WASHINGTON — The head of the Army’s new software organizations say the service won’t always be able to rely on contractors for software support, and that’s why the Army needs in-house coders.
“For a very long time, the Army got comfortable operating with contractors all over the battlefield,” said Lt. Col. Vito Errico, director of the Army Software Factory, at C4ISRNET’s CyberCon event Nov. 10. “It was sort of commonplace in Iraq and Afghanistan to co-locate contractors with servicemembers to do technically oriented things. ... That was the way that we were able to fight.”
“But looking ahead, we might not always be able to fight that way. A future enemy might have the ability to deny us the ability to move contractors and civilians around the battlefield, and that burden of technical competence, that last tactical mile of software development or fusing data sets, might fall on the uniformed servicemember,” he explained.
With a relatively informal, less hierarchical structure than a typical military organization, the Army Software Factory’s goal is to grow the number of soldier coders within its ranks. Hosted at Austin Community College in Texas, the first cohort of 25 soldiers launched in January. That cohort will stay at the factory for a three-year rotation, during which time they will take courses and learn software skills.
The nascent software factory operates as a pilot program under Army Futures Command, as the Army assesses whether the factory can be beneficial and whether the service’s approach to software is good enough.
“It’s a nice empirical use case to help inform senior Army officials on where they need to go with policy,” said Errico.
An additional benefit of using soldiers to code is the soldiers are themselves users of the software they’re developing. The factory’s tagline is “By soldiers, for soldiers.”
The approach is already bearing fruit, said Errico. After observing tactical logistics warehouses at Fort Hood, Texas, factory participants were able to develop software that automated some of the ordering processes, giving soldiers time back to spend training on terminals to help reduce waste.
That software gained popularity organically as the various tactical warehouses adopted it. Now it’s being used by the bigger depots, said Errico, and the software is estimated to have saved more than 3,500 soldier hours.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.