Convergence Conversation: Considering the Path to Progress with Masseh Tahiry
Masseh Tahiry is one of those amazing people who have mastered many languages. Fluent in English, Farsi, Spanish, and Arabic, Masseh also speaks the languages of commercial technology, private capital, and national security. As a Director at Pallas Advisors, he focuses his energy and experience on being a translator across these vastly different communities.
He helps technology firms to articulate their value proposition and communicate an irrefutable use case to national security customers. Conversely, he helps national security buyers understand progress in the technology landscape and potential solutions for solving tomorrow’s biggest challenges. Masseh was at the beginning of his career when he and I first worked together. Over the years, he has emerged as a young leader to notice. He is making a change in the world.
In this Convergence Conversation, Masseh and I discuss the importance of harmonizing venture finance, technology development, and adoption to create progress for the Department of Defense.
The Complexity of Global Networks
Deb: You must be pretty busy, given DoD's focus on advanced commercial technology.
Masseh: It's interesting for sure. Let me quickly set the context of the threat environment that may be driving this focus. I think it’s really about what might be called dirty entanglements. The threat environment is made up of different networks — actors including criminal organizations, near-peer adversaries, and hyper-empowered individuals, which I like to call destructive entrepreneurs. These groups are employing the same technologies that DoD wants to access. It’s really that sort of innovation. Pace, sophistication, and a major behavior difference are creating urgency for us to accelerate innovation. Most of our adversaries don't play by our rules.
Deb: I've never heard the term dirty entanglements.
Masseh: It's a term from the transactional criminal organization discipline. I became familiar with the term and meaning while under Dr. Louise Shelley’s tutelage at George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. It is the study of actors and syndicates with a complex chain of collaborations across the globe. They’re involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking, terrorist activities, but they also try to provide water and electricity to the local population. It’s a convolution of dirty entanglements that are using the legitimate economic system that you and I trust. It’s convoluted convergence. And it’s why the Pentagon is saying they need to better define the national security ecosystem to do better at securing our national interests.
It's taken some time to get to this point. Many who are familiar with the national security space believe we aren't where we need to be and are turning to advanced technology applications to move us forward. Adoption and acquisition certainly are major terms within the government. Investments in talent, structure, and systems are coming out of an increased focus of energy to get stuff done across different layers within the national security ecosystem, rapidly. Especially the future of the workforce. This is a really exciting piece of the problem being worked.
Unifying the Solutions to Progress
Deb: DoD is a large institution with lots of rules that makes it pretty tough to turn. Can you talk a little bit about the adaption and adoption of the technology?
Masseh: I think they are still trying to figure it out. Ultimately, these organizations are a manifestation of the people in them. They change based on the leadership, so change is happening differently across the national security ecosystem. It’s not yet harmonious. Think about an orchestra where there is a conductor and everyone is working together. There is unity. Today, DoD has unity where it is headed, but it does not mean unity in how to get there. The demand signals are intensifying, calling for more technology, faster adoption, scalability, and interoperability. Technical solutions certainly exist, and the development cycles are there, but from an organizational standpoint, the change in the military organizations is pretty inefficient.
We speak with startup companies that are trying to penetrate the market. The constant feedback we get is that the DoD does not understand the technology or how it can be used. These technology developers believe they are commercially viable, but they don’t have the cash flow to withstand the bureaucratic process and acquisition timeline so they can get their technology into the hands of the government customer that needs it. To make it worse, there is little to no financing to help them. This situation is what the valley of death is all about.
DoD is trying to address some of the technology issues on the organizational side and we do see change agents across the broader organization. They are creating entities that have shorter innovation cycles that enable them to develop needed technology products to progress national security objectives at accelerated paces.
Harmonizing the Efforts
Deb: Harmony is an important concept. What are the unintended consequences if we don't harmonize?
Masseh: If technology continues to be the primary focus and we don't harmonize other important pieces of technology adoption — people, training, and logistics in particular — the process will become desynchronized. The time cycles of acquisitions are very slow, and technology moves fast. The friction that this causes is just one major deterrence of commercial technology adoption.
The innovation cycles for our adversaries are much less encumbered. Look at China, for example. The speed at which the Chinese economy has been growing the last decade and a half is incredible. Obviously, there are differences from what we experience in our democracy. But their model of pushing out technology is faster. They don’t really care if it is fully baked because they have breadth and depth — they have a lot of data subjects. China’s population is incredibly vast and active. For example, the number of food delivery service users is 10-20x more than in the U.S., and these are pre-COVID levels, globally. What that means as an unintended consequence for the U.S. is that we will continue to be behind.
This disparity of resources is why I believe many of the change agents within the ecosystem are advocating to push technologies out in the field, accepting the risk, so long as we are measured and smart about it. We need to be comfortable with continuous iteration and development, which means we may have to iterate in the field, in real-time to adapt quickly. NASA just did this with Perseverance. In mid-flight, they had to upload code to ensure a successful mission.
I believe the technological playing field has been leveled in terms of access to different technologies and technical talent. There are people with incredible technical talent, but they live in countries where there are no job opportunities for them. The only way they can have some economic well-being is to provide their technical services to an organization or a country that creates a threat to the U.S. This is one of the ways transnational criminal organizations have been successful and quite honestly seen as “innovators” with respect to tech, criminality, and terrorist insurgency.
