In February 2020, senior leadership in the United States Air Force (USAF) signed off on Project Synergy, an IT modernization effort to develop a new software engineering facility at the Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, bringing in 160 on-site software developers to advance mission-critical software solutions. The Department of Defense (DoD) faces many challenges when it comes to modernization. In fact, Michael C. Masten, Vice President of Operations at Chenega Applied Solutions (CAS), says completing a huge IT modernization effort in such a short amount of time is “almost unheard of.”
“Modernization isn’t cheap,” Masten said. When the DoD already operates many programs that need to be funded, it can be very intimidating to embark on something new. However, Project Synergy was completed in just one year and the R. Wayne Lowe Synergy Innovation Complex was fully operational by February 2021, setting a milestone example for modernization efforts in the DoD. So how did they do it?
Masten attributes the success to senior leadership champions, who he believes are key to making DoD modernization goals a reality. In the case of Project Synergy, General John C. Kubinec paid close attention to what the 402nd Software Engineering Group was working on and where software development could take Robins Air Force Base. Not only can senior leadership champions get project sign-off completed more quickly, but they are also able to influence a culture shift within their agencies. Enthusiasm for innovation and openness to new approaches are essential to modernization efforts.
The USAF’s Life Cycle Management Center (AFLMC)’s Detachment 12 at Hanscom AFB, also known as Kessel Run, paved the way to forward-thinking leadership when the team approached CAS with an ambitious request: “We want you to make us into Google.” Influenced by the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit in Silicon Valley, the Kessel Run team wanted to model their efforts from tech industry leaders. By adopting agile methodologies, creating horizontal leadership structures, and generating momentum for change, the USAF has since been seeking to replicate this effort in what Masten describes as a “gold rush” to modernize. The success of Kessel Run helped lay the groundwork for CAS’s Modernization as-a-Service (MaaS) model, which would lead to the development of additional DoD software factories such as LevelUP, SpaceCAMP, and Platform One, as well as bring Project Synergy to fruition.
One major step towards becoming more agile was USAF’s investment in a leaner acquisition process. Traditionally, the DoD’s acquisition process means writing out heavy-handed proposals that go out to competitive bidding processes. “The government puts out a bid, and then, all of a sudden, you can’t talk to contracting officers anymore. You do a proposal in a vacuum, and you submit it to them,” Masten explained.
But in the case of Project Synergy, the USAF partnered with an 8(a) small business like CAS, which enabled them to focus on sole-source contracts in a process known as alpha contracting. In alpha contracting, the DoD sends an offer letter directly to the contractor to eliminate back and forth. Masten said his team was able to hear out what the USAF was looking for, draft out a plan, and bring it back to the discussion table – “What alpha contracting allows is for you to have that solutioning conversation directly with the government where you can actually see where they want to go.”
Masten encourages anyone advancing a modernization project to find a senior leadership champion. Project Synergy was a clear example of what a modernization project championed by an innovative leader like General Kubinec can produce. Masten says, “There’s a culture shift that has to take place within the DoD. To try and lean forward, modernize in the holistic way we are talking about with MaaS, it really does take some champions from the government side to make sure that happens.”
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