Defense Department Gets Smart on Software

By Bob Ritchie, VP, Software

The Department of Defense is taking a progressive step forward with its mindset around software procurement and management of software programs. In a recent study, the Defense Innovation Board (DIB), an independent think tank advising the Secretary of Defense, reinforced some fundamental truths about software:

  • Speed and cycle time are the most important metrics for managing software.
  • Software is different than hardware, and not all software is the same.
  • Software is made by people, for people, so digital talent matters.

In the press conference that followed the release of the DIB study, Ellen Lord, DoD's acquisition chief, discussed the Pentagon's lobbying efforts aligned to the report's recommendations. The efforts are focused on piloting a streamlined procurement approach for software and collapsing the multiple, segregated pools of money for software procurement (R&D, production, sustainment) into a single line. This will empower programs to move seamlessly between the various phases of the software development life cycle and equip them with the controls to combat ever-rising operations and maintenance (O&M) costs.

Speed to Market

As Marc Andreesen predicted in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, software is eating the world, and the DoD is no exception. The department has grown to rely fundamentally on software capabilities to empower warfighters and advance the nation's capabilities beyond those of adversaries. However, the value proposition of software is only fully realized when speed to market is maximized and lead/cycle time is minimized. Procurement and management schedules measured in months and years are incongruent with an asset like software, which is capable of providing asymmetric tactical advantages in a matter of hours or days.

The DIB study emphasizes speed to market as a critical key performance indicator for software programs to realize their full portfolio value. This aligns with years of thought leadership from SAIC and our Agile Center of Excellence, SAFe Lean Portfolio Management, DevOps, and DevSecOps culture and tools for achieving "velocity to value," or V2V. Cold War-era procurement models and management practices with 12- to 18-month delivery lead times ensure that warfighters get the tools they needed 11.5 to 17.5 months ago to succeed--if they're still needed at all.

Faster delivery models are necessary to empower our warfighters, expand our tactical advantage, and maintain a reliable and secure capability.

Different Than Hardware

For quite some time organizations have pursued a software assembly line. The predictability and efficiency that Henry Ford's innovation brought to the world of manufacturing make up a logical aspiration for the production of any product. So how is it that the linear process and gate reviews have not worked to DoD's advantage? The short answer: software is fundamentally different than hardware and nonlinear.

The DIB study highlights some of the specific differences and thus why software programs need an alternate procurement and management model. One of the most glaring distinctions is what makes software attractive in the first place: it is approachable and has a low cost of entry. In other words, unlike in the physical world with capital expenditure and binding natural laws, a commodity computer and a few keystrokes are only what the engineering mind needs to take advantage of a limitless landscape of problem-solving. DIB's proposed procurement innovations simply aim to allow this true nature of software to flourish.

Digital Talent

The importance of digital talent is nothing new at SAIC. Since inception, SAIC has prided itself in being a career destination for the brightest engineering minds. We continue to reinforce our commitment through our talent engagement activities. The DIB study underlines how disproportionately paramount top software talent is by referencing a quote from Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview:   

One of the major differences between hardware and software is that for hardware the "dynamic range" (ratio between the best in class and average performance) is, at most, 2:1. But the difference between the best software developer and an average software developer can be 50:1 or even 100:1, and putting great developers on a team with other great developers amplifies this effect.

One might ask, "What do procurement models have to do with digital talent?" As it turns out, the DIB report demonstrates the impact procurement can have on one of the three pillars of Daniel Pink's Motivation 3.0: purpose (with the other two being mastery and autonomy). If the 50X to 100X performers are consistently witnessing the outputs of their superlative performance sit in waterfall purgatory for 18+ months, they become unmoored from their deeper purpose and begin to seek fulfillment in other markets.

The innovative procurement model laid out by DIB combats this head on and, in doing so, assists DoD and SAIC alike in acquiring talent.

FURTHER READING: SAIC brokers DoD app creation by commercial developers for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, as a nontraditional technology acquisition channel.

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About the author: Bob Ritchie leads SAIC's software practice, bringing a combination of commercial leadership and government services expertise. He is responsible for strategy and investment in software solutions; the development, integration, and sustainment of software applications; and the migration of legacy code and apps to new environments. Bob earned his bachelor of science in computer engineering from Virginia Tech and holds eight Amazon Web Services certifications.