Fall travel, trade shows, diversity

Each year, my autumn is marked by the sight of falling leaves, quiet drives through Pennsylvania farmland visiting defense suppliers, and far-from-solitary walks through the Washington, D.C, convention center. I say “far from solitary” as I’m accompanied by the thousands that attend the October defense-industry shows in the nation’s capital. Thankfully, the quiet countryside drive follows the walk through the booths – a nice respite from the buzzing show floors.

Fall 2019 was no different, although it was prefaced by a trip to Britain for the biennial DSEI event, a huge defense technology show held at London’s Docklands. DSEI (these days) stands for Defense & Security Equipment International. In another era (pre-2009) it was dubbed Defense & Systems Equipment International, before cybersecurity became a necessary addition to everything we do. Whatever DSEI stands for, it’s still an excellent event, always a good place to get a sense of where our allies in Europe are spending their defense procurement dollars. No surprise here: They want more VPX systems, better cybersolutions, and more commonality and open architectures. And – like the U.S., their budgets are up.

Those Washington convention center events I mentioned – the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and the Asso­ciation of Old Crows (AOC) – were no different, except in scale.

This year AUSA presented me with a unique perspective – I was able to see a trade show through a rookie’s eyes. Our associate editor, Emma Helfrich, attended AUSA with me and a few other colleagues. It was her first time to D.C., first trade show, and first business trip. She shares her experience on page 44.

What I took most from her reflection was her surprise at the ratio of men to women. [It was] “surprisingly closer to even than I’d prepared for, which was empowering ... ” Emma writes. “On day two, I was introduced to a female project lead who oversaw the development of an electronic warfare solution. She looked about my age, and I was notably impressed and inspired.”

That was good to hear, as I remember that my first days reporting on military technology were much the opposite: I’d be in a meeting with an industry source and a female reporter or two (the ratio was much different then). The source would answer each question asked by a woman by replying to me; it was as if they weren’t even there.

Emma’s observation marks a healthy change from those days. A few years ago in these pages, we featured female leaders in the defense electronics community. I remember the VP of engineering from Collins Aerospace (Rockwell Collins back then) saying that she was often the only woman in the room.

Times are changing

Diversity was quite noticeable during the Commercial Systems for Classified (CSfC) event I emceed in Baltimore right before AUSA. The National Security Agency (NSA) representatives who spoke were youthful, culturally diverse, brilliant men and women who handled themselves with poise in front of an equally diverse audience that posed many tough questions.

However, not all defense technology niches are evolving as quickly as cybersecurity. At times this fall, I found myself in a breakout room that was packed, but with 90% middle-aged white males. Not a criticism, but rather an observation that often leads me to ask executives in the industry: Do defense suppliers have a recruitment problem on their hands?

“I think the defense industrial base does have a significant talent acquisition problem,” Ken Peterman, president of Viasat’s Government Systems division, told me when I asked him as part of an interview.

“It’s even deeper than that, as it’s a relevancy problem. This is the reason you see gray hair, because young engineers don’t view it as cool, interesting stuff. The traditional defense company is very regimented, and understandably so, with certain government accountability required, but they lack the openness and collaborative environments that enable Google and Facebook to attract talent.”

I think there also sometimes exists a latent resentment toward the military within the tech community: I’ve heard numerous stories about job candidates turning down chances to work in the defense industry because they don’t want to write about weapons or they view the military in a negative way. While it’s their right to have an opinion, it nonetheless remains a recruitment problem for defense employers.

However, as Emma notes, industry diversity is growing, and I’m grateful for and excited about it. Gratitude is also something I think about when driving through the Pennsylvania countryside every fall after hitting the trade shows. Sure, it’s the perfect time of year – with the spectacular scenery – but I’m also thankful that I’m able to cover some of the smartest engineers on the planet who design the tech that warfighters use every day to do their jobs and keep them safe. Thank you to all men and women who serve. Can’t say it enough.

This Thanksgiving, if you manage to see a service member in uniform, thank them for their service: It’s a small gesture that is greatly appreciated by those who receive it. If you’re so inspired, you might want to go farther and donate to one of the military charities we highlight in every issue. This time we highlight the Military Child Education Coalition on page 46.