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Why the fight for agile is mostly uphill

While many agencies are embracing agile software development to speed application delivery, some institutional practices make it difficult to implement.

For the Air Force, there are four main stumbling blocks to widespread agile development, according to Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, Commander of Air Force Material Command. Speaking at the July 14th Mitchell Space Breakfast, she called the embedded software development practices the biggest hurdle.

The traditional verification and validation model consists of a project definition phase -- which includes operational concept, requirements and detailed design stages -- and a phase of project testing and integration. Similarly, the waterfall development model stacks the stages into a single-phase timeline. Both offer little flexibility and require a lot of paperwork, according to Air Force acquisition records and statements.

Agile methodology, on the other hand, places each iteration of newly developed software directly in the users' hands. That way, they can learn to run it and identify flaws at the same time, Pawlikowski explained.

“Once you put it in the hands of the operator, maybe some of the requirements you had in the beginning don’t make sense anymore, because [operators] see how they can actually use it and requirements change,” she said.

Agile software development is becoming so common that Pawlikowski said it has been difficult to hire new coding talent. The latest generation of software developers only know agile development, she said, and is not enthusiastic about being retrained to work with the traditional methods.

The other obstacles to agile software development include the Air Force’s resistance to discarding legacy aircraft that are often incompatible with the latest software, its tendency to weigh down systems with risk mitigation measures and cost, Pawlikowski said.

Steps are already being taken to overcome these obstacles, however, and implementation of agile software is coming soon, she said.

This article was first posted to Defense Systems, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Katherine Owens is a freelance reporter for Defense Systems

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