Building a People-Centered Solution for the U.S. Air Force’s Kessel Run

By Lauren Lombardo, Harvard Kennedy School; Danny Ragheb, Harvard College; Kyle Witzigman, Harvard Kennedy School; Carra Wu, Harvard College

This is a cross-posting of an article I co-wrote for Harvard Kennedy School’s Tech and Innovation in Government blog.

Through the Harvard Kennedy School’s Technology and Innovation in Government field lab, our student team was tasked with “helping Kessel Run deliver software faster and better.” At first, the problem statement seemed simple. A software problem would require a software solution, we assumed at the beginning of the class. Should Kessel Run use an enterprise knowledge repository? Which technical skills development platform should they purchase? Should they create standardized coding practices?

But after more than 40 interviews with Kessel Run and Department of Defense employees, our team arrived at a surprising conclusion: software is not the answer. We wanted to solve a culture problem that required a people-centered solution. We found that the best way to help Kessel Run deliver software faster and better was to standardize their onboarding practices and help them launch an annual Hackathon.


Kessel Run winning the U.S. Air Force’s General Larry O. Spencer Innovation award and the Theodore Van Karman award

Based in Boston, Kessel Run is responsible for creating innovative ways to develop and procure technology for the U.S. Air Force. While they have been celebrated for this work, Kessel Run has grown incredibly fast — from just a handful of enterprising airmen to 1,200 employees in two and a half years. For this reason, Kessel Run is understandably facing some growing pains. We liken these growing pains to a house.

When Kessel Run started in 2017, they built a house that properly fit their current employees. Now, Kessel Run has over 1,200 people and almost the same structure. While they have certainly made small upgrades, they need to remodel the house to support the growth that they have experienced.


After considering dozens of pain points, we landed on Onboarding and Continued Employee Education as the two most high-impact areas we could address.

On the left is the onboarding playbook, on the right is the hackathon playbook


Onboarding at Kessel Run currently happens in a fragmented way. One person we interviewed told us that they had to be proactive about finding the information they needed.

We worked in collaboration with Kessel Run’s current onboarding leadership to restructure the process so that it has a condensed timeline, clear objectives, and updated content. The goal is to build community from day one. To do this, we delivered an onboarding schedule, a brochure and course bulletin that explain the courses to new employees, and a playbook for leadership to use when running the sessions.

Continued Employee Education (Hackathon)

To encourage employees’ continued education, Kessel Run has licenses for technical training software and ad-hoc programs that bring in academics or private-sector technology experts looking to contribute to Kessel Run’s mission. However, we felt there was more Kessel Run could do to help their employees access opportunities for continued education and to change the culture around learning at Kessel Run.

Private-sector technology companies have found hackathons to be effective at fostering creativity, increasing collaboration, and motivating learning. Building off these lessons, we decided to build an annual, week-long hackathon product. Our deliverable is complete with learning objectives, timelines, a challenge selection rubric, and review committee guidelines. When we shared these artifacts with Kessel Run employees, over and over again we heard quotes like “wow I love this, I already have so many ideas” and “I can’t wait to participate in something like this.”

Onward and Upward

This past week, our team presented our two ready-to-deploy solutions to the leadership of Kessel Run, including Col. Brian Beachkofski, Chief of Staff Hannah Hunt, Branch Chief Adam Furtado, and Branch Chief Lt Col Aaron “Easy” Capizzi — an alum of the class! We are thankful for Kessel Run’s excitement about and commitment to our work. Specifically, we appreciate the dozens of hours Kessel Run employees spent talking with us, their openness in conversation, and the work they do to protect our country every day. We are grateful to have been a part of their mission.


Meet the Team

Lauren Lombardo is a first-year master in public policy student at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Daniel (Danny) Ragheb is a senior at Harvard College studying neurobiology, government, and psychology.

Kyle Witzigman is a first-year master in public policy student at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Carra Wu is a junior at Harvard College studying math, computer science, and economics.

Originally published at on May 26, 2020.

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