Business Enterprise Systems Product INnovation (BESPIN) leadership partnered with Skylight to determine the right strategy, organizational structure, operations, technologies, and practices required to create a software factory within the U.S. Air Force (USAF). Leveraging our expertise, BESPIN is now positioned as an Air Force-wide software factory that drives digital transformation, empowers airmen product teams to build user-centered software, and creates a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
The Air Force is responsible for overseeing over 659,000 personnel and a multi-billion dollar portfolio of technologies to support them. They create software to ensure that operations run smoothly — from everyday business processes to mission-critical warfighting capabilities, such as aircraft inventory maintenance and military personnel career management.
Historically, software delivery within the Air Force suffered from the same problems experienced elsewhere in the government and defense spaces, including elongated delivery timelines without incremental releases, resulting in software that was not only built without the user in mind but also frequently outdated by the time it reached production.
Slow software delivery and suboptimal outcomes for the Air Force creates serious risks, including:
- Outdated processes that limit innovation
- Reduced airmen engagement and productivity
- High costs after extensive rework to arrive at a usable solution that meets the needs of the mission
In 2020, Business Enterprise Systems (BES) stood up the BESPIN software factory with seed funds from the Air Force Service Acquisition Executive, Dr. Will Roper, to drive digital transformation. The Air Force and BES Directorate leadership knew they needed to change the way the USAF developed and delivered software — but how? They’d seen success at organizations like Kessel Run, and believed those organizations were only scratching the surface of what was possible.
To help build their organization as the leading software factory for the Air Force, BESPIN engaged us to create a modern services-based organization that operated differently compared to anything that had ever existed at the Air Force. As part of this engagement, we had to rethink how software gets built from first principles such as:
- How can we provide cohesive user experiences to airmen across all the software they use?
- How can we improve software delivery performance (e.g., DORA metrics) in a highly secure compliance environment?
- How do we structure teams so they are autonomous and empowered?
- What training is needed? Tooling? Other enablers?
- What team cadences, ceremonies, and practices should we implement?
- How can we develop communities of practice?
During the inception, planning, and initial growth stages of the BESPIN software factory, Skylight provided strategic enablement services that focused on helping them build an organization that could offer software delivery as a service. Our contributions included:
- Coaching executives on how to build a digitally-powered organization
- Designing and supporting the implementation of BESPIN’s organizational model, including its delivery teams (organized into portfolios) and community of practice groups
- Supporting branding and communication activities targeted at driving culture change throughout BES and attracting new customers
- Designing BESPIN’s customer intake process to ensure the projects that it takes on are set up for success
- Supporting workforce enablement through coaching, training, and pair programming
- Advising on new agile procurement methodologies and contract vehicles such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program
In particular, Skylight helped BESPIN embrace the following core concepts as they built their organization:
- Service design: By taking into account overall needs and making sure that changes are compatible from an operational and cultural perspective, BESPIN product teams can deliver transformational changes that directly connect to larger outcomes. Through a service design approach, everyone is brought in at all levels of the organization, from stakeholders to the core delivery teams.
- Empowered teams: Teams are encouraged to work collaboratively and horizontally to get help with issues and see how others have solved similar issues. This prevents bottlenecks and creates a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
- Balanced teams: Teams are staffed to have product, design, and development practitioners each step of the way to prevent knowledge silos and ensure that each practice area is represented. This makes sure that each team has someone who represents the business (e.g., what we build connects to larger outcomes), represents the user (e.g., what we build will actually solve user problems), and represents the technical capabilities (e.g., how we can build it).
- User-centered design: Teams include users in the design and development process to make sure that software is intuitive, seamless, and enables airmen to do their jobs at the highest efficiency.
- Lean product: Teams integrate lean product development practices to avoid scope creep. Once one problem is solved, teams revisit the user landscape to understand what else they can build. This approach ensures that teams only build what’s necessary and don’t create waste/overhead.
- I do, we do, you do: Pairing is encouraged to teach best practices by example. New team members are empowered to adopt these best practices and utilize them with oversight and feedback. Finally, team members take a hands-off approach to allow their newer counterparts to take the lead and become self-sufficient.
- Build, measure, learn: Teams work in short iterations to reduce risk, building lean prototypes and solutions quickly so that they can measure their impact and learn how to adjust if necessary. This helps ensure that software creates value before it’s moved to production.
By integrating these core concepts, BES and other Air Force organizations have experienced the benefits of having a dedicated software delivery service provider. As a resource for the Air Force, BESPIN has catalyzed a virtuous cycle. BESPIN enables airmen to build software with speed and quality at lower costs, while also increasing airmen’s ability to continuously learn and improve. As a result, airmen get to use better software sooner, which creates more efficient processes, increases airmen satisfaction, and, in turn, improves overall productivity and retention within the Air Force.
- Airmen product teams can develop user-centered software that’s intuitive and doesn’t require significant training to use
- Delivery teams can quickly respond to changing needs in an agile manner
- Software delivery is now a core internal capability within the Air Force
- Software developed by BESPIN directly addresses user pain points, delivers on business outcomes, and has real impact on the overall mission
- Airmen product teams can go from idea to production in under 10 weeks
- Airmen product teams have documentation and comprehensive resources to help navigate the Air Force’s security and compliance requirements
- Airmen product teams are able to release to production continuously
- The Air Force is able to maximize the value of each dollar invested into software delivery