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Air Force gets serious about software development

The Air Force wants to get serious about software development, so it had to make a structural change: The service's Battle Management Program Executive Office is becoming PEO Digital based at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

Steven Wert, who had run the Battle Management PEO, was introduced as the PEO Digital head at the 2018 Air Force Association's Air, Space, and Cyber conference earlier this month. Dr. Will Roper, the Air Force acquisition director, told reporters on Sept. 18 that Wert and PEO Digital would be a "catalyst" to push best practices and new contracting strategies across the service rather than "one program executive office that will develop all software in the Air Force."

FCW caught up with Wert via email to get more on what PEO Digital's priorities will be in the coming year and how cloud fits in. Here's what he had to say:

FCW: What are PEO Digital's main priorities for 2019?

WERT: PEO Digital has three priorities going forward: Continue to transition programs within the Digital portfolio to agile software development and expose processes that need to adapt to enable speed; highlight other [Air Force] programs that are outstanding examples of agile software development; and provide information to assist other programs in making this transition.

FCW: What programs are in transition to agile software development under Digital? And which processes need to be sped up?

WERT: To maintain dominance, we must be dominant developing and employing software, becoming a truly digital Air Force. A few of our programs are on this path already. The effect is that programmers work directly with warfighters, delivering software iteratively in order to meet minimum needs now, and build on small successes with increasingly complex apps and programs.

So, for example, some systems in one stage or another of this process: Air Operations Center Weapon System; the distributed common ground system's integration backbone or DIB; targeting and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) programs; personnel recovery command and control (C2) programs; select mission planning programs; and Integrated Strategic Planning and Analysis Network (ISPAN) programs, among others.

FCW: Which processes most need to transition?

WERT: Contracting needs to be more modular and agile. Operational test needs to be integrated into the agile development process, rather than a serial, post-development activity. As we build systems, we will check their security and deliver them in a way that would be recognizable to any smartphone user.

FCW: Which Air Force programs are already good examples of successful agile software development?

WERT: Some good examples are the Air Operations Center Weapon System; DIB; the targeting and GEOINT programs, and the personnel recovery C2 programs. Good examples in the future will be the select mission planning programs and ISPAN, among others.

FCW: Where is the Air Force in its cloud migrations? What challenges have arisen?

WERT: The Air Force is in the early stages of cloud migration, which is part of the reason for the PEO Digital designation. Program teams should not have to learn on their own, but benefit from lessons-learned from those teams that have made progress.

Migrating away from the waterfall model is difficult when a program is already trapped in a serial development-then-test approach. Also, since agile DevOps erases the line between development and sustainment, we'll need either a different appropriation, or a standard approach on when to use [Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation] funding versus [Operations and Maintenance].

These challenges may require changes to policy and possibly statute, but are being actively worked. For example, we're proposing a few pilot programs for how to integrate operational test into this way of producing software. I believe we need to learn from some different experiences before we adopt a best practice.

FCW: What is PEO Digital's role here? And which migrations fall under its purview?

WERT: Different programs will have different platforms and different delivery mechanisms. The cloud is an enabler for agile software in that it frees up resources to focus on application delivery and allows for automated delivery.

Not all programs will be able to quickly migrate to the cloud, but all programs should be able to achieve a more rapid release cadence, work more directly with end users, and take advantage of automated testing capabilities.

PEO Digital remains responsible for the former Battle Management portfolio, which is a large collection of programs. The additional role of PEO Digital is to assist other programs throughout the AF in adopting agile software development.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is a staff writer at FCW covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at lwilliams@fcw.com, or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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