Interview with Vice Admiral Arnaud Coustillière

SDBR: 16 months after you took up the position of DGSI of MINARM, you have been named "DSI of the Year 2018 in the DSI Orchestrator category" by IT for Business magazine! Is this the recognition of the digital revolution of the Ministry of the French Armed Forces?


Arnaud Coustillière

Vice Admiral

Arnaud Coustillière*: The Minister of the Armed Forces gave me a clear mandate, which I started by writting a document, "Digital Ambition of the Ministry" released in November 2017. This document** was translated into a plan of actions of the digital transformation * of the Ministry of the Armed Forces, called "Defense Connect", mirror of the one from the State, established within the framework of the "Public Action 2022" under the brand name "France Connect". This action plan was signed in April 2018 before the Minister by her three main subordinates: they represent the commitment of all the authorities of the Ministry for the conduct and achievement of the digital transformation of the Ministry. This approach is linked to the modernization of the department as well as to the innovation process, particularly digital innovation in the context of operations, general support under the auspices of the LMS and the DGA. In its organization, the conduct of the digital transformation plan is entrusted to the DGNUM as a conductor: the three main subordinates of the Minister retain their missions, my responsibility being to orchestrate and allow the proper implementation of this plan in profit from their trades.

What are the objectives to guide the digital transformation of trades?

The digital transformation of the ministry is guided by three main objectives: to guarantee the operational superiority and the control of the information on operations, to reinforce the efficiency of the supports and to facilitate the daily life of the personnel, to improve the relation with the citizen and the agents and the attractiveness of the ministry. These strategic objectives were broken down into eight evolving business objectives to guide the digital transformation: digitizing the battlefield (enhancing connectivity), strengthening and industrializing cyber defense capabilities across the ministry, making decisions more reliable and shortening them. Delays (via digital solutions), leveraging the digital lever to modernize force preparation and training of staff, open and enhance data for operations and support, simplify information exchange and facilitate networking personnel, offer services accessible on the move, digitize procedures and services as well as business processes.

Do the trades have the capacity to deeply transform alone? 

The eight business objectives aim to make local initiatives converge towards the same target. To help the businesses carry out their digital transformation, we have defined six basic areas that fall under the responsibility of the DGNUM and the DGA and which must be strengthened: deploy the new technologies (Cloud, DevOps, IA entrusted to the DGA which pilot trusted partners, etc.); organize digital innovation (by providing the Defense Innovation Agency with tools and processes for digital innovation such as Pitch, PoC, project management in agile mode, etc.) and provide digital commandos to help (on the design among others) from the "Digital Factory Defense Connect"; master the openness of the data to enhance their value (for example, the POCEAD project to structure the implementation of the first Data Lakes and anticipate what ARTEMIS should bring in terms of IA); renovate the information system with the redesign of the IT base of the Ministry with the creation of a new joint DIRISI / DGA service from January 2019; develop acculturation and numerical skills (the organization of the ministry must be "centric", which is equivalent to a cultural revolution for the hierarchies.); ensure a technological and digital watch.

You insist on the notion of agility for the new projects of the department. Beyond digital, are you referring to a necessary cultural revolution?

Managing a large information system project is often long and complex, and the approach of creating a great evening to switch from one system to another has sometimes proved to be delicate or even illusory and marked by many difficulties and extra costs. Progression in agile mode, which consists in validating the operationality of a project in stages, is therefore favored. However, we have examples, in other ministries, of projects technically conducted in agile mode in a remarkable way but proved to be catastrophic, because the steering at the higher level was not in agile mode. So agility is not a magic wand, it is a new way to approach modern computing, which requires to accept taking risks, which requires the functional and the computer scientist to be close and in an integrated team. The information systems that will work will be developed on a well-defined functional perimeter that can be managed by the authority in charge of the information system, and then expanded; it is almost more a matter of accompanying a transformation than a notion of constructing an object defined in advance. However, do not reject the classic mode but have at its disposal the most appropriate process for the type of system. 

At the end of 2017, you mentioned DIRISI as an essential element of the ministry's digital ambition. Does the functioning of the DIRISI live up to this ambition?

