot of fun tales, and then there some serious tales too, and that really inspired me because the focus was always about giving back, and then how can we give back in such a way that we can see others achieve.
So, I was raised to believe that if you see a problem, or you see an issue, you don’t complain about it, you figure out a way to fix it. You get in there, you get involved, and you try to change it for the better. So, as I was coming up I also learned a lot about the different emerging environmental issues, and I got into writings and readings, and a number of speaker events for folks like Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau, Marty Stouffer from Wild America, and that gave me a passion to contribute in the area of environmental conservation.
That’s how I got into the Fish & Wildlife Service, loved it, did it for five years, but the Fish & Wildlife Service made a mistake, they sent me back for a degree in political science with a minor in Environmental Policy, and I was going to move into the Refuge Manager track to become a Wildlife Refuge Manager. At the time you had to focus on a specific area of the world, regional expertise, to get the degree. I’d never done any work on the Middle East or Africa, and so I was really interested in that, and that happened to be right around the time the bombing took place in the USS Cole. The very first class I had, assigned me the topic of writing about and researching about this guy I’d never heard of, Osama Bin Ladin, and the bombings he had conducted in Africa.
And so I graduated, in fact within a few months of graduating from the course I had already decided that I wanted to go join the FBI at the time, I was midway through their process when 9/11 happened. I was actually in my Middle Eastern Policy class, one of them at that time. I remember seeing the planes hit the buildings, the shock of that moment, and everybody in the classroom felt that way, and that was what took me from my passion for environmental conservation, over to, “Okay, it’s time that I get into the military”, and figure out not only why this happened, but how can we stop it from happening again in the future. That got me into the Intel career field and led to what I’m doing today.
Excellent. Well, in 2014 you attended the Naval Post-Graduate School. I was interested because you were focusing your research on the area of emerging disruptive technology, so you were clearly ahead of your time, specifically in new threat vectors. I see that you’re one of only three female military candidates in a program of about 267 candidates. So, first of all, congratulations, because that was an accomplishment in and of itself at the time.
But what were some of the key insights from your research at the time?
It was really fun. I was so grateful to have been selected to the Naval Post-Graduate School because it’s a really unique opportunity, and the specific track that I got involved with was called Defense Analysis, with the focus on low-intensity conflict on emerging technologies. The majority of the students in that specific course set are all special operators from around the globe. So, with my background coming in as an Intel Officer, there were a lot of seniors that were saying, “Hey, we need to get smart on these increasingly fast-paced technology evolutions that are happening. We want to understand what that means for security, for the economy, for society, for governance”. And so, I went into the Department of Energy and they had a program looking at the impact of additive manufacturing.
It was really fun because nobody else was excited about it, and of course, I’m geeking out, “Oh, I love 3D printing, this is so cool”. We began to explore how this technology was moving very-very quickly, exponentially if you will, so what turned out… it turned into not just 3D printing, but I wound up looking at things like synthetic biology, advanced genomics, neurotechnology, nanotechnology, quantum, high performance, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, advanced robotics, programmable materials, all of that, these were all areas that were moving very-very fast, and in new ways that we hadn’t seen technologies moving before.
In large part, the interest was because there are so many unknowns, and that rapid pace of advancement was really starting to impact the discussions around, what do we do from a national security perspective, what do we do from a policy and regulation perspective? And then what are the threats because this is a really complex space. We really wanted to dive-in and set the stage early so that we’re not making dangerous mistakes, and that as we’re moving more and more into these technology influenced environments, we could decide, hey this is a risk, this is a potential opportunity, and here’s how we balance those out smartly.
And by getting ahead of it and understanding what these different technologies we're bringing to bear, and how they were changing not just one sector, but sometimes multiple sectors all at once, very fast, was a key insight that came out of this research. I’ve got to tell you, Ken, it was a blast, the professors out there are absolutely top-notch, such a big fan of the school, and I was so grateful to them for sponsoring me in this, and the Department of Energy as well. When I told them, I want to talk to hackers, and makers, I want to try out these new techniques and test out this tech, nobody ever told me no, they said, “Go and do it and let’s see what happens”. So, it was a fantastic experience, and I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, and that actually launched me into my current career.
