Agile Software Development for an Agile Force
John S. Willison, U.S. Army CECOM Software Engineering Center
I remember in a meeting I attended, an Army general arguing the need for the software community to fall in-line, saying that
"Software itself has never killed anyone." Maybe, maybe not, but I have seen software kill many Army programs and careers.
As the Army transforms itself into a more agile force, the Army software community continues to struggle with the challenge
of effectively providing software to support that force. This article identifies some components of an effective approach to software
development and provides an example that is leading the way.
It is necessary to provide a characterization
of the current U.S. Army business
environment to set the context for the recommended
components for good business.
Historically, the Army acquisition and
development processes have been driven
by the attempt to institutionalize success
and avoid failure. The Army management
and acquisition processes are based primarily
on hardware models that, in turn,
are based on the value-added discipline of
With hardware, it is critical to mitigate
risk and get it right the first time, particularly
prior to entering any stage that
involves significant expense such as production.
The Army has evolved into using
a rigid approach where requirements are
defined and then used as the basis for
development, testing, and determining success.
Further, as development and hardware
sustainment are different activities,
the Army has defined different processes
and funding strategies for these distinct
With software, the processes and
investment strategies are different than
hardware; the risks are also different, and
yet we attempt to manage them the same
way. Software sustainment to a large degree
is simply doing more development; however,
development and sustainment are often
managed by different organizations and
funded differently. The risks associated
with software are different as well; and yet,
we attempt to manage them the same as we
work through a sequential series of milestones.
The real risks with software are in
taking too long before giving the user
something that knowingly will evolve over
time, and in measuring success as meeting
predefined requirements as opposed to
getting the user something he or she wants
There are other factors that influence
the way the Army acquires and develops
software. For the increasing percentage of
Army capabilities that are hosted on commercial
off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware
platforms, competition to provide software
is expanding and the barrier to enter
the competition is low. Users have access
to a wide range of sources, and more
importantly, a wide range of sources have
access to users. Increasingly, initial and
incremental capabilities can be provided
to users as software-only releases, and in
some cases simply can be downloaded
over the network.
Finally, there is this question: how
much alike or different should the Army
software community be from the commercial
software industry? Clearly there are
some differences. Most notably, the Army
software community's priority is capability
and readiness whereas the commercial
software industry's priority is profit. Those
different priorities have historically been
used to rationalize the need for unique and
rigid approaches to software.
Components for Good Business
The Army develops, integrates, and
employs as wide a range of software-based
capabilities as any other organization.
While no single method for improving the
Army's approach to software development
would suffice, there are some common
components for improvement.
Balance Between Plan-Driven and
The October 2002 edition of
CrossTalk  did an excellent job of
contrasting the plan-driven [2, 3] and agile
development approaches to software, and
the spectrum between these two perceived
extremes. There is much to be gained
from both approaches.
The Software Engineering Institute's
Capability Maturity Model®, for example,
has done much to address software as an
engineering discipline and the need for a
plan-driven approach. Agile development,
as characterized by the Agile Alliance ,
... more value in individuals and
interactions over processes and
tools, working software over comprehensive
collaboration over contract
negotiation, and responding to
change over following a plan.
Historically, the Department of Defense
and the Army have emphasized process.
To produce a more agile force, the Army
needs a software community that has
process discipline, but is more agile as
Get as Close to the User as Possible
The only one who truly knows what the
user wants or needs is the user himself.
The closer you get to the user, the closer
you will get to developing software that he
or she will accept and adopt; it is never too
early to do this.
Show Them, Ask Them, and
The Army is very good at generating
requirements, and generating endless
cycles of life-cycle events aimed at meeting
those requirements. Instead of asking
users what they need and then getting back
to them only after developing the solution,
the Army should be prepared to show
users what they could get up-front. If
nothing else, this builds the users' confidence
that the Army is able to deliver
something. The focus should be on early
and continuous software delivery.
Architecture, Architecture, Architecture
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright is believed
to have said that no matter what you are
building, always remember:
It will take longer than you plan, it
will cost more than you figured,
and it will be messier than you
could have ever have anticipated.
But remember the most important
thing is not what is visible. What's
most important is the foundation.
Bad software products do not necessarily
have bad software architectures.
However, good software products are likely
to have good software architectures.
While the Army, and everyone else for that
matter, has increased the amount of attention
and discussion surrounding software
architectures, the understanding and practices
associated with software architectures
are still not sufficient.
Senior Army leaders echoed the need
for the Army's development approach to
be more agile and responsive at a recent
Association of the United States Army
Symposium . Lt. Gen. John Caldwell,
military deputy to the assistant secretary of
the Army (ASA) for Acquisition, Logistics,
and Technology (ALT) said, "If you wait
to put a perfect capability in the field, you
will never put anything in the field," and,
"People are the key to our business."
Col. Bruce Jette, director of the recently
established Rapid Equipping Force, said
that the goal is to go from "idea to equipping"
in two to three months and that,
"field commanders are tremendously
accepting" of this approach.
