When a high-level official steps down from their position, it often raises questions about the future of the organisation they leave behind. But Lauren Knausenberger, CIO of the Department of the Air Force (DAF), will be leaving with her head held high.
Knausenberger’s time in the role which she describes as the “honour of a lifetime” is coming to an end: she leaves her role on 2nd June. But speaking with her shortly before her time as CIO concludes, it is clear that she is not letting up as she prepares to cross the finish line.
“There are a couple of things that are going to be a photo finish,” she explains. “One is just getting all of our endpoints on the same image and having all of those endpoints remotely managed. We're pushing very, very hard on that.”
Other projects nearing completion are the simplification of the department’s endpoint security model and the first wave of its Enterprise IT-as-a-Service which is aimed at improving consistency of IT service delivery.
“Those are all big things that have been in progress for a little while and people are really trying to get it done because we have a shared sense of urgency in the Department. These are the top items on the hit list I want to see done before I leave.”
An experienced technologist who began her career at the NSA as a teenager, since 2021 Knausenberger has held the role of CIO for the DAF, comprising the US Air Force and US Space Force.
“I've been able to build an incredible team,” she adds. “When I depart, I am not at all worried about walking out the door and knowing that there are a number of people that can pick up the torch and run.”
From notes on a bar napkin to CIO
Before joining the DAF as its Director of Cyberspace Innovation in 2017, Knausenberger graduated from Wharton Business School and held a number of roles in the entrepreneurial and investment industry.
Most recently working in a high-profile role in the defence sector, the call to serve her country came literally in the form of a call from an Air Force captain who had been inspired by a speech by then-DAF CIO, Lieutenant General Bill Bender.
“My husband got a call from an Air Force captain one day, and he just said, ‘We need more companies like your wife's company in the defence space. We have so many barriers to innovation. I'd really love to chat with someone like her about how we can solve some of these problems’.”
The punchline was, ‘Can I take your wife out for a beer?’ Knausenberger laughs.
“After my husband stopped laughing, he sent the captain my phone number and we met up,” she says. “As we were chatting, I opened up my little bar napkin and I started sketching some things out. We were having a great conversation and just bouncing ideas off each other.”
From this conversation, Knausenberger was asked to put those notes together in a pitch to General Kim Crider, who would later become the first Chief Data Officer of the Air Force and the first Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for the Space Force.
“I then met General Holmes who went on to be the Air Combat Command four-star and then to General Bill Bender where it all started. And, over time, he and General Crider tackled me and said, ‘Hey, we really need you to serve your country because when you talk about these things, we believe that we can really do them’.”
As Knausenberger explains, the CIO role came thanks to the decision by the Air Force to cast a wider net in the interest of innovation.
“The CIO at the time, Bill Marion, looked across the table at me one day and he said, "You know you're probably the next obvious CIO, right?" And after I looked over my shoulder at who he could possibly be talking to and said something along the lines of, "I don't think that is obvious at all!"
“He encouraged me to put my name in the hat. And because the DAF cast a wider net, I was able to apply for the job even though I was not a tenured member of the senior executive service at the time.”
Since taking on the role, Knausenberger says it has been an honour to work with her team, particularly at such a transformative time.
“It truly has been an honour of a lifetime to work with these airmen and guardians, at a time that we're launching the Space Force and truly becoming an enterprise and moving through a lot of cultural barriers too, through COVID, to truly understand what a digital world is and that it is the underpinning of our future competitive advantage.”
Walking tall and gaining a seat at the table
The hard work of Knausenberger and her team over the last three years has truly elevated the stature of the office of the CIO. “The CIO 100% has a seat at the table,” she says. “The secretary relies on us for technical guidance. MAJCOM Commanders rely on us to solve major problems for them for the fight.”
As a result, the cyber and IT community feels incredibly valued. “We do lots of things that support air power anytime, anywhere. We do lots of things that support the fight in space, but people now recognise very consistently that the airplanes are not taking off without all the IT and cyber systems and personnel that support them.”
One of Knausenberger’s proudest achievements, she says, came when the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) A6 and USAFE MAJCOM commanders were looking for new solutions to problems with their IT infrastructure.
“I went out personally and then put together a broader team across our operational community to go out and work with those guys. In partnership with the MAJCOM commander and A6 out there, we completely overhauled their infrastructure. And so they were able to go through and do these critical exercises with their allies with greater performance and resilience than they had ever seen.”
As Knausenberger explains, this new ability to move quickly has been particularly important in recent times.
“We did not know at the time that the Ukraine conflict would be coming, but when it did, because we had done all of that hard work, it was so much easier to launch new capabilities that would provide that resilience that we would need to do anything to help and to be prepared for ourselves in case things got really bad,” she comments. “That's something I was really proud of.”
Improving user experience
Historically, the US Department of Defense might not have been known for its excellence in IT. But thanks to the efforts of Knausenberger and her team, a marked improvement in user experience has been made.
“Over my first year in the seat, we had about a 12-point improvement,” Knausenberger says. “And then over the user experience numbers I just saw, it looks like we went up another 12 points.
“That's a 25-point improvement that I can put my finger on through the efforts of the team. The user experience improvement has been huge and I expect that to be even greater as we're able to do more with our ICAM roadmap and as we're able to really gain momentum on EITaaS Wave 1.”
Central to the DAF’s plans going forward is continuity, Knausenberger says, which will enable the department to continue to deliver in the coming years.
“I feel that we are very well set up for the next five years to completely crush it as a cyber IT and comm team. We have the right strategy in place, we have the right roadmaps in place, we have the right teams in place, and we have the right funding and resource profile in place. And I do not remember a time that we could say that at the same time.
