Facing extraordinary new technology demands, the Army’s premier software maintenance organization is retraining its workforce on the skills it needs, in house.
by Jacob Kriss
As any engineer will tell you, software is not “fire and forget.” With more and more advanced Army equipment running on software, cyber-hardening and updating platforms against emerging physical and digital threats is critical to protect Soldiers’ lives and ensure mission success. For the command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C5ISR) community, this job of sustaining software falls to the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command Software Engineering Center.
However, within the last several years, the center realized it had a significant challenge. It employed more than 700 people tasked with maintaining dozens of Army C5ISR systems. But by 2025, it was scheduled to begin sustaining 25 additional systems. Many of these platforms required new skill sets the center didn’t have in sufficient quantity, and it needed a better process for the rapid, large-scale introduction of new technologies. At the same time, as the Army returns to near-peer competition against cyber-savvy adversaries, the center faced additional pressures to deliver software updates to Soldiers faster than ever before.
“The reality was, we had to find a way to retrain our existing workforce to get ahead of the scale of these incoming systems and the evolving software maintenance environment,” said Jennifer Zbozny, Software Engineering Center director. “It wasn’t a problem we could just hire our way out of, because that would be hugely expensive and would leave behind so many of our existing employees.”
Rising to the challenge, the center began a revolutionary program to retrain its employees with the skills they will need to meet the center’s needs in 2025 and beyond.
BUILDING THE STRATEGY
In early 2019, the center began creating its new workforce strategy after meeting with private industry partners to learn how they were helping their software maintenance workforce adapt to similar challenges. The strategy had two main components: direct classroom instruction and a secondary on-the-job component for students to apply what they learned. It also was designed to reduce costs by limiting reliance on contractor support while increasing the quality of software deliverables.
“Our first task was to clearly identify and define the key roles and skills we would need more of in order to support these new systems,” said human capital strategist Kim Bowers. These skill sets centered on software development, database administration and cybersecurity, specific to the platforms and languages in which students would need to become proficient.
“The strategy involved engaging directly with supervisors to assess employees’ skills and determine who was best suited to receive the additional training,” Zbozny said. “It was all about finding the right employees who had already proved themselves in their existing competencies and getting them into the right role for the future.”
INTO THE CLASSROOM
By summer 2019, the VHDL cohort began full-time classroom instruction, with additional cohort training launching in the fall and on an ongoing basis. Depending on the cohort, classroom instruction can generally last from three to nine months. To create coursework customized to its mission and needs, the center partnered with technical training vendors, such as the University of Maryland Baltimore County Training Centers and Defense Acquisition Support Services.
In total, 97 employees have or are scheduled to participate, but that number will grow as the center conducts more annual trainings. The cohorts are populated with a mix of employees whose supervisors selected them to participate, as well as those who volunteered in order to learn new skills. Participants tend to be in the mid-stages of their careers. For its entry-level employees, the center maintains a complementary job-rotation and training program designed to foster mission buy-in and retention.
In some cases, employees are simply cross-training, rather than being entirely retrained, so they can apply their skills in a wider variety of mission sets. Bowers noted that, in addition to the demands of new systems, the center’s increasing use of automated software testing to improve code quality and reduce errors was driving the need to retrain employees. “Many of our employees specialized in manually testing software, but that need will diminish over time,” she said.
ON THE JOB
When students complete the classroom training, they move on to the “hands-on” practitioner component of the program, which is expected to last roughly 60 to 120 days. Depending on a student’s progress, he or she may receive additional classroom training or over-the-shoulder instruction with an assigned subject matter expert. Most people “learn by doing,” and the hands-on component of the program is designed to support retention by empowering employees to see their fruits of their labors firsthand.
Within the program, every student is also assigned a learning objectives readiness assessment that tracks their progress, Bowers said. It’s a key system to ensure students are prepared for the rigors of what comes next. Supervisors also work closely with the experts to place employees into permanent positions in which they are most likely to be challenged, grow and thrive.
“It’s not just about the training, it’s about the follow-through,” Bowers said. “We’re giving them the long-term support they need to be successful. It’s about doing things with intention and driving home what they learned.”
While the retraining program is still in its early stages of implementation, employee feedback and program uptake thus far have been promising, Zbozny said. As the center’s mission set becomes more complex and diverse, it will evaluate whether new skills gaps are emerging and adjust the program to meet those changes.
Zbozny noted the program aligns perfectly with the No. 1 priority of Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff: people. When other Army organizations find themselves lacking in needed skill sets for new technologies, she advises them to look inward and consider investing in the potential of their existing workforce.
“The ultimate goal is to create a culture of continuous learning, curiosity and experimentation in which employees find real satisfaction and room to grow,” she said. “On the 21st century battlefield, our Soldiers will only be as effective as the professionals at home who are empowering them with software readiness. This program is a vote of confidence in our people.”
For more information, visit the Software Engineering Center website at https://cecom.army.mil/sec.
JACOB KRISS is a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command. He holds an M.S. in public relations from Syracuse University and a B.A. in English from the State University of New York College at Geneseo.
This article is published in the Spring 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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