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“It’s the People, Stupid!”: Step One of Fixing the DOD’s Software Challenges

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --


Encompassing a single page in the more than 700-page FY18 National Defense Authorization Act is section 872, which directed the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) to analyze software acquisition regulations in the Department of Defense (DOD).1 Later dubbed the Software Acquisitions and Practices (SWAP) study, the sixfold task would examine everything from best practices to improving talent management across the department. Our team had the chance to lead what I would argue is the essential aspect of the software dilemma—the workforce. Specifically, the initial task was to focus on the recruitment and retention of the workforce. Still, we chose to expand it, including the development of acquisition and software experts.

The study focused primarily on the DOD as a whole; however, most of the challenges faced by one branch of the military exists across the joint force. Ultimately, the DOD suffers from a fundamental problem as they value technology and hardware over the workforce. “The tendency to think of humans as cheap and tech as expensive,[sic] has resulted in an environment in the department that resembles poverty, where people don’t even dream of an abundance to even process information [and] do things in more automated ways.”2 For the department to move past this fallacy, they need to treat the Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airmen, or civil servant as the weapon system. The DOD must invest in their workforce in the same way we invest in the next generation of military platforms. Simply put—“Humans are more important than hardware.”3

(Left to right) Mark Morris and Raheem Alhamdani, software engineers, 517th Software Engineering Squadron, perform paired programming March 25, 2019, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. This new paired programming approach is part of a new workflow system and software development methodology to significantly reduce the time it takes to deliver software to customers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Cromar)

(US Air Force photo by Todd Cromar)

Figure 1. Greater efficiency. (Left to right) Mark Morris and Raheem Alhamdani, software engineers, 517th Software Engineering Squadron, perform paired programming 25 March 2019, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. This new paired programming approach is part of a new workflow system and software development methodology to significantly reduce the time it takes to deliver software to customers.

Throughout this article, I will focus on the various obstacles we found throughout our research and the solutions that culminate in the desired end state. However, it is vital to highlight one of the elemental problems in the DOD, which, for the better part of 30 years, has been studying the workforce problem with various degrees of success in execution. Our workforce subgroup is gravely concerned that the department will be unable to implement the study’s recommendations, and the subgroup encouraged the DIB to push for a nontraditional DOD organization to lead or cochair the execution of any changes in policy. For example, a 1987 Defense Science Board Study called out five recommendations pulled from previous studies that were never implemented that are still true today. “If these actions were vigorously pursued, they would go a long way toward solving the problem.”4

After months of reviewing the DOD’s plans, reading past studies, speaking with various officials, and meeting with talented employees, we narrowed the major pain points into five categories. The challenges are well-known “by the software acquisition and engineering professionals who suffer most from the accrued technology, cultural, and leadership debt.”5

We found the DOD’s reputation as an employer a weakness rather than a strength. Working on highly classified missions or other national security systems is an incredibly enticing recruiting tool; however, antiquated policies severely hinder the department. When the policy of the agency is to reward time in grade over competence and outsource the majority of the technical work, it is no wonder that the experienced engineers have left the room. Furthermore, we found the DOD did not adequately understand which competencies and skills it valued within this workforce, nor does it possess an enterprise-wide talent management system.

While military members enjoy a strategic recruitment strategy to attract new talent, the civilian sector is woefully behind. Considering that 90 percent of the acquisition workforce is civilian, I challenge the reader to name the last time you saw a commercial on television targeted toward the civilian workforce. Plus, even when the DOD can attract a top-tier candidate, they face an “overly complex and lengthy hiring process (that) frequently results in the government losing potential employees to private sector organizations with more streamlined hiring processes.”6 For the employees who make it through the hiring and onboarding process, there is no comprehensive training or development program that adequately prepares them for work in this ecosystem. Random classes are abundant, both online and in-person, without a training plan that appropriately teaches them how to leverage modern tools and methodologies.

As the team stated before, none of this is new. These issues are well-known, and the DOD needs innovative leaders capable of tapping into these pockets of success and scale quickly. The desired end state must showcase “a workforce capable of acquiring, building, and delivering software and technology in real-time, as threats and demands emerge.”7 The department must promote “an agile culture, celebrating innovation, learning from calculated failures, and valuing people over process. The DOD’s workforce embraced commercial best practices for the rapid recruitment of talented professionals. Once onboarded quickly, they will use modern tools and continuously learn in state-of-the-art training environments, bringing in the best from industry and academia, while pursuing private-public exchange programs to broaden their skill sets.”8

This end state will not be easy to achieve; however, given the tectonic shift to a software-centric department, these recommendations demand action. At the core leading this change is a small empowered cadre of highly qualified experts along with a team of innovative department employees. Similar to the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund, create a software acquisition workforce fund to hire and train modern software experts to drive these changes. It is essential, however, that this team not be locked in some basement; without the backing of senior defense officials, they will not be able to move the needle on any of the following recommendations.

For starters, the DOD must develop a core occupational series guided by a set of core competencies and skills for the software acquisition community. The community needs to include positions such as engineers, designers, product managers, and so forth. Furthermore, the department needs to create a special identifier or endorsement for professionals in other support roles that possess the necessary experience and training to serve on the acquisition of software such as contracting officers, finance representatives, and lawyers.9 They must invest in a modern talent marketplace to track these individuals.