Col. Nick Justice, director Future
Force ASA ALT said, "The best way to
find out how to engineer solutions is to get
out with the guy who uses them." These
principles are captured in the components
for good business.
Maneuver Control System
The feasibility and benefits of applying the
components for good business can best be
illustrated by way of example. The Army's
Maneuver Control System (MCS) program
is part of the Army Battle Command
System and provides the commander with
the capability to plan and monitor the battle.
The MCS program is managed by the
product manager (PdM) MCS, under the
program manager Ground Combat
Command and Control and Program
Executive Officer Command, Control,
Communications — Tactical. Development
is led by the Air Mobility Command
(CECOM) Software Engineering Center
and supported by Shonborn-Becker
Systems Inc., L3 Ilex, Lockheed Martin,
CECOM Research Development and
Engineering Center, and others.
MCS Light was born out of opportunity
and necessity. The MCS Light product
implements command-and-control functionality
on a PC/Notebook/Windows
platform. The MCS Light product has
gained widespread acceptance within the
Army command-and-control user community.
Representative of the success of
the product are comments made by Lt.
Gen. John Vines, previously the commander
of the 82nd Coalition Task Force
(CTF82) in Afghanistan and currently the
commander of the 18th Airborne Corps,
MCS Light is the best tool available
today ... recommend the Army
adopt CTF82's employment of
MCS-Light as its strategy to rapidly
deploy a standard, interoperable,
digital command-and-control system
MCS Light has become the planning
tool of choice for nine out of 10 active
Army divisions. Much can be learned from
examining this success.
The MCS Light development process is
the result of several years of direct experience
developing software in a very dynamic
environment. The process is well
defined and has been, in fact, in use for
several years. And the process has resulted
in a high-quality product that has been
widely accepted by the user community.
Figure 1 is a graphical representation of
the defined process.
Figure 1: The Defined Process
(Click on image above to show full-size version in pop-up window.)
One of several key aspects of the
process is the notion of iterations and
releases. The MCS Light project has adopted
a four-week iteration and a three-month
release cycle. Within an iteration, a team
may cycle through the design, construct,
integrate, and demo steps several times.
This can be done within a team and also
across teams within the project. It is also
important to note the level at which the
definition of what is in a release and what
is in an iteration is managed. At the release
level, agreement is reached with the PdM.
Definition and modification at the iteration
level is managed at the project-leader
level. Again, this provides for the flexibility
needed to effectively manage in a very
Balance Between Plan-Driven and
The MCS Light software process has
struck a balance between agile development
and plan-driven development, or
planned agility in the following ways.
Individuals and Interactions Over
Processes and Tools
The MCS Light project and its broader
organization have consistently placed significant emphasis on individuals and have
backed up this emphasis with investment.
Roughly half of the development team
are government civilian employees, the
other half are contractors working on-site
as an integral part of the team. Software
developers represent more than 85 percent
of the project staff, and all civilian
engineers have either completed or are
pursuing advanced degrees in software
Consistent with agile development
approaches, the overall development team
is comprised of smaller teams. These
teams typically consist of three to 10 individuals
who are co-located within the
same office. Interaction is informal, constant,
and essential to the approach.
Working Software Over
The MCS Light project has placed considerable
emphasis on the software product
and has considered extensive documentation
as a significant distraction from developing
the end product (more than 800,000
source lines of code). Therefore, it concludes
that developing such documentation
represents an even greater risk than it
is intended to avert.
The architecture is extensively documented
and that documentation is maintained.
In addition, an "MCS Light For
Dummies Guide" has been developed as a
training guide for users. Additional training
documentation has been and will be
developed to an even-greater degree as
fielding of the MCS Light product progresses.
There is also documentation that
traces planned and delivered functionality
back to the system Operational Requirements
The product itself, as opposed to
extensive documentation, has served as
the basis for interactions between the user
and the development team. Relatively
speaking, little documentation has been
developed on the MCS Light project, and
no one has missed what has not been
developed, including those paying the
Customer Collaboration Over
A heavy emphasis has always been placed
on collaborating with the user. For the
MCS Light development team, there is
also another customer: the PdM MCS.
Interactions with the PdM are frequent
and less formal than the requirementsbased
contracting approach so often
implemented within the Army. The overhead
associated with detailed contract
negotiation — and renegotiation every time
a change is necessary — is overly burdensome
to any development effort looking
to rapidly respond to a customer's needs.
The project has adopted the equivalent of
a level-of-effort agreement with the PdM.
Within this approach, it can measure
progress at the standard milestones and
measure earned value.
Responding to Change Over Following
The Army as an institution is well versed
in the development of plans. Fortunately,
the Army also recognizes that no plan,
even the best plan, survives long in a
dynamic environment before needing to
be revised. Planning for software development
is not significantly different than
planning for a battle. The MCS Light
effort has consistently placed an emphasis
on responding to change. This emphasis
gives the team the flexibility to respond
effectively to the constant evolving and
changing user needs.
