Marines are very good at identifying problems, Marine Corps CTO Jennifer Edgin will say. What they really need are appropriate tools for solving these problems.
That’s why Edgin set out to teach Marines the central methodologies to software development.
Edgin founded the Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISRE) Accelerator, a program via which Marines create software solutions to their challenges in just 12 weeks. Created in December 2014, the accelerator has run nine cohorts and produced 10 apps.
It works like this: Edgin and her team come up with a broad problem theme for the cohort (think geospatial intelligence, acquisition, etc.), then recruit a class. Each class member has some expertise in the subject area chosen, but Edgin tries to craft a cohort with a “wide variety” of rank and experience.
The selected Marines don’t need to be familiar with the latest coding languages, because they don’t actually write code in the program — that task is outsourced to a team of government and contractor developers and designers who, for the 12 weeks, are devoted to whatever the cohort needs. This distinguishes the MCISRE program from other agency “upskilling” opportunities, like the Department of Health and Human Services’ Data Science CoLab, for example, where students dive into the data science itself.
What the Marines do get, Edgin would argue, is a new toolset. “It’s about empowerment,” she told FedScoop. It’s about identifying a problem, coming up with a software solution and then guiding that solution through to implementation.
Week one sees the class of between seven and 12 Marines (“We have a waiting list,” Edgin told FedScoop) descend on Quantico for hands-on training. During this week the class distills the broad theme down to a “one sentence” problem they’d like to solve as a group. They start drawing wireframes and deciding on features. They learn about lean startup methodology and design thinking. They meet with mentors, sometimes Marines who took part in a previous cohort, who help to guide them through the creation process. The lab is what Edgin calls a “rank-less environment” — class members wear t-shirts and jeans and call each other by their first names.
For the next 10 weeks, the Marines return to their home stations but keep working together remotely. They get buy-in from potential users, explore new features and more.
The final stage, in week 12, is the pitch. “Have you seen Shark Tank?” Edgin asked, in reference to the hit ABC show. “It’s like Shark Tank.”
In front of a panel of experts in the cohort’s given field, the team presents a minimum viable product and plan for deployment. It’s up to the panel, then, whether the idea gets to see the light of day — so far, all of the apps created by MCISRE accelerator classes have made the next step to implementation. Depending on the app’s release strategy, Edgin said, the next phase might be user testing, a pilot or something similar.
Apps pitched over the past few years include a mobile app that allows Marines in the field to report actions — a task that was previously conducted over radio — a web app that shows the production status of a request for information and more.
The program is constantly evolving, Edgin said. “We try to practice what we preach,” she added, in terms of continuous development. Past classes suggest things that should be tweaked and Edgin takes this feedback seriously. She tries to change at least three things with every new cohort, she told FedScoop.
Edgin says the best part of all this is “really seeing the Marines solve their problems, and seeing the ownership and the empowerment.”
“To watch someone identify a problem, struggle with a problem and then pitch their solution I mean, that is… as an engineer you can’t ask for anything better,” she said.
But there’s another purpose here, one that feeds into a kind of slow-and-steady modernization of the force. As the Marine Corps modernizes, moves to the cloud and starts relying, for example, on a mobile app for reporting field actions instead of a radio system — these software solutions (and an alumni network of Marines who know how to use them) will be there.
In a way the MCISRE accelerator is a tool in and of itself — one being used to tackle that never-ending “problem” of institutional modernization.