Promoting an innovative workforce through DevSecOps

DevSecOps has the power to set a new standard for the way the DOD -- and the rest of the federal government -- executes work.

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In the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, spectators of the high jump event looked on to a peculiar sight. A young American named Dick Fosbury threw himself over the high jump bar backwards in a new, innovative way that was far different than the typical forward scissor-like jump that was then commonplace in the sport. Some journalists described what they witnessed similar to a “a guy falling off the back of a truck”, but it was clear after Fosbury set a new world record and won the Gold medal that this unfamiliar approach was here to stay. Since then, the “Fosbury Flop” has become the predominant technique in the sport.

Similar to how Fosbury forever changed the way the high jump is performed, innovative approaches are being introduced into government to fundamentally shift the way the workforce executes the mission. The adoption of DevSecOps in the DOD may feel unfamiliar at first, but if done right, it will create a new foundation that will soon become the norm in everything it does. Further, the positive benefits from the adoption of DevSecOps will allow the DOD to empower its most important asset, its workforce.

Promoting an Innovative Workforce

When Defense Secretary Ash Carter stood up the Defense Innovation Board (DIB) in 2016, he highlighted the importance of pushing the DOD to be “imbued with a culture of innovation in peoples, practices, organizations, and technology.” With the creation of the DIB as a strategic priority within DOD, which also formalized the role of the Chief Innovation Officer, the department further solidified its stance on the importance of this culture shift. The department soon thereafter formally adopted DevSecOps as the “industry best practice for rapid, secure software development,” as outlined in the first version of the DOD Enterprise DevSecOps Reference Design released in September 2019. This set another foot forward on the path to transformation across the department as a synchronization point among people, process, and technology, enabling the workforce to become more innovative.

The battle for talent

There are many obstacles any organization faces when reflecting on creating an innovative workforce. The introduction of exponential technologies through DevSecOps requires new skills and talent, and the DOD must continue to hire, develop, and retain the human technical resources required to quickly and effectively build and maintain innovative solutions. This is an urgent priority for the federal government at large where many agencies are struggling to either attract talent with these new skills or identify and reskill their current workforce. The military sits in a unique position to tackle this challenge by being one of the primary entry points for public service. A recent Brookings Institute report highlights that “after retirement, a large number of former military service members re-enter federal service as civilians. In 2017, one third of all federal employees were veterans as opposed to only 6% of the total U.S. workforce, and almost 40% of new federal government hires in that same year came from the military.”

From these statistics it is clear how important the DOD workforce is for the future of the entire Federal workforce. By adopting DevSecOps as a critical strategy, the DOD is well on its way to growing and enabling the workforce of the future.

Measuring the impact of DevSecOps on the workforce

It can be difficult to properly measure the wide range of benefits that the adoption of DevSecOps has on a workforce. Although Fosbury first introduced the Flop technique in 1968, it wasn’t until after the 1976 Olympics that the approach was unanimously adopted by Olympic medalists. This was in part because the future Olympians of the world simply hadn’t yet practiced the technique enough to take full advantage of its benefits. Similarly, with DevSecOps, there are many immediate benefits that can be realized including shorter time to value, faster iteration to field new capabilities, and moving risk left, but holistic benefits across the organization can often take longer to realize if leaders aren’t looking in the right places. Below are some examples of additional benefits of DevSecOps adoption across the workforce. These benefits will be realized more and more over time as DevSecOps becomes the cultural norm across the workforce through education, training, and leadership focus.

Readiness. This is one of the most important elements the DOD prides itself on to adapt to constant global shifts and protect the American people. The DOD defines readiness as ensuring “that Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines receive necessary training and well-maintained equipment that enables them to succeed no matter the mission.”

So how does adopting industry frameworks like DevSecOps help promote readiness? By bringing together the right people, with the right tools, at the right time. DevSecOps is built on the foundation of curating multi-disciplinary teams that are equipped with the right skills and experience to address challenges. From a workforce perspective, identifying the right skills for new hires and reskilling the existing workforce is critical to creating effectively functioning teams. Skills are the primary currency that enables Agile teams to quickly adapt to changing requirements and embrace industry best practices like DevSecOps.

Accelerated Innovation. DevSecOps leverages a set of best practices and tools to remove manual processes with automation, increase agility with more flexible teams, and release incremental solutions with continuous delivery. The term “fail fast” is often coupled with DevSecOps as a mentality that focuses on testing hypotheses and quickly adapting to iterate on measurable outcomes quicker. It’s not to say that teams should always be “failing,” but rather they shouldn’t be afraid to test, fail, adapt, and improve. This empowers the workforce to be more creative and take greater chances with less risk.

Prioritization is also critical for fast tracking meaningful results in DevSecOps and is used to identify higher impact change drivers. By taking the time to prioritize work based on impact and feasibility – with user experiences at the core of everything – organizations can drive better outcomes at each stage of development. Using this method of arranging tasks will shift work from producing only outputs, like “designing an app,” to outcomes, like “designing an easier way to complete a specific task.” The difference is considering the actual needs of the user (in this case “ease of use”), rather than solely the output of the process. Accelerating innovation through these best practices, both outputs and outcomes can be created with efficiency and measurable outcomes.

Inspired Talent. The automation of development and testing activities also allows for teams to spend more time focusing on high impact activities, rather than manual, low value tasks. This empowers the workforce to creatively solve greater challenges that otherwise may be pushed to the right. Employees who are working on higher impact, measurable goals will feel a greater sense of engagement and ownership in their work. Organizations will be able to better maximize the potential of their current workforce, while also gaining insight into the most important skills and experiences required in new hires. This is critical from both a recruiting and retention perspective. Attracting and maintaining talent becomes difficult if work is viewed as marginal to the overall mission of the organization. Another important feature of DevSecOps and Agile is higher collaboration and communication across teams. In traditional development sequences, work is “passed off” from one team to another, whereas agile development breaks down organizational barriers to integrate these teams from the start to co-create solutions. This promotes knowledge sharing, cross training, and continuous learning across the organization.

Just as the Fosbury Flop forever revolutionized the way the high jump was executed, DevSecOps has the power to set a new standard for the way the DOD – and the rest of the federal government – executes work. While some benefits can be realized immediately, longer term benefits across the workforce will take time to realize – just as it took several years until the awkward, yet revolutionary leaping style of Fosbury dominated the sport forever. The DOD has made its strategy for the future clear -- and by embracing DevSecOps it will realize massive improvements in creating an innovative workforce for the future.