The Army Software Factory, a first-of-its-kind venture launched by the U.S. Army Futures Command in early 2021, is forging new digital avenues for the U.S. Army and joint force to dominate future battlefields.
The concept of dynamic problem-solving is at the forefront of Army Software Factory efforts. The fast-paced and highly kinetic nature of future warfare means relying on contracted support—particularly off-site support—will, in many scenarios, no longer be a viable option. The Army recognizes that ground forces will need to quickly wield and conduct data and software operations in theater, applying modern knowledge and an understanding of transformational technologies.
To tackle this challenge on behalf of the broader Army, Futures Command leaders have molded a military software factory model that is not only applicable to soldiers, but also accessible to sister services. The result is an effort fueling Army and joint force transformation by empowering service members with cutting-edge skills and the digital fluency to outmaneuver adversaries. Digital fluency is the ability to select and use the appropriate digital tools and technologies to achieve a particular outcome, according to a Study.com article titled, “What Is Digital Fluency?—Definition & Example.”
The Army Software Factory is embedded in the Rio Grande campus of Austin Community College, Texas. The center’s strategic location in downtown Austin, within walking distance of the state’s capitol building, the University of Texas, Futures Command headquarters and numerous private-sector technology companies, places it in a thriving innovation ecosystem. Factory leaders and members can harness new insights and stay abreast of evolving best practices by engaging regularly with technology experts and disruptors.
The software factory program was designed to equip participating soldiers with relevant and up-to-date competencies in software development—not as a standard training program, but as a prototype of future force design. Program initiatives focus on answering the question of what a future-ready, virtually savvy force looks like and how the Army can foster this type of talent from within its ranks.
The question is one that has intrigued Army leaders and is met with enthusiasm by soldiers, many of whom grew up using state-of-the-art personal technology devices. The desire to achieve advances in Army technology is shared by the service’s private-sector partners, who are working closely with the acquisition community to ensure rapid development and fielding of new solutions.
Growing Software Ability
Adjacent to these efforts is the Army’s need to ensure that the force is capable of understanding and employing present-day software capabilities. The Army Software Factory is unique in that it explores the Army’s ability to teach additional skills to soldiers in key areas of cloud, data and software knowledge. Some soldiers join the software factory with previous experience in coding or computer science, while others arrive brand-new to the subject, transitioning from fields such as infantry or human resources. The program also has incorporated Department of the Army civilians, ensuring that software ability spans Army programs.
What unites the broad spectrum of backgrounds and occupational specialties is an eagerness to learn tailored skills that will bolster the readiness and operational dexterity—the ability to fix software problems on the spot—of the fighting force.
Soldiers and Army civilians who apply to join the software factory are evaluated through a competitive application process. Those who are selected to join sign on for a three-year program consisting of a three-month, classroom-based tech accelerator phase followed by a mentored project phase and eventual specialization in application engineering, platform engineering, product management or user design.
The program culminates with participants forming teams to take on unique projects of their own, while simultaneously mentoring program members who are just beginning their journey.
The program is still relatively new and has continued to rapidly refine and shape its structure and timing in response to participant and leadership feedback. However, program members’ initial impressions have been overwhelmingly positive. Many soldiers feel not only more capable of contributing directly to the high-tech demands of the future operational environment, but also more prepared to potentially seek post-Army employment following their service commitments. The chance to access and grow additional in-demand skills illustrates the layered nature of Army Software Factory benefits, demonstrating how such programs can aid in improving soldier recruitment and retention while enabling mission-specific outcomes.
Since opening its doors, the Army Software Factory has welcomed more than 125 soldiers and Army civilians into its program, adding cohorts of approximately 25 individuals roughly every six months.
Software factory members learn through immersion and hands-on participation in software and data operations. Under the tutelage of experienced industry mentors, they work in small groups to assess and devise digital remedies for real-world Army problems.
Many of the problems evaluated by program members are submitted by other soldiers who seek answers to questions that range from how to calculate munitions storage more effectively, to how to create more accurate systems for tracking preventive maintenance checks and services. Applications developed by Army Software Factory members have been used to support multiple operations in Europe and to increase the ease of accessing soldier resources stateside.
By digging into creative ways to solve persistent challenges, program members are demonstrating how the Army of 2030 and 2040 might generate internal solutions to tricky obstacles. Leveraging soldier experience and insight is particularly useful in such scenarios, as having firsthand familiarity with various systems and operating procedures can lend itself to developing highly nuanced and effective solutions. Carving out space to experiment and see what works well is also valuable, as it allows the Army to prepare for next-generation warfare ahead of its emergence on the battlefield.
Future soldiers may be confronted by challenges requiring quick thinking and adjustment within the software realm. If novel technology, including artificial intelligence, will be a defining characteristic of the future battlefield, the ability to control and manipulate that technology will be paramount. Lessons learned from the Army Software Factory model and skills development process are informing Army transformation objectives, including those centered on ways to cultivate future Army talent.
Beyond amplifying future readiness, Futures Command and its Army Software Factory are committed to optimizing joint force interoperability and strength.
In early March, Futures Command signed a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Marine Corps deputy commandant for information to collaborate on the first Marine Corps Software Factory. The agreement involves training a small cadre of Marines alongside Army Software Factory soldiers and civilians each year for a period of at least three years, in addition to sharing information on internal technical processes and best practices.
The collaboration represents the joint force’s first shared software factory future force designs and talent initiative, providing an important avenue for advancing integration of leap-ahead capabilities and more modern personnel development pathways. Soldiers, Marines and their fellow joint and multinational service members will need to harness data adroitly to compete and win at the tactical edge, and they must work together closely to ensure they can fight and excel as an organized team.
Just as tech is changing at an exponential rate, so must the Army’s ability to train and unleash new talent. Preparing for the future now allows the Army to consider integrating agile software and data squads that will possess the ability to address issues rapidly, fixing problems on the fly. If data is an ammunition of the future, then these teams will bring critical advantages to their formations and the U.S. military as a whole. By thinking and operating more like a private company when it comes to building internal tech talent and capabilities, the joint force will be able to maximize the potential of its service members and outmatch adversaries in every domain.
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Col. Vito Errico is director of the Army Software Factory, U.S. Army Futures Command, Austin, Texas. He has served in a variety of operational and staff assignments. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 2006, and has a master’s degree in policy management from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and an MBA from Yale University, Connecticut.