Meet the Nerds Coding Their Way Through the War in Afghanistan
A disembodied voice sounded over a loudspeaker. “Incoming. Take cover,” it warned to anyone within earshot. Then, the sirens began to wail.
Erin Delaney assumed it was a drill. She peeked down the hallway to see how other people were responding. Then she hit the deck. It was not a drill. The NATO base in Kabul where Delaney had been working for weeks was being attacked.
Delaney, 24, had never had any military training. She grew up in San Diego, traveled up the coast for college at UC Berkeley, and spent the next two years nestled in the safe, Tesla-filled San Francisco bubble, working in the compliance department at Dropbox. Now, with her nose to the ground, she was getting a taste—however brief—of life in a war zone.
She flipped over the visitor’s badge she’d received when she first arrived at the base. In case of attack, it said, she should stay on the ground for two minutes. Assuming nothing dire happened, she was to shelter in place until the shelling stopped. So, for about an hour, that’s what she did. “Then when things were normal, we went back to work,” Delaney says with a shrug. “And that was that.”
The petite brunette doesn’t like to play up the drama of her time in Afghanistan. She spent only a matter of weeks on the base, and she’s wary of comparing her brush with danger to the risks that soldiers in Afghanistan face every day. Unlike them, she hadn’t traveled to Kabul to track terrorists or spend time in the countryside rebuilding the bullet-riddled nation. She’d come on a more mundane mission: to make the tech tools that NATO uses in Afghanistan suck a little less.
Delaney is part of a 27-person unit that comprises the Defense Digital Service, a sort of tech SWAT team within the Department of Defense. Engineers and data experts from across the country leave their jobs at companies like Netflix, IDEO, Palantir, and, yes, Dropbox and join DDS for tours of duty that typically last about two years. They spend that time revamping and often completely reinventing the “tools and practices that lag far behind private sector standards,” as the Pentagon itself puts it. This past winter, that work brought the team to Kabul, where NATO troops have spent years advising Afghans on how to make their country self-sustaining.
Founded in 2015, the DDS is the Defense Department’s spinoff of the United States Digital Service, an Obama-era program established at the White House. So far, the Trump administration appears inclined to keep the group in place. “The Defense Department must move at the speed of relevancy,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told WIRED in a statement. “The Defense Digital Service team plays a critical role in meeting that commitment.”
The Afghanistan project demonstrates why. It turns out that dispatching just a few private-sector experts to the battlefield can make life a little easier for personnel on the ground. To be sure, the situation in Afghanistan is messier than ever. But now at least some of the software driving the mission isn’t.
If Kabul was like an alien planet to Delaney, the DDS office looks a lot like home, Silicon Valley-style. Situated deep inside the Pentagon, the whiteboard-covered walls pop with multicolored flowcharts and checklists full of projects the DDS team has completed over the past two years. There in teal marker are the words “Hack the Pentagon,” a bug-bounty program aimed at finding vulnerabilities in Defense Department websites. Below it in blue, there’s “Data.mil,” an experiment in opening up DoD data to the public.
Star Wars embellishments abound. The tiny conference room is called Yoda, and the front door of the office bears a placard that reads “Rebel Alliance.” It all but announces to the beribboned generals and suit-wearing bureaucrats passing by that yes, this is where the nerds work, and they may not be entirely under your control.
That’s Chris Lynch’s doing. As director of DDS, he views it as his duty to shake up the Pentagon, and he’s not trying to fit in. “We trigger a lot of antibodies,” says Lynch, who may be the only person in the building’s nearly 4 million square feet of office space wearing a stormtrooper T-shirt and sneakers to work.
Before becoming head of the group, the 41-year-old entrepreneur started three tech companies, where he enjoyed the autonomy that comes with being the boss. Inside the DoD, the first answer to almost everything he proposes is no. Even when the DDS team manages to untangle one bureaucratic knot, they often find miles more red tape underneath it. For the rank and file in the military, the relief is fleeting. “It’s like a cold glass of water in hell,” Lynch says.
Even so, Lynch clearly relishes the challenge. He may also be the only person in the building who gets choked up talking about the Defense Department’s arcane technology procurement process. He’s seen firsthand how poorly conceived tech tools, designed around some conference table in DC without input from users, can impact life and death decisions for members of the military.
Take Lynch’s first project at DDS, which focused on the system that keeps track of service members’ active duty records. Those documents—critical to providing proper medical services to veterans—would often go missing on their way from the DoD to the Veterans Affairs office. Finding them could sometimes take years—years that many veterans with serious conditions don’t have.
