Silicon Valley should fight its stigma against military work
Political debate at work was not encouraged when I was training to be a doctor at the LAC+USC Medical Center in the early 2000s.
On the 13th-floor jail ward, we had a professional duty to care for drunk drivers and thieves just like any other patient and leave any opinions about criminal justice policy for their appropriate venues.
Medicine is not unique in this respect — we’re all better off when lawyers, soldiers and other public service providers place their duty to society over individual opinions.
Technology companies often aspire to fill similarly critical roles in society, but few have internalized the separation between professional duty and personal opinion. I have seen this firsthand as the founder of a tech company that serves a wide range of organizations, including amateur to collegiate and professional sports, occupational health and a growing roster of military commands.
Many founders fail to explore DOD opportunities because they do not want to be seen as engaging in the business of war.
During the last presidential administration, a handful of colleagues questioned whether serving the military was consistent with our mission of helping the world move better. Over the past few years, this stigma toward military work has roiled some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley, sometimes leading to contract cancelations, non-renewal pledges and a noticeable chilling effect toward work involving the United States military.
Partnerships between technology companies and the military are nothing new, but rarely have they attracted as much controversy as they do today. These partnerships were the norm throughout the 20th century, yielding war-winning technologies — like microwave radar, GPS and ARPANET — that pulled double-duty in peacetime as the building blocks of our modern connected world.
Military contracts have been traditionally viewed in Silicon Valley as a win-win — for the nation’s military superiority and for a company’s bottom line. Moonshot projects backed by the federal government’s financial resources also represented some of the most interesting workarounds for product-minded technologists.
That relationship has been knocked off its bearings over the past several years, with employees at Microsoft, Google and Amazon, among other companies, seeking to distance themselves from all federal projects due to the revulsion of the previous administration’s policies. But with new leadership in Washington, companies and tech workers need to determine if the stigma against military work will become permanently ingrained or limited to one chapter in an evolving relationship.
Before looking forward, one common misconception is worth correcting from the previous administration about the tension between employees and the military. Recent research challenges the notion that anti-military views are universal among the tech workforce.
In a survey conducted between late 2019 and early 2020, Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology found that less than a quarter of AI professionals view Pentagon work in a negative light, and 78% consider it a positive or neutral.
Companies that are open to pursuing opportunities with the Department of Defense should consider several advantages and differences between commercial and government clients.
Federal contracts are generally distinguished by large dollar amounts, low profit margins and long periods of performance. This can appeal to VC-backed companies that are valued based on revenue, and the unique structure of government contracts brings a welcome complement to the lucrative but highly volatile work in B2B and B2C markets. Blending the two extremes produces a stronger whole, not unlike mutual funds that balance stocks and bonds.
Many founders fail to explore DOD opportunities because they do not want to be seen as engaging in the business of war. We encountered a version of this at Sparta Science with colleagues who conflated our work to support federal employees with a full endorsement of all government policy.
Reality is more nuanced. The DOD has an annual budget of more than half a trillion dollars and a workforce of 2.8 million. Only a portion of these individuals are directly engaged in warfighting, and they rely on great numbers of administrators and knowledge professionals to accomplish each mission.
The DOD has approximately 1.3 million active contracts at any given moment, spanning fields as diverse as healthcare, apparel, logistics and software licensing. The military is rightly described as a cross-section of the United States, and supporting those who serve is a Silicon Valley tradition, good business practice and the right thing to do.