The Air Force’s First Software Chief Stepped Down—But He Won’t Be Quiet

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Nicolas Chaillan briefed Nextgov on his government exit, what’s to come, and why he believes the U.S. should ban TikTok.

As he settles into post-government life, Nicolas Chaillan still expects to call out the foreign competitors and domestic roadblocks that he says increasingly endanger U.S. security and informed his decision to publicly resign as the Air Force’s first chief software officer. 

“Right now, the urgency is spending time with my kids first, and waking up America before it is too late. Because otherwise, there's just no point,” Chaillan told Nextgov in an interview Tuesday. “Otherwise I need to invest in a bunker.”

A computer coder by the age of seven, Chaillan started his own companies in France at 15. He was part of a team that created a common programming language and went on to be a serial technology entrepreneur, funding businesses across multiple nations. In 2015, the Paris terrorist attacks inspired Chaillan to do something more “than another stupid mobile application.” Months later, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and joined the Homeland Security Department, where he architected Cyber.gov and designed what he said was the first federal zero trust implementation “at any kind of scale” years before the department mandated it as a standard. Chaillan moved on to be Air Force chief software officer and steer Defense Department DevSecOps initiatives. The 37-year-old candidly announced his exit last month on LinkedIn, citing an inability to move forward without appropriate backing from leadership. 

“I tried to raise the alarm for three years and I've yet to see change,” he explained.

Still, amid his departure, Chaillan said he is confident that his team of federal employees “demonstrated it’s possible that a small group of people can really make a difference in the behemoth that is the DOD.” 

One milestone was proving that the military could implement modern artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities securely and at-scale through DevSecOps. That term is a portmanteau of the words development, security and operations—and essentially refers to an approach to platform design. Beyond being the software chief, Chaillan was tapped to co-lead DOD’s Enterprise DevSecOps initiative and establish Platform One, which helps orchestrate and manage the use of all applications across clouds with security baked in. With DevSecOps at its core, it basically enables users to deploy their own software factories with trusted codes.

Platform One is built to be open sourced, so almost anyone can put it to use for their own needs. Chaillan confirmed a dozen non-DOD agencies—and five nations outside of the U.S.—are implementing it.

“People dismiss or don't understand the importance of DevSecOps,” he said. “What they miss is that it is really about the concept of accelerating the continuous delivery of capabilities to the warfighter in production, with the right mix in security so we can move fast and at a pace of relevance.”

Established DevSecOps efforts also proved to be an “enabler” during the military’s recent and rushed removal of troops from Afghanistan. It helped Chaillan’s team during the process to coordinate and access “chats” with DHS and the Veterans Affairs Department that needed strong security, he noted. On the heels of that withdrawal, the U.S. is embarking on a strategic reset. Ahead is a new era of global conflict with less boots on the ground and more weapons in cyberspace. 

“All the software work effectively will save lives,” Chaillan said. “Software is going to be what's going to make us or break us in terms of the next wars and software includes data science, AI and ML—and the ability to effectively bring more insights, connect things better and streamline decisions.”

In the not-so-far future, “whoever dominates in AI will control the world,” he added.

That emerging technology allows entities to work faster, smarter and more efficiently. Chaillan for months has raised concerns that China’s heavier investments in AI could eventually put America behind on a global scale. In this conversation, he took a new angle—calling social media platform TikTok a “weapon system for China.” 

“What TikTok allows the Chinese Communist Party to do is not only to know everything about you and what you have on your device, and get massive access to your to your phone, but with the videos and what's being published, they can—using AI—track mood, and what's in the background, what objects you have and what you’re wearing. It can see around you,” Chaillan said. Immense amounts of data and insights can be pulled from the app by its maker and used for hidden purposes, though the young users it’s marketed to may not be aware of any risk. 

“If you think of the Facebook testimony, you know, I certainly don’t believe that social media is great for kids. No doubt. But I don't think Facebook was designed initially to be harmful,” Chaillan noted. “But on the other hand, TikTok was, right? That wasn't an accident. They picked a very viral concept and made it widely accessible at no cost to anybody, while generating tremendous revenue. … And so, when you start combining all that you have the makings of a weapon of intelligence.”

Chaillan has been consistently vocal regarding the reasons behind his retreat from the Air Force. They go far beyond the rising, complex threats China poses. Many are rooted in encounters finding new solutions to “the same old problems” and then not being empowered by senior leadership to execute on them, he noted. But the “straw that broke the camel’s back” came when he put his reputation on the line to deliver a minimum viable product in four months to demonstrate the Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, effort—only to be told it wouldn’t be funded.

“I was just like, ‘that's it I'm just wasting my time,’” he said, adding later “I saw my kids growing up—I had no kids when I started. Now I have three. That creates a sense of urgency.”

For the near-term, he plans to spend much more time with his family. He will also continue to connect with the press in the coming weeks, and said he has interviews with a few major news networks in the pipeline. Further, he hopes to eventually be able to share his concerns about the DOD’s slow pace for innovation and other topics with Congress and policymakers on the Hill. 

A few Pentagon officials have accused him of creating operational and security issues regarding the public comments he’s made, but Chaillan rejects their claims. He said, online, he is “getting death threats and stuff because people say I was led by China to say this, which is almost funny.” 

Despite the drama, the former software chief said he could return to a government post down the line “under the right conditions.” As of now, he’s also considering pursuits in the growing commercial space sector. 

Jason Weiss was recently appointed DOD’s chief software officer. The Air Force has yet to announce who will follow in Chaillan’s footsteps, though he did leave behind a list of recommendations. “At least I wasn’t the first and only CSO” within the Pentagon, Chaillan noted. 

“I think if I end up being the one that had to take the head to wake up America so we can have a fighting chance against China. That would be great,” he said. “That’s good enough.”

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