The Surprising Downside to Progress
Deb: What are some of the other challenges you see?
Masseh: In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Elon Musk said the ‘MBA-ization’ of America's business mindset is impacting innovation. We've got to stop focusing solely on metrics and really start working on new products and technology that may not fit the measurements we are accustomed to tracking and reporting. On the other hand, we can forget we need to build something sustainable and supported over a long-term. There's a sort of balance that needs to be maintained.
Investing in the Right Places
Deb: I’m very interested in your perspective, as a millennial leader, in the growing momentum for social investing or addressing ESG issues.
Masseh: You're right, ESG certainly has gained traction, and the attention is critical and important. Social impact investment, in particular, has gained a lot of popularity. Even Robert Downey Jr has a fund focused on ESG called the Footprint Coalition. I think the vulnerabilities that have existed across our social structures and systems for decades are surfacing; we’re seeing the aggravating tensions, clash of ideologies, and belief systems manifest.
In a recent 500 Startup (early-stage accelerator) survey of startup founders, approximately 60% of them agreed that they need to do something about ESG, purely based on what happened in the summer of 2020. Whether it's hiring for diversity and inclusion or implementing other practices, they need to address behaviors within the venture that may attract more investors. It has to go beyond checking a box, though. But that gets back to how well resourced your company may be.
There are things that can be done. Our company helps leaders that are working on ESG efforts to amplify their brand by giving them advice about ways to address some of the issues without additional funding. For example, the technology field is still male-dominated, but there's a lot of great female technical talent out there. Go get it and bring it to your company.
Given the ESG push from the commercial side and even the government, I’m confident that we'll likely see more environmental focus. For example, energy efficiency is an area of interest, especially in military installations. We are working with small, innovative tech companies that can offer more efficient ways the military can operate their installations and reduce their carbon footprint. I hope to see more activity like this.
A tactical mindset is the tyranny of the day. It bogs down progress. Despite discussions about strategic needs and impacts, so many leaders can’t break through the ‘frozen middle’ so day-to-day decisions get super tactical. Changing how this happens is a work in progress, which is why it’s important to gather like-minded folks who really want to make a change, get stuff done, innovate, and provide top cover. The question remains, how do we scale this behavior? We need something broader and more impactful that can move a big bureaucracy forward.
I do believe the network of influencers has expanded. We are starting to see top-tier investment firms starting to pitch the needs of addressing ESG. I believe there will be an increasingly stronger influence vector within the national security space. We’re starting to see some financial institutions; big banks play in the game as well. For example, for a long time, in the space sector, banks were sitting on the side saying it takes space companies too much time to realize a return. They didn’t want to wait for it. But now, for example, Morgan Stanley is tracking the space industry significantly and more are actively investing in it.
Looking into the Future
Deb: What do you see when you look out into the future? What convergences between technology, people and organizations do you see?
Masseh: I don't mean to be abstract or too spiritual, but at the end of the day, it really gets down to the humans. We understand that when we sign up for some sort of free subscription or whatever that data is going to be used. But I think the productization of human beings is going to grow. Technology continues to evolve to create a frictionless experience for people. Different types of technologies such as artificial intelligence, immersive environments, and virtual reality or mixed will converge to make things easier for people.
The convergence is we are becoming a complex product. The technology is telling us what to do, while we're demonstrating what we need to the technology, knowingly and unknowingly. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out and the relationship deepens. For example, when tech can pick up what our consciousness and subconsciousness dimensions signal.
Ultimately, from an entrepreneur's perspective, there is a need to explore what the next chapter of the human in the human story is. What does this convergence mean? What are the emerging problems, and what's the solution from a product or service perspective?
Deb: Humans as the product? It's not just in what we do, but it's also in what we believe in. How will our individual philosophies and differences about life be considered?
Masseh: I'm glad you brought that up. I think technology provides precision on the transaction things we want to do. This will allow humans time to really explore the deeper dimensions of the human being and the self. It’s an extended mind theory philosophy. Different technology devices can be an extension of our cognitive processes. And I would add an extension of our spiritual processes as well. So, I think it's not the question of what and how, but it has become why.
The human being is still the most complex machine ever created. Wherever you stand on the evolution spectrum, we still don't know many of the things that make us human. Such as feelings. There's a lot of debate on emotions, feelings. Even what consciousness is. We are creating machines that we expect to outsmart us but we have a long way to go before that happens. It’s going to be interesting to see what the next chapter will be and how deep we actually go in this evolution.
As Masseh clearly points out, defense and national security endeavors like understanding dirty entanglements, adopting commercial technology, or supporting ESG initiatives, are human endeavors. Companies (large and small) serving defense and national security customers need a deep understanding of how people execute the missions and tasks they are asked to accomplish to achieve national security goals.
Changing deep-rooted behaviors and beliefs about how things are done will take a cultural shift that must happen locally, propelled and protected by human-centric leadership within the government, venture capital firms, and advanced technology companies. We are operating in an unsettled, progressive age. Structures are fluid. Collaboration is boundless. It’s a chaotic and incredibly exciting time to lead. A human-centric perspective will ensure success.