Robert Gates repeatedly drew waves of applause and laughs from the early morning crowd of CIOs and tech leaders at the Gartner Symposium on Wednesday. In a wide-ranging keynote interview, the former chief of the CIA and the Department of Defense talked about everything from the IT project that wasted the most taxpayer money to how the US could solve its cybersecurity problems but probably won't because of political in-fighting.
Gates particularly skewered the US Congress and Edward Snowden.
But, Gates also spoke frankly and poignantly about leadership, offering the audience of IT chiefs a few tips for how to do it right by using transparency and including the people who work for them in the process.
Here's a breakdown of the big topics.
Gates explained that over the past 50 years there have been two watershed moments for the use of IT in the military.
The first was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the tech industry in the US really took off. Prior to that, the US government--and particularly the defense and intelligence departments--had all the best minds and all the latest innovations before anyone else.
But once the tech industry exploded and companies like Microsoft started advancing rapidly and hiring tons of people, they realized that the best work was happening in the private sector and they needed to change their approach.
"We no longer had the best talent or the most innovative ideas," said Gates.
The second was when the explosion of data streams took place. Gates noted that in the 1950s and 1960s, the US had satellites that would shoot photos and then drop their film back to earth and a pilot would fly by and catch it. Then they would develop the film and analyze it. That was high tech at the time.
However, when they started to be able to stream the video back to earth with radio waves and turn it into a data stream, everything changed. It was around the same time that lots of other types of data were digitizing as well, and all of the sudden the government had to figure out how to manage, understand, and derive useful information from relentless data firehose.
"Our capabilities dramatically changed and we had to deal with dramatically more data," said Gates. "We knew we needed a whole new approach."
It took a long time and a lot of trial and error to wrestle with the data overload.
"I can't tell you how much money we wasted in IT trying to figure all that out," he said. "I have wasted more money on IT than anyone in history."
Naturally, cybersecurity came up and Gates did a nice breakdown of the four big areas of cybersecurity and cyber attacks.
Gates said that he has a lot of confidence in the cybersecurity defenses of the military--what he called the .mil domain. However, we have a lot of exposure in the .gov and .com realms. One proposal has been to extend protection of the .mil apparatus over .gov and .com. However, it has stalled because "there's so much disagreement about the role government." He said it's not partisan, it's actually from all over the map. And, he didn't have much confidence that we'll reach a consensus to change that.
"The entity by which I had the greatest difficulty was the Congress of the United States," he said It wasn't an anti-democratic statement, but one that was aimed at all the illogical and impractical proposals and compromises that Gates has fielded from Congress over the years.
This kind of military oversight of private security Gates is talking about is fraught with all kinds of implications. It would involve organizations and companies having to give the government certain types of access to their digital assets. That's bound to be controversial and difficult to overcome in any political environment.
The bottom line for the US, Gates said, is "maintaining our technological lead over our adversaries in every domain."
As a leader, Gates has run the Department of Defense, the CIA, and Texas A&M University. He said the biggest thing he's learned is that "leadership is a team sport."
He said that he found education and training can make great managers, but "training and education don't make leaders. Leadership is more about the heart than the head." It's about courage, integrity, and values.
He gave an example of when he was Secretary of Defense and he mandated that the military in Afghanistan reduce the time for Medivac (medical evacuation of injured soldier) from 2 hours down to 1. Almost his entire team disagreed with him and showed him statistics saying it didn't make a difference in the big picture for medical treatment. He told them he didn't care about the stats, because if he put himself in the shoes of a soldier hit by a bomb then he would not want to wait in excruciating pain for two hours. His team implemented it and a recent report suggested that the change has also saved over 450 lives.
"It is moral authority that persuades people to follow, even when they disagree and even when there is risk," Gates said.
Gates' unilateral move in that case worked because Gates regularly involved his team--as many of them as possible--in decision making. As a result, they trusted him and felt part of the process. Before he would typically make a big decision, he would circulate a memo about it among as many people on the team as possible and ask them to speak up if there was a better way to do things, since they were the ones who would have to implement it.
He always believed that "the more eyes and brains you can get on the problem the better off you'll be" and that the people in the trenches often have a better understanding of what could be improved than the leaders. He now sees that kind of transparency as critical to success of any type of organization in the digital age, when they are forced to move and adapt so quickly.
Gartner's Richard Hunter served as Gates' interviewer and near the end of the keynote, he launched into a lightning round of questions that were designed to get quick answers from Gates. The first question was: "Edward Snowden: Hero or traitor"
The even-keel Gates immediately fired back, "Traitor!"
The audience quickly broke into applause, which was a surprise since much of the tech world tends to view Snowden sympathetically.
Once the applause died down and before Hunter could ask his next question, Gates also quickly added, "And, he hasn't been given sanctuary in Russia for nothing."
Afterward, some in the audience took to social media to respectfully disagree. For example, Symposium attendee Dennis Ganesh posted, "Great keynote Dr. Gates but @Snowden is not a traitor in my book."