IT: The Differentiating Force in Digital Shipbuilding

Bharat Amin
VP and CIO
Newport News Shipbuilding

No one is ever going to accuse Bharat Amin of being a wallflower. Knowing nothing about nuclear shipbuilding, Amin jumped in feet first, immersing himself in everything from welding class to a nuclear submarine trial. What he lacked in shipbuilding experience, he’s more than made up in vision, courage, and ingenuity, leading his IT team into a digital initiative that is transforming the shipyard.


Bharat, what drew you into the world of Navy shipbuilding?

To be honest, shipbuilding—commercial or otherwise—was not an industry familiar to me. But the executive group invited me to come see what they do and when I heard from senior leadership where they were headed and why they were convinced they needed somebody with strong leadership from outside to help them evolve, I was curious.

I learned that though Newport News’ signature Ford-class aircraft carrier was completely designed digitally, it was produced manually with paper-based drawings. The company knew they needed to think differently, completely differently, about this. There are a lot of things they’ve done right over the years—the lifespan of the carriers built here is 50 years, and the first nuclear carrier, commissioned in 1961, was just decommissioned two years ago. That’s longevity.

aircraft carrier john f - IT: The Differentiating Force in Digital Shipbuilding - Apptio

To build the best ships of the future, they also knew they needed to embrace digital transformation. This transformation effort is similar to the enormous task of going from diesel to nuclear power 50 years ago. So I quickly realized taking this CIO role was an honor that would put the IT Division and me at the forefront of significant change for the organization and NNS at the forefront of significant change for the shipbuilding industry.

When I came here, I saw a lot of regimented processes and rules, legacy systems, and status quo mindsets, a lot of which came from following the Navy command structure, which means adopting processes that get things done but also (at times) hinder innovation. But I also appreciated that Newport News Shipbuilding is very much a family business. There are employees here from families who have worked in the shipyard for four and five generations. We are 132 years old, and we build the greatest warships in the world.

How did you tackle the Navy command mindset?

I focused on my division first. IT has about 500 folks and many contractors—great people with a lot of legacy knowledge who were really craving empowerment to innovate. The first few months, I had to figure out how to harness this and begin thinking differently.

In the first five months, we worked together to create a new mission, vision, and values statement, something we call Vision 2020. It’s about driving change from within IT because we’re in a digital era. Who can better drive change than the technologists?

So right away, we focused on driving change in three areas:

  • Delivery that maximizes business value
  • Transparency into how we spend our money
  • Accountability for our decisions

Our vision was to be a differentiating force for the company, for our customer, and for our entire ecosystem of partners, suppliers, and more. And right then and there, we started building support for our strategy and rolling it out.

Then we created a plan for transforming IT to achieve our mission and vision. We made a conscious decision to partner with the business and together we created a program called integrated Digital Shipbuilding (iDS). One key aspect of this effort is working with cohorts in the business to drive this transformation and not just making it a technology implementation.

»Related content: Watch this Newport News video on integrated Digital Shipbuilding

Transformation requires strong leadership. How did you establish yourself as a strong leader, capable of managing this risk-averse environment?

You can’t just lay out plans. You have to earn trust. So I spent the first six months here learning about the business. I had zero knowledge of shipbuilding and I wanted to know how we design and build our product. I even asked to go on a submarine sea trial. I was told, “Only four or so VPs have done that.” I wanted to be the fifth. How else would I learn about the products we build? So I went underwater for three days.

In case you didn’t know, there is absolutely no connectivity on a sea trial. How often do you see a CIO completely disconnect from the planet?



So, where is all the trust you’ve built netting out today for IT?

We are now picking up steam and we have a commitment to our transformation from the Huntington Ingalls Industries board. We’ve laid out our 10-year plan because remember, we build ships that last 50 years. If you look at the first and the last Ford-class carriers, the lifecycle could be 100 years. I won’t even be here for that. In fact, I won’t be here for the third and fourth ship they’ll be building.

That’s the lifecycle. So how do you create a sustainable organization for all the things that we’re going to create and eventually not be here for?

Given your success, I think you’re figuring it out. You participated in this great training and developed a vision, you and the business put together a digital transformation program, and you received the budget you asked for. It sounds so easy, but I know it wasn’t. What was the greatest challenge you faced in making this happen?

Culture. I knew coming in that would be my challenge because I was a newer person and an outsider.

To give you some perspective, if you work here 40 years, you become a Master Shipbuilder. Every year after you reach this milestone, you are invited to a Master Shipbuilder ceremony. Last December, we honored nearly 1,200 Master Shipbuilders. At least one of those participants has been here 60 years. How do you drive change in an organization with that kind of deeply ingrained culture while leveraging the institutional knowledge and experience at the same time? That’s a challenge.

Since we started our transformation, I have definitely heard, “Well, this is how we’ve always done it.” When I was new, I played the game, “Tell me why.” If I had to ask three “whys” to try to understand, I made the case for disruption, and that’s how we started challenging the status quo.

An example is mobile devices. Because of our highly sensitive environment, people were not allowed to bring their personal mobile devices to work because of the built-in cameras, and I questioned that. So many discouraged me. “Don’t go there,” they said. “Your predecessors have tried it.” But my response was, “If we really want digital transformation, we cannot disconnect our employees from using the technology, especially to stay in contact with their families throughout the day.”

This issue came up when we would ask our employees, “What are the top challenges here?” They wanted to know when they would be able to bring their camera-enabled devices to work. As a result, we worked with teams to explore security and other concerns. Our collective efforts paid off: May 2 marked two years since employees and visitors have been allowed to have camera-enabled devices at NNS.

