Justin Brunelle: Lessons from MITRE’s Innovation Program


Justin Brunelle, at MITRE

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice. 

Agencies call on MITRE to help navigate all manner of unique challenges, but not all projects are lean enough for the innovations that agencies seek. That’s where Justin Brunelle comes in. Justin has developed a reputation as division technical integrator, helping pair trail-blazing research with government use cases. He has been integral to the MIP (MITRE Innovation program), and today he has come to share his secrets on nurturing good ideas into groundbreaking work.

Click below to listen to podcast:


Podcast Transcript
Cameron: I am here with Justin Brunelle. Justin, would you like to introduce yourself?
Justin: Sure. I am the T850 division Technical Integrator. And basically what that means is, I’m responsible for guiding the members of this division through the internal research and development process. That includes proposal development, execution for a lot of different internal research and development programs within MITRE.
Cameron: All right. If you don’t mind, I was hoping to get some background on you and your journey through MITRE that led you to this point.
Justin: Sure. Before I started at MITRE, I was an Adjunct Instructor at a community college in the local Hampton roads area where I’m from. And I was a hopeless academic, pursuing various different degrees, teaching at the community college. What appealed to me about MITRE, was the research focus that a lot of the work they did had. And the fact that they were a not-for-profit company, was also really appealing to me because we could focus on the research aspects of things instead of concerns like shareholders that other companies might have.
Justin: During the time that I started here, I was working on my PhD, and about the time I was finishing up my PhD, I moved into some of the research space. A lot of the initial projects I was working on were internal research and development projects as well as direct sponsor-funded things. I got to experience a wide variety of the types of work that MITRE does.
Cameron: I was actually hoping you might be able to tell us more about your PhD, because if I recall, you told me it’s a very interesting subject that you dove into.
Justin: Well. I’m a little biased, but I think so, too. I did spend five and a half years studying it, so of course I think it’s pretty interesting. What I was working on was a PhD focused on web sciences and web sciences as applied to web archiving in this case. Basically, what I was studying was the impact of evolving web technologies on the ability for crawlers to discover information on the web.
Justin: One prime example that I’ve been going back to in recent years is, CNN.com is actually completely unarchivable, because web crawlers can’t access the content due to their inability to execute JavaScript. When you go to the Internet archive and look at CNN.com from the way back machine, because of the ways in which they are generating content on their webpage, it’s completely blank. And that’s an issue that is only getting worse and it’s something that I studied with my dissertation and we took a look at.
Cameron: If I distill down exactly what you just told us: Your research was to make sure that you could scrape up websites similar to the way back machines, so that you could parse through them and see what was actually there and what was actually readable.
Justin: Right.
Cameron: And then you’re finding that because of the way JavaScript renders things on the screen, it’s actually becoming a fairly impossible to do that consistently. I don’t mean to take too much time on this.
Justin: True.
Cameron: But like how did you guys handle like all the existing JavaScript frameworks?
Justin: We came up with an agnostic approach. We recognize that JavaScript running on a webpage will do certain things that make archiving and information capture difficult. We don’t necessarily care about one framework versus another, because ultimately what you’re dealing with is something that executes on a client, and a web crawler doesn’t have the ability to run that code and execute that set of features.
Justin: By exercising those client-side scripts and libraries and by providing the crawlers the ability to do that, you ultimately give those frameworks that exist out there the foundation that they need in order to run that code.
Cameron: Yeah. That’s actually a very interesting way to tackle it, because as I understand it, well, first of all, anyone who’s done any mass software engineering can tell you there’s way too many JavaScript frameworks out there. Like every time I approach a project, I just have a headache just thinking about which one I want to choose. Cover all your bases.
Justin: Right. Exactly.
Cameron: From that PhD program, what stuff did you get to bring over from that knowledge background that skillset to MITRE?
Justin: Very broadly, a PhD in Computer Science basically means that I understand how to perform research in the Computer Science field. Being able to understand what research is, what a good grant proposal looks like more importantly, how to read, assess, create research papers, all of that. Generating the artifacts from the inception of a research project all the way through the completion, was really important. And it’s an important part of the process at MITRE as well as in the academic fields.
