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Mind the development talent gap: A low-to-high approach

COVID-19 has changed many aspects of everyday life, and it has certainly changed the dynamics of workplaces, client interactions and even security clearance processes. While the market and workforce availability have always been fluid, the pandemic has not only highlighted an imbalance in supply and demand for highly cleared talent, it has exacerbated it as well.

A “low-to-high” approach to software development can address the current talent shortage, successfully delivering the same capability outcomes with a broader talent pool. Low-to-high mitigates external forces -- such as the pandemic fallout, an extended clearance investigation process and an already-shrinking labor pool of highly cleared talent -- and focuses on results. As more people retire, shift industries or seek work-from-home jobs, offering a low-to-high solution may be the solution for the intelligence community (IC) to continue to advance its capabilities.

Pressure to find the complete package

The government contracting industry is undergoing a significant market shift where the demand for cleared development resources is ever increasing and the supply is dramatically decreasing. And unfortunately, COVID-19 has driven many more people out of the IC workforce. Those who no longer wish to work in the confines of a sensitive compartmented information facility have found jobs where they can work from home or in the commercial sector. Furthermore, the barriers to entry to obtain a clearance remain high. It takes up to two years to get talent cleared at the highest levels, and there’s only a small pool of talent that qualifies for and wants to go through the rigorous requirements to obtain a clearance.

We must shift with the change in the market – and we can alleviate some of the pressure in the labor market by moving as many development activities as possible to staff at lower clearance levels. Leveraging a low-to-high approach, the IC can open the doors to more uncleared or lower-level clearances to fill positions that help meet mission needs.

A stronger bench

If agile development is scaled properly, a low-to-high approach allows organizations to securely advance capabilities from lower classification environments into more highly classified environments. This means that agencies can use a wider talent pool of uncleared or lower-cleared developers and software experts.

This strategy gives agencies greater access to a stronger bench of talent for rapidly developing solutions and capabilities at a lower cost. The combination of low-to-high and agile-based development practices can enable the delivery of more capability in six weeks vs six months.

The code itself isn’t typically classified -- but the data is. If developers code on the “low side,” or unclassified side, without the need for a fully classified environment, they can leverage all the best practices, tools and talent available.  The trick is converting that development activity from the low side to a classified environment -- the “high side” -- in a consistent, repeatable and security-approved manner while minimizing integration challenges. 

Continuing the momentum triggered by the pandemic

While felt with lesser intensity before the pandemic, the need for unclassified development activity increased significantly due to COVID-19. With more work required of the existing cleared candidate pool, companies now must partner with their agency customers to do things differently and innovate the way the required expertise and technology can be delivered to meet mission demands. This dynamic results in the need to shift the mindset from one where “only on the high side” is the dominant perspective to one that asks: “What must be on the high side?”

This low-to-high development approach also gives customers the ability to shift how they contract for the work they need to more of a completion-based model, which can be done anywhere, versus level-of-effort contracts where activity is driven by the desired outcomes over the bodies delivering those outcomes.

About the Author

KC Wilberg is vice president of intel application services at CACI.


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