This week, thousands of soldiers, technologists, and vendors descended on Augusta, Georgia for an annual technology conference known affectionately as “TechNet.” The conference has always been an opportunity for Army leaders to make technology‐related announcements and to better understand the latest technologies, and for companies to demonstrate the value of their products to the defense sector. But this year’s TechNet event comes at a historically high-leverage moment for the US Army. Against the backdrop of an unrelenting buildup of Chinese digital capabilities and lessons learned in Ukraine, the Army must confront a combination of complex strategic disadvantages—to include a smaller force due to an unprecedented recruiting crisis, the search for a new identity in the wake of the post-9/11 wars, and an ever‐sprawling approach to digital transformation and innovation.
The elephant in the room will be how to sew it all together in a meaningful way—something a conventionally minded, battle‐tested heavyweight organization has struggled to do despite the proper strategic emphasis from visionary, bipartisan leaders like Ryan McCarthy, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, and Christine Wormuth. The answer is counterintuitive for an industrial‐minded organization that often fixates on hardware or a fancy technology. It’s hidden in plain sight. It’s finally incentivizing the value that the American tech sector demonstrates every day. It’s creating and formalizing a clear career path in software development for soldiers—immediately—so we can start catching up where we’ve fallen behind.
The Writing is on The Wall
The US Army is an organization of such size that only Fortune 500 America can serve as a ballpark analogue for what may work well. Study of such large companies is littered with leaders failing to embrace the opportunity in enterprise‐level disruption despite clear warning. Fifteen years ago, former Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes famously declared, “Neither Redbox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition. It’s more [like] Wal‐Mart and Apple.” A few years later, in 2011, Marc Andreessen published his now famous Wall Street Journal op‐ed, “Why Software Is Eating The World,” warning that every company will be a software company. In a landmark 2022 review of Marc’s assertion, leading global consulting firm McKinsey and Company took it further. McKinsey found that “nearly 70 percent of the top economic performers, compared with just half of their peers, are using their own software to differentiate themselves from their competitors.” Revisiting his 2011 comments, Marc told McKinsey in 2022 that companies must “find the smartest technologist in the company and make them CEO.”
McKinsey used the quote to emphasize the need for all organizations to invest in a software culture, develop large communities of practice, and keep talent by focusing on mission and workplace. Simultaneously, two former senior Department of Defense technologists published the oft‐cited Center for Strategic and International Studies report “Software‐Defined Warfare: Architecting the DOD’s Transition to the Digital Age” and emphasized the need for a well‐informed, enterprise‐wide “tech refresh.” Even more recently, Palantir chief technology officer Shyam Sankar wrote a Wall Street Journal op‐ed, “Ukraine’s Software Warrior Brigade,” extolling the asymmetric value of technically literate (if not dominant) Ukrainian soldiers as they rapidly incorporated the best technologies to hold off a far more conventionally capable Russian army. Ten years of cross‐industry warnings and case studies should be enough to provoke decisive action from an Army actively looking to digitally transform.
How Do We Do It?
What we need now is a unifying thread to bring all the elements of digital transformation together‐‐‐a simple solution that catalyzes an unprecedented large‐scale transformation, connecting the brass to the outcomes new technologies are supposed to bring. We need to formalize the practice like a combat commander would organize tanks, helicopters, and soldiers on a battlefield. This starts with creating the first career field in software for soldiers and to allow people to enlist in the Army to be software engineers, designers, commercially minded product managers, and cybersecurity experts. And we need to show them the Army will value their service and contributions just as much as we value those conventional combat roles.
So What’s Stopping Us?
It’s hard to point to just one reason why the Army has not already embraced such wholesale change. For several years now, consecutive administrations and leadership have prioritized Army modernization and transformation. However, this was largely hardware focused. Academic study and analysis of large, industrial‐minded companies attempting digital transformations always yields the same findings: it’s just difficult to execute and the size of the organization intensifies the degree of difficulty. Furthermore, public sector digital transformations are far tougher than those in the private sector due to the obvious statutory constraints. The Army’s culture also plays a role. For over two hundred years, a fiercely codified hierarchical model and a deep institutional value on combat experience has ironically held it back from accelerating a digital transformation that requires empowering unconventional, lower-level leaders to ignite a seemingly nontraditional ecosystem approach in fields that are just not understood by the higher brass. The traditional leadership can feel uncomfortable with the speed, flexibility, and autonomy needed at the lower levels to create an institutional competency that not only McKinsey but other major consulting firms like Gartner and Deloitte all recommend. To this point, it’s been perceived as too different or too risky in an inherently risk‐averse culture. Finally, the recruiting crisis calls for tough decisions about what roles are employable and necessary in the Army. Do we have room for software soldiers if it comes at a cost of spots for infantry soldiers? It’s clear what the Blockbuster CEO would have thought. . . .
The political, economic, and institutional stars are finally aligned to take the first real step toward solidifying digital transformation and creating the first career fields in software development operations in the United States Army. For one, we have the right leaders in place, who prioritize the long view and have the wherewithal to see through the traditionalists. From the recent announcement of former Apple executive Doug Beck as the new Defense Innovation Unit director (and direct report to the secretary of defense) to the confirmation of renowned Rand Corporation personnel policy expert Dr. Agnes Schaefer as the Army’s top personnel official, the political leadership team clearly understands the need. Furthermore, from years of National Defense Authorization Act draft language requiring DoD leadership to build this new competency and similar recommendations in the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence final report, the pump is primed in Congress too. Furthermore, even the Army’s staunchest traditionalists now see that conventionally minded recruiting strategies have failed. The workforce is different and what they expect from employers is a portability and autonomy characteristic of the private sector, which must be matched by the Army. The Army must start targeting untapped demographics. This all readies the situation for the first career field and promotion system for uniformed software developers and operators.
Moreover, the Army already placed a small but smart bet on this value three years ago when it green‐lit the first ever Army Software Factory in Austin, Texas as a brainchild of the newly minted Army Futures Command. In an act of unusual self‐awareness, Army leaders’ goal was to prove the value of this bold concept before scaling something that would not work if fielded to the broader Army. But in less than three years, the results are both stunning and compelling. With no formal training and working hand in hand with nontraditional tech sector partners, the Army Software Factory has both embodied the recommendations of thought‐leading technologists and proven that Army soldiers will stay in uniform if employed in this capacity. And in doing so, they’ve become experts in the community-of-practice approach to agile software operations, cloud engineering, and lean problem-solving while also addressing complex Army problems. The experiment has gone so well that earlier this year, the United States Marine Corps announced at Austin’s global tech conference SXSW that it would be building its own new software unit, using the same model as the Army and placing it under the same roof in Austin, as part of the service’s Force Design 2030 initiative. It marks the first time two services are partnered under the same roof to employ service members in unmapped roles in emerging technology and it was all built at minimal cost to the taxpayer with close connections to the tech sector and community partners.
With all this momentum in place, it seems silly to wait for something so overdue and obvious. Let’s all advocate for the Army to codify this first step of digital transformation and to create a permanent career field for soldiers as software developers.
Abdul Subhani is a career technologist and entrepreneur. He balances his role as the president and CEO of a tech company with several service‐oriented roles, such as the civilian aide to the secretary of the Army for the Texas capitol region and the distinguished innovation chair at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He also serves on the board of advisors for the Center for a New American Security as well as in several advisory roles across the country.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Mr. Luke J. Allen, US Army