Justin: The other thing that I often tell early career researchers is, and this is something that I learned throughout my journey, is that being able to talk to others, whether through writing, verbally, through demonstrations is an essential part of the research process. Just because you understand how to write the code or perform the research or discover the results, it diminishes the impact of actually performing the research if you’re not able to get others to understand why it’s important and what you’re finding.
Justin: That’s a really important skill that by going to school and doing this for so long, that I was able to refine and that’s one of the things that I try to bring, especially given my position as the Tech Integrator for the division. That’s something that I try and bring to this job and pass on to other researchers as well.
Cameron: Actually, I think that’s great segueing to the main reason I want to talk to you today, which was as the new Tech Integrator for software engineering, you have a pretty big role that has to do with the MITRE Innovation Program. That’s what it’s called?
Justin: Exactly. Yup. The MIP or the MITRE Innovation Program is the primary internal research and development vehicle at MITRE. There are others and those are somewhat more specialized, but the MIP is really the big research and development program that we have here.
Cameron: For anyone who is curious about what you can do with the MIP or why you would want to apply for the MIP and just a brief explanation of what applying really means.
Justin: Sure. The MIP is very similar to your standard research and development competitions. It’s a program in which potential PIs [principal investigators] propose an idea. They create a proposal and they submit it for consideration. But the nice thing about the MIP is that, you’re working really closely with your peers and not submitting something to a larger organization that decides the fate of your proposal based solely on its written merits in a vacuum. By interacting with your peers, you get to refine that idea, you get to apply it to different domains.
Justin: And if your idea is funded, you become a PI of a research project and anybody within the company, everyone from the brand new hires all the way up through some of the senior folks at MITRE, are able to participate in this process. You get a lot of really good ideas, you get a lot of different viewpoints on the same ideas, which is another really interesting aspect of it. And you also get to take a subject that you as the PI are passionate about, and apply that to our sponsors’ challenges, which is really why MITRE’s here and that’s to help our sponsors adopt the best solutions, do their job in the most effective ways and make sure that their mission is impactful as possible.
Cameron: Again, to distill that down, first of all, your PhD skills for telling people, “Yes, I know how to turn research funding into good research” really plays a hand in your role as a Tech Integrator, as the person trying to help get this jump started. And then also just like the benefit of being able to chase your own research. If there’s something that really excites you, you don’t have to wait for someone to come along and put in that work. You can say. “I think this would be a good idea. If you agree, then let’s go get some funding. Let’s go do this.”
Justin: Exactly. And there’s no shortage of good ideas. And that’s what’s really neat about participating in this process, is you get to see what folks are passionate about, you get to see what ideas they have for solving some of the same problems and you get to see what kinds of expertise we have, not just within our software engineering tech center, but within all of the other areas within MITRE, including the other FFRDCs that we participate in.
Cameron: Segueing into how does the MIP not just help MITRE, but how does it help industry, how does it help normal people?
Justin: A lot of prominent technologies, came out of MITRE’s internal research and development. GPS was something that MITRE had a hand in back in the day. One of the primary things that MITRE’s concerned about currently is public safety, making the world a safer and better place. That’s a common theme that we have throughout the research proposals and the research strategies that we’re seeing within the MIP.
Justin: You specifically asked about external organizations and how the MIP can help benefit MITRE Internal Research and Development programs, typically producing research that gets published in academic or traditional peer reviewed academic conferences. Contributing back to the body of knowledge in a particular domain is something that is typically coming out of the research that we’re doing. And, specifically, for industry, there is an opportunity for what are called tech transitions. Either a concept or technology that was developed within the MITRE research programs, gets transitioned over to somebody in industry.
Cameron: It’s fantastic to hear just because it seems like a lot of the times you hear about these amazing research projects and they show a lot of promise and then they don’t really have anywhere to go. But here you have actual buy-in for industry, from people who at the very least want to know is this valuable or feasible to me? And then, more importantly, how do I get it into my organization?
Justin: Exactly. Right. And we’ve got lots of really talented people that help with that process and that manage that as well. And that’s, to your point, this is something where this isn’t shelfware. It’s definitely something that has a targeted use case. There are clear ideas about how we take what we’re researching and turn that into something that will benefit either the sponsors or the public or somebody within the federal government.
Cameron: And as our Tech Integrator, I imagine you are really leading that charge in many ways.