Excellent. Well, as I say, I guess it all converged together because in 2016 you started obviously a series of assignments focused on innovation, but through a program called SOFWERX at the time. Can you talk about what innovation meant in this context, and what the role of SOFWERX was?
Definitely. So, when I left the Naval Post Graduate School, I was actually involved with the Air Force Agency for Modelling & Simulation in Orlando. There was a group at Special Operations Command in Tampa that knew I was up there, they reached out, they were called The Donovan Group. It was a group of really bright thinkers, most of them were at the 06 level, and they said, “Look, we liked the work that you did, we like what you presented to the White House on your thesis work. We’d love to have you come down here and consider being part of the Donovan Group, and joining the SOFWERX team”. And I said, “Okay, well tell me more”, and they said SOFWERX was established as an adjacent innovation hub, to drive agile mechanisms for innovation for special operations, so how can we innovate smarter, faster. Give the teams what they need both in the technology space, but then also in the acquisition space. And so, I was intrigued.
That’s when for the first time I met Secretary Honor Geurts, Jim Geurts, he was the acquisition executive at the time, and when I got down there I did my presentation, I talked about all the technologies, and afterward, he said, “You know, you should think about coming down here”, and I said I’m interested in it. I was skeptical though I’ve got to say, because they’re telling me innovating inside the government, and I laughed and I said, “Respectfully I don’t know about this”, and so he laughed back at me and said, “Well look, if I’m wrong, no harm no foul, you go back and do what you want. But if I’m right, come here and work for me for three years”. So, I went down there and I absolutely loved it.
The facility was set-up in an old tattoo parlor when we first started. Ken, we had all kinds of amazing people coming in with different sorts of technologies, and at the time the unit was about two years old when I got there, we were maybe five people, now it’s about 25 people and they’ve expanded to a 35,000 sq. ft. facility, and typically you’re getting well over 100 people coming into the space to interact every single day. So, SOFWERX became that tool to really drive adjacent innovation to support special operations. I’ve got to say, the WERX idea that Secretary Geurts came up with, that was his idea on the back of a napkin, I saw the original napkin, it was super-cool.
- Acceleration, how can we break things positively and move faster?
- How can we easily identify and write size policy and regulation in areas that are over-regulated?
- How can we provide a safe space to test out emerging technology, to understand the risks and the opportunities?
- How can we also provide a public space that allows us to bring in that deep expertise that we normally can’t access in the government; hackers, makers, academics, scientists, and at the same time also explore agile acquisitions?
So, here is this really cool model that creates a friendly front door to the US Government, for start-ups, for small businesses, individual innovators, and non-traditional, to all come in as they are and contribute. It was the coolest thing. This is the first model, innovation model that I’ve encountered in government that really made failures positive; things like validations where you would bring in a series of technologies, and pit them against a problem, and if they succeeded that’s great, that’s a win. But if they failed that’s also great, because then you could go back and talk to the customer, that happened to be a Seal Team, or a Special Forces Team, or AFSOC Special Tactics team, you could go in and say, “Hey, this technology didn’t work, and it won’t ever work because it’s just not a good fit”, or, “It will work, but we need to wait 12 to 18 months for it to mature, because this is what’s coming”, or, “It will work if we pair it up with these existing technologies now, and we can get it to you in the next 7 days”, or it already works. That saved time, it saved money, we’re able to share it across spaces because it’s a joint environment across services and inter-agency partners too.
So, it really challenged the status quo around what we can do for innovation inside a big bureaucratic organization. You see the WERX models have really spread out now, from Defense WERX, and then NavalX, and its super-exciting, because all of them are connected and talking, and there’s this super-cool ecosystem they’ve developed around it, that is really being impactful and driving positive intervention across the Defense Department, across our agency and allied partners.
Well, it must have worked well, because as you and I got to know each other before this, your most recent promotion was to Chief Technology Officer of AFWERX. And look I usually don’t like these long intros, but I do love the job description that you had down in your profile, “Serves as the lead tech scout for the US Air Force, liaising with sister service, Inter-agency, and Allied partners. Expanding collaborative networks to support emerging requirements, and the innovation ecosystem identifies and highlights risks, opportunities, and threats from emerging technologies to senior-level decisionmakers, to help guide strategy, plans, acquisitions, and policy as applicable”.
It’s a dream job position, I think it’s so cool. So, what are some of the key areas in which you focus on at AFWERX?
