Following the example of other branches of the military, the Army is launching a software factory to host soldiers and civilian coders who will apply their skills to a range of national security problems.
The facility, which will be based in Austin under Army Futures Command, will have the mantra of “by soldiers, for soldiers,” says Maj. Vito Errico, the program’s lead. The idea is to keep end-user soldiers in the development loop and have an agile workflow. The Army expects to have a physical office set up and staffed up by early 2021, but there are parallel virtual “redundancies” in place to make it a distributed team if current spikes in coronavirus cases continue.
Leaders have said that buying software has been a “nightmare” for the military, forcing the recent creation of in-house coding units like the Air Force’s Kessel Run. The programs bring Silicon Valley methods in-house instead of contracting out the work to private companies. If civilian coders are involved, they will be Department of the Army employees. Past attempts to bring agile and DevSecOps development practices into the military have failed, according to GAO reports.
The Army’s program will work on “unbounded” problem sets, Errico said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
“What the software factory is all about is the idea that soldiers are going to need to code their own solutions,” Errico said.
Security will be involved at “every single step of the process,” Errico said, with the goal bringing “true DevSecOps” to the Army. He added that the work will be “nested” within highly controlled environments to ensure the security of not only the software products, but also the workplace.
And the iterative nature of agile development will be baked in, Errico said. Input from soldiers will be a core part of the process.
“We are essentially reducing the user feedback cycle to as little as 24 hours,” Errico said.
The factory will be modeled after a startup company and bring in cohorts of 30 or so developers at a time to grow the capabilities of the program. The teams will start with low-risk projects, such as software for logistics and management, and grow from there.
The mandate from Futures Command leader Gen. John Murray “is to not bite the whole apple at once,” Errico said.
AI on the mind
The software factory also will be a part of what the Army calls its “AI ecosystem.” The coders will work with the Army task force at Carnegie Mellon University that was created to improve the service’s AI knowledge and skills. The university also has an AI masters degree program geared toward the military.
“The idea is to set up synchrony across the AI ecosystem,” Ericco said.
The first class of the “AI Professional Scholars Program” at CMU were virtually welcomed to the program Tuesday, according to a press release.
“We must recruit and mentor exceptional talent who will lead the way in using AI to harness data, making our warfighting and business systems faster, more effective and less expensive,” AI task force lead, Brig. Gen. Matthew Easley, said on of the new program in a statement.