The Mistake of Making No Mistakes - Peter Thiel's Perspective on Government and the Pentagon
In 2017 I joined a group hosting Peter Thiel and Trae’ Stephens in the Pentagon. The meeting did not include the Secretary of Defense.
The only explanation for the way the government is designed is the government existed before there were computers. If you started from scratch, it would be structured a completely different way.
There is making mistakes, and then there’s the mistake of making no mistakes, and that is a very big mistake.
There’s an ancient history outside living memory in the Valley … strange to us now. In the 50s and 60s it was possible to break in. The mission was aspirational. People felt an existential threat to Western democracy. After the Cold War there was an enormous consolidation of the industry. Today breaking in is more difficult, not less. Incentives have become radically decoupled from outcomes. Last year’s NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] was 1500 pages; fifteen years ago, it was 90 pages.
You couldn’t do a Manhattan Project today; the letter from Einstein would get lost in the mail.
The manufacturing service life of the Ohio Class submarine is planned out to the year 2094. Will that system be relevant in 75 years?
The chicken-and-egg is still, “We’ll buy from you if we’re already buying from you.” Things like the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Digital Service are end-arounds.
An outsider’s perspective on personnel: the people who understand computers get evaluated on different grounds. Managers don’t understand what they do. If you don’t know what they’re doing, you evaluate them on personality or something else. In a job you want your boss to be better at almost everything you do. You want the CIO to be technically quite good. It’s important for morale. Otherwise the most talented engineers leave. You need someone who’s looked up to by the other people in the Department for technical capability. How can the Department implement a new pay scale for engineers?
To do well in these positions — if you’re a consummate outsider, you need to be seen as a consummate insider.
You don’t want pilots relegated to the broom closet. When you’re disrupted, you want alternate roads that are not just cul-de-sacs.