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How Air Force’s Software Arm Tackles Common Modernization Challenges

Kessel Run hopes its work will encourage more collaboration across the Defense Department.

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How Air Force's Software Arm Tackles Common Modernization Challenges
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The Defense Department faces challenges on data sharing, common data standards and national security concerns that Air Force’s software arm, Kessel Run, is tackling through changes to internal organizational culture and improved user experience.

During a panel at GovernmentCIO Media & Research’s Digital Services: Customer Experience event, Kessel Run All Domain Common Platform Chief Purvi Desai said she’s focused on developing a deep understanding of the customer’s needs and constraints to supercharge modernization.

“Culture is really that connective tissue for DevSecOps and Agile as a whole,” she said during the panel. “It’s critical for delivery and maxing our organization’s efficiency and productivity.”

When an organization neglects its internal culture, burnout and turnover rates skyrocket, and customer service suffers. Kessel Run’s values — bias over action, ideas over rank, intense customer focus and continuous evolution — aim to counteract common organizational pitfalls around culture.

“We really try to have playbooks that bring these values into play,” Desai said. “We make decisions using this framework.”

National security concerns and requirements can present numerous challenges to creating a user-friendly product for the warfighter. In Desai’s view, warfighters will “get creative” and quickly “find workarounds” to DOD’s security requirements and capabilities mandated if they aren’t user friendly.

“I feel like it is a tall order to balance security and customer service,” she said. “I rely on user adoption as a metric of success … user experience is key. We enable the product teams to create applications for warfighters; we’re a customer-enablement organization. Keeping in mind, value can only be created if they’re being utilized and delivered in the production environment. We’re trying to become the platform of choice rather than the usual mandate that comes around. You have to meet the warfighter where they are.”

One way Kessel Run strives to “meet the warfighter where they are” is by requiring teams to agree on an end goal and working toward that goal with small iterative steps.

Kessel Run recently signed a user agreement with Air Combat Command for Agile software development. The user agreement “allows requirements to be defined as capability-need statements,” Desai said, which helps Kessel Run focus on user-centered design and reduce ambiguity.

“All our services are intertwined in DOD — for JADC2 to be successful, we need to share data across services,” Desai said. “Even when you have the data-sharing policies, organizational culture precludes reciprocity. Operational risk in DOD is owned by warfighting commands. Opening up aperture to accept standards is really hard.”

Desai said Kessel Run is collaborating with Platform One to meet common goals for data-sharing, which she hopes will improve data-sharing across the entire department.

“We’re currently working through convergence on implementation of tools and services such as continuous risk and threat detection,” she said. “The more commonality we have in how our products are developed and a strong preference for industry best practice will encourage more data sharing across DOD.”

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