Amazon may be coming to town. Good or bad for the DoD?

The Pentagon has something of a tech innovation identity crisis.

On the one hand, there’s DARPA, the Defense Innovation Board, and the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx – efforts to filter to the military breakthrough technologies and enable collaboration with commercial tech companies. The former has a long history of success, while the latter are still in their infancy. But they hold promise.

At the same time it’s no secret that an evolution in R&D has been happening separate from the Pentagon, focused less on platform enhancements (stealth, unmanned to name a couple) and more on computer tech – artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, cloud computing and so on. The Department of Defense is certainly investing in these areas, and DIUx was formed to ensure those investments don’t happen in a vacuum (the jury is out on whether it’s working, particularly now that Raj Shah has moved on as director). But some might say commercial advancements are happening alongside, not in collaboration with the military.

Consider the evolution: Whereas tech advancements once came predominantly from the military, then from industry in partnership with government, they’re now increasingly driven by the commercial world. And DoD is banging on the door asking for a seat at the table.

But wait – there just might be an opportunity emerging in Washington to help encourage the Pentagon, the federal government at large really, to tap some of the best minds in tech innovation: The D.C. area is a top contender for Amazon’s second headquarters.

Why does that matter, particularly when you consider the federal office of Amazon Web Services is already here? Because where Amazon and other power tech companies go, so does top talent. And if Amazon comes to Washington on a grand scale, not just as a rather modest office targeting fed contracts, that means a larger pool of individuals could follow. En masse, this could mean collaboration between government agencies and the commercial market, and federal and defense innovation hubs attracting expertise in the very areas where government so desperately needs to catch up.

There is much to be gained by proximity.

Of course, there is a more pessimistic point of view. Capital Alpha’s Byron Callan said this of Washington, Northern Virginia, and Boston scoring highest on criteria driving the Amazon headquarters selection: that it “underscores the risks that defense contractors could face in attracting and retaining skilled engineering talent.”

Maybe. It’s true that the competition for talent will grow with new employers in town. But in other communities that’s a good thing. The companies in Silicon Valley draw tech talent, which in turn draws more companies and so on. Why can’t that happen in Washington, with government taking an active role in such an expansion?

That’s not to say it will come easy. Callan rightfully warned that defense companies need to differentiate themselves as employers if they stand any chance of tapping into any newfound talent pool – a truth that can extend to defense and federal agencies as well.

“We’re in it for the mission” is nice in concept, impractical and unrealistic in execution.

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