The DIRISI is an essential and central service in our system. It is doing a remarkable job that must be emphasized and welcomed. It is currently leading a very profound change, it is the characteristic of the digital players to have to evolve permanently, and is confronted with a problem of human resources, whether military or civilian. As part of the ministry's digital project, for which I am responsible, we tackled both the governance and the management mode of the technological base: hosting, networks, infrastructure, configuration of the workstation, common services. We found that, on some projects, the pace of programs managed by the DGA was not effectively synchronized with the pace of the products of the DIRISI to respond to operational needs in a very short time. We therefore restructured this mode of operation under the name "Management Unit of the digital base" (UM SNum), which started in January but its beginnings are the Intradef mission active since October 2017: it is a mixed service, well identified, made up of staff of the DIRISI and the DGA, and hosted by the DGA. Its end-to-end mission goes from conception to deployment. It aims to take over the mastery of work of level 1 of our technological base and to evolve our networks, in particular with a reflection on what could be hosted in a dedicated Cloud and what must remain in an internal Cloud.

And more precisely…?

DGNUM is responsible for the financial programming of the work related to the digital base and a first transformation of the DIRISI is conducted by its director over the period 2018/2020, taking into account on the one hand the integration of the UM SNum and on the other hand, greater use of civilian personnel, among others for positions of responsibility within the DIRISI, which now recruits around 200 civilian staff per year. At the same time, the DIRISI is reorganizing itself by projecting staff in the provinces: Rennes, Lyon, Bordeaux .... Lastly, the transformation plan of the DIRISI affects the reorganization of its processes and organization, while continuing to deliver the essential services to the daily department and operations. It is a real challenge while being particularly requested by the commitment of our forces all around the world, it must be strongly supported in this step. A second transformation plan is underway, linked in particular to the migration to the cloud, which we are considering for the 2023/2025 horizon: a rise to the cloud will have an impact on skills by changing the business lines, especially those related to hosting the data. 

Does MINARM also suffer from the general shortage of qualified human resources for its digital ambition?

Yes, we are seeing a glaring shortage of digital skills in France. Not long ago, we thought that the shortage only affected the engineering level, today we find that there is also a shortage for the higher technician level. This shortage is becoming increasingly acute in cybersecurity and data-related occupations. There is a need for a national fight to bring more students into these streams, including girls who currently represent just 15% of the total. But we must also avoid French talents going abroad, recruited by California, Amazon or Ali Baba ... This is a problem that affects the entire economy. Regarding the ministry, we have a triple trouble: the recruits do not come primarily to the Armies to be computer scientist, so we train them but, after 5 years, market competition is what it is, we lose a part of these skills; we had a period of workforce deflation that affected IT for a few years; lastly, we’re reaching the period of 20 years of the professionalization of armies, with battalions of departure, so many positions to be filled. This does not stop very ambitious digital recruitment plans, noted by all HR managers who are mobilized and are fully aware of the issues, but the solution is not simple. At the same time, we are recruiting more and more civilians, and we have and continue to adapt our salary scales to remain the industry standard for contractors. We are especially extremely attractive in terms of jobs, because serving the state and armies makes sense in the current context, and we offer particularly complex and rewarding technical subjects. Many candidates are interested, because the topics are exciting: we are at the market price for young graduates and, on special cases of experienced staff, we are able to recruit at the cost of their civilian salary. At the same time, we are speeding up our procedures with direct online chat capabilities, a system developed in DevOps mode, via State Start Up for HRDM, and where DIRISI is one of the first beneficiary employers. We are doing a lot of work to adapt to the realities of the market, with new ways to reach other recruitment pools: apprenticeship (DIRISI has more than 150 apprentices), support for school courses, reclassification and reconversion personnel with 20 years of military career, etc. Of all the components of the digital construction site, the human resources project is certainly the most dimensioning and the most complicated, and in which we will have to innovate. We are working hard with all of our partners and I must put on the table, in connection with the HR / MD, a set of innovative proposals in the spring, because today we have used the majority of tools at our disposal.

* Arnaud Coustillière is Director General of Digital and Information and Communication Systems (DGNUM)