A Long-Term Investment in a Digital Military
In the past few weeks a recurring topic keeps coming up. It is something compelling from my perspective, there are millions of people who believe in the mission of our military and civilian services. Some of these missions involve interacting with exceptionally cool, expensive, secure, unique materials, technologies, and personnel. Plus the mission often revolves around intangible but extremely valuable things like freedom and security. The topic is around attracting and retaining personnel within the federal government — specifically those who can contribute at a software level.
The intention is to take a shot at explaining why many, smart, capable people could choose to join or stay in the federal service in spite of the many challenges inherent with the job within software delivery. I have observed people joke about federal workers, even in jest it causes damage to the many who do exceptionally challenging jobs with their hands tied behind their back. We will address a couple of things that are compelling about government service along with challenges specific to working in the abstract of building software solutions.
If you disagree or find these anecdotal findings to be incomplete, please weigh in on LinkedIn.
Missions almost deserve their own discussion. Mission statements guide activities of organizations and enable focus and decision making in a complex world. Is this a good to enter for our organization is not something that should be answered by one person, instead, clarity for everyone in that organization provides some power to use judgment to make decisions on behalf of an organization at the lowest possible operational layer. Ranging broadly from whether or not to accept work to if it is reasonable to stop a project can be determined by that mission statement. In my opinion, mission statements should be simple, inclusive, and specific (think differentiation). If sub-organizations benefit from an additional mission statement, it should clarify how it satisfies the organization’s mission, else confusion will emerge.
At the Department of Defense level the central goal, for example, is providing resources to deter and win wars, and protect the security of our country and allies. This should provide sufficient decision making capability for the employees of the massive operation. Each operating branch will have its own mission and operating groups within those will have their own missions that support the overarching mission of that branch. Let’s the US Army as an example.
To deploy, fight, and win our Nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt, and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the Joint Force.
To continue this conversation, at a more operational level we might talk about the Army Rangers. Army Rangers are a special operations force that roughly is known for combat capabilities. Meanwhile entire video game enterprises are built on the reputation of special operations forces (Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, think Tom Clancy…). Their mission is also simple, yet specific and feeds back to the parent organization.
The Rangers’ primary mission is to engage the enemy in close combat and direct-fire battles.
These missions are cool, and they are not alone. Many missions can elicit a strong emotional bond between the organization and those that service it.
The military has a particularly good filtering function when it comes to voluntary services like the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, etc. Some of that filtering is natural through the mission statement. A good mission statement is descriptive enough for a person to differentiate whether or not it is something that aligns well with their values. If your gifts are more creative than physical, you might gravitate to something other than the direct combat operations like that of some of these forces. If you possess an unnatural skill for language and reading, for example, you might gravitate to more of a contracting mission.
For this conversation, though, let’s continue with a person that values and inherent skill align with a mission that the government provides. My customers, mentors, and friends that continue service to the government share a core value. They all expressed a sincere commitment to the mission over their own personal gain. This commitment often gets them through inevitable conflicts and challenges in their careers. They often are smart enough to acknowledge the trade-off they are making with viable, commercial careers.
The people that endure these filtering functions often have an even stronger emotional tie to the mission, as well as their team. Without the team, an individual performer has reduced capability and expertise. Why is it different for software development expectations? Can we not build a structure where software delivery is a special capability of government resources? How do we continue to retain these highly-capable forces?
The Long-Term Software Investment
A few things tend to work against software engineers at least in the military.
- At first, engineers are simultaneously ‘expensive’ and ‘junior’ (generalization)
- Working alone in a complex government environment can be demoralizing
- Industry is eager to poach talent and at a premium multiplier
- Cultural standards inherently create challenges for the consistent growth and development within the military
Many folks who have interest in software development enter educational opportunities to gain credibility and opportunity to directly impact the mission. As potentially an unfair generalization, most of these folks (also from boot camps and the like in private industry) exit these programs with some new skill and awareness. Another similarity between these programs is the practical knowledge and senior team member feedback tend to not be immediately available in real world operations. This inevitably creates frustration at the leadership level that expects a return for their investment. What we as leaders all impatiently forget is the level of complexity in the business problem, let alone the variety of solutions available.
Expecting a relatively junior resource, or recent college graduate, to solve business problems alone is a recipe for disaster. Yes, there are definitely some rock stars both in industry and the military that have a knack for it, but for most mortals the best solution is to support these resources with teams that have complimentary or supplementary skills. For successful solutions, it makes sense to have someone managing the customer and end user negotiations, someone responding to the user’s needs with the benefit of psychological research and usability, and a team of resources with a variety of skillsets that work together on technical delivery from end-to-end. When we look at a junior resource and ask them to be an expert in all of those — and believe me there are not really ‘easy’ government problems — we can demoralize that resource.
A big risk to long-term investment in internal software delivery is industry. Industry is smart enough to have similar supportive missions to the government and can create financial incentives for resources to flip their badges. There is nothing inherently wrong with that activity. From a long-term strategy to build mission-oriented ‘insiders’, though, allowing the first two leadership failures to continue logically will result in an exodus of talent. We will have to accept many losses at first as the development of an environment to support and reinforce learning and building of effective, balanced teams proceeds.
Too often the culture enables variability in the experience of these resources. One leader might be supportive of learning, the next may be focused on execution. It is almost as though functional leadership is needed to shelter these resources from the operational changes and enable consistent development. Additionally, not all engineers want to be managers, nor do they have the skill. The up or out culture can eliminate a lot of quality resources from rock stars to superstars. If you had a superstar sales person, to draw an analogy, promoting the high performer to a leadership role could result in devastating effect for the company. Yes, federal civilians offer some stability. To long-term grow this capability, perhaps a viable career path to civilian service should be considered. Creativity will be needed. The conditions today both enable and reinforce a situation that results in greater cost and loss of capability.
In the near-term, we should pursue more public and private partnerships to enable the growth and reinforcement behaviors necessary to develop the internal capability. Those who embrace the mission and service would benefit from consistency and collaboration within a balanced team comprised of experience designers, product managers, and developers to coach and mentor this early career resource. Setting realistic expectations and positioning junior resources for success should require the formation of a capable team. We should still invest in building internal skill so that senior team can internally mentor the juniors as tracks for design and management similarly mature.
We should also consider the benefit of having functional leadership to support these emerging resources through the choppy waters of a career. A peer, technical leader might create a more thorough and effective conversation around developing and building a sustainable, internal solution for government product delivery. Until enough inertia is formed within the service, collaboration with teams that can service and mentor junior developers is the best path I can see forward. Do you have any other ideas?