DoD efforts to improve software acquisition hampered by gaps in understanding workforce

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Responding to direction from Congress and recommendations from the Defense Innovation Board, a Pentagon working group is trying to bring more rigor to DoD’s management of its software acquisition workforce, including by adding more robust training and certification programs that focus on modern development methodologies.

But before it can make meaningful progress on those fronts, the department faces a fundamental problem: It knows almost nothing about the software workforce as it exists today. There is virtually no data on how many software developers or software acquisition experts DoD employs, how well they’re compensated, how they’re hired or promoted, or what kind of training and education they already have.

That was one of the key findings of a study the RAND Corporation conducted for DoD earlier this year.

“We don’t know even the most basic things about this workforce,” Bonnie Triezenberg, a RAND senior engineer and co-author of the report said in an interview for Federal News Network’s On DoD. “The first thing I would like to know about this workforce is what their educational background is. Are they actually coming into the DoD with a good solid background in software, and all we have to do is make sure that we give them the opportunity to stay current in their field? Or are they really coming in with a much more diverse set of backgrounds where we have to do a lot of training just to establish sort of a base level of knowledge across the DoD? If we’re thinking that the reason we want to know this is to actually improve their competency and to be able to produce better software, I think that’s the first thing you need to know.”

According to a report the department submitted to Congress in August, the DoD Software Working Group has at least begun the process of formalizing career pathways for software professionals. As of now, there’s really no such thing. Developers are hired through multiple occupational series and hiring authorities, and none of the department’s HR systems include data elements that would show whether a specific position requires software expertise.

DoD added in the report that it has begun talks with the Office of Personnel Management to potentially create a new “family” of job series for civilian software developers and software acquisition personnel.

But to do that, the department would first need to define the basic competencies it expects people in a software career field to have. The RAND report tackled that project too.

After examining the skillsets private industry requires for developers and conducting workshops with DoD officials, RAND came up with a model that includes 48 different competencies DoD software professionals should be expected to have. But Triezenberg emphasized the model is only a baseline, and DoD would need to update it to keep pace with changing practices in the software world.

“It’s not just that the hardware underneath changes every three years, it’s that the actual way we build and deliver software has been really rapidly evolving in over the last 20 years,” she said. “So even if we can get a competency model out there, DoD and the federal government are going to have to become more agile about keeping that up to date, or they’re just going to be cementing themselves in the past. And again, the software workforce will suffer for that.”

The working group plans to deliver another update to lawmakers on its progress later this month. Among the other initiatives it’s working on is making more commercial training and certification programs available via the Defense Acquisition University and developing recommendations for new software-centric career paths. The Defense Innovation Board also expects to deliver an updated assessment on DoD’s progress this month.

The same board recommended in 2019 that Congress establish a software acquisition fund to help DoD boost salaries to a level that could better attract software professionals from the private sector, and retain the ones it already employs.

But there too, the department can only do so much without having a solid understanding of its existing population of its software workforce, Triezenberg said.

“At the moment, because we can’t identify that workforce and because we don’t know anything about [how] that software workforce is actually compensated, we don’t even know how big that fund would need to be,” she said. “So some of the very basic things the DIB report advocated for, we can’t implement more data about this workforce. That’s another concrete example about why it’s so important to go out and actually be able to identify these folks.”

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