By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Why Kessel Run is such a big deal

Image:  Amiak / Shutterstock

Big changes are happening in how the Air Force manages IT development. These changes, which are somewhat under the radar, involve both the use of agile and an increasing role for organic capacity in software development -- two issues that are not so related but are being pursued together under the moniker “Kessel Run.”

Last year I blogged about an important use of agile software development to turn around a very troubled project at the Air Force’s air operations center in Qatar, allowing the delivery of new capability after four months for a project that had gone 10 years and spent $750 million without delivering. In passing, my blog mentioned that the actual programming work for the air operations center was done by six active-duty airmen, trained in agile by a small vendor called Pivotal Labs. At the end of the blog I asked, “Will this be a turning point for agile in DOD?”

I had not had a chance to follow up on what was happening with agile in the Air Force when I independently heard about something called Kessel Run. I didn’t catch the Star Wars reference at the time, but learned that this program was related to a push in the Air Force to use more organic (in-house) capability for developing software, something that in recent years has hardly existed.

Many critics, including a number of academic experts on contracting (such as Professor Don Kettl of the University of Texas at Austin) have suggested that the lack of in-house skills makes it harder for government to manage contracts with vendors, and that in-house efforts sometimes can even be less expensive. This argument hasn’t gotten much traction, however, out of a view that government can’t compete with tech firms for recruiting quality software developer talent.

At a contracting conference a while ago, I was interacting with Maj. Gen. Cameron Holt, the Air Force’s head of contracting, and asked him about Kessel Run. We spoke a bit, and he put me in touch with Steve Wert, an Air Force SES’er who has the new title of Program Executive Officer Digital for the Air Force, working out of Hanscom Air Force base right in my neck of the woods outside Boston.

What I learned is that Wert was leading two largely separate, though somewhat overlapping, efforts to improve how the Air Force manages IT software development – upgrading the Air Force’s organic capability for software development and moving agile contracting forward.

Let me start with the agile part, since that was what I originally wrote about last year. Were and his team have mostly been working on introducing agile to two significant programs. “Both these are legacy programs that were operating reasonably well, but software updates were slow -- measured in years,” Wert said. “Now both are able to update every two weeks.”

With these successes, Wert’s boss, Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper, named him to a new position called PEO Digital. Wert’s basic assignment became to promote the spread of agile in the Air Force. “I still have my day job (PEO for Battle Management),” he said but now Wert also works with other PEOs and with the requirements and testing communities -- he said he does three time more public speaking than before. “I also work to share agile best practices and metrics that are beginning to emerge.”

So agile is now embedded at senior levels of Air Force acquisition. In terms of spreading this to new programs, Wert said that is “now still is a demand signal coming from me. But once teams see how well this works, they get excited.” If this is true, then agile -- in the Air Force and in government more broadly -- will succeed the old-fashioned way, by delivering results.

As for the organic part, the use of airmen for the AOC agile work was more coincidental than intentional. “I pushed on all fronts to go to agile,” Wert said, “whether organic or contractor or a mix. We were primarily looking to demonstrate that modern commercial practice could be successfully applied at scale with the DOD. AOC happened to already have a sustainment contract that was set up as a service, so the government was used to directing the work. Going organic was a short step -- and faster than letting another contract.”

Wert did not originally have in-house software developers on his staff. They used some airmen already at Hanscom, and supplemented this by finding airmen coders throughout the Air Force (usually not working in acquisition) and training them on agile through a six-month temporary duty assignment. 

The Kessel Run moniker itself, of course, comes from the original Star Wars movie. In one scene Han Solo is showing Obi-Wan Kanobi his starship, trying to convince the Jedi of its speed. "You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon?" he says. "It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs." So for the Air Force, Kessel Run meant speed, which is what the Air Force was trying to do with agile.

The suggestion came from Defense Digital Service young folks -- “the kids in hoodies” -- working on modern software development practices for Wert; they love references to Star Wars or Star Trek. (“They give everything a Star Wars name,” someone familiar with DDS told me.) Wert told me he needed to learn Star Wars trivia to work with the DDS people.

Since the AOC work, the push for organic capability in the Air Force morphed from coincidence to strategy. “If the government wants to take back technology ownership,” Wert said, “the military corps needs to understand tech. I can’t adequately put out a contract to build software if I don’t understand software. If the government people understand, it helps them work with contractors. And I think we get better quality code with people who have a mix of military and contractor experience. What we tried to do is show with Kessel Run is that we could use government-led teams.”

Recently the Air Force held a hiring fair and brought on 40 software developers from outside to join their operation in the Boston area. Wert noted that DOD has gotten very broad hiring authorities for IT, so delays are not the challenge they often are elsewhere in the government. “We can’t compete on salary alone, but we offer important and interesting work and some great benefits including stability, he said. “Most of the people we’re hiring really want to be involved in Kessel Run specifically, as a way to help the military.”

Wert is in no way dogmatic about developing software in-house – he told me most coders will continue to be contractors, and one of the two agile projects he is concentrating on now involves only contracted developers, while the other uses organic maintenance staff. But he wants organic capability to be able to be part of the mix.

Wert himself is an acquisition professional with 24 years of service in uniform, followed by the last 12 years as an Air Force civilian. I was amazed that a 36-year government veteran still had the enthusiasm and drive to take charge of not one but two important change efforts, neither of which is a slam dunk. “It’s in my nature,” he told me, “to challenge processes that don’t work. I’ve seen too many software programs that don’t work.” He added that the Air Force has long had some interest at the PEO level in streamlining processes and delegating authority, “but these are newer concepts.”

Put these two efforts in Air Force IT management together, and Steve Wert emerges as an IT innovation hero. But for me there are two other impressive things about Wert aside from big achievements moving the Air Force on agile and organic capability.

One is how he slipped into working on developing better organic capability. It started as simply a more-convenient way for him to move agile forward. But Wert’s mind and imagination were broad enough to see how it could help the Air Force with a different problem as well. Second, it is not every 36-year Air Force old-timer who is willing to listen to kids in hoodies, and even to allow them to name a pet project after a favorite Star Wars trope. (Kudos to the Air Force as well for not squelching this name.)

So this becomes a story not only about the changes themselves, but about long-time senior feds who haven’t lost a passion for achievement --- an inspiration, I hope, for other long-time civil servants.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 12, 2019 at 3:36 PM


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