Overcoming 4 Software Development Challenges within the DOD

Written by Niko Votipka, Galvanize Director of Federal Business Development

Software permeates or drives everything the armed forces do. From the mundane tasks of email and paperwork, to logistics management, force disposition, and more, United States service members use software every day.

During my 12-year tenure in the Air Force, and throughout my time at Galvanize as the Director of Federal Business Development, I’ve gained a unique perspective on the challenges that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the federal government face regarding software development.

For this post, I’ve boiled those challenges down to four, all of which the DOD needs to fix to progress toward true digital transformation and tackle the growing number of global issues that software could help solve.

These four challenges are not purely technical; instead, they’re about understanding and adapting to the unique needs of military operations.

  1. Distance from the End User (Or, a Lack of Lived Military Experience)

    Often, software development is outsourced to coders who lack firsthand experience with military operations. This distance – between who develops the software and the end user – is one of the most significant challenges for the DOD.

    Why does it matter so much?

    Because these developers (who have the best of intentions, by the way) simply haven’t spent time on a flight line or in the field. They often work on teams that utilize Agile software development, emphasizing user-centered design. However, the developers are usually far removed from the user (military service members). Instead, they’re building software based on a list of requirements sent to them via a contract – a contract that is rarely written by service members themselves.

    This gap must be bridged – and a great way to do so is to have coders within military units who can either develop software themselves or effectively communicate the unique needs of the military to external contractors. Short of that, contract developers must be on base with our soldiers and sailors living through the realities of service.


  2. The Cost of Cutting Costs (Or, the Cheapest Bidder Dilemma)

    The DOD’s procurement strategy often focuses on selecting the lowest bidder. While this approach is understandable – given the responsibility to steward citizens’ money – it raises the question: Are we genuinely saving in the long run?

    Quality software development requires investment, and the best tech companies have a higher price tag. The initial savings seen on spreadsheets can be misleading because the long-term costs and missed opportunities of choosing cheaper, less effective solutions can be substantial. Time and time again, the DoD purchases poor-quality applications that cost the taxpayer more in the long run. We need to rethink this strategy to prioritize long-term value over short-term savings.

  3.  Navigating the Maze (Or, the Acquisition Process)

    The DOD’s software acquisition process can be incredibly complex and slow. This complexity often acts as a barrier to entry for innovative startups, which can be vital in bringing new solutions. Many small businesses struggle, spending too much precious time waiting for an elusive connection within the bureaucracy to connect them with the correct end user.

    Additionally, the process and price tag for gaining an Authority to Operate (ATO) is a significant barrier. In many cases, gaining an ATO takes more time and costs more money than the actual software development.

    Finally, while a DOD stakeholder in need may have the authority and money to acquire software, every step on the path to a long-term, sustainment contract is riddled with gatekeepers who can (and sometimes do) shut down the project. This can prove too risky for innovative startups.

    Currently, the hard work of a new group of contracting specialists is instrumental in reforming this bulky process, but change is happening slowly. We need to accelerate these reforms to make the DOD a more attractive and feasible partner for tech innovators.

  4. Agility at War (or, the Speed Issue)

    The DOD’s reliance on external developers is a significant issue in critical situations where software solutions are urgently needed. The ability to develop and adapt software quickly in-house is crucial, especially in emergency scenarios or conflicts.

    My experience has shown that Agile development teams can be incredibly effective in such situations. We need to build this capability within the DOD to ensure we are prepared for the rapidly changing demands of future conflicts.

    In the 21st century, battles heavily involve cyberspace. The days of wars turning solely on fleet or battalion maneuvers are in the past. The ability to adapt a code base will be the deciding factor in a conflict, and our ability to employ nimble and evolving cyberspace capabilities will determine our success in the next major conflict.

    To accomplish all of this, we need software development teams that know our weapons systems and have used them as operators.

How We’re Addressing These Issues at Galvanize

Our coding training for active duty personnel equips the DOD and the federal government with the necessary tools and skills for digital transformation.

This is about more than just developing software; it’s about ensuring our service members have the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century.

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