Female Disruptors: Hannah Hunt of the ‘US Air Force’ On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
Don’t be afraid to not be the smartest person in the room — It’s humbling to know you don’t know everything. Even if you know most things, you may not have the greatest context about a particular situation and that’s okay.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hannah Hunt.
Hannah Hunt is the Chief of Staff at Kessel Run, a software startup inside the Air Force with a big love of all Star Wars. Hannah is the youngest female Chief of Staff in the Air Force and focuses on day-to-day operations of the organization while revolutionizing the way the Air Force builds and delivers software.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path is definitely diverse. I actually didn’t have any professional software experience until I joined Kessel Run. I studied Global Security and the Middle East in graduate school in Washington, DC and took a variety of roles within several federal agencies including the Department of State, Department of Treasury, and now the Department of Defense. I’m one of those people who picks up a lot of different things very quickly, so I’ve managed legislative affairs, major events and international summits during the Obama Administration and led Strategic Initiatives and DoD acquisitions for the Army in acquiring medical products like drugs and vaccines to counter chemical and biological weapons.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Kessel Run is all about the power of disruption. We were created about three years ago after spending about $500M on a modernization effort for a weapon system failed. Out of the ashes of that effort, Kessel Run was born. For those who aren’t Star Wars fans, Han Solo told Luke Skywalker in A New Hope that the Millennium Falcon did the Kessel Run, a known smuggling route, in under 12 parsecs. We say that we smuggled modern software development into the Air Force, by bringing in well-known industry concepts like agile software development, user-centered design, and DevOps. Our software development isn’t the only thing that is agile, our acquisitions and business operations are also agile. I’m on a team that is pushing to refine the way business is done within the Air Force. Currently, Defense Acquisition takes anywhere from 8–10 years to acquire and build a weapon system, and by the time it’s done, it is totally irrelevant to the operational environment. I lead an effort to reverse that, to ensure capabilities are sent into the field early on, in small iterations, and with tight feedback loops. We’ve been able to deliver software in a matter of days and weeks versus months and years. You hear about computer hackers, but I’m one of those bureaucracy hackers cutting through the minutiae of policy and business rules to get real results fast, while also being a young woman in leadership in a military, male-centric environment.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t know how funny it is, but my first real job was with the State Department organizing major events and conferences for then-President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. We had this huge international summit on nuclear nonproliferation and I was in charge of managing bilateral meetings between heads of state. As the King of Jordan and his diplomatic party were coming down the aisle I tripped on the curtains and landed right in front of him. The lesson I learned from that was to not take myself too seriously! ;)
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve had some great role models and mentors throughout my career. Two of my mentors are also big disruptors in the defense community. They’ve taught me about the politics of working in the largest bureaucracy in the country, and how to navigate the ‘frozen middle’ of people who will always say no to change. I’ve learned how to be a strong female leader based on their guidance and suggestions. I can come off pretty passionate, so sometimes I need to hone that in more in order to get to ‘yes.’ That is kind of what bureaucracy hacking is all about anyways — identifying the policies and rules that will get you to yes versus people saying no.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
A lot of military doctrine is disruptive. There is a future strategy for warfare that is constantly shifting with new and unknown threats that we need to be prepared for. While the doctrine is disruptive, the execution typically isn’t. The military is incredibly risk averse and oftentimes doesn’t deliver new capabilities into the field until they are actually obsolete. So we need disruption not just at the doctrine level, but the strategy and execution levels. A ‘not so positive’ disruption is focusing on military training and exercises that focus on the threat today, verus the future threat. We aren’t looking forward to the next 5–10 years because we are focused on the existing warfight.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. Don’t be afraid to not be the smartest person in the room — It’s humbling to know you don’t know everything. Even if you know most things, you may not have the greatest context about a particular situation and that’s okay.
2. Never stop learning — I’m an avid reader and researcher. I want to learn as much about something as I can, so I spend a lot of time understanding the latest tech trends and how they align with government policies. If you don’t have a growth mindset, you’ll stay stagnant.
3. Care about the people, always — You aren’t typically a one woman show. You will have a team around you and above you and you need to always care for those around you. A great leader isn’t someone that barks orders; a great leader is someone who listens to those around them and cares about the staff that work for them.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Lead generation isn’t necessarily a thing in the Government. However, you do need to rely on industry partners that want to work with the Government. So I’d say the best way to find good vendors and teammates is to partner with small businesses. They are often very focused on their people and have more of a startup mindset than larger corporations. I’ve found the greatest partners are those small business companies willing to get into the muck with you and build great products!
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
A big effort I’m passionate about is attracting tech talent to come do a “tour of service” with the U.S. Government and work with us to build great products that users love. The federal hiring process is incredibly antiquated and takes on average 180 days to hire someone. I’ve been leading an effort within the Air Force to cut down the time-to-hire from 180 to 30–40 days. In the private sector that is still incredibly slow, but in the Government it’s incredibly fast! I’ve been leading a team that recruits for diverse tech talent, reviews and vets them based on industry versus government standards, and work with our HR partners to rapidly bring them on. We do this through big-bang onboarding Hiring Events where we extended anywhere between 40–50 job offers over the course of 2–3 days.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I’m a HUGE Brene Brown fan. Rising Strong is probably my favorite book by her. She is always talking about how being vulnerable is incredibly courageous and how vulnerability and struggle can bring us to the greatest level of wisdom and hope. Her emphasis on having emotions and not just pushing them down is in complete contrast with a military culture. So her works and talks really enable me to bring passion and vulnerability into my work, which often leads to better outcomes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Hitch your wagon to a star. To me, this is all about aspiring to do great things and consistently pushing myself to grow both professionally and personally.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think we have a real diversity deficit within the military. Women make up less than 20 percent of active duty personnel and the military is predominantly white, especially among the officer versus enlisted corps. I would love to inspire a movement to get a more diverse military since research shows a more diverse group leads to better results. Even people who like me are not in uniform but serve in a civilian capacity, we need a greater representation in the DoD.
How can our readers follow you online?
I am pretty active on LinkedIn and you can find me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-feldman-hunt-b8646a97/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!