REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. – Two Logistics Data Analysis Center employees joined an app development team, creating a solution that saved the Army both time and money.
Susan Cranfill and Kenneth Baker were two members of a six-person team that developed an app, which changes the way Supply Support Activities organize their common authorized stockage list and fulfill Soldiers’ orders. The app, CASL Pick Sorter, allows Soldiers to upload their supply list PDF and prioritize the results lists by part location, specific parts or unit.
“After I really got a better understanding of what the aim of the project was, it was definitely very exciting because I understood that we were going to be able to work with Soldiers directly and definitely a little anxiety producing because there was a lot riding on whether or not we could prove this out,” said Cranfill, a senior strategic advisor at LDAC.
The team’s goals were to develop a tool to help Soldiers and to prove that a team of Soldiers and Army Civilians, some without any previous software development experience, could develop an app to solve complex Army problems. The team was made up of two software engineers, two platform developers, an app designer and a product manager, which is the role Cranfill took on.
“Initially, I didn’t really have a sense of what the role would be,” she said. “I had not had any experience working with software. I kind of sort of knew what a product manager did, but I didn’t know if there was already a product in place or if we were supposed to come up with one.”
Cranfill made sure the team was mitigating risks at each point of the development process and that the customer’s voice was heard. She got an appreciation for the layout and footprint of each Supply Support Activity, and how those differences could be addressed with the app. On top of understanding the problem, Cranfill said learning software development was a challenge.
“There’s always a learning curve when you’re going into something new, but I think that is one of the great things about the Army is that we take folks from all walks of life and then we give them the tools for them to succeed and they rise to the challenge,” she said.
For Baker, who served as the team’s software developer, the challenge was adjusting to a new culture based in agile development, which involves user feedback throughout the development progress and software updates.
“It was actually a pretty simple app, but it was all the effort that went into understanding the user, understanding what they’re doing, why they do that and picking this problem that could be solved fairly simply,” said Baker, who works in LDAC’s Logistics Automation Branch, Life Cycle Support Division. “It’s the culture piece.”
Baker said software development can sometimes feel like a feature factory, where developers make what the customer asks for without learning more about the problem. He said through customer interaction, the team added features they wouldn’t have originally thought of, like filtering lists to pick parts for deploying units quickly or adding clear instructions to make using the app easier. The team also added a PDF merger within the app to make the process easier for Soldiers with multiple lists.
“If I had to try to imagine all these requirements upfront before we started and write them out in detail, I wouldn’t have even gotten half of these,” he said.
Using this process also caught users off guard. While most Army apps can take months to update, updates to the CASL Pick Sorter would only take a few days. Baker said being able to show Soldiers a version of the app one week then a version with their updates the next earned trust and more user feedback.
“We didn’t expect to have the 100% answer at the beginning, and by interacting with them and getting that feedback, we really did start to add a lot of things that I don’t think any of us would have realized at the very beginning,” he said. “I think that was kind of the real, secret sauce right there, that customer interaction.”
The team ultimately met both goals - developing a helpful tool and proving a team with different backgrounds could make the tool. CASL Pick Sorter has saved more than 3,400 man hours a day, leading to a 173% increase in picks of parts per minute and provided 65% cost savings through optimized cloud development. Baker and Cranfill both said after their experience, they would work on a team like this again.
“Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I would say that it went probably as well as it could have, and the impact of this very, very simple application that we were able to come up with to Soldiers across the footprint has been pretty phenomenal,” Cranfill said.