Hacking the Army's tech talent problem

Lt. Col. Vito Errico, then an Army major, speaks at the AUSA conference on Oct. 11, 2021

Lt. Col. Vito Errico, then an Army major, speaks at the AUSA conference on Oct. 11, 2021 U.S. Army photo by SFC Henry Gundacker

As the Army trains its second cohort of technology professionals, the success of the software factory will hinge on how well they are integrated into the Army's mission.

Army Spc. Majid Lowe didn't know anything about the Army Software Factory until a superior in his infantry unit brought it to his attention. "He came in one day and said I was wasting my time...and told me that I needed to apply or I was going to be very unhappy," Lowe said.

His journey to become part of the Army Software Factory's first cohort wasn't straightforward. His career started with a stint as a cybersecurity specialist. "I did network audits," Lowe told FCW. "I would go to the client [and] I would run some scans and try to break some things and [say]: 'Hey, here's what I got into. Here's what I didn't get into.' And then I would leave. It wasn't the most fulfilling job, but again it afforded me a lot of free time because the job didn't take a whole lot of time, so that was great."

In 2017, he went on a six-month motorcycle camping trip with his father, who was in the Marine Corps. Lowe originally intended to join the Army's Special Forces, but an injury sidelined those dreams, and after his father's death, he decided to enlist as an infantryman. 

"In early 2018, I lost my dad, and when that happened, I realized I don't want to have regrets when my time comes to meet whatever maker we might have," Lowe said. 

Because of his background in cybersecurity and his experience as a junior enlisted infantryman, Lowe came into the software factory with ideas for bringing automation into daily operations, such as scheduling and deconflicting Army activities.

Finding hidden tech talent

Lt. Col. Vito Errico, co-director of the Army Software Factory, told FCW that he believes there is "mislabeled or underutilized, hidden tech talent already inside an organization of about 485,000 people. We've got combat medics who are completely self-taught in fields of platform engineering, but…the recruiter pushed them toward more traditional Army disciplines.... And so if you take all of those what I would call tech misfits and sort of put them in one place and organize them and resource them properly, we think you could do something pretty magical."

The software factory is now training its second cohort of in-house "tech misfits." Co-Director Maj. Jason Zuniga said: "Over the past year, it's been really fast and furious. Behind the scenes, this has kind of been a little bit of a demonstration and doing a little bit of bureaucracy hacking because we have been moving quickly. We have been trying to do things a little bit differently by putting soldiers at the forefront."

The Army Software Factory launched under Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, in July 2020. The first student cohort started training in January 2021, and the second cohort started last summer. There is a rolling application process for future cohorts.

In the past year, 55 soldiers and civilians from those two cohorts went to work on agile software teams that focus on different modernization priorities. The software factory has produced eight applications and averages 99 days from development to production for soldier use. 

Letting soldiers take the lead

A board evaluates software factory applicants' submission packets, which includes reviews from seniors, peers and subordinates. Those applicants are assessed for technical talent, emotional intelligence and maturity. Those who are chosen join a cohort and head to the Army Futures Command's co-location at Austin Community College. 

Then participants swap uniforms and last names for civilian clothes and calling one another by their first names as they embark on a six-month technology accelerator, which is the key to "hacking" the technical talent problem quickly. Based on prescreening that happens during the evaluation process, participants are assigned to tracks that include product management, user interface/user experience design, application engineering and platform engineering.

After six months, the cohort starts practicing extreme programming and paired programming, an intensive learning model in which individuals sit "shoulder to shoulder all day for 40 hours a week" to learn from industry professionals, Errico said. When soldiers are about one year into the three-year tour, the goal is for them to be proficient in their study areas and earn an additional skill identifier, such as product manager or software product designer. That identifier becomes part of their Army records and helps the service catalog talent for future use, he added. Once cohorts receive their identifiers, they are integrated into teams and continue to solve Army problems.

"The idea is just like soldiers learn how to shoot on a rifle range, they learn how to program or be product managers or designers, with a subject-matter expert who's already mastered it," Errico said. "Slowly over time, you become the master, and then the soldiers will take the lead."

He added that the technology being developed is often secondary. "A lot of times, people get really caught up on what type of software you're developing, and we look at it as the software that we're developing is the intermediate step," he said. Instead, the desired result is having a slew of technology-savvy professionals or "autonomous product teams that we can send out across the Army and hand to a commander without them knowing what they'll be potentially working on." 

A path to long-term success

Once in place, software factory alumni execute problem decomposition, problem scoping and prototyping before deploying software solutions on an operational network as quickly as possible. Some of the initial focus areas are tactical operations, business processes, logistics and maintenance. Eight products, including the readiness-focused Carrera app and CASL Pick Sorter app for logistics, were produced in 2021 on operational networks and are soldier-accessible, Errico said. Some of the factory's applications are only accessible on secure networks, while others can be used on a soldiers' personal cell phones. The Army works with individuals to determine the best route based on security and usability.

More than 5,000 soldiers are involved in beta testing software products developed by the software factory, Errico said, and the Army expects "exponential growth as more soldiers use our applications and integrate them into their workflows."

Moreover, in the past year, the software factory teamed up with the Army's CIO and Enterprise Cloud Management Agency to deliver a cloud ecosystem that helps deliver secure, resilient and scalable applications to more than 100 clients across the Defense Department.

Uncovering talented technologists who can collaborate to launch next-generation capabilities is only the beginning. Army CIO Raj Iyer told reporters in October 2021 that creating a career path for them is crucial for the Army's long-term success. 

During a media briefing at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference, he said: "It's really important for us to understand, wherever we're going to place them, what enduring role do we see for them to have in the Army so that they have a career path and a progression because if we put them back to what the [military occupational specialty code] says, we're going to quickly lose them."