The Army’s Longtime Cloud Chief Looks Back—and Forward
Paul Puckett talks about what the service has accomplished in cloud computing since 2019, what’s left undone, and what’s next.
The former leader of the Army’s cloud-services office says he has left the service in good shape to tackle its next digital challenges: improving secure data access for AI, Joint All Domain Command and Control, and other uses.
“We have established a foundation that I believe has demonstrated that any wins weren't a fluke. That's demonstrated repeatability, that's demonstrated quality. And then based off of those things, has all of the opportunity for scale for the United States Army—and I would argue to a degree, other services across the Department of Defense,” Puckett told Defense One, after stepping down from his post over the holidays. He is now the chief technology officer for Maryland-based software company Clarity.
Puckett had led the Army’s cloud efforts since 2019, when the service established the provisional Enterprise Cloud Management Office to centralize them. At the time, leaders figured “the Army was going to be all in the cloud in three years. And then the ECMO was going to disappear,” he said. Eventually, they realized that digital modernization was never going to end, and the ECMO became the Enterprise Cloud Management Agency.
Gregg Judge, who has been the agency’s deputy director since 2019, is currently acting in ECMA’s lead role until the Army finds a permanent replacement. The Army’s chief information officer, Raj Iyer, announced he was also leaving his post earlier this year.
During Puckett’s tenure, the Army began developing and using tactical cloud services outside of the continental United States, worked to build up mission command capabilities, laid plans for difficult communications in the Indo-Pacific region, and began moving the Army’s enterprise business systems to the cloud.
ECMA led a new cloud adoption strategy and stood up cArmy, the service’s secure cloud services environment, which includes software-development tools and a common data platform. It also developed two contracting vehicles to simplify buying and migrating to the cloud. One is a fast-tracked option expected to move into production this year, Cloud Account Management Optimization; the other is Enterprise Application Modernization and Migration, which aims to be an “easy button” to help commanders move their systems to the cloud. The latter is expected to be a $1 billion contract awarded later this year.
Implementing cloud wherever possible became essential as the Army, and the Defense Department writ large, pushed forward with digital modernization.
Puckett said the ECMA was responsible for a mix of strategy and acquisition developments, while continually planning and delivering cloud capabilities. And the best way to achieve that was by overseeing “the entire lifecycle of capability for delivering cloud services.”
“The government has approached delivering capability where everything is betting your entire life savings right on that one number on roulette and hoping that you're going to hit it every time,” Puckett said. “We need to make more agile and smaller bets so we can learn and accrue value over time, rather than going all in, it feels, on every single acquisition.”
That method relies on quickly testing ideas and theories, rewriting requirements and policies to drive outcomes, and scaling what worked.
“It's not just our systems that have to be designed agile, it's our organizations that have to be designed agile, it's our processes…our policies,” he said.
He said ECMA tries to rewrite requirements and policies with the Army chief information officer in a way that doesn’t try to predict or assume the future.
For example, efforts to move mission command into the cloud were “born out of pain,” Puckett said.
Army Forces Command was tired of lugging thousands of pounds of equipment into the field for exercises, he said. The question was: “can I train, right, virtually and have access to cloud infrastructure and leave some of this stuff at home and just take the stuff I really need into the field to train?”
After almost two years, the result: “a model by which we can look at requirements differently, we can look at acquisition strategy differently, we can look at the role of the [Program Executive Office] differently,” he said. “And now we're talking about a world of global delivery of mission command services” with the Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical on track to have mission command capabilities running in the cloud this year.
But there’s still work to be done, from improving data access and visibility to training personnel and preparing leaders for a more digital future.
When it comes to “training and upskilling people, we need to also think about the resources that they get. We need to think about the environments in which they thrive and they grow,” Puckett said. “But we also need to think about having leadership that understands the gaps and opportunities that we have and how to grow people to fill those gaps. And when we have leadership that doesn't understand the technical implications when it comes to decisions or even the necessity for technical skill sets in order to make good decisions or outcomes for a mission, then we're going to struggle to grow and hire the right talent into those positions.”
Puckett, who runs his own consulting firm and holds several board seats, said he hopes the next ECMA director is “appropriately provocative” in making sure the Army gets the digital advantage it needs.
“I hope whoever comes in is willing to, at the very least question, some of the things that we've done, more so in the how rather than the why,” he said.