Innovating for Solutions that Scale: A Q&A with MITRE's Rich Byrne

January 2020
Topics: Innovation, Scientific Research and Development, Collaborations
Rich Byrne isn’t afraid of mistakes. He’s afraid of what happens if they leave us none the wiser. As the senior vice president for our Center for Programs & Technology, he discusses how learning, adaptability, and innovation are key to our mission.
Rich Byrne in MITRE laboratory with employee

Q: Why are experimentation and research important, in general, and to MITRE’s mission, specifically? Why is it important that MITRE experiment and innovate?

A: MITRE is all about making the world a safer place. This means we have to stay ahead on solutions to global challenges.

Most game-changing research is technology-based and has been throughout history. It [technology] is often the biggest disruptor, so it makes sense that the solutions and the problems are rooted in technology. We look at all angles.

This is especially important because today’s threat environment changes rapidly. We innovate against a constantly shifting landscape, which means we’re always taking new approaches to problem-solving.


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Q: Can you give a brief overview of MITRE’s heritage of experimentation and innovation? And how that heritage informs what we’re doing today?

A: Experimentation is inherent in MITRE’s DNA. We began our work in radar for air national defense. Our early research advanced radar, AWACS, bistatic radar, anti-jamming technology for radios, and many other breakthroughs. These platforms created historic advances that helped us win the Cold War. And those technologies evolved into new critical technologies.  

Our heritage informs what we’re doing today. We still invest our time and talent in new and different platforms. Unlike years back, platforms—data analytics, for example—now have to change and adapt quickly, not incrementally, to meet quickly changing threats.

Think of Intel architecture and Apple platforms, even social media. Who knew that election disinformation would happen over the platform of social media? Solutions must be just as agile as the platforms themselves. 

Q: In what way(s) is our R&D unique? How does MITRE contribute in ways that others cannot?

A: MITRE doesn’t compete with the private sector. We’re a not-for-profit. We bridge a gap that government and industry can’t. Industry has profits to watch, and government often can’t commit the needed resources. We go where there is high risk and huge reward in terms of public impact.

But we don’t do this alone. Our public-private partnerships are key. It’s the whole being greater than the sum of parts.

For instance, when you think about airline safety, no single entity has enough resources to tackle this area. You need the FAA, industry, air traffic controllers, and other partners. MITRE conducts R&D in that unique space where different entities meet to problem-solve. Even the traditional acquisition process—the waterfall approach--is less relevant now. We’re working on a DevOps approach to acquisition that builds operating and maintenance into the process. This brings efficiencies.

Q: How do you see experimentation and innovation fitting into and showing up as part of MITRE culture?

A: We come from experimentation and innovation—we have our roots in MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. We’ve always experimented.

The big difference is the speed at which things change. That’s the big delta shift from our early years when we had more fixed challenges. With the Cold War, we knew the threat, we had the playbook. Today, we need to adapt rapidly. We need what Jeff Bezos calls two-way decision-making where you work at speed, go in and see how it’s working, then come out having learned from what worked and what didn’t. Then you go in again, quickly.

At MITRE, we like to succeed, we’re experts. But you can’t predict what will be right. We must go fast and not know everything. That shift in thinking is happening at MITRE every day.

Q: How is an experimentation and innovation-oriented mindset best fostered?

A: Tom Chi, who’s a senior visiting MITRE Fellow, says it’s not about making mistakes, but what you learn from the process. You learn when you’re surprised by something. Maybe something didn’t work the way you predicted it would. If nothing surprises us, it means we’re not learning. Google X measures this—what was learned.

To create a developmental culture, people have to know that not everything will or should work perfectly. In fact, learning from things not going according to plan should be expected and rewarded. It’s accountable autonomy that creates a growth mindset. And you must be willing to take risks.

Q: Can you talk a little about the intersection of innovation and diversity?

A: When you think about a diverse set of ingredients, it’s really the recipe that’s key. The success or failure of a team depends on the leader’s perspective and understanding of how to best leverage the benefits of diversity and inclusion.

Training our leadership how to effectively take advantage of diversity to meet goals and innovate to impact outcomes is where we’re focusing. This is key to an organization’s success.

Q: What’s one MITRE innovation that you regard highly and why?

A: I can’t pick just one. Radar, command and control, our work with NORAD, those are world-class in every dimension. The thing is that we have such breadth of innovation. Our scale is huge, it’s not narrow. Our Cursor on Target is in the trenches, working with incredible public impact. When we helped the IRS improve fraud detection, fraud decreased by 40 percent in one year. The best MITRE innovations scale and impact lives.

Q: Any final takeaways you’d like to share?

A: Experimentation and innovation are important to keep the nation and the world safe.

But it’s not the words that make them happen, it’s people. In MITRE’s case, our people are the cornerstone of our success. We want to attract and retain the best talent. It’s a privilege to have our mission and the ability to offer competitive salaries. People work here because they want to work in the public interest. It’s like medical personnel who work in the NICU. They’re there because of the mission.

But we don’t need all the talent. We need enough talent to leverage others’ talent. That’s because our success is not stand-alone. It’s in our partnerships—with government, labs, industry, and academia—that we’re a force multiplier. Whole sectors come to us to ask us to bring stakeholders together. We’re a trusted, neutral party with a clear mission that’s public-minded. That’s a key distinction.

—by Karina Wright

Explore more at MITRE Focal Point: Experimentation and Research.


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