ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Everyone loves a great idea — the kind that pop into your head when you least expect it. But to transform raw concepts into products and processes that work, you need to pick them up and shape them.
At the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command Software Engineering Center, that’s precisely what Innovation Panels are for: a forum for sharing and resourcing ideas, big or small, that can propel the SEC’s mission to provide software readiness for warfighters.
“Innovation Panels are a place for employees who think, ‘We’re not doing this, but we should be,’ or, ‘We’re already doing something pretty good, but I can make it better,’” said Barron Williams, SEC deputy to the associate director for operations.
Challenging business as usual
Since early 2018, the SEC has used the panels to elevate the best ideas with the most potential return on investment. They operate at two levels: Each SEC directorate holds a monthly panel in which any employee is welcome to share his or her ideas. The directorate may implement practical ideas that work at its level immediately. But those with the potential for use across the SEC or that require additional resources rise to a quarterly center-level panel with SEC Director Jennifer Zbozny, SEC Deputy Director Danielle Moyer and the SEC associate directors. Top innovations may receive funding and manpower awards to transform them into reality.
Employees have presented 47 ideas at the Innovation Panels thus far, with approximately half being implemented in some form. Proposed ideas range from simple, such as ready-made “kudos cards” for employees to thank one another, to complex, such as technical solutions to software engineering challenges. Other implemented solutions include lunch and learns, a library of job candidate interview questions, the development of alternative methods for delivering software to the field and more.
“The ones that work the best,” Williams said, “are when the presenter is the subject matter expert and can say, ‘I know what we need to do. I need you to get stuff out of my way.’”
Pitching the panel
In April 2020, the SEC held its eighth center-wide innovation panel. Two employees pitched senior SEC leaders on using existing initiatives in new ways.
Software engineer Justin Stephens proposed extending a program to automate software installations for the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, an intelligence processing system. In the past, the automation team had some success in simplifying DCGS-A software installations and reducing errors, Stephens said. But the developers realized that given how complex DCGS-A is, it was too much at one time.
Stephens requested contractor support for automation of the next DCGS-A software update. “By breaking it into smaller pieces, we can have an easier time,” he said. He also asked for help working with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command to get new automation processes into training manuals.
“I’m all in,” said Zbozny. “You’re thinking big and on the right level. This is where all our programs should be heading.”
In the second pitch, computer scientist Vance Snell outlined a plan to increase use of the SEC Software Engineering Environment. The SE2 is a collection of tools to improve collaboration and efficiency among different SEC projects.
To introduce more project teams to SE2, Snell pitched using its features as a project management tool. “From a project leader’s perspective, you see your status,” he said. “Where are you on milestones? What are the last couple critical tasks?”
He asked for additional support to prepare SE2 for more SEC teams to use the system for project management. That effort would include creating many new accounts.
“I like to see schedules and plans,” Zbozny said. “This is that on steroids. You’ll get the support, but my intent is to push this to everyone. This allows us to see ourselves.”