The problem, Lynch soon learned, stemmed from an almost comical glitch at Veterans Affairs: The agency only accepted PDF documents. If paperwork was filed as a JPEG, it was rejected, or simply disappeared. So DDS built a suite of simple file converters to standardize the process. It’s not the type of fix Lynch considers particularly innovative or magic. “I don’t consider it anything other than something that should make you so angry that you say, ‘I can do better than that,’” he says. “It’s fucking wrong.”
When he signed on, Lynch only planned to stay at DDS for 45 days, but fixing the VA’s document problem hooked him. “This is the worst job I’ve ever had,” he says. “But if you’re lucky, and you do what you came to do, you’ll get a win that will be unlike anything else you could ever do in your life.”
That passion has helped the DDS team weather one of the most tumultuous White House transitions in recent history. The election result shocked the young, largely liberal staff, but not a single member of the team left because of it. That doesn’t mean they’ve stayed quiet about their new boss. Eduardo Ortiz, a designer on the Afghanistan project and a former Marine, tattooed the word “RESIST” in giant block letters on his right forearm shortly after the election and now wears his hoodie sleeve slightly rolled up to ensure that the world can see.
Still, most members of the team say Trump’s election hasn’t had much impact on their day jobs. “A lot of my friends asked, ‘Are you going to stick around, now that you work for the Trump administration?’” former engineer Hunter Pitelka says, raising his lanky arms over his head boogeyman-style. His answer? A hard yes. “Whether or not you believe there should be a war in Afghanistan, whether or not you believe President Trump should be doing the things he does, there are US soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and all over the world who are making decisions every day, and I want them to have the best possible information to make those decisions.” he says. “Nobody wants us to make bad decisions.”
A Giant Tire Fire
Pitelka, 27, is the reason the team went to Afghanistan. Before joining the Pentagon, the bespectacled beanpole had worked at Palantir, the secretive data science company that has big contracts with the DoD. During that time, he did a two-month tour on a Marine aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean, where he too saw how antiquated military technology can be. “The technology we’re giving our service members is shit,” says Pitelka, who shares Lynch’s affinity for four-letter words. “It boils my blood to think about it.”
Pitelka asked whether his boss might consider sending the DDS team to “theater,” military talk for the battlefield. Until then, DDS had focused on tools that would make the Pentagon more efficient. But Pitelka says that often by the time Washington hears of a technological obstacle in Afghanistan, “it’s been on fire for a long time already.” So, last summer, with former defense secretary Ashton Carter’s encouragement, the DDS team decided they would go to Afghanistan to find some fires to extinguish.
At the time, Matt Cutts was two weeks away from joining the DDS team. The 45-year-old former Googler, best known as the grandfather of the search engine’s spam fighting efforts, was still hunting for an apartment in DC when he got a call from Lynch: Would he be able to start working a week early—and would he consider starting in Afghanistan? “I was like, ‘Let me just say that out loud so my wife can hear it,’” Cutts remembers. She gave him the thumbs up, and within a week, he, Lynch, Pitelka, and a few other members of the team were strapped into a Blackhawk helicopter, flack jackets on, heading to Kabul.
Mortar attacks aside, life on the base was relatively luxurious, with tree-lined roads and an onsite boutique froyo shop called Ministry of Yogurt. The DDS team slept in souped-up shipping containers the size of some New York City studio apartments, with their own bathrooms. They worked 12- to 16-hour days, and in their spare time they’d unwind with one of a handful of ’90s DVDs. (Total Recall and My Cousin Vinny were favorites.) Of course, there were some quirks to life on the base: the strict instructions not to peek their heads over the perimeter’s walls (Lynch did it anyway), the weaponry strapped to every soldier in the mess hall, the Mongolian troops racing one another to assemble machine guns, blindfolded, outside their yurt.
But while the accommodations exceeded the team’s expectations, technologically speaking the place was “a giant tire fire,” says Nick Small, an engineer on the project. There was the piece of training software that only came in English, even though it was for Afghan officials who almost exclusively spoke Dari or Pashto. Army computer filters prevented a public affairs officer from clicking links on Twitter, even though his job was to teach Afghan government officials how to use social media. As a workaround, he’d write down URLs on a piece of paper, walk to a desk with an unfiltered, so-called dirtynet computer, and enter it there. “It was unbelievable,” Pitelka recalls, clapping both hands to his cheeks as he often does when explaining technological atrocities.
But it wasn’t until an Army colonel shuttled them over to his computer to show them a tool called ANET that the team found a project they believed could impact thousands of people. NATO advisers use ANET to track their progress guiding Afghans through the endlessly complex process of standing up a modern government. The advisers, who started arriving in January 2015, spend their days teaching their Afghan counterparts skills like training and recruiting police, budgeting, fostering transparency. They use ANET to keep track of every conversation and step forward. Logging information into the system is a way to retain institutional knowledge as advisers cycle in and out of the country.