Get as Close to the User as Possible
On the MCS Light project, the team has
been accused in the past of listening too
much to the user and the surrogate user,
Training and Doctrine Command System
Manager (TSM), as opposed to strictly
adhering to requirements definitions and
programmatic structures. Doing so has
served the project well. As stated earlier,
as a developer the closer you are to the
user, the more likely you will develop
something useful. Simply put, that means
having software developers and end users
working side by side.
On MCS Light, the project leader, all
team leaders, and a significant number of
project engineers have spent a significant
amount of time in the field with users.
MCS Light software engineers have
worked side by side with users in garrison,
at war-fighting exercises, and have even
deployed with units to Afghanistan and
Iraq. Being that close is harder than not,
but it is the only way to develop a useful
Show Them, Ask Them, and
Key to the MCS Light success has been
establishing a Beta Site concept.
Leveraging industry practices, some operational
units were identified as official
Beta Sites. As a Beta Site, the units were
provided with developmental releases of
software. The premise was simple: the
team would provide incremental releases
of software, the user would provide feedback,
and the team would respond rapidly
where possible with another incremental
Instead of having to wait years for a
new version of software that would likely
not satisfy their needs, users were rapidly
and frequently given developmental
releases of software that, incrementally,
met more and more of their needs.
Confidence and trust between the developers
and the users were formed. With
trust comes the need for less bureaucracy,
thereby enabling the streamlining of the
approach even more. Since its inception,
every active Army division has come online
and requested to become an MCS
Light Beta Site.
The benefits of this approach cannot
be overstated. Through this approach, it
is worth noting that Army units have
demonstrated a willingness to accept
good enough software much sooner over
the promise of better quality software
much later. If they do not like the product
delivered, or the product delivered
does not work, the user has no problem
The best case is that the team rapidly
responded to the user's need and got valuable
feedback as to what else was needed.
The worst case is that the team learned
what the user did not want or need, and
only lost the time invested since the previous
release. In that respect, the Army is
no different than commercial industry —
time to market or time to field is a priority,
and only an agile approach will do.
Architecture, Architecture, Architecture
It would not have been enough to simply
be close to the user and provide early and
frequent development releases. The product
also needed to be sound and evolvable.
From the onset of the project, architecture
definition and evolution has been
a cornerstone of the development effort.
Software architecture was defined almost
from day one, and a well-defined architecture
has been kept up to date and have
served as the basis for all development
Also key to the success of the project
has been a well-structured architecture. In
the case of MCS Light, a three-tier architecture
was defined and adopted. This
architecture has served the project well in
allowing developers to leverage COTS
products and tools across the different
tiers as well as in providing a powerful
approach to managing data. While everyone
talks about how important architectures
are, MCS Light as a project has actually
implemented an architecture-based
approach to development, and the continued
evolution of the product is the best
testimony to that case.
Insanity has been defined as doing the
same thing over and over again and
expecting different results. If the Army
software community is to truly, that is
truly, achieve gains in effectiveness and
efficiencies, it must be willing to abandon
those practices that have not served it
well. The Army must be willing to adopt
practices that strike a balance between discipline
- U.S. Air Force Software Technology
Support Center. "Agile Software
Development." CrossTalk 15.10
(Oct. 2002) www.stsc.hill.af.mil/crosstalk/2002/10/index.html.
- Paulk, Mark. "Agile Methodologies
and Process Discipline." Cross-
Talk 15.10 (Oct. 2002): 15-18
- Boehm, Barry. "Get Ready for Agile
Methods, With Care." IEEE
Computer Jan. 2002.
- Agile Alliance. "Agile Software
Development Manifesto." 13 Feb.
- U.S. Army. "Transforming Current
Operations." Association of the
United States Army Acquisition
Symposium, Falls Church, Va., 8 Sept.
- Vines, M.G. John. "Commander
CTF82, Memorandum Thru Commander
CTF180 and Commander U.S.
Central Command For U.S. Army
Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and
Operations." 15 Jan. 2003.
About the Author
John S. Willison is
director of Advanced
for the U.S. Army Communications
Software Engineering Center, Fort
Monmouth, N.J. CECOM is responsible
for developing software architectures
and products for Communications,
Command, Control, Computer,
Intelligence, Electronic Warfare
and Sensors systems. Willison is experienced
in the application of software
technology, software architecture, prototyping,
and management. He has
received numerous awards, including
the Army's Distinguished Service
Award, the Secretary of the Army
Award for Outstanding Achievement,
the Federal Technology Leadership
Award, and the Federal 100 Award.
Willison has a Bachelor of Science in
electrical engineering from Lafayette
College and a Master of Science in
software engineering from Monmouth
CECOM Software Engineering Center
Fort Monmouth, NJ 07703
Phone: (732) 532-2342