Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.
Devon Hill is a senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation. Hill was recently selected for the CSIS 2022 U.S. National Security & Foreign Affairs Leadership List. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of RAND Corporation or CSIS.
Can you tell me about your research on DEI and national security?
Civilian and military leaders have long recognized that national security agencies need to harness the talents of any person willing to serve to be able to adequately defend America. That means those agencies have to make a concerted effort to recruit, develop, and retain that talent. To do that, agencies and their leaders have to be willing adapt to people’s needs while shaping them to meet the mission. Much of my research has been in helping agencies or the services understand how they can change in small ways to recruit from among an ever-diversifying population and retain the talent they do have. That can mean discerning between requirements that unduly deter underrepresented minorities from service but have little to do with the job. That can mean understanding which development and promotion policies may have rewarded unnecessary widget making without accounting for innovativeness or growth potential. And, recently, it has meant helping agencies learn from private sector organizations that have been making strides in incorporating DEI policies in their talent management processes.
The research I’ve done in this area hasn’t been some crusade for quotas or changing standards, but helping agencies do better outreach and recruiting across diverse communities, ensure equity in their workplace policies, and be more inclusive in the provision of access to opportunity. To be completely honest, I didn’t expect to do so much work in the intersection of DEI, military personnel policy, and national security. But it’s imperative to harness any talent from any person to defend our nation; complaining about readiness or recruiting crises every few years while sending signals to some people that their service isn’t wanted is only self-defeating.
You’ve worked on a committee in Congress, at a law firm, and now at a research institution. What have been the similarities and differences between those experiences?
This is a tough one. Thinking back, one big similarity has been my personal struggle to accept that if people assume I’m competent at something it’s probably because I’m competent…or at least able to become competent. With few exceptions, I’ve worked with people who have been willing to teach, who didn’t expect me to have all the answers, and who have been willing to excuse mistakes if I’ve been willing to take responsibility and learn from them. I’ve been fortunate that the only people who have been out to get me have been figments of my imagination. I know not everyone has been so lucky, unfortunately. Another similarity is the strong desire of the people I’ve worked with to serve others. Congressional staff, obviously, are public servants who get just as frustrated as the public with some of the partisan bickering and would love nothing more than to wonk out on legislation. The lawyers and paralegals I worked with wanted the best outcomes they could get for their staff. And RAND is full of people across disciplines who want to see the research we do turned into policy. Everyone cares about the impact their efforts have.
The biggest difference I can think of has been pace of work. Congress and even the law firm involved a lot of activity that isn’t always good for your blood pressure. My job now can sometimes feel like a hurry up and wait situation. The churn is a bit more constant and, while I don’t always realize or appreciate it, I do get a lot of time to read and think and make new connections, which is my ideal for now.
What advice do you have for people just starting their careers?
There isn’t some ideal path to success you can follow. It was really easy for me to look at my peers working for members of Congress I liked or earning a check I would have loved and get bitter about my own circumstances. It took a lot of work and mentoring to accept that their choices worked for them; there was no guarantee that those same choices would work for me. And the people I saw as role models and successes certainly didn’t get where they were because they followed one path. They hit a lot of dead ends and had to do a ton of U-turns that I didn’t see. I also didn’t see that what was working for the version of someone I saw at any one moment probably wouldn’t have worked for them just a few years before. I can try to sketch the path I’ve taken to get where I am now, but it’d blur over any dropped undergrad classes, therapy, hundreds of applications and dozens of interviews that might have changed the course of my life if I’d gotten different jobs, and every dumb thing I’ve ever done. And I couldn’t tell you where I’m going, just that I’m going to try to keep learning from mistakes and taking the path that speaks to my values and works for me. In short: take advice, learn from others, but don’t feel compelled to check the boxes other people did.
Sign up to receive the Make Room newsletter every month in your inbox.