You are known for saying, “Courage is the essential element for digital disruption.” Why?

Courage is our theme for 2018. It’s about trying to drive a change in behavior and culture. From a diversity and inclusion perspective, I want people to speak up and empowering the silent person in the room is a personal commitment of mine.

Encouraging the free exchange of ideas may feel risky, but all team members must have the courage to challenge the status quo.

Bharat Amin
CIO, Newport News Shipbuilding

In terms of challenging the status quo, our culture tended to have a hierarchical approach to things. We have been actively working to change that, promoting the free exchange of ideas up, down, and across our organization. Whether through our blog, our IT Change Agent Network, or in team meetings, we’ve identified and embraced our change agents. Encouraging the free exchange of ideas may feel risky to some, but all team members must have the courage to challenge the status quo as well as hear each other out.

What’s the impact of courage on your delivery of IT?

It brings innovation because all those people have great ideas, right? They just don’t come out unless you instill some courage and make it safe to share them. At the end of the day, we each must bring self-awareness to our actions.

Last year, one of our teams had been working through an issue for a couple of weeks. An intern working with us was shy about offering an alternative approach. So, we asked him to help and his approach led us to the answer in just under an hour. We had struggled with this issue for two weeks! I use that example to exemplify the ideas and solutions we can test and apply when everyone is encouraged to speak up—especially the silent people in the room.

What are the actions IT leaders need to commit to and then act on to introduce innovation?

In this day and age, every CIO needs to be a digital disruptor. First, you have to believe in it because if you don’t, you can’t convince others. Here are the other things I think CIOs must do:

  • Build trust. You’ve got to build trust at all levels. If you don’t build trust, you’re just the latest smart person trying to show your colleagues how to do things. That’s why I invested up front in learning the business, joining the same 10-week class new employees in the shipyard take.
  • It was one of my best learning experiences here. I mean, VPs don’t weld. But if I don’t try it, how can I begin to understand the work of a welder who spends eight hours a day at that job?
  • Cut through the bureaucracy. You’ve got to figure out how to break through rules that don’t make sense anymore. Like many legacy businesses, we have our fair share of bureaucracy. But we’ve really worked to empower managers to make decisions and not have to push things up the chain of command. One way we’ve done this is by introducing cost transparency so managers understand the impact of their decisions.
  • Change direction. Disruption requires the courage to go against the flow when needed. You may need to become the subject matter expert first, so you understand why what you’re trying to do is the right way to do it. Then you have to start influencing others to change direction too.
  • Be entrepreneurial. A lot of command and control can be inhibiting. Lots of legacy businesses have a process-driven culture, but we have to empower people to run their area like it is their own business and explore new ways to do their jobs.
  • As executives, a team of us recently traveled on a “digital safari” to visit AWS, Google, and others, looking at digital transformation from the outside-in. It’s important to bring in and learn from new perspectives as well as participate in conversations that shape our industry.
  • Take risks. You have to take calculated risks. Here, we work in nuclear. We have to be very risk averse—we need to have absolutely no incidents, right? Admiral Rickover is known as the “father of the nuclear navy” and the Rickover principle is, “Even when you clean the toilet, you have to apply the rules, because if you don’t apply the same rules, you will compromise it someday, somewhere.”

Everything we do takes a long time. It takes seven years to build a ship. So we take risks in other places. When I came here, “cloud” was a forbidden word. But today, we have an HR app in the cloud.

A big part of digital disruption is about moving to cloud. Where else is your business going to cloud?

ford class aircraft carrier emerge 0 - IT: The Differentiating Force in Digital Shipbuilding - Apptio

Our Ford-class is built for the 21st century. As a shipyard, our future is “drawing-less.” But how do we share that information with the Navy? It’s their ship—therefore, it’s their data. And so we’ve had to think about a “Ford-class data environment.” If we had to actually give them physical storage devices, it would be like 6–10 truckloads of DVDs.

We’ve started working with a third-party partner to understand how to safely share the digital data about our ships. If we achieve that, we can take out a lot of stuff. It’s not just to save money or to gain scalability, it’s about flexibility and being more agile.

What advice would you share with readers who are in legacy-ingrained environments like yours, who also want to transform?

If you have been with the company for a long time, you are the culture and it can be very hard to see the change that’s needed. Bring in some completely new energy to clear your muscle memory. Otherwise, those memories will keep reminding you to do things the same way. If you want to be an innovative, faster-paced company, you’ve got to retrain yourself, and you need to bring people from outside. That’s number one.

Then, work with your team to set a mission and vision that you truly believe. Vision is aspirational, a far stretch. But if you don’t have that stretch, you’ll always be doing incremental things that don’t add up. You’ve got to find your North Star—your purpose—and then you’ve got to line up your mission to reach that North Star.

Words of advice to my fellow CIOs:

  • Don’t come up with a “technology” vision. Our vision is about being a differentiating force, and there is not a bit of technology there. But it says everything it should and allows us to go in every direction we want to go.
  • Constantly challenge your status quo. Do it with civility. You can’t go into a situation thinking, “I’m the smartest person on earth and I’m going to fix everything,” because you’re going to be rejected like a foreign object in an otherwise healthy body.
  • Build trust. Work on creating productive relationships and encourage and empower people to do extraordinary things.

The bottom line is that you have to stay true to your mission. At Newport News, we are on a mission to create a better tomorrow today. We’re delivering freedom. Everything we work on here is helping us deliver freedom. When people connect to the mission, they can make a powerful difference and be a “Differentiating Force” for the company.

»Want to learn more about the management of IT at Newport News Shipbuilding? Read Apptio’s case study, A new era of transparency at Newport News Shipbuilding