Our subgroup was not naïve to understand that these reforms must include our contractor partners. These individuals bring incredible expertise to the fight, but the DOD must incentivize those companies that demonstrate modern software methodologies. If these firms have not fully embraced an agile culture and DevSecOps mind-set, then the department must look elsewhere. For the record, changing the team name on the office door to “agile” does not mean your workforce has embraced the culture . . . that is just lipstick on a pig.

Overhauling the recruitment and hiring process is going to be a long hard road, but a failure to launch is must worse. The DOD must start with simple position titles and job descriptions that match the commercial sector. They must invest in civilian recruitment outreach programs similar to those the military enjoys. These reforms include creating a knowledge base for hiring managers on the various hiring authorities and how to engage with subject-matter experts as resume reviewers. A candidate might not have a traditional background. Still, some of the best developers did not follow the cookie-cutter model.10 Once the department attracts top talent, the onboarding process should be measured in days and not months. Let me be clear: these recommendations are the bare minimum and not a nirvana situation.

Before commenting on our final recommendation, our team illustrated the failure of the DOD’s hiring process via a vignette to the DIB. Starting in 2017, we attempted to hire the winner of a Hack the Air Force bug bounty program after he reported on 30 severe vulnerabilities in our information technology systems. The high school graduate beat out more than 600 other white-hat hackers and expressed interest in coming to work for the department before starting his computer science degree at Stanford University in the fall of 2018. In eight months, we attempted to navigate the hiring processes of the Air Force, Army, and Washington headquarters services to no avail. The “system” was ill-equipped to evaluate his technical prowess despite it being demonstrated and communicated to the hiring authorities at these various agencies. The hiring authorities deemed he had no certifications or a college degree; therefore, he was rejected. It took engagement at the highest levels of the Pentagon and a direct order to bring this gentleman into the department. Most organizations do not have this luxury and would have lost hope on this incredible candidate. Our team was committed to hiring him based on his incredible experience and skills . . . oh, and in case anyone is questioning his experience, he landed on Time’s list of the 25 Most Influential Teenagers of 2018.

Finally, let’s address development and retention. However, before we dive in, let’s eliminate the thought that these employees are going to spend 30, 20, or even 10 years within the DOD. They may choose to spend a few years or more, but that does not mean the department should not invest in these people. The DOD should encourage private-public sector fluidity within the workforce.11 This brings private sector best practices in the department while at the same time helping the private sector understand the unique mission and constraints for future projects. The DOD must develop comprehensive training for all software acquisition professionals and all the associated functions mentioned earlier. This includes leveraging existing commercial training solutions, continuing education programs, and partnering with academia and industry.

In the end, the DIB published one of the most robust studies seen on the issues surrounding software acquisition. However, one of the best facets of the report is it outlined step-by-step how the DOD can tackle these significant challenges. The federal government does a phenomenal job of studying problems and drafting recommendations, but that is where it ends. If Abraham Lincoln spent the first four hours sharpening his ax but never swung at the tree in the remaining two hours, what was the point in the first place? The SWAP Study engaged organizations inside and outside of the government to drive real change. I am hopeful this study leads to improvement in the workforce, but I recognize that hope is a weak strategy. The DIB concluded that “past experience suggests we should not anticipate that this report will miraculously result in solutions to every obstacle we have found, but we hope that the two-year conversation around it will provide the impetus for figuring out how to make the changes for which everyone is clamoring.”12


Lt Col Justin Ellsworth, USAF

Lieutenant Colonel Ellsworth (MBA, The Citadel; BS, University of Connecticut) is a Defense Legislative Fellow for Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska). In this role, Lt Col Ellsworth serves as a member of the personal staff and is responsible for the assigned duties and tasks to meet the needs of the office.


1 DOD, FY18 National Defense Authorization Act, accessed 12 November 2019, https://www.congress.gov/.

2 Milo Medin (address, Defense Innovation Board (DIB) Public Meeting, Washington, DC, 10 October 2018).

3 United States Special Operations Command, “SOF Truths,” accessed 1 August 2019, https://www.socom.mil/.

4 Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Military Software, Defense Science Board Report (Washington, DC: DOD, September 1987), https://apps.dtic.mil/, 38.

5 DIB, Software Is Never Done: Refactoring the Acquisition Code for Competitive Advantage (Washington, DC: DOD, May 2019), https://media.defense.gov/, S158.

6 The President’s Management Agenda: Modernizing Government for the 21st Century,” (Washington, DC: Office of Management and Budget, April 2018), 20, https://www.whitehouse.gov/.

7 DIB, Software Is Never Done, S158.

8 DIB, Software Is Never Done, S158.

9 DIB, Software Is Never Done, S158.

10 DIB, Software Is Never Done, S158.

11 DIB, Software Is Never Done, S158.

12 DIB, “Software Acquisition and Practices (SWAP) Study,” accessed 14 September 2019, https://innovation.defense.gov/.




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