Chris Lynch, director of the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Digital Service, photographed in his Pentagon office on Aug. 23, 2016. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Chris Lynch, director of the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Digital Service, photographed in his Pentagon office on Aug. 23, 2016. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Pentagon’s designer of $10 billion JEDI cloud is stepping down

The Pentagon has narrowed the field of contract contenders to Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

By Naomi Nix / Bloomberg

The Pentagon official who developed a controversial $10 billion cloud-computing project is stepping down after four years of efforts to upgrade the Defense Department’s information technology systems.

Chris Lynch, director of the Defense Digital Service, told his staff in an email that he was ending his “nerd tour of duty.” Brett Goldstein, Chicago’s former chief information officer, “will be leading Defense Digital Service through its next phase to grow and expand this incredible work,” he said.

Lynch was behind the development of the planned Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract, or JEDI, which has faced criticism from some large technology companies that fear the winner-take-all award will squeeze them out of the federal market. The Pentagon has narrowed the field of contenders to Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. A decision isn’t expected before mid-July.

“JEDI is coming (the nerds have won my friends),” Lynch wrote in the email obtained by Bloomberg News. “You’re all the really critical part of that. You always have been and always will be. Keep delivering. Keep getting s—- done. Nothing else matters.”

Lynch was one of the longest-serving members of the digital office, which is designed to encourage temporary tours of duty for technologists. He has been working with Goldstein, who starts this week, on the transition to his leadership.

“Under the leadership of Chris Lynch, DDS has hacked the bureaucracy to strengthen our national security and improve the lives of service members and their families,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a statement Monday. He said Goldstein will lead the team as it continues “to disrupt and transform technology” at the Defense Department.

Lynch is leaving as DDS is expanding efforts to modernize the Pentagon’s technology, including increasing its reliance on cloud computing, hiring more skilled technical workers and simplifying internal systems.

A former startup founder, Lynch joined the Defense Digital Service in 2015. At the Pentagon, he and his crew stood out in their hoodies and sneakers among the military uniforms. Their fashion statement — and the JEDI acronym invoking “Star Wars” — signaled a determination to bring fresh thinking from Silicon Valley into the Defense Department to modernize its aging and bureaucratic systems.

The technology-focused division is part of the White House’s United States Digital Service, which was established by the Obama administration after the botched launch of healthcare.gov.

The Defense Digital Service has launched a slew of initiatives. The group started “Hack the Pentagon,” a program that brings in outside hackers to hunt for vulnerabilities in the Defense Department’s websites and technologies. It also created an internal talent program that recruited technically trained officers and soldiers to work alongside their civilian staffers on projects such as developing a program to detect drones.

Other projects included a new electronic records program to replace a mainly paper-based system for transferring records of military recruits and a revamped system to coordinate military families’ moves.

Lynch, listed irreverently as “Fearless Leader” on the Defense Digital Service’s website, was also a fixture on the conference circuit, extolling the importance of modernizing the Pentagon’s technology and recruiting more tech-savvy workers to join the federal government.

Lynch drew the ire of some traditional technology companies that disagreed with his approach on the JEDI cloud project, which involves transitioning massive amounts of Defense Department data to a centralized cloud system.

Tech companies banded together in an informal coalition last year to urge the Defense Department to split the contract among several suppliers. The department has said that making multiple awards under current acquisition law would be a slow process that could prevent it from quickly delivering new capabilities to warriors. A mysterious dossier suggesting that the Pentagon, including Lynch, had rigged the bidding process in favor of Amazon even circulated in Washington.

Oracle Corp. filed a lawsuit in December in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims alleging that the contract was marred by relationships between former Pentagon employees and Amazon. The Government Accountability Office and an internal Pentagon investigation determined the connections didn’t compromise the integrity of the procurement. Oral arguments are expected to occur in July.

“To say that this has been the greatest detour of my life would be an incredible understatement, but starting this team and working with you has fundamentally changed my life, and I believe the lives of so many others as well,” Lynch said in his email. “The impact our team is making all across the Department of Defense and for our service members is mind boggling and profound.”

Goldstein, Lynch’s successor, brings yet a different resume to the Pentagon job. A former director of information technology at restaurant-reservation company Open Table Inc., he became a Chicago police officer after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He later created CivicScape, which uses data analysis to anticipate areas where crimes may occur — a technology that’s won praise but also criticism from those who say it risks turning policing into a video game.

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