It is a dream job, and I’ve got to tell you I’m so proud of our team, and I’m so humbled and proud to be part of the AFWERX team because once again I found myself in another military family. SOFWERX was very much a military family feel to it, AFWERX is the same thing, and Ken it’s just amazing. So, currently, right now we touch probably 37 different portfolios, the top 20 are the priorities, the bottom 10 tend to be weird things that might swap out, like something along the lines of programmable materials might be one of the lower level areas that we’re tracking, but it’s not a priority like cybersecurity or space might be for our customers today. But across those different areas, we have all of these challenges that are ongoing, we have all of these different initiatives and events.
One of my most recent favorites was the Hack-A-Satellite challenge that we did at DEF CON, where we offered $100,000’s-worth of prizes to international teams, that started signing up and completing challenges towards the final competition on May 22nd of this year. And they actually competed in August to see if they could hack an air force satellite from the surface planet, and tell us how they did it, and show us where the vulnerabilities were. The top 10 teams went forward, and darn if one of them didn’t do it they got a $50,000 prize, second place was $30,000, and third place was $20,000. That saved us millions of dollars because we brought in really bright people.
You know, it’s somewhat so counter-intuitive. So, the US Air Force is paying people to hack its satellites. I imagine if you rewind 10 – 20 years, that would have been a very different outcome! [Laughter]
Oh my goodness, yes.
That is just really amazing, I love it.
Yeah, even 10 years ago, even back in 2014 when I started to talk to the government about bringing in uncleared hackers from the regular hacker community, there was a lot of resistance, there were a lot of stricken and horrified looks when I suggested this. What has happened is, people like Secretary Geurts opened the door and said, “Hey, this is a cool idea, let’s try it out”, and as we’ve done that, we’ve developed these amazing relationships with the hacker community, the maker community. These are regular citizens that want to give back to make the nation better, and it’s been amazing.
I’ll give you another example. One of the teams that formed during COVID-19 is the Cyber Threat Intelligence League, this is 1400 hackers across 70 nations, and I think its 20 or 22 time zones, all volunteers that are really talented in the area of cybersecurity, and have identified vulnerabilities in research facilities in hospitals, in Wi-Fi enabled medical devices, so that we can protect them in advance of them being ransomware or attacked, or potentially shutdown. And to see a volunteer effort like this that is so incredibly well-connected internationally, with the various law enforcement’s community members to help protect and keep the public safe, and they’re coming in to help us as well on the military side to help again identify vulnerabilities early, and protect and sure those up. It’s really blown me away, it’s been a fantastic example of exactly how and why we need these types of spaces, to facilitate that public-private sector team-up, it’s very powerful.
And speaking of these spaces, we recently participated in your AFWERX’s Fusion 2020, I think it was your first ever virtual fusion conference. Can you tell me a little bit about the purpose of the Fusion series, share some of your highlights on this year’s event? And I think you’re getting ready to do a number of other of these, so maybe a chance to get a little insight in what you’re planning to do next.
Yeah, definitely. So, Fusion was really designed as a way to highlight innovative solutions to the Air Force, that it was around priority air force areas of interest. But what we found very quickly was, you’re facilitating this cool environment for connection, for collaboration, and a lot of our sister services and inter-agency partners were like, “Can we come to join too?” and we said, “Yeah, definitely”, and that makes it even better. So, this year I think we had over 5,000 participants, over 350 companies, the idea was to focus on Base of the Future. Base of the Future was all about rebuilding Tyndall Air Force Base, which was destroyed by a category 5 hurricane, Hurricane Michael; we lost 40 percent of the infrastructure, a significant number of buildings.
And so we wanted to not just rebuild it, but build it better and set an example for what a future base might look like, but also provide initiatives and technologies that could benefit city spaces, could benefit rural areas, and so we started to build this out in such a way that we made our speakers and our solutions available to the whole of government, but we also wanted to give back publicly. So, if you go to our AFWERX page for Base of the Future, we did some really cool sizzle reels, and all of the speakers were recorded, we posted that on YouTube, so people have access to that. Really, Fusion is becoming that event that it does a lot for innovation, but it’s also meant to inspire the future, not just for the Air Force, but for everyone. At the end of the day the AFWERX team, and we all joke about this, if we do our jobs right, we should create a culture of positive innovation that becomes the norm. This permeates everything, and we should be able to put ourselves out of a job if we do this right, that’s the eventual goal.
