CTI Veteran Q&A Series: Derrick Lewis
Derrick Lewis is an 8-year Navy Veteran who worked as an Intelligence Analyst.
Give us some background and a summary on your military experience: I was an intelligence analyst in the Navy. That means I would study some type of problem whether that be enemy units, foreign strategy, or emerging capabilities, and then try to draw some conclusions from the information we had available. I was charged with becoming a subject matter expert on these things, and then I would try to assess future activities.
In eight years, I got to work at all three levels of warfare. I spent one year at school, then three on an aircraft carrier (operational), three at NSA (strategic), and then one at a helicopter squadron (tactical).
Intelligence analysts rarely get to specialize in any one thing since we jump around so much. We do get to become generalists with some experience touching many different capabilities and strategies. I also learned how to be agile and learn quickly, as we are often tasked with becoming a subject matter expert and assessing a situation on a very quick turnaround.
We do a lot of briefing. I think our subtitle is Powerpoint Wizard. It was a love-hate relationship. I loved the pressure and performing, but I also hated the performance aspect of it. Intelligence analysts fill an odd role where we are often one of the most junior ranking individuals in the room, and are charged with standing in front of command leadership, facilitating a discussion about nuanced topics. It’s a constructed, stressful environment, and I have no doubt it’s a big part of the reason I enjoy navigating under pressure today.
Why did you decide to transition out of the military? To understand why I transitioned out of the military, I think it’s important to first understand what moves me. Outwardly, I like impacting the world around me in a positive way. I try to cast the biggest net of influence I can to accomplish that. Inwardly, I am driven by being challenged. I like digging into uncomfortable things, figuring them out, passing them on and moving onto the next challenge.
So with that, I decided to transition out of the military before I ever joined the military. It was never supposed to be a career for me. I initially joined to do something more significant than the current small-town life I had. I wanted to cause a greater effect on the world and at first I saw the military as the best way to do that, but always knew I would graduate into something where I could be more impactful.
Software engineering was a hobby I dabbled with from my mid-teens. I loved how easy it was to move from an idea to a working product with minimal monetary investment. So when it came time to renew my contract in the military, or marry my software hobby with my analytic experience, it made more sense to transition out, finish my engineering degree, and use those skills to cause a greater impact on the world than I could being a military analyst alone.
I loved the Navy. I spent eight years surrounded by incredibly talented people driving the world forward every day. It’s hard to match the significance a soldier can have on the world anywhere outside of the military. But for me it came down to what industry could I contribute the most to, and I thought software-related defense was the perfect fit.
Why did you choose CTI? I chose CTI because we are different. After graduating university, I was on what I would call the traditional track -- having been recruited by one of the big three defense contractors for an internship, secured a job offer, and started working full time for them. That was supposed to be my life. Through a stroke of good luck, a friend, who worked with CTI on their website, mentioned how great they were to work with. After doing some research into their focus, I decided to shoot out my resume, and one thing led to another very quickly.
There were things like location and industry focus that first drew me in (who doesn’t want to work in a cool, open office downtown across from the ballpark?), but it was my first phone call with two engineers that made me fall in love with CTI.
There are two primary reasons: 1.) I see CTI as a software/tech company first, and defense contractor second and 2.) CTI’s focus is giving war-fighters the tools they need first, and figure out the details later.
I believe most companies in government contracting have both of these backwards.
So what do I mean by number one? CTI follows the latest industry trends in technology as opposed to living in the defense contracting bubble. This means we do things like TRUE agile development as opposed to taking decades to build a monolith that will be outdated before it is ever even deployed. Engineers like me benefit from this model because there is less resistance in doing the things that interest us and bring capabilities to our users. Users benefit from this model because they get working software tools sooner, and therefore are better-equipped soldiers. It’s a rare win-win scenario in business.
The best way to show number two is through our use of the government off the shelf (GOTS) model. This is roughly equivalent to open source software development, but only government entities have access to the source code. This part is HUGE. What it enables us to do, is work as a TEAM with a consortium of government contractors to build unified products. This benefits users in many ways because they get a diverse group of developers all working towards the same cause. It’s a force multiplier towards developing better capabilities. Since we (GOTS defense contractors) are all working in the same space, all of our software applications are interoperable as we can ensure they play well together. It also helps us deconflict efforts, and ensure we are not developing mirror capabilities in a bubble. Again, this leads to our users fielder better capabilities faster and for less. Another rare win-win scenario.
What are you currently working on at CTI? And how does your past experience in the military contribute to this? I’m working on a program that aims to simplify and unify the mission planning process.
A big part of what makes CTI a great software company is our focus on getting input from end users to guide our development decisions. This current project started out with disparate user engagement sessions where we individually had talks with a few of our user-groups who would be fielding the software once we are finished. We tried to get a sense of how they currently do their jobs, what their pain points were, and what would be potential solutions to those roadblocks.
My experience working in the ‘2’ shop (military way of saying intel shop), which is an integral part of the mission planning process, has helped me engage with and understand our users' needs better. We speak in a different language in the military, and CTIs approach to hiring veterans helps bridge the gap between english and 'militaryish' during these user engagement sessions.
Again, end users are the winner here. They get products closer to what they need since we understand them, because a lot of us were them before we transitioned to CTI.
From your perspective as a veteran, what is your opinion of CTI's approach using GOTS and open software solutions? Point blank I think GOTS and open software solutions save lives because it makes our soldiers a more ready and capable force. It turns the paradigm upside down from what used to be government contracting “how can we extract as much revenue as possible from a contract” to “lets deliver the solutions to our customers first, and worry about the other stuff later.”
It’s why I’m proud to work at CTI. We are industry shakers, focusing on users as opposed to our pockets, and in this industry when lives are at stake, I can’t believe this is the exception and not the norm.
Do you think it is or could be impactful to active duty personnel? Why and how?
It is and I know that from experience.
My last duty station was a helicopter squadron and my role was to prepare the pilots for their mission by identifying clear landing zones and threats along the way. We were transferring between forward operating bases (FOBs) which takes a few C-17s to shuttle all the personnel and equipment. Our hardware and software that did the heavy imagery and terrain analysis was loaded onto the C-17 that broke down on the tarmac leaving the first FOB. The rest of the squadron continued on to the next FOB.
We had to fly a mission the next day, but we didn’t have our imagery mensuration equipment so we essentially had to fly blind. We thought we would just be able to use public software like Google Earth as a replacement, but the imagery was too dated and elevation data wasn’t high enough resolution. There ended up being new construction in the area of one of landing zones, and one of our helos hit a power pole with the edge of their rotors. Again, we were flying blind because the one computer we could afford to have the software license for wasn’t with us, and the software was inaccessible otherwise. This is what happens in a world of closed-source software solutions for the military. Company profits take precedence over equipping war-fighters. In that world taxpayers and soldiers lose.
If we were using a CTI product at the time, we could have just downloaded another version of the software onto any laptop, and successfully completed that mission without the mishap. This is a docile example because the result was just damaged rotor caps, and forced us to ground the bird until we could secure new ones. It doesn’t take much imagination to dream up scenarios where CTI’s focus on delivering GOTS solutions doesn’t only save money and enable a more ready force, but directly impacts the lives of servicemembers.
My dream is that we shake up our industry enough to inspire other contractors to deliver solutions the same way, so our soldiers are better equipped to face the unique challenges they do today.