AF coders earn 3rd star

The Air Force's Standard Systems Group has earned a Level 3 Capability Maturity Model
rating, joining the elite ranks of government software development shops.


Carnegie-Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute (SEI) in Pittsburgh
designed the CMM to help organizations improve software development procedures. Level 3 is
midway on the CMM scale for software development.


SEI, partly funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Program
Integration, has estimated that about 7 percent of federal organizations have reached
Level 3 in their software engineering activities.


Only 13 percent of all software organizations evaluated worldwide against the CMM
framework have reached Level 3, which is a defined process for software development. In
contrast, the bottom rating, Level 1, describes a process that could be chaotic. Level 5,
the top rating, requires continuous process improvement.


So far, SSG has done little bragging about its new worldwide recognition for software
engineering excellence. The group's executive director, Robert A. Frye, said the Level 3
independent rating reflects long-standing efforts to deliver quality software at
predictable cost and on schedule.


SSG, which has its headquarters at the Gunter Annex of Maxwell Air Force Base in
Montgomery, Ala., is a big player in a process-engineering boomlet that's remaking some
quarters of the Air Force and other military services.


As the Defense Department's largest central design activity, SSG runs about 130
software maintenance, design and acquisition programs.


The projects bring together diverse management teams that work on multiple development
languages, computing hardware and communications networks. The group is responsible for
more than 20 million lines of active software application code.


It manages more than 130 computer programs to support base requirements in 12
functional areas ranging from aircraft cargo loading and handling to office computers and
contracting.


Because SSG is one of the largest software organizations ever to earn a Level 3 CMM
rating from SEI, the rating means a lot to its 2,000 employees.


"You're dealing with getting many more people on board and doing business in a
structured way," said Capt. Keith Boadway, SSG's software engineering process group
team leader.


Military contractors used to be the only ones who garnered SEI honors. Military
agencies are now striving to meet the same software engineering standards as the
contractors they hire.


"Too often in the past, the contractors were at Level 3 and the government was
not," Boadway said.


At last count, 37 percent of Air Force software organizations had achieved Level 2, 15
percent had reached Level 3 and four percent were at Level 4.


None had arrived at Level 5, according to SEI.


As recently as last week, the 552nd Computer Systems Group at Tinker Air Force Base,
Okla., announced its new Level 3 rating.


The 359-employee group provides communications and computer support for the 552nd Air
Control Wing.


Because the software world "is so diverse with different sizes of programs and
computing platforms, it's important to have a standard rallying cry," Boadway said.


"It's a standard way of doing business that you hold to."


SSG spent three years and the equivalent of $1.5 million in labor hours training its
personnel in process improvement.


Military computing centers, many of which now compete with other agencies on a
fee-for-service basis, gain a marketing advantage from a high CMM rating, said Kathryn M.
Gallucci, president of Technical Assessments Inc. The independent software consulting firm
in Sudbury, Mass., evaluates contractors against the CMM for Air Force source selection
authorities.


SSG's Frye said a CMM assessment team of eight software engineers reviewed more than 60
software development and maintenance projects.


Three years ago, the Standard Systems Group received SEI's CMM Level 2 rating for
managing individual software projects.


"It became clear at that time that we needed a standard organizational engineering
process," said William Wallis Jr., SSG chief of process engineering and assurance.


At Level 3, SEI evaluators are looking for standard organizational policies and
procedures that can be tailored for different projects.


The key is institutionalizing those standard policies and procedures so that everyone
involved with the organization will follow them, Wallis said.


From necessity, SSG "evolved a culture that fits what we need to do," he
said.


The group's personnel are completely responsible for nearly all the Air Force's base
support systems which includes the Standard Base Supply System, Cargo Movement Operations
System, munitions management systems, and accounting and finance systems, Wallis said.


Where does SSG go from here?


Certainly not immediately to Level 4, Boadway said, because SEI is about to release
Version 2.0 of the CMM as well as a new Contracting Maturity Model.


SSG officials first want to study the new models to see how they can maintain the
momentum of process improvement.


One of SSG's primary systems engineering and technical support contractors, Wang
Government Services Southeast Operations, reported last month that it also has achieved an
SEI CMM Level 3 rating.


Wang Government Services supports the Standard Systems Group in Montgomery and the
Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Denver.


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