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SIS Alumna Hannah Hunt Leads Team to Develop New Defense Software

SIS alumna Hannah Hunt discusses her career and the importance of technology in international security.

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Since graduating from SIS in 2018 from the Global Governance, Politics, and Security program (GGPS), Hannah Hunt has found her calling in the military technology industry. She has worked for the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Department of the Treasury, and she was the youngest-ever chief of staff for Kessel Run, a division of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, before landing her current position as chief product and innovation officer at the Army Software Factory. Her accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed: she was named to both the 2021 Forbes “30 under 30” list for enterprise technology and the 2021 Project Management Institute (PMI) Future50 list, and she was a TEDx conference speaker. We spoke with Hannah about how her SIS education helped her enter and succeed in her field and what she thinks about the future role of technology in international affairs. 

How and when did you decide to pursue combining international affairs and technology?
It kind of came out of happenstance. I was interested in cross-cultural communications in the defense space, and I had my master's degree in global governance, politics, and security, so I had been looking for a role that could combine those two things. I realized while working at the State Department that a lot of the change and impact I wanted to make would be in the defense space. I came upon a neat opportunity with Kessel Run, which is an organization in the Air Force that builds software and is led by active-duty personnel and federal employees. A lot of the work I was doing with the Air Force was with international partners in Qatar, Germany, and Korea, and I found that I loved it.
At Kessel Run, I started as a program manager but blossomed when I began working as the chief of staff for the organization. Moving over to the Army, where I am currently, it's exciting to use my background in cross-cultural communications and diplomacy to see the connective tissue joining the defense sector to the technology sector.
What drew you to the defense and military technology sector?
While I was at the State Department, I saw that diplomacy was a critical component of our national defense strategy. There's both the soft and hard power of the military, and I wanted to bring more of that soft power to the Department of Defense. I wanted to ask the question "do we need to execute this mission?" and "how do we do that in a smart way?"
How did your time at AU and within SIS help shape your career path?
I think my education and experiences were immensely beneficial. I could tap into a lot of different internship opportunities, and I held a couple of internships with the Treasury Department and then with the State Department. That catapulted me into the roles that I have today. I took a lot of courses about the Middle East in both my undergraduate and graduate degrees; I wanted to know and understand that culture. I took classes on Islam and the political economy of the region, and I wanted to have a nuanced approach to our interactions in those areas. In my career, the largest presence at that time was the active-duty military force that we had in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to be able to provide a layer of cultural relativism and nuance to how we interacted. But I also wanted to build software that will help make it less likely that we create additional adversaries. Overall, I think SIS gave me a well-rounded view of the world, enabling me to have a nuanced approach to how I interact within the military sector.
While you were at Kessel Run, you were their youngest-ever chief of staff. How did this role challenge you and help you grow?
It was a big challenge. I had to learn leadership skills very quickly, and I had always been kind of an individual contributor, so I had to grow very quickly into how I wanted to be as a leader. I care about the people and the culture, and those are not things that are often prioritized. I wanted to enable a culture that would focus on autonomy and psychological safety. I focused on being a servant leader versus somebody who has a more top-down approach. Consensus building, the notion of the give-and-take in a diplomatic sense, and the notion that there are different cultures within an organization all came from my education and experiences at AU. I had to grow up fast because I was 26 and leading a 1,400-person organization. It was immensely difficult but also very rewarding.
You were named to the Forbes “30 under 30” list for enterprise technology. What does appearing on a list like that mean to you? Has it opened doors in your career?
It’s a huge honor to be on that list, as there are not a lot of people in the government that have been included. It was very humbling to be included, especially in a domain in which I don't have a degree. I'm not a computer science major, and I didn't study mathematics, so to be able to say, “Hey, I took a lot of the skill sets and themes within my degrees and put that towards a technology-type role” is cool. It has also opened a lot of doors for me. Almost two years ago, I changed roles from the Air Force to the Army, where I'm now the chief of products for the Army Software Factory. I think without the Forbes nomination and inclusion on the list, I wouldn't have been recruited as aggressively for it. Now, because of the 30 under 30 inclusion, I'm part of about half a dozen different working groups and committees at the highest levels of the Pentagon. I co-chair one of them, and I think the Forbes 30 under 30 designation solidified me as a competent person who has the expertise to be named to the enterprise technology category in the eyes of my supervisors.
What has been your proudest career moment to date?
I did a TEDx Talk last year at the Defense Acquisition University. On a personal level, it was a very intense process to design, write, and memorize a TEDx Talk, because it was in a format that I had never done before. On a professional level, when our first application within the software factory got into production, that was a huge professional milestone for me because, while that team had done a lot of the work, I had enabled them and supported them from a leadership perspective. To see that we were making progress, even incrementally, really solidified the fact that the work that we were doing provided value.
Looking to the future, how important is the role of technology and software development in international affairs and the defense world?
It's hugely important. It is a strategic national defense imperative that the Department of Defense has the skill sets needed to either understand how to build software or to build software itself. The reason is that our adversaries are training cadres of software professionals to fight their clandestine wars in their kinetic and non-kinetic efforts. We’re no longer fighting an insurgency or kind of guerrilla warfare where we have air power dominance and technology dominance because we are fighting against countries that have equivalent skill sets. On the diplomacy side, there are questions about how to gather and collect data and analyze that data in a way that's going to make informed decisions on what we can prioritize and support using limited resources, whether it be different types of public diplomacy initiatives or investing in more consular efforts. If we're not investing in those critical technologies and the people who can enable those technologies, then we’re unable to execute a lot of diplomatic and US foreign policy and national security objectives.
What advice do you have for students who are also looking to pursue a career that combines technology and international affairs?
I would say to students that there are plenty of different roles out there, and you don't have to go down the traditional path. Find something that takes bits and pieces of your degree and your experiences and build something that can be leveraged in a unique way for your interests and skills. I’d also say don’t take yourself too seriously. In my first job at the State Department in 2016, I was in the protocol office, and we were working on this National Security Seminar. I oversaw the foreign-to-foreign bilateral meetings and tripped in front of the King of Jordan while he was preparing for his meeting. In life and your career, you just can't take yourself too seriously, because sometimes, you might end up tripping in front of the King of Jordan. It’ll all be okay in the end, and you just have to laugh at yourself sometimes.