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How Software Factories Position DOD to Win

Kessel Run has been quietly proving how achieving a software-empowered organization transforms all facets of warfighting operations.

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How Software Factories Position DOD to Win
Photo Credit: Joseph Eddins / DVIDS

Before standing up the Kessel Run software factory in 2017, Jeremiah Sanders oversaw the planning, execution and assessment of air campaigns at the Air Force Air Operations Center program office when the Defense Department was “perpetually stuck” in the development process.

“The impetus for change was we needed to do better not just in terms of not wasting money, but our legacy system was held together with duct tape and baling wire,” Sanders said at a VMWare event April 11 in Washington, D.C. “The functionality of the legacy software was so bad that we had mission operators abandoning the mission software and using whiteboards, Microsoft Office products, chat boards, hand paper calculations for doing things like figuring out where we’re going to drop bombs.”

Kessel Run partnered with Pivotal Labs to help the Air Force inform the organizational transformation model. Less than three months later, the team put its first software product in the hands of airmen, helping DOD achieve continuous capability delivery for the first time.

“That was a game changer in the Department of Defense. Ten years and $430 million of waste not delivering a single line of code,” Sanders said. “And now we’re delivering capability 4,000 times a year … code come into production is almost trivial at this point. It’s a non-event.”

Digital transformation starts with people, processes and technology, but flow, outcomes and feedback are the key differentiators of high-performing IT organizations. Outcomes, Sanders said, need to become a North Star by which the department measures digital transformation metrics.

“What is the difference that we’re making for the citizenry or for the warfighter? Or better making use of taxpayer dollars,” Sanders said.

As Lt. Col. Max Reele, who inherited Sanders’ position, prepares to depart the organization in the next two months, he wants to leave Kessel Run in a “healthy place.”

Reele believes digital transformation starts with processes and then moves to skills and technology.

“The real importance around process reengineering is because your stakeholders must be involved, policy must be rewritten to allow you to run continuous processes in what used to be a waterfall stochastic model,” Reele said. “So if you can automate the processes and do the process reengineering as necessary to then upskill your people and then you can overlay the tech on processes that have already been optimized.”

New Defense Strategies to Modernize Software

Last year, DOD released a software modernization strategy, directing the department to increase the use of software factories and secure DevSecOps pipelines.

Around the same time, DOD CIO John Sherman released a software development and open-source software memorandum, which called for an increase in the use of open-source software and commercial off-the-shelf tools whenever and wherever possible.

“Open-source software is not really a question anymore of whether it’s good or bad, useful or not useful. It’s a business decision about what you put into the open-source world or what you pull from, and what is the differentiating service that you’re providing on top of that open-source software that makes you money,” Tom Rondeau, principal director for FutureG & 5G at the Pentagon’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, told GovCIO Media & Research.

To increase productivity, reduce costs and take advantage of products already available to the broader market, Kessel Run relies on open-source software.

“Most software nowadays, including those that are built by us, do leverage various open-source components. It helps us stitch together our software applications, and it gives us a lot of the productivity gains,” Col. Richard Lopez, Kessel Run’s senior materiel leader, told GovCIO Media & Research. “We do use open-source software when it’s necessary and when we can apply it so that we deliver the best code to our warfighter.”

The first thing Kessel Run does is verify whether there is a need for open-source code. Kessel Run then conducts market research to find the right code, but only DOD-approved open-source code is applied to applications built by the software factory.

But access to open source allows various bad actors to rifle through the code and exploit vulnerabilities. It can also allow malicious actors to intentionally introduce malicious code.

“The pursuit that Kessel Run has embarked on along with our stakeholder and user community is to scope down the requirements to a smaller, digestible chunk of capabilities that we can work on and then we work very hard on delivering those capabilities in smaller time frames, which gives us the ability to quickly pivot in case the requirements change or in case the user determined that there was another better thing that they wanted us to deliver,” Lopez said.

Following the overall software strategy, DOD recently released an implementation plan, which sets the department on the path to an improved software delivery process.

The implementation plan focuses on three goals: accelerating the department-wide cloud environment, increasing the adoption of a software factory ecosystem and transforming processes to allow for more successful outcomes.

“The DOD Software Modernization Strategy challenged us to be bold … to lead the transformation of technology, process and people in delivering resilient software capability at the speed of relevance. The DOD Software Modernization Implementation Plan is the follow-on call to action, aiming to establish capabilities that simplify the mechanics of software delivery, allowing teams to instead focus on creativity,” according to the plan.

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