It was a fantastic event, we focused on things like base security, installation resilience, different types of technologies to improve operational effectiveness, developed some really cool reverse engineering techniques and solutions, and then that establishment of a culture of innovation both inside and outside of the military to benefit the nation, that was a big core component. Then we also had airmen and family wellbeing as a focus during times of crisis. That happened before COVID, we found it’s even more relevant now, and so we’re really looking at how do we build out those technologies to make sure that we’re caring for our people, but we’re also providing solutions that can care for the nation too. That gets me excited because we all join the service to make a difference for the country, now we’re able to make a difference for the American people as well.
So, 1500 ideas were submitted, we selected the top 370, and then we down-selected I think it was 92 or 93 that were chosen to move forward. So, what you’re going to see coming up is a continuance but in a series of challenges. So, we’ve got these really cool challenges around green energy coming up, we’ve released six of them so far, looking at everything from austere operations, to solar-powered, to new battery technologies, and this is where we’re bringing the public, the private sector, academia, and non-traditional together to really benefit from that innovation ecosystem, and focus on these green energy solutions, to benefit the Air Force, to benefit Tyndall during the rebuild, and build better. Then also to benefit the nation as we look at how can we start to go carbon-neutral or start to move in that direction. So, these are super-exciting technologies that we’ve got coming into play right now. I can’t wait to see what comes out of these next six challenges, that’s going to be really really fun.
So at the time we’re recording this, you are planning a next big event, I think you’re calling it Engaged Space, and we’ve been officially invited, so we’re on the insider list as well, it sounds quite exciting. I’m afraid though, by the time that we release this, it will already have been passed, but talk a little bit about what you’re planning to do there, and by the way, it’s so cool to scroll down in there and see the new Space Force logo there.
[Laughter] Isn’t it awesome! Oh my gosh. And you know, people are super-excited about it, this is really where we’re looking towards the future, there are so many positive things coming from the space environment right now, and I just… oh my gosh, we could do an entire podcast just on what’s developing for space at this point in time. But the Engaged Space event is all about bringing together mentors, and networking around the space domain.
These are our initial discussions, our initial explorations to see who has been working on what, and these are our ecosystem partners from academia, we work closely with the Academic Venture Accelerator, and they have the top 34 or 40 schools that are working technology transfer to the government, and highlighting their tech solutions, and showing, “Hey, here’s how we can help in these specific areas”. Sometimes those are health areas, like the COVID-19 Unite and Fight Taskforce that was set-up. That’s inspirational because here you have people coming together, to make a positive impact for the nation and the world around the pandemic, and a lot of these academics and universities are coming in with these amazing ideas, that they’re coming up with now, or that they’ve had, but they found that this is a perfect fit. We’re seeing the same theme when you’re talking about the space domain and what comes next. I’ve got to tell you, Ken, I’m really excited, it’s kind of like being in your early ages of Star Trek here, with some of the topics that are coming up.
I had a wonderful discussion with a team that is building gas stations in space! I absolutely love it because they’ve already tested two of them out, they used one to get water to the International Space Station, they’ve developed a space-based docking port, so satellites could potentially refuel off of these, which means for maintenance purposes and for cost purposes we have much longer lifetimes and reduced maintenance. We’re talking to a number of companies around different types of robotics. I had the opportunity to team up as a judge and a volunteer board member with Moon Mark Space, that is a focus on getting young people engaged around space, and in particular, challenging them to really reach for the starts.
This one got me excited because in six weeks we had international high school teams that came together and competed, and we’ve got our top two teams that developed for less than $50,000 each, lunar rovers that will be launched in October 2021 to the face of the moon, and these kids will get to race their rovers on the moon. But for the first time, we now have high school students designing technologies that we could put on the moon, and we could put little lasers on them, so you can do laser range finding, you can start to do measurements from the service of the earth to the surface of the moon, for less than $50,000 a pop. These kids did this in just six weeks during COVID, and everything was done virtually.
