The Marines are launching a software factory

U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. David Staten

Factory director Lt. Col. Charlie Bahk discussed plans to launch at the Army’s facility in Austin, Texas.

The Marine Corps is launching a three-year pilot to develop a software factory and a cadre of software experts that’ll be teamed up with the Army’s similar effort in Austin, Texas. The first software-savvy Marines are expected to debut this summer.

Defense One caught up with Lt. Col. Charlie Bahk, who will run the Corps’ new factory, while he was attending the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) tech conference in Austin. 

You’re co-located with the Army Software Factory in Austin. Is your setup similar? 

It's the very reason why we decided to partner with them. Their central focus, and now our central focus, is about upskilling and enabling these talented Marines to deliver warfighting value to the edge...We are able to leverage the Army's facilities, tools, and production resources to accelerate, you know, operationalizing this capability for the Marine Corps.

What skill sets will the software factory focus on? 

Our smallest employable unit is called the software squad—SWS is the acronym—that consists of a product manager, a product designer, and a software development engineer. Those three disciplines comprise a product team, or a software squad. A software squad consists of one one product manager, one designer, and then anywhere between three or four software development engineers, depending on what the product is. 

The team, which is built on industry best practices, works on a single software solution for weeks/months, not years, like what we're used to. These product teams, they build these applications and send them to a centralized platform team, what we call it, where we have our fourth discipline, a platform engineer. Then they deploy the application to the users after integrating security protocols and compliance measures, using repeatable processes. That's where the factory elements of the Marine Corps software factory comes in; being able to use that to accelerate the delivery of the solutions to the edge. 

When I say to the edge, we're talking about the warfighter. For us, our premier warfighting organizations are the Marine Expeditionary Forces, but the software factory is available to the entire service. 

How many are in this first cohort, and when will they be embedded across the various Marine Corps organizations?

The first cohort will be on the ground here at the Software Factory in Austin with the Army this upcoming summer, starting with six total Marines, with the intent to scale to 54 by the end of year three—that is the length of the pilot. 

The beauty about the Software Factory is that it's able to provide this, this upskilling, this education, this on-the-job training, this pairing phase, where they are enabled to be able to learn the disciplines and matriculate through the skill set levels to become more advanced. And then, once they are seasoned enough, they can go and interact with the customer, delivering and developing solutions—all of that happens under one roof, which is an amazing construct because we're able to streamline things.

What’s your relationship with the Navy’s Black Pearl software factory?

We hope to have a collaborative relationship with Black Pearl in the future, per the intent of the [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Kathleen Hicks, who wants to have a software ecosystem for the DOD.

In 2019, the Defense Innovation Board published a landmark study on software development and what they recommended was that each service has an organic development unit capable of creating software for its very specific needs and that serves as an entry point for this capability. What that means is active component or reserve component uniform-wearing service members [need] to be able to do this because they have the operational experience informing their development cycle. 

Where are you getting the talent? Do the first six have a tech background?

I love it when people ask me this question, because it gives me an opportunity to highlight just how talented and multifaceted our Marines can be. Obviously, pre-existing technical competence helps in certain ways.…But we prioritize the applicants’ affinity to learn the disciplines. They also should have maturity, emotional intelligence, and grit—all the soft skills necessary to work on small balanced teams to deliver outcomes. That talent exists out there. We're seeing it already; interested applicants are applying now. And I have no doubt that we will not have any trouble whatsoever filling our ranks.

What are you hoping to learn from this first cohort this summer? 

We need to assess the demand signal from across the service. There's so many things that we are going in eyes wide open to learn. Everything from how we screen our applicants, what populations are the best students for this. 

This first initial cohort, we sourced it from our communications occupational field. What I would prefer is if we can canvass talent from across all [military occupational specialties], all ranks, all backgrounds. Because that diversity across the landscape really helps inform and round out how to best deliver the software solutions. 

Do you have any examples of the types of products that you're looking to have developed? 

We're contributing very actively to the Marine Corps' [Reconnaissance/Counter-reconnaissance] problem set. That application is very widely adopted across all three [Marine Expeditionary Forces] as it stands today. But pretty much any decision making support tool that we can develop to help pull that decision making cycle for the commander to the left, as far as possible. 

Any way [a] commander wants to modernize any part of their unit that doesn't necessarily need to be an enterprise-level solution is something we need to pursue—increasing lethality and readiness.