Defense coders are fading away

Marine Corps CIO Debra Filippi says the service will continue to use its own people to run networks but will contract out coding.

SALT LAKE CITY'The armed services are nearly out of the software coding business. For the most part, military officials have turned over development of new systems to contractors or have implemented commercial software.

But do the services have the talent necessary to perform lifecycle management for software, tasks such as acquisition, riding herd on vendors for software quality and ensuring on-time deployment?

In open sessions and private interviews, officials at the annual Software Technology Conference said a new era has arrived in which few soldiers, sailors and pilots are code jockeys. Nor are civilian personnel, for that matter. But the coders haven't been replaced with enough people who understand software engineering, enterprise architectures or how to help operational domains cope with specifying and buying software, officials said.

John Gilligan, CIO for the Air Force, told a gathering of service members and vendors: 'Only a small percentage of software is developed in-house. Yet, we are short of the people in intelligence or security. We need more of them to work with combat forces and business domains to advise' on software management.

The ever-growing dependence on software plus the strain on systems and people caused by the ongoing campaign against terrorism is intensifying the need for skilled people, Defense Department officials said.

The National Security Agency is pursuing a radically new and far more software-intensive approach to data analysis and intelligence creation, said Chris Inglis, deputy director for analysis and production. The approach will depend less on gathering huge amounts of data for later sifting and more on seeking answers to specific questions.

In this scenario, software tools will automate much of the pattern generation, filtering and alerting now done by people, Inglis said. Humans will perform purely cognitive tasks.
'We need to hunt, not gather, sucking it up and sorting it out later,' he said.

Failure looms

But his agency, too, lacks enough people versed in software management to turn the vision into reality.

'We need systems engineers, software engineers and program managers as much as we need Farsi experts and linguists,' Inglis said. So acute is the demand, he said, that the agency will fail if it doesn't get them. If systems workers can't be found inside NSA, the agency will hire them even at the GS-15 and Senior Executive Service levels, he said.

Gilligan echoed the importance of such people. 'Those who understand technology are going to rule the Air Force,' he said.

Army brass also said that although systems are becoming ever more software-intensive, it will be up to contractors to do most of the heavy code lifting.

'It's a perishable skill. The government can't afford a large cadre of programmers. If I was king for a day, we'd go all commercial,' said Lt. Gen. Peter Cuviello, the Army's CIO.

Like his counterparts in other agencies, Cuviello said he doesn't believe that outsourcing development absolves the government from having enough in-house expertise to make sure contractors are doing things right.

'It's important we have people who understand software engineering for things like oversight and testing,' he said. 'But the legions of programmers needed will be found in our industry partners.'

At the Marine Corps, it's the same story, said Debra Filippi, deputy CIO. 'We're phasing out the military occupation specialty that does coding in favor of deferring to industry.'

She added that the Corps will continue to use its own people for network administration and maintenance, especially as a network-centric warfare strategy takes hold.

Although NSA might need to hire the necessary software managers, the Air Force will have to reassign existing people, Gilligan said.

'In many business areas, we are overstaffed. The areas are finance and human resources,' he said. Such domains are filled with people doing manual processes, using up billets that could be used for software management. He added that network infrastructure maintenance is another area where people can be pruned for other purposes, since better tools mean fewer people are needed to keep increasingly complex networks running.

Hill interest

The critical need for better software management hasn't escaped military overseers on Capitol Hill, Inglis said. He said conversations with oversight committees aren't about NSA's progress in the war on terrorism 'but on our progress in these disciplines.'

It's a far cry from the days when conferences such as STC were devoted to the details of one programming language or another.

Inglis said the word he is sending to NSA's technical communities is pretty straightforward: 'Much as it is a joy to write machine language code, we don't want you to do that anymore.'

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