Which sounds great in theory. But until recently, ANET hardly worked. Reports that should have taken minutes to write often took hours. “You’ve never seen a user interface that looked so early Netscape Navigator,” Lynch says. A banner at the top of the home screen read “Welcome to ANET.” Below that no fewer than 20 icons and a series of old-fashioned clip art images cluttered the page. Searches in the program were, inexplicably, set to “not” results, meaning that if you searched for the word “corruption,” ANET would produce all the past reports that did not include the term. But it wouldn’t have mattered much, because the search results weren’t clickable.
Advisers underwent hours-long training sessions in how to use the program. “If you could stay awake for it, you kind of had a very rudimentary working knowledge of the system when you walked away,” says Lt. Col. D’artagnan Deanda, an adviser with the US Air Force, who goes by Dart.
Compiling reports on ANET took hours out of Deanda’s day. “You’d click the button, go get a soda and come back and hope your page had loaded,” he explains. Managing the quirks and failures of this software became one giant, distracting obligation for a group of people whose core job—rebuilding Afghanistan—should have had very little to do with software.
It was, in other words, a perfect DDS target. It took the team a week to settle on ANET as a target; getting permission from the DoD and NATO to move fast and break the very thing that thousands of advisers in Afghanistan became a months-long struggle. “I don’t want to characterize it as resistance, but people were uncomfortable with the speed at which DDS worked,” says Col. David Meyer, who directs the Army’s Security Forces Assistance Center, which oversees advising efforts.
Among the military personnel, there was also some healthy skepticism that this team of young nerds—many of them the age of the advisers’ children—would keep their promises. “In the military we get pitched often, and people say, ‘You’ll get new kits and new things,’ and then you wait three years to get Army hand-downs,” says Ortiz, the tattooed former Marine and designer for the US Digital Service, who lent a hand on ANET.
But the DDS team kept coming back, making four trips to Afghanistan in all, and relished the chance to show off new features to the dubious troops. By January, they had got the beta test of the new ANET up and running. It was pretty humdrum by Silicon Valley standards—not exactly the kind of software that would wow investors at a Y Combinator demo day. The team merely created a streamlined, functional website where advisers could create reports in a matter of minutes and search for reports in a matter of seconds. It did the basics, like remembering a user’s prior searches and suggesting the names of their Afghan counterparts. “We did autosave,” Delaney says, laughing. “That blew people’s minds.”
Finally, at the end of the January trip, it was time for Lt. General Jürgen Weigt, the NATO mission’s chief of staff, to either green light the project or scrap it altogether. On the day they were set to leave Afghanistan, Delaney, Pitelka, and other members of the team gathered around a table with Weigt and a few of his assistants. Delaney launched into the demo, showing off the speed of the new search function compared to the old one. As soon as she finished, the room fell silent.
Then Weigt spoke up. “He just asked us, ‘What do you guys need from us?’” Delaney says, before Pitelka corrects her: “I think the specific quote from the assistant to the chief of staff was ‘Whose ass do I need to put my boot up?’”
The battle to revamp ANET might not make it into the annals of military history. But it has all the plot points: It brought together a scrappy band of military neophytes who deployed to a war zone, traversed mountains of red tape, and finally planted their flag of intuitive tech on the front lines. Unlike the service men and women who remain mired in what seems like a never-ending war in Afghanistan, though, the tech troops actually got to pack up their MacBooks and head home.
With the new ANET up and running, Pitelka and Delaney took off from Afghanistan for the last time in March, leaving the tool in the hands of NATO coders. In a few months, they’ll leave the Defense Digital Service, too. That’s by design. Lynch warns his team that they will stagnate if they spend too long within the Pentagon’s walls. Two years in, Pitelka is already starting to speak in acronyms. (“The SFAC is the owner of the mission-wide POAMs.” Sure.)
There’s a certain kind of anxiety that comes with moving on. “In 10 years everybody here’s going to be gone. This team might be a giant evil bureaucratic nightmare,” Pitelka says. And of course, they’re leaving DDS in the hands of an administration that Pitelka says “most people in this office are probably not super excited about.” But he argues that this is even more reason why his fellow technologists—even the liberal ones—should come work for the government. “I feel like you kind of want to be at the table,” he says.
The members of the military who worked with the DDS team found that kind of idealism infectious and inspiring. “They could all be making a heck of a lot more money in places infinitely nicer to be than Afghanistan,” Col. Meyer says of the crew. “It’s kind of a trite saying, but, frankly, there’s a lot of patriotism in that.”
One casualty of the DDS team’s Afghanistan deployment was the Silicon Valley article of faith that technology alone can solve all the problems of the world. They know that sophisticated software won’t get international troops out of the quagmire that is Afghanistan anytime soon. They also know—now, better than most—that lousy software certainly won’t help.