DoD tech teams discuss talent, culture, ecosystem health

By Damany Coleman, Public Affairs Officer, Kessel Run

BOSTON (4 August 2022) – Last month, Kessel Run hosted a coalition of software factories and innovative partners from throughout the United States Department of Defense software ecosystem at Kessel Run’s Boston office.

This event is one of many simultaneous, ecosystem-wide efforts to improve coordination, share best practices, learn from each other's experiences, and moreover, to meet the operational imperatives set forth by the Secretary of the Air Force.

During the software factory working group, we had the immense privilege of sitting kneecap-to-kneecap with our peers from the Army Software Factory, BESPIN, Corsair Ranch, Kobayashi Maru, LevelUP Code Works, DoD Platform One and Space CAMP.

The event was organized into dedicated breakout sessions, such as acquisitions, with subject matter experts in attendance. This made it much easier for the teams to organize ideas, create action items and plan for future, recurring collaboration.

As a housekeeping note, not all software factories are acquisition programs, just as not all acquisition programs prefer to be called software factories.

Other distinguished guests from the Office of the DoD Chief Information Officer, DoD Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, Joint Special Operations Command Global Analytics Platform, Air Force Sustainment Center and the USAF-MIT AI Accelerator joined us for a couple days to dive deep into building out more formal collaboration efforts and hiring top talent to fill vital roles.

“This [event] is a byproduct of the time, energy and support our senior leaders are giving us to be able to modernize the DoD,” said Angel Phaneuf, Chief Information Security Officer with the Army Software Factory. “We're modernizing the soldiers, and we're prototyping the future force design.”

Phaneuf, a Kessel Run alum, said leaders in each software organization noticed that communication between the software “factories” could use some improvement, especially now with increasing pressure from pacing threats.

“Some of us were talking to each other, others weren't,” Phaneuf said. “One of the primary things that we want to be able to do is collaborate and share information.”

For example, if there is a common vulnerability or exposure (CVE) that arises, we should all be able to work together to find a solution that we can then share.”

“What are our mistakes?” Phaneuf posed. “What can you learn that we didn't do so well, that we want to do better next time? What was your approach to this? The long term vision of this is very broad, but we need to be able to create a space where the software factories and people that work in this space can talk and communicate with each other in an effective manner. We're here today to be able to set up those ground rules and actually put some formality across this coalition.”

She added that next steps are to identify all the leads in each organization to ensure that they're going to show up to future events and meetings, and that teams are going to be accountable for what’s going to drive real, lasting change.

Max Reele, a Materiel Leader with Kessel Run, said this event also made it apparent that talent operations is at the forefront of everyone’s mind as the catalyst to get DoD software to the next stage.

“I was asked what keeps me up at night, and my very first thought was how to manage our talent and how to have the talent pipeline coming in just as fast as we expect people to be looking for new opportunities,” he said.

Reele, a former member of BESPIN, added that there are people in our ecosystem that have spent years working at various big-name offices in software and tech. These folks build a lot of value and knowledge that spans decades of industry wisdom.

“We want people leaving here going to other tech sector jobs because that means we're doing something right,” Reele said. “That means they're getting the right experience here, but we need the door coming in to be rotating as fast as the door going out so that we keep a healthy workforce.”

Kessel Run is approaching its fifth anniversary and we have doubled down on becoming a scalable, hybrid acquisition and operations unit that can architect, manufacture and operate warfighting systems to function effectively in highly contested environments. Fine tuning our mission sets hasn’t been a walk in the park. We started with our tanker fueling application, Jigsaw, but now have a suite of apps that range from targeting, managing air space and collecting data to building the master air attack plan.

We’re still supporting, and developing software to deprecate a legacy system but we also iterate on warfighting software that our end-users love and can rely on. Our staff has grown more than five times that of the original crew, bringing in a diverse blend of military, civilians and contractors from across the country.

Kessel Run is no longer an experimental software factory. It is a Congressionally appointed and dynamic program of record, but we’d be remiss to say we made it to this point on our own. That’s why this coalition is important.

With the help of Congress, modern software development has become less challenging. Our move to the Software Acquisition Pathway enabled our acquisition strategy for the Kessel Run Air Domain DevSecOps Portfolio. The strategy was approved earlier this year, and it enables Kessel Run programs to operate under DoDI 5000.87 to maintain our approach to modernization and DevOps culture.

We now have a consistent set of approved strategies across all our activities that allow us to scale more effectively to move faster with fewer hurdles. There are a lot of folks we have to thank for that, including some of the men and women who attended the software working group recently.

Our culture and core values are only as strong as the other inclusionary and people-centered organizations we share them with — a status quo we don’t plan to change any time soon.

“This event was important for us to see the pockets of greatness that are going on around the Department of Defense,” said Leah Vincuella, Chief People Officer at Kessel Run. “There are multiple software agencies that are looking for and attempting to retain the same kind of talent, not necessarily within the same organizations.”

Vincuella added that this new tactic, once refined, could be the next evolution of the DoD software ecosystem.

Gone are the days of employees working at one company for the duration of their professional careers. Software — and the people who develop it — are meant to be as diverse as possible. Everyone wins when we work together toward common goals.

“The next step is not just trying to retain talent within one organization, but sharing those people because we all want them to grow into the best people they can be,” said Brett Einsidler, the Talent Operations Manager at Kessel Run. “It’s fantastic that we can all be here to have these conversations.”

While attracting and permanently retaining all of the industry’s unique talent is theoretically ideal, we’ve come to the conclusion that talent doesn't have to stay to help us make great software.

Sadia Copeland, a Product Manager with Army Software Factory, said that’s exactly why DevOps, culture and events like these are so important. Just as finding the perfect ingredients makes a better meal, sourcing great talent creates the future of software that we’re all working toward.

“What we’re doing is we're finding the raw materials that go into software,” Copeland said. “That is, its people and their thoughts. I think a lot of people don't realize software is like art. When you read a poem or see a painting, you feel the spirit of the artist through it. When you see a painting, you see the spirit of the artist. When you look at software, you are seeing the spirit of a developer in it. Whatever app you're using, you are feeling the spirit of the developers who made that application.”

Air Force Life Cycle Management Center
Digital Directorate
HBB, Kessel Run
Media and Communications Engagement