FORT LEE, Va., March 17, 2011 -- Soldiers around the world are using digital applications to gather, process and input information quicker than ever before. There's one place that stands ready to support them with these tailor made tools.
A small group of tech-savvy personnel from the Technology Integration Branch at the Combined Arms Support Command is leading the way in the development and implementation of applications for the military.
"My shop is completely different from other organizations in the Army because we are the only ones who actually have an institutionalized process for app development," said Matt MacLaughlin, branch chief. "Right now, we have an inventory of over 58 apps, with more in the works."
Applications and digital devices are part of the new teaching strategy that is being adopted across the Army. What started as a Training and Doctrine Command concept, Army Learning Concept 2015 was developed as part of the strategy for the future modular force.
The goal is to provide Soldiers with more relevant, tailored and engaging learning experiences throughout their careers. This involves the use of a wide array of devices and software to enhance the overall learning environment. The software aspect is where the CASCOM team is leading the way.
"We have become the 'go to' organization for all application development for the Army," said MacLaughlin. "We figured out the security issues, gained appropriate approval, sealed the hardware up, and built everything in house."
The team is leading the way for not only the Army, but other branches of the military as well. Apps have already been built, deployed and are currently being used by the Marine Corps.
"Now, we have organizations coming to us from across the DoD to see how we are structured and what skill sets my team has," continued MacLaughlin. "This is so they can replicate what we are doing."
Organizations are usually surprised when they see the size of MacLaughlin's team and learn how they started creating apps for the Army. This is because the three-member team was assembled after attempting, without luck, to find apps built to military specifications.
"I came to the realization that because of the firewalls and enhanced required security features, nobody was building, or had plans to build, applications for the military," said MacLaughlin. "I finally called two of my staff into my office and asked if they could start helping me do something with this concept."
Luckily for MacLaughlin, his main programmer, Chris Lawson, had a background that he was confident could be translated to application building.
"What I thought was going to be an easy transition, turned into an Everest climb to grasp the knowledge necessary to begin building applications," said Lawson. "There are a lot of nuances associated with building apps. It is a very particular type of programming that doesn't leave room for error."
Originally, Lawson estimated it would take him approximately six months to learn the necessary skills to start developing apps. It took many long hours, some trial and error, and a lot of reading over developer documentation, but Lawson was able to create his first functioning app in less than two months.
"I was fortunate that there were a lot of great developers out there willing to share their knowledge," said Lawson. "All I had to do was ask the right questions."
Once they had a prototype, the team quickly recognized that if the program was going to be successful, they needed to create an app that could show value to the Army. MacLaughlin learned that an organization on Fort Lee was attempting to put an app together, so he approached them about doing the work.
"We talked to the Army Sustainment Magazine and asked if we could build their app as a test for us," said MacLaughlin. "They said, absolutely, and our first major project was underway."
Through development, testing and many revisions, two-and-a-half months later the app was completed. CASCOM leadership was shown the product and the team was granted approval to continue forward with their efforts.
As they've gained experience, development time has dramatically shortened. As a comparison, the time needed to complete the magazine app would now take about three days to build.
Their progress and hard work helped open the door to an opportunity with the Army Capabilities Integration Center, or ARCIC.
"ARCIC was putting together a pilot program for mobile technology training," said MacLaughlin. "They contacted us because they knew what we were doing at CASCOM and wanted to have somebody who had already jump started the process to be part of their effort."
The timing of the request couldn't have worked out better. While they were making great strides in terms of application development, they had hit a wall when it came to implementation.
"We were basically at a stop gap when ARCIC contacted us," said MacLaughlin. "We had plenty of apps, but no hardware to employ."
ARCIC provided hardware, in the form of iPhones, for the team to secure and prepare for training implementation. The result was the 92Y, unit supply specialist, pilot program. The first technology integrated course of its kind.
Students in this course are provided devices that are pre-loaded with three of the four modules (lesson plans) that make up the course. They also have access to 22 quizzes, eight manuals and a podcast library consisting of the entire small arms inventory the students will encounter throughout the course.
Although the digital application is not intended to replace instructors, the mobile devices will provide an additional resource for students if more occupational information is needed. Even though the ARCIC pilot program is focused on the 92Y course, there are other pilots the team is fostering.
"We have also been working with the Ordnance School and have already built apps for the Explosive Ordnance Course pilot," said MacLaughlin. "We can custom build apps for anyone as needs arise or change, which allows us to deliver information wherever it is needed."
Most recently, the team was able to successfully deploy the Army's Social Media Handbook app, which can now be found on the Apple marketplace. This is the first app of its kind for the military and work has already began making it iPad compatible.
The Army also recently launched the Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications program which focuses on getting new technology into the hands of military personnel.
"While valuable efforts like the CSDA forge mobile technology ahead and gain approval for the actual devices that house our apps, our shop will continue to create the apps Soldiers need and ask us for," said MacLaughlin.
Upcoming plans for the team include a suite of manuals for the Contracting Officer's Representative Course, but MacLaughlin says more will be released shortly.
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