Agility is the future of software development, says Air Force General

Hiring new software developers will depend on moving to agile acquisition.

The agile software development model is the next generation of software acquisition and it will streamline software development and acquisition for the Air Force as well, said Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, Commander of Air Force Material Command, at the July 14th Mitchell Space Breakfast.

The agile model is what it sounds like: quick and flexible. “You plan it, you build it, you launch it, you get feedback. And you do this constantly,” explained Gen. Pawlikowski.

As soon as the program is fielded, and feedback is received from the operators, an updated version is already progressing through the cycle. According to Gen. Pawlikowski, it is this model that allows commercial software developers, such as Amazon, Facebook, and even John Deere to constantly release new software as often as several times a day.

The two factors contribute to the speed of development for agile software. The independent tester is eliminated, and some requirements are left out of the original fielding version. Gen. Pawlikowski emphasized the utility and logic of placing newly developed agile software directly in the hands of the operators. That way, they can learn to operate it and identify flaws at the same time, she explained.

The other characteristic of agile software, not trying to fulfill all requirements at once, also streamlines development and fielding.

“Maybe all the requirements aren’t met at the first go, but you have something that you can put in the hands of the operator and they can use it,” explained Gen. Pawlikowski. “Once you put it in the hands of the operator, maybe some of the requirements you had in the beginning don’t make sense anymore, because [operators] see how they can actually use it and requirements change.”

In explaining why agile software development has not yet been fully embraced by the Air Force, Gen. Pawlikowski identified four main stumbling blocks. The embeddedness of traditional, lengthy software development models poses the biggest challenge.

The traditional Verification and Validation model consists of a phase of project definition, which includes operational concept, requirements, and detailed design stages, and a phase of project testing and integration. Alternatively, the Waterfall Model stacks the stages into a single phase timeline. Both provide little flexibility and a lot of paperwork, according to Air Force acquisition records and statements.

In fact, Gen. Pawlikowski noted that hiring new coding talent has been difficult because the new generation of software experts only know the agile model and are not enthusiastic about being re-trained to work with the traditional methods.

The other obstacles to agile software adoption that were identified are the Air Force’s resistance to discarding legacy aircraft that are often incompatible with the latest software, tendency to weigh down systems with risk mitigation measures, and cost.

Steps are already being taken to overcome these obstacles, however, and implementation of agile software is coming soon, she said.

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