After 5 full-throttle years, Kessel Run is settling in for the long haul

A software development team meets about a project in the office of Kessel Run in Boston on May 30, 2018.

A software development team meets about a project in the office of Kessel Run in Boston on May 30, 2018. J.M. Eddins, Jr.

The new leader of the Air Force “software factory” wants data and architecture standards that stand the tests of time.

The Air Force has been a leader in the Defense Department’s efforts to develop, deploy, and buy software using modern techniques—and Kessel Run has helped lead that charge since its inception in 2017. Since then, the organization has been recognized for how quickly it has been able to deliver software. But after working through its growing pains, its new leader says, it’s time for Kessel Run to work on sustaining its output.  

Col. Richard Lopez took over Kessel Run this summer after serving as the program manager and materiel leader for the Unified Platform program and leading the LevelUP Code Works software factory. 

“My next priority, beyond delivering capability, is to continue to create this resilient organization that will deliver capability indefinitely for the warfighter,” Lopez said. “And you're doing that independent of the people and personalities. You want to create a structure underneath that allows you to deliver capability in perpetuity.”

Here’s what he’s learned so far and what the organization has in store for 2023:

You've been in the seat for about three months. Tell me what that's been like, what you've learned, and what your priorities are.

Kessel Run is a very dynamic organization. And it's full of a bunch of people who absolutely love what they do. I'm literally surrounded by people who come to work every day not because they have to, but because they want to. I have people that take pay cuts—huge, huge pay cuts, which would shock some people the size of pay cuts that people are taking here. And that to me is a testament not only of what Kessel Run has created over the years, but of what our mission is and of what we do for our nation and the world, quite frankly. I can draw a straight line between Kessel Run's mission delivering the Air Operations Center and wing [command and control] applications and sustaining the existing AOC 10.1 system and our deterrence operations worldwide. So I think it's a fantastic mission, surrounded by great people…it's a pretty humbling experience for me.

How has that informed your mission and your priorities as fiscal 2022 turns to 2023? 

Delivering product and capability is our first and foremost priority. My No. 2 priority might be a little bit different: As you evolve any software development organization, whether it's commercial or government, you have the startup phase, you have a scaling phase, and then the next natural phase is to stabilize and to focus on creating a resilient organization that can continue to deliver those capabilities for the long term. And you're doing that independent of the people and personalities. You want to create a structure underneath that allows you to deliver capability in perpetuity. 

Do you have an idea of how to do that?

Yeah, absolutely. Some of that includes making sure—if you want to get into the technical aspects of it—making sure that we have robust architectural and data standards that we're working with external organizations so that we're sharing our information and our standards and our data standards, so that we know that we can work with external partners that are in the same ecosystem. It's creating that stability, architectural data, engineering, coding standards, maturing those so that we can create a long-lasting and enduring software delivery organization.

What has Kessel Run delivered recently, and what are you looking to start in the next six to 12 months?

We've been focusing on delivering KRADOS [the Kessel Run All Domain Operations Suite, which is replacing the Air Operations Center, or AOC, Weapon System 10.1] to the AOC. So we're continuing that product line. We've also delivered C2IMERA [Command and Control Incident Management Emergency Response Application]...a wing-level command and control dashboard-type of capability that allows information to flow to the leaders within the wings on what's happening in their installations. So we're continuing those product lines and, in addition to that, sustaining the 10.1 system and working to deprecate that as we build the KRADOS capability, so that we can deprecate it gracefully and then focus on the transition towards towards delivering KRADOS for the entire AOC enterprise.

How is Kessel Run’s work with other defense and civilian federal agencies developing?

External partnerships, both external to the Air Force and external Kessel Run but within the Air Force, are really important to us. Primarily our relationships with other Air Force entities: [Advanced Battle Management System], for example. But the focus, at least for the next year or two, for Kessel Run is going to be internal to ensure that we're delivering the highest-quality capability for our user. And once we're comfortable that that's happening, then we'll be willing to explore outside, but our primary focus right now is for our No. 1 customer which is the Air Force and the command-and-control enterprise.

We have some applications, [Theater Battle Management Core Systems]...but we are responsible for sustaining some capabilities that other services use. So those absolutely will remain our focus. But we're going to focus internal to our core product lines, delivering the AOC weapon system, delivering wing C2 applications, delivering a common platform for command and control systems first. 

What came out of Kessel Run’s recent meeting with other Air Force software factories?

That is a grassroots organic coalition of software development organizations within the Air Force, and I think some that are outside of the Air Force, that work together, communicate with each other. And we decided that there was benefit in coming together in one place to talk through some of the hard problems that we're each trying to solve independently, to see if we can work together to solve some of those issues. 

Is there a plan to keep that going?

Our coordination and our collaboration with the other software factories has been helpful to us. And I think it's been helpful for the other software delivery organizations as well.

What do you see as Kessel Run’s biggest achievements?

Three primary overarching ones: One is continued sustainment of our 10.1 system, which is a legacy system that's been in production and operations for for quite some time over 20 years. That's a huge lift. And I have a dedicated team that works very hard every day to do that, and I'm really proud of them. So that's number one. Number two is the continued development of our KRADOS line of applications to move towards the future of command control for operational air power for the Air Force. And then the third one is the wing-level applications like C2IMERA. It has thousands of users and dozens of bases that use the application. 

What don't people know about Kessel Run that they should know?

That's a hard question because I think some things that might be obvious to me might not be obvious to others. But I'll start with the value of the mission that we support is greater than any one person in this organization. I have people that thought they were going to work here for a year or two, and four years later are still here because they're passionate about the mission. You know, that to me is something that I don't think is maybe that well known. And quite frankly, I'd like for that to be more well known because I'd like for that to be a recruiting tool for me. I want to go out there to the world and say, ‘Hey, come take a pay cut for me, for your nation, and bring your talents to our national defense.’ So that's probably number one. 

That's maybe to the broader world. If we're talking to the Department of Defense and people that monitor this space, we are a program office. We are not an experiment shop; we are an organization that delivers on known requirements through requirements documents. And at the same time, we're this DevSecOps organization that is working to implement this agile software delivery methodology within the Department of Defense. 

What I think Kessel Run has proven is that we deliver small chunks of usable capability and then continue to grow on that and you'll see more and more of that. The more you build, the faster you can build and the more you can grow. 

You mentioned recruiting. Are you meeting your recruiting targets? Are you looking to expand?

We have no intention of expanding beyond what it is that we're that we're built for and scheduled and funded to do. We have a very robust recruiting pipeline that allows us to bring in some significant talent. What we're going to focus on probably over the next year or so, though, is some higher-level experts that can also help us guide the organization in addition to all the work that we've been doing now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.