AUSTIN, Texas – National, state and local leaders gathered to mark the next phase of the Army Software Factory, an initiative of U.S. Army Futures Command, at the Austin Community College District’s Rio Grande Campus, April 15.
“You know, what's happening here is the first-of-its-kind, and ACC is really proud to be a part of this historical moment,” said Richard Rhodes, Ph.D., the college district’s chancellor. “We believe that innovation plus collaboration truly leads to transformation, and that's what we see happening here today.”
The Army Software Factory is also a first-of-its-kind program, which has received the attention of senior Department of Defense officials, including the nation’s senior military officer, who was on-hand to commemorate the event.
“This is the first time that we have a soldier-led (software) factory,” said Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and principal military advisor the president of the United States. “Now some of the services, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, have little software factories and little incubators, but none have been organized, led and driven primarily by troops, by soldiers.”
The idea for the Army Software Factory dates back to 2015 and has been in active development for multiple years, gaining steam after AFC was launched as the Army’s newest command in 2018 to lead the Army’s modernization enterprise.
“It's been an interesting two-and-a-half years of getting this organization stood-up,” said Gen. John M. Murray, AFC’s commanding general. “The software factory is the latest add to the Army Futures Command family. But we are beginning to see the impact of that idea way back then is having on the Army and really across all the services.”
Two Army majors, Vito Errico and Jason Zuniga, have been doing the heavy-lifting to get the program to where it is today. Both are graduates of the U.S. Army Military Academy and hold graduate-level business degrees from Ivy League schools.
“These two (Errico and Zuniga) really took it from the start, and this is not normally what the Army does in terms of this type of experience,” Murray said. “So, everything that we have done, those two have done, really over the last year-and-a-half, has been completely swimming upstream against bureaucracy, and they have just done an incredible job getting this off-the-ground and really rolling.”
The majors discussed the uniqueness of the opportunity and challenge they have been asked to confront for the Army, placing soldiers at the center of Army modernization.
“We’re here because of Army Futures Command’s leadership,” Errico said. “They weren’t afraid to trust relatively low-ranking officers, and weren’t afraid to be decisive to address some very important issues that need to be trail-blazed.”
The Army Software Factory’s motto is “By Soldiers, For Soldiers.” The majors are working in concert with industry and academia to ensure soldiers fighting in contested communication environments and battlefields of the future have the skills and equipment needed to autonomously troubleshoot any difficulties to arise.
“We want this to be a game-changing effort and opportunity,” Zuniga said, who is also an Army aviator who previously served in Iraq and Korea. “We’re really trying to drive that change, working with the AFC headquarters’ staff, the Headquarters, Department of the Army staff, and through partnerships in-and-around the local area.”
Errico and Zuniga led a more than yearlong effort conducting an in-depth analysis of other service activities as well as those of private industry.
“We didn’t plan this in a vacuum, everything that’s happened has been iterative and in an agile way,” Errico said, who is also a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. “There are two real challenges this helps address for the Joint Force and Fortune 500 America. First, how do you upscale and rescale a workforce that’s ready for 21st century technology? It’s something every organization is dealing with right now.”
“The second part is, how to gain authorities to operate on a network, cybersecurity, and leveraging cloud technology,” Errico said. “These new ideas that maybe aren’t so new for private companies, but are new (to the services) because of the way the DoD has to secure its networks.”
During his keynote speech, Milley provided a historical perspective and the risks associated with not challenging conventional wisdom within the current operating environment.
“In World War I, we all know the story of trench warfare and how catastrophic it was, how it ended five different empires, slaughtered millions upon millions of people, and it was a horrific nightmare for the world, and it spawned the conditions for World War II,” Milley said. “So, from 1914, the beginning of World War I, through 1945, more or less, in that 30-year period, about 150 million people gave their lives in the slaughterhouse of war, great power wars.”
Milley said his counterparts of that era, senior military leaders, could not fully grasp the monumental shifts occurring across societies and through industrialization, emerging telecommunications and travel modes. They did not understand the future consequences of these technologies.
“And what did we do?” Milley rhetorically asked about American involvement upon entering the Great War.
“We stayed shoulder-to-shoulder, we marched across fields, and we got mowed down by machine guns, thinking that horse cavalry was good enough for machine guns and proximity fuse artillery,” Milley said. “And tens of thousands, millions of people gave their lives because the people of the day couldn't see the future, they couldn't envision the future.”
To Milley, the Army Software Factory is integral to the nation’s defense today and the prevention of future conflicts tomorrow like those the world faced in the past.
“It has everything to do with modernization, seeing the future and being able to prevent a great power war,” Milley said. “It's to prevent great power war. It’s to maintain great power peace. It's to maintain cutting-edge and overmatch against any potential adversary.”
The Army Software Factory is not just office space and equipment, but is being populated with Army soldiers and civilians to gain tools to overcome future challenges.
“(It is about) being able to deter wars by having exceptional young people who can see the future, develop the capabilities of the Joint Force, in this particular case, the Army component of the Joint Force, and to lead us into the future,” Milley said.
Errico and Zuniga expect the future to include a closer look at technology skillsets within the Army and effective talent management of personnel.
“We think the software factory effort is one of the premier opportunities to help make a positive change in those different areas so we can continue to better prepare for the future operating environment, whether that means a new career path for these types of individuals that want to use the skillsets that maybe we weren’t utilizing in the best way possible for their jobs,” Zuniga said.
In addition to technology and talent management, the Army Software Factory also has a retention component.
“We were probably going to lose a lot of the individuals that are deciding to opt-in and stay in the Army in order to take part of this effort,” Zuniga said.
Locating the Army Software Factory in Austin was an easy decision for Army leaders.
“Austin the only place that this could happen, because of the intersection of the defense presence, the presence of academia and the presence of the tech industry,” said Errico. “It’s the ideal setting.”
Errico added, it has not been an easy process and involved a lot of hard work from many people in-and-out of government.
“It was collaboration among a lot of like-minded stakeholders who want to make a difference, and understand advancing the Army is a key to advancing our national defense,” said Errico. “What got us here were people that believed in that idea and weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and actually make a difference.”
The factory expects to matriculate a consistent cohort of 30 soldiers and Department of the Army civilians. The first group gathered in January, with the next set to begin later this summer, then another group next winter. The opportunity join a cohort is competitively open most ranks and specialties across the Army.
There are four primary objectives grounding the future force design of the training. Cohorts seek to: increase digital proficiencies 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 harness the innovative spirit of the country.
While these may seem to be lofty goals, AFC is confident those who join the Army Software Factory will be among those who achieve them.
“I do think, like a lot of things, that proof will be in the output,” Murray said. “I think what the output of this experience is going to be is some incredibly, what are already incredibly talented young men and women that will make a significant difference, not only for the Army, but for the security of our nation as we move forward and begin to imagine what that future can look like.”
Milley said military leaders need to be humble and prepared to pass the baton to the next generation of leaders, and thanked those among the first cohort of software factory students.
“I'm very, very proud of each and every one of you, you are the future,” Milley said. “So show us the way, show us the light, and take us on the road to the future.”