What a top NATO commander learned interning at a software startup

September 24, 2022, 5:07 PM UTC
Photo of RAF Air Marshal Johnny Stringer in civilian clothes sitting with a Rebellion Defence coffee mug.
British Royal Air Force Air Marshal Johnny Stringer, now a top NATO air force officer, spent a year working at London-based software startup Rebellion Defence in part to learn the challenges that small companies face trying to sell technology to Western militaries.
Courtesy of Rebellion Defence and Johnny Stringer

There’s a joke making the rounds on the Internet about a retired Navy veteran who gets a job as a Walmart greeter. He’s great at his job—always friendly and enthusiastic, always quick to help out customers. But there’s a problem: he’s also always late for his shift. His manager calls him into his office. He tells the greeter he’s a real asset to the company, but it’s a problem that he is always late. The manager, knowing the greeter is a Navy vet, asks him, what would they do in the Navy if you showed up late in the morning? To which the veteran with a wry smile replies, “They usually stood and saluted and said, ‘Good morning, Admiral. It’s another fine day in the Navy. Can I get your coffee, sir?’”

I was reminded of that joke when I spoke to Air Marshal Johnny Stringer—one of the highest-ranking officers in the U.K.’s Royal Air Force and currently Deputy Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany—about the 13-months he recently spent as essentially an intern at a London-based software startup called Rebellion Defence.

Stringer, whose official title at Rebellion was “RAF Fellow,” got to do far more than just fetch coffee—which he readily admitted was much better at the startup than on an RAF base. “I got exposed to every bit of the business, short of running a profit and loss account and being involved in HR,” Stringer says. What he learned he hopes to take back to the military as it seeks to invest in new technological capabilities.

Rebellion is one of a bevy of new defense companies in the U.S. and Europe that are hoping to loosen the stranglehold that a handful of major defense contractors have on most military budgets, and, in the process, upend the way that defense technology is acquired and delivered in major Western democracies. Rebellion, like many of the new entrants, is not about building tanks or missile launchers. Instead, it is focusing on making software, much of it incorporating artificial intelligence, that can do things like integrate data from different kinds of sensors and analyze it to give commanders a better picture of the battlefield or help them command a fleet of autonomous drones or help defend military communications networks against hackers.

The company was founded in 2019 by a group of government and national security veterans, including Chris Lynch, who previously founded the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Digital Service, Nicole Camarillo, a former strategist for the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command, and Oliver Lewis, a former deputy director of the U.K. government’s digital service and a former U.K. defense intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan. The company has received funding from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as well as venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Venrock—a fund that invests money for the Rockefeller family—and Lupa Systems, a company that invests money for James Murdoch.

Stringer says he was interested in spending time working for a company like Rebellion because had had just helped to put together the U.K.’s Defence Integrated Review, which highlighted the need for the British armed forces to upgrade its technological capabilities and overhaul procurement processes to make it easier to buy from small and medium-sized companies. “I wanted to try and get a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities for firms like Rebellion trying to do business with UK Defence,” he tells me.

The U.K. defense department has made a commitment to increase the amount of procurement spending that goes to small and medium-sized businesses and to make it easier for these companies to win contracts and work with the military. Today, these firms often struggle with defense department red tape. “Even when you successfully win something, there is still a great deal of legacy bureaucracy and high volume, low speed paperwork before you get to the execution of the tech,” Lewis, the Rebellion co-founder and head of its U.K. business, says.

Military red tape meets startup hustle culture

Stringer says he wanted to learn more about these hardships firsthand. He also wanted to discover how software startups like Rebellion work: with agile development processes that are focused on getting a working product out the door quickly and then improving on it with a series of updates. Most defense contractors—because they tend to have started life as companies building physical things like ships or tanks—tend to still operate on much longer-time scales and without thinking about constantly shipping software updates. And militaries themselves tend to be bureaucratic places where change happens slowly, if at all.

Also, modern software companies, are all about making their software play nice with other software through application programming interfaces (APIs). By contrast, traditional defense contractors often created software ecosystems unique to their own military hardware—in part because it was a way to ensure that militaries were locked in as customers and could not easily switch to a different vendor.

Ramstein Air Base, Germany
Martin Goldhahn—DPA/AFP/Getty Images

Although the U.K.’s Defence Review was drafted before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war has already underlined the need for some of the technological capabilities discussed in that document: for instance, the Ukrainians have had to create software to integrate data from both commercial drones and military-grade ones, ground-based cameras, and from a vast range of different military equipment that nations have donated. Stringer says that software can acts as “Information Age-glue,” binding legacy weapons systems together into a cohesive whole that is much more powerful than any of one system would be on its own. “You can do an awful lot to enhance [older weapons platforms], even allowing for some of the perhaps antediluvian software approaches taken in the past, because of what you’re layering on top,” he says.

But in order to create that kind of software-based “glue,” and especially to be able to apply A.I. to help commanders make better decisions, companies big and small will need to adhere to common standards that enable data-sharing across weapons and surveillance systems built by different defense contractors. “If you find yourself sort of locked into a program and a particular software standard, and you can neither access it, let alone, exploit it and share it, then that’s going to pose some real problems downstream,” he says.

For Lewis, having Stringer working at the startup gave his team invaluable insights. He was able to give engineers insights into how officers would use software—and what aspects of the user interface design were helpful and which weren’t—that Lewis says they could never get from just reading or from brief customer trials.

He also says that Stringer provided valuable lessons to Rebellion on leadership, management, and organization—the sort of stuff that trips up many fast-growing startups. “[Stringer] would sit in our leadership team meetings as a sort of observer and then afterwards would come up to me and say, ‘These are some of the dynamics which are working and these are some things you might need to reconsider, here are some ideas for restructuring the team here are some ideas to be more effective at evidence-based decision making,’” Lewis says.

Finally, Lewis says it would help the entire industry of smaller companies trying to break into the defense industry for senior officers, such as Stringer, to “see what it is like for real, and to feel the pain and enjoy the successes.”

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