“I feel really comfortable walking out the door knowing that we're in a good place. I feel good that I've been able to make a difference and I know that the team that follows is going to be able to exponentially drive even more as some of those initiatives come to full fruition. So I'm excited to be able to watch the home game and cheer on the sidelines with my popcorn as this team continues to win a few games.”
Lines of Effort shaping CIO’s strategy
Last year the DAF released its CIO strategy up to 2028, highlighting six Lines of Effort to shape the department’s IT strategy going forward.
Covering topics such as cloud adoption, cybersecurity and AI, these topics were chosen to directly address the needs of the emerging strategic and technological environment in which the department operates.
“The strategy has six lines of effort and it's not anything too surprising. It might look a lot like what you would find in a commercial CIO strategy,” Knausenberger explains.
The first Line of Effort is around the acceleration of cloud adoption. “We have done a very good job in this area in that we have, I believe, the world's largest cloud instantiation with over 750,000 users times multiple networks in the cloud, as well as a pretty robust multi-cloud environment within Cloud One. But we're still just chipping the surface on that. We have a lot of things that we do need to migrate within the secret and top-secret realm as well.
“We're making it easier to consume cloud services, we're being more transparent about the cost of those cloud services and we are removing some of the roadblocks to automate more of the process.”
As Knausenberger explains, the future of cybersecurity plays a major role and is the strategy’s second Line of Effort. “Zero Trust plays a big role here. There's a lot about workforce education here as well because every person has a responsibility in cyber. And then post-quantum encryption and in general crypto agility also play pretty heavily on the cybersecurity side.”
The concept of Zero Trust is a North Star concept, she explains.
“What we're trying to do is deliver a more secure but also simplified warfighting environment today. We have way too many networks and way too many systems that are really following an old model of protection. And in some cases that makes us vulnerable.
“In a lot of cases, it makes it really hard to use the systems. You have to be very well-trained to do basic things in certain instances. And so we want it to just be much easier for our warfighters to do basic things like login once and be able to get into everything that you need to get into.
“The most important thing to me is getting to a future world where we can fight in one warfighting environment with our joint partners and our allies.”
The third Line of Effort is around the workforce, involving taking care of all of the people that are the most important investment in our warfighting enterprise, and ensuring they are equipped with digital skills.
“Our digital university has been a great enabler there because our curriculum is always updating as fast as industry can possibly deliver,” Knausenberger says. “We have a variety of different digital pathways through there. And so whatever it is that an airman or a guardian wants to learn, they can go and learn and we can see what their skill sets are. And when we need something for the fight, we can very easily see who has a skill set that we can bring to bear.”
LoE four is portfolio management, based around ensuring dollars are spent efficiently and effectively and focused on a return on cybersecurity and mission performance, while the fifth LoT is excellence in core IT and mission-enabling services. “That's really the tech stack, making sure that we're delivering the services that people need to do their jobs. And that's everything from having reliable transport through compute, through end-user devices, and DevSecOps services.
“And then finally data and AI. And that's all about operationalizing data for decision advantage, getting ready for embedding AI and ML responsibly and ethically into more of what we do on a day-to-day basis.
“The overall mission of all of this is to shorten the literal and proverbial kill chain and deliver decision advantage so that, as we go into whatever mission we have, people have the information. They can rely on their systems and they can conduct their mission with our joint partners and our allies. That we can continue to fly, fight and win.”
With technologies like ChatGPT having taken the world by storm, generative AI solutions will continue to hold a role in the DAF’s strategy going forward.
“Generative AI already has really taken the world by storm and it will continue to,” Knausenberger comments. “And as we adopt in the Department of Defence, there is going to be so much power there. Even in basic things like improving productivity and making it easier to bring knowledge to people's fingertips.”
This technology also changes the threat landscape, however. “There was a Wall Street analyst that shared a proprietary model with ChatGPT and that caused some problems for that investment house,” Knausenberger comments. “We don't want our airmen and guardians to inadvertently share controlled unclassified information or classified information with an AI bot that is then going to compile that into its knowledge and share it with the public.
“Likewise, we have to seize this as an opportunity because certainly anyone that is seeking to harm us and our allies will be using it and harnessing it to do harm to us. And so we have to be aware of the threats, we have to be aware of defensive actions against those threats, but we absolutely have to harness the opportunity and leverage these capabilities and we have to do it ethically and responsibly. And I think we have done a pretty good job of that thus far.”
Next steps and advice for the next CIO
For Knausenberger, the next steps involve taking some well-earned time to spend with family.
“Coming into this job I said I’d plan on doing two years. I'm coming up on three. And believe it or not, I'm actually the longest-running CIO in quite some time because this job tends to be a two or three-year role.
“You need new blood, you need new ideas and new approaches to keep things fresh in a space that is going to continue to change.”
After a summer off, the next step will be a role back in the private sector. But Knausenberger won’t rule out a return in future.
“I would not be surprised if some amount of time away if I get a phone call from someone in the national security sector that says, ‘Boy, do I have a juicy problem for you to come and help with!’” she says. “And I will have to give it some really good thought.”
At the time of speaking with Knausenberger, her successor has not been announced. But what advice would she give the next CIO?
“Whoever we choose, what I would tell them is to trust their team, trust the strategy and the roadmaps. We've got a plan in place, we've got momentum, we've got the people doing the right things.
“I would say trust the team to go forward and continue to remember that this is a broad enterprise,” she concludes. “We have a lot of stakeholders and we have to really make sure that we are driving toward that enterprise look, that we're enabling our airmen and guardians and continuing to deliver.”