The army software factory boasts of its first successes

Editor’s Notes: Army Software Factory Praises Its Early Successes

Magnuson Stew photo

AUSTIN, Texas— As a defense technology journalist, I’ve done my share of factory tours.

I saw the assembly of army trucks, helicopters, satellites, rockets, batteries, radios and even a module that would one day fly in the International Space Station.

But I’ve never had a tour as boring as the Army Software Factory in Austin, Texas.

And I don’t mean to insult or slander my guide, Captain Tyler Morrow, who showed me and a group of private sector technicians the organization’s year-old headquarters at the outskirts of downtown Austin.

It’s just that a “software factory” isn’t visually interesting. It’s a collection of personnel sitting in pods working on their computers – not as exciting as watching a CH-47 Chinook roll off the production line.

Still, Morrow, who serves as product manager at the plant, had an interesting story and good news to tell about the program’s first year.

The factory creates apps “that replace spreadsheets that have been done on paper in the same way since the Vietnam War,” he said.

The Software Factory, located on the Rio Grande campus of Austin Community College, is in a renovated building that once housed a high school. Army Futures Command founded the organization 11 months before that day’s tour. It now has some 200 people working there.

Leaders at its inauguration proclaimed that it had four main goals: to increase digital skills across the force; enable soldiers to dominate an information-centric battlefield; solve current Army problems by leveraging agile development security operations in cybersecurity practices and cloud technology; and harnessing the country’s innovative spirit through close collaboration with the tech industry and academia.

General John M. Murray, the now retired head of Futures Command, said that day, “The ability to develop software at the lowest tactical levels will help us deliver better software products. We anticipate long-term cost savings and expect the Software Factory to help us maintain a competitive edge in Army modernization efforts.

After 11 months, Morrow said the factory had delivered six apps developed under its roof.

One is “Blast Radius,” an app that tells logisticians the safest places to place munitions in a supply depot.

The Army had been researching software to map the ideal placement of explosive weapons stored for 19 years in various contract vehicles, Morrow said. After nearly two decades of supplier relationships, there was nothing to show for the money spent.

The software factory created an app including mapping technology combined with blast radius calculators in about three months, he said.

“It is currently being used in Europe to rapidly equip and deploy ammunition supply points,” he said.

The factory looks for problems to solve. Army organizations seeking help make initial contact through a website. If the project has potential, a team is sent to the site to shadow the staff so they can understand what needs to be done and work on a ‘problem statement’.

Once this statement is refined, a group of software developers are assigned the task of developing an application.

One such issue has come from the Indo-Pacific Command and the Hawaii-based army unit that coordinates training there. There are only about 6,000 acres in the state available for training and more than 30 units are vying for time. Morrow likened the allocation process to a “livestock auction,” with all interested parties gathering in one room shouting at each other.

The app will “create the entire training program for the island and optimize it for everyone,” he said, prioritizing which units need it first.

Other successfully delivered applications include one that saves thousands of labor hours in a warehouse by helping workers find goods and materials more efficiently. Another app has streamlined the process for National Guard members to search for available jobs posted by the service.

The factory does not just develop software, it creates software engineers.

“The hiring process is crazy because we’re going to bring in people who have no experience in software development,” Morrow said.

The factory receives about 700 to 800 applicants for each new cohort, but only accepts 30, he said.

This can be anyone from a private first class with no experience in software development to a major who has done network engineering in the service.

New staff members undergo a basic competency review, followed by intensive training. They undergo two quarterly assessments and then a final test. If they pass, they are fully qualified to become software developers.

The tour took place the day before the famous South by Southwest conference and festival, which kicked off in March after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The roots of the festival are as a music festival – and later – a film festival, but more of its content has been devoted to technology in recent years.

The establishment of the 2019 Army Futures Command headquarters in Austin solidified defense tech as a new draw at the festival and there are now unofficial SXSW defense events – such as the Army Software Factory Tour – and an official day with roundtables dedicated to defense technology on the weekend before the crowds of music and movie fans arrive.

The visit ended as it began: in a room with several groups of newly created software engineers working diligently on their computers and talking quietly among themselves. Again, not too visually interesting, but exciting things happen nonetheless.

Topics: Army News