Justin: There’s a large team of people involved within MIP. We have our Tech Transfer Office that helps with some of the transitions we talked about, there’s the MIP leadership team, the innovation area leads are setting the strategies and working with our sponsor facing portfolio representatives. There’s a lot of people that are involved in the process. And one of my roles as Tech Integrator, is to help translate and represent back some of the things that are happening in those organizations within MITRE, back to the Software Engineering Tech Center.
Justin: Outside of that, it’s a lot of what you would see a PhD advisor or academic adviser do. Mentoring staff through proposal generation, helping them refine pitches, and helping refine presentations to the innovation area leads for funding. And then understanding how to navigate the project management process, after a project is funded for research.
Cameron: Yeah. And at firsthand that I really appreciate your ability to define my crazy nonsense words into the things that people would actually want to read. I think this actually a good point to transition to something a little more fun. Is there stuff at MITRE that gets you excited? What is the kind of stuff that when you wake up in the morning that’s the thing you are excited to go work on or do or chase?
Justin: I’ll mention a few aspects of my daily job that really set MITRE aside from elsewhere. There’s the variety of work that we’re doing. I work on a lot of different projects with a lot of different technical topic areas, with a lot of smart people for a variety of different organizations within the government. That variety is actually really appealing to me, because I get to take the benefits of one organization, translate them and allow them to benefit for another.
Justin: I get a wide exposure to the types of work going on within the government and I get to learn a lot of technical skills. The work with the deep technical talent, the research focus, the mindset that MITRE has, really is something that gets me excited as well. That’s what drives me coming into work is that, that mission is making sure that, the people within the federal government, folks like Veterans Affairs, the DoD and servicemen and women.
Justin: The work that we’re doing directly benefits their mission and how they perform their jobs. And being able to see that and see it firsthand is really exciting. It’s a really important task. I always want to recognize that even though the day-to-day life and minutiae might be either frustrating or might be easy to lose sight of, how that impacts the broader mission, I try to make sure that I understand how that all ties together and how it ultimately impacts the people that we’re working for.
Cameron: I think that’s very well put, just in terms of MITRE’s mission as a whole and just all the exciting ways things happen here.
Justin: Thank you.
Cameron: I know we’re running a little short on time, so I just thought it’d be nice to close on maybe some advice for anyone listening, in terms of if you were starting at MITRE or if you’re starting an academia or wherever. What do you, you Justin, wish you knew when you started?
Justin: Finding a good mentor and advocate is really important, right? Whether that’s your direct supervisor, a project or task leader or even a peer that understands the inner workings of, in this case MITRE. But really in any company or organization that you’re working through. Having somebody that can help you navigate the processes, that can give you advice or even somebody that you can bounce ideas off of is paramount.
Justin: For some reason, there is a tendency to not ask for help as frequently as we should. And again, I’ll be the first one to admit that I had a tough time with this as well. But having an advocate that you can go to, you can either to ask for help or talk about a roadblock or some other type of difficulty that you’re having, is really valuable. Even talking through it has beneficial, when you’re thinking about solutions and can help you work through a solution on your own. Having somebody that you can trust is really valuable when you’re starting. Especially when you’re starting out.
Cameron: I think that’s excellent advice no matter where you work or what you’re doing. Well, Justin, I really appreciate your time and I wish you the best of luck as our Tech Integrator. Thank you very much.
Justin: Thanks, Cameron. Looking forward to it. Appreciate it. Thank you.


Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public.

© 2020 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 20-1040

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See also:

Rachel Mayer on the Fight Against Maternal Mortality

Interview with Julie McEwen on why privacy is key

Dan Frisk and Paula Randall on bringing innovation to government

Marcie Zaharee and MITRE’s Open Innovation Challenge

Theodore Wilson: Thinking Like a Turtle

Awais Sheikh on Deciphering Business Process Innovation

Jackie Morin on Her Journey from Intern to Senior Engineer

Jay Crossler on Why Passion Is the Key to Success

Dan Ward, Debra Zides, and Lorna Tedder on Streamlining Acquisitions

Dr. Philip Barry on Blending AI and Education

Dan Ward, Rachel Gregorio, and Jessica Yu on MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit

Tammy Freeman on Redefining Innovation

Jesse Buonanno on Blockchain

Dr. Michael Balazs on Generation AI Nexus

Dr. Sanith Wijesinghe on Agile Connected Government

Is This a Wolf? Understanding Bias in Machine Learning

Apr 19, 2020


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