So, it was that kind of event, that kind of coming together where I get to sit in as the Air Force person, look over the tech, judge, comment and advise, that really gets me excited. These are the types of initiatives where we see the most benefit coming out of it, because who would have thought that high schoolers could design, successfully design lunar rovers for less than $50,000 in six weeks. It was awesome.
Speaking of space, as if all of your other accomplishments aren’t enough, you’re also a science fiction writer having published “Gunship”, the first book of your space trilogy in 2013, followed by “Gauntlet” in 2016. I actually love that you’re reaching for the stars literally, so what inspired you to write these, and when can we expect the final book of the trilogy series.
I knew you were going to ask me that! [Laughter] My fans hate me, they hate me. I’m a huge sci-fi nerd, I have been since I was a kid; everything and anything, comic books, sci-fi, science fact, I would get my hands on it and just immerse myself in it. Love, love, love, and still to this day love it. I really got inspired to write whilst I was teaching out in Texas, I did my first novel out there, “Gunship”, and teamed up with Adam Burn in the UK. Adam is an amazing artist, he actually worked on the most recent Wonder Woman movie, he was involved with the CGI for the final fight scene, which I told him, I said it had better be awesome, it better be really awesome! And it was, he did a great job on it.
It was cool to see him bring to life, the words the story that I had put on the page, in the way that he did. So, I wanted to follow through, which I did with “Gauntlet”, and had a great time there, I had a deployment in-between that kind of delayed that a bit, and then came back and wrote it, and finally got it published, published through a couple of indie publishers. I think both of them are out of print right now. They’re both cliffhangers and my fans absolutely hate me because I haven’t written the third one yet, I haven’t even started writing the third one yet, and so I get all kinds of nasty emails and texts, “This book – no, we’re not reading anymore because you left a cliffhanger for us, and we’re not gonna… no”. So, yeah, they haven’t found me yet, please don’t let them know where I live!
I will eventually get to it! [Laughter] I will eventually get to the third book, I hope. Or I may start a different one entirely, I don’t know. But the first two were a lot of fun, and some of the technologies I’d seen, and then having been downrange in a deployed environment also inspired bits and pieces of the stories, and the characters are often a conglomeration of people that I worked with or teamed with whilst I was over there. So, it was a lot of fun to work on both of those, I really enjoyed it.
Excellent. Final question, as an Innovation Officer, and I love the term that you use there, what advice would you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Oh my goodness. I would say be passionate and do what you love, the rest happens. I see a lot of people that come in that have ideas for businesses or technologies, that they want to bring to bear, but they focus on the profit side. When you do that, traditionally those companies will fail, you’re not going into it with your whole heart, you’re not doing something that you love. The companies that come in that are innovating around something that matters to them, something they’re passionate about, something they really care about, that shines through. They have a story, it's personal, that business means something to them, and you can see how they’re engaging, and learning, and growing in the process, and inspiring others in the process. So, those are the companies that hit the top 20 percent, they’re typically the companies that make it through from the startup phase, to the actual, “I’ve got something that I’m passionate about, and this is my corporation now”, and it goes global, or it goes national, regional, those are the companies that succeed. That would be the biggest piece of advice I would have.
Then second to that, I would say, always-always listen, be open to listening to others. In many cases, you’re never sure where that next idea might be, or who might have the missing piece that you need to solve a problem, or to link you into a problem set that you never even thought about solving, but your technology has part or all of that. And so listening to people, learning from people, engaging with people that are doing things that you’d like to do. If you seek them out, and you ask them questions, or you ask them to mentor you if they have time and learn from them, I also see a lot of people really growing in positive ways, when they do this as an entrepreneur.
I love it, be passionate, do what you love, and always listen. It sounds like something my own father would have told me! [Laughter] And I followed that advice, it sounds like both of us have.
JJ, thank you so much for this inspirational interview.
Ken, it was my pleasure, and thanks for having me, this was such fun. And again, anytime you’re in the area, come see us at AFWERX, we’ve got three different hubs, Austin, Vegas, and DC, we’d love to show you around, and have you join us for a future event.
Excellent. Well, this has been Lt. Col. JJ Snow, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States Air Force AFWERX program. I’d say Innovation Officer and lifelong innovator, science fiction writer, and somebody seeking to always make a difference. It’s been a real pleasure to get to know you.
Thank you for listening, and please join us next week for another episode of our digital industry leadership podcast series, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. Thank you very much.