Kessel Run, the operational name for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s (AFLCMC) Detachment 12, is responsible for the creation of the service’s mission-critical applications and software.
From the outside looking in, that would appear to be a challenging job with incredibly high stakes and pressure. The applications that they’re developing and deploying for the Air Force could have very real, life-or-death ramifications for those that rely on them in theater.
For example, Kessel Run’s Slapshot and C2IMERA applications were instrumental in the incredibly difficult and challenging evacuation of Kabul. The successful development and deployment of these two applications could have been directly responsible for saving American lives.
However, to hear James Edmonds, Project Manager for Kessel Run’s Dagr application, discuss the culture and environment at Kessel Run, it would seem to be more fun and satisfaction than stress and frustration.
James recently sat down with Rick Stewart and Michael Fitzurka to record an episode of their incredibly insightful ContinuousX Podcast. During their discussion, Michael and Rick asked James about the culture at Kessel Run, and if their embrace of a DevSecOps approach to application development is making their incredibly high-stakes mission more enjoyable.
Transcript: ContinuousX Podcast (Season 2, Episode 6) with Kessel Run’s James Edmonds
Rick Stewart: Hello and welcome to another ContinuousX episode, where we “Search for X in the SDLC equation.” We’re returning with our guest Jim Edmonds who is the product manager with Kessel Run’s DAGR application. Mike had a question for you, Jim with regards to adopting the DevSecOps culture.
Michael Fitzurka: Yes, thanks. When we advise organizations about adopting DevSecOps culture, which we talked about last time, we always tell them that it actually should be fun. Which is sometimes quite a shock to them but there really should be evidence of joy in teams working together and addressing blocking issues that have been maybe plaguing them for a while.
It’s almost a feature, we say, and not just a byproduct in that there’s some fun and joy in doing this. Would you say you’ve seen evidence of that at Kessel Run?
James Edmonds: Oh, absolutely. I think fun and Kessel Run are sort of synonymous for me and one of the reasons why I was really happy to become part of the team. You know, some of the culture that they developed early on was finding a common facility, downtown Boston, outfitting it with state-of-the-art equipment, allowing a much more casual culture than typically the military allows. This is the first time I’ve worn a sports coat in a little bit.
But you know fun. Once you do the cold brew, and once you have the scrums, and the sessions of ping pong, it gets down to the work. I think that’s really where the fun really starts kicking off, because it’s fun to be part of a winning team. It’s fun to be part of an organization where you feel like you’re being supported. Not only by your own particular product team, where you own a product and you’re working together, it’s a flat organization.
But when you look to your left and look to your right, the flatness of the organization extends beyond the product team. We have portfolios, we have product lines, and even our senior leadership, the trainers of the unit at Kessel Run are all part of an organization that’s very transparent, very much focused on helping one another. The teams are divisible by certain numbers, but indivisible in how they commit to one another.
They’ve broken some barriers on the COVID environment, in this distributed nature we got to work from home, utilizing tools like Mattermost and other collaborative tools to communicate, stay on board with one another. The responsiveness to queries is instantaneous. The thoroughness of the reports are always very good. Transparency on what’s happening within the organization is really good.
And so, as you go about your business, as you’re working development, and you work for an organization that is thinking DevSecOps environments, with the design of the software, building components that you can use, you can either spend a lot of time building it out, but when you have an organization that’s thinking about the bigger picture, you can employ their components or code.
You find people that have common cause. And when you get into command and control, it’s a highly integrated, complex environment operationally. That’s what our airmen deal with out in the field, where they’re conducting operations, so to mimic that complexity of specialties working for a common cause, it’s what Kessel Run does really, really well. Ops applications, intelligence applications, logistics applications, all working together, sharing components, sharing designs, sharing code and sharing data, to build a better whole in the ecosystem for our customer. So that’s a lot of fun.
On top of that, they find ways to make things interesting with after-hour sessions. Talking about movies during the day, having some office hours amongst teams, so that you can go and talk to a team, learn more about how the platform is developing, or how different tools are going to help you do your job better.
And there’s a number of training sessions. I find that fun to know that you’re getting support. And even recently within the spirit of the Olympics, they had Olympics competition, and put a spreadsheet out there, and invited people to count the number of pushups, sit-ups, yoga sessions, how many books you read, just to get points and compete with one another. Building that esprit de corps has always been important in the military. I think that’s part of being in the military.
But I think Kessel Run’s put their special spin on it to incorporate not only the military aspects, but really taken in its large civilian organization. A lot of folks that don’t have military experience. I think they’ve done a really good job of bringing folks in that have never been through boot camp, never been to ROTC or officer training school, and never had an assignment at a military base, but they can learn to instill and build a culture that supports that while still having a distinct one of their own.
It’s a really fun organization to be a part of, and I enjoy coming to work every day.
Rick Stewart: Which was one of the aspects that we were talking about this question that we wanted to bring to light. Because it is when you’re talking about a public sector application or program, joy never really comes into that discussion so much. Because it’s usually, from within a waterfall perspective, it’s usually very time deadline-driven, cost-focused, etc. And from the developer perspective, a lot of times you don’t get your feedback for the work product that you produce until months, if not a year later. So, you can’t celebrate those little wins over and over again.
I think by the Agile nature and the DevSecOps cultural climate of collaboration to work and sharing information instead of holding information, and then getting that constant feedback, I think that drives the joyous nature of why you want to come to work. So, it’s refreshing. And you guys were the tip of the spear within the DoD for that type of paradigm-shifting when it comes to IT delivery.
James Edmonds: It’s definitely an anticipatory kind of role that you’ve got to get your sponsors and your stakeholders to recognize a different way of receiving capability. And they get on board. I’m just a product manager but with my sprints, my sprint reviews, I have stakeholders, I have headquarters, its action officer attended. I meet with users on a regular basis.
They see the features my team’s building. They see the changes. They see the rapid deployment of new capability. And they bought into the idea. They understand what an MVP is. They understand what a post-MVP is. They’re willing to go along with the journey.
A lot of people say Agile is a journey. But the expectation management you have with your users, that you build that confidence in them to accept that way of doing business. And to not only accept it, but to promote it and to expect it, because as they see iterative improvements, new things coming out on a regular basis, rather than anticipating something to come out in three or four years. They could see it happening now.
I think is a much better way of doing business. And I think both the customer, who’s paying good money for capabilities for their airmen, and Kessel Run who’s trying to provide those capabilities, have really come at a symbiotic kind of relationship. Does require continual education because people are moving into positions, the military is very transitory in the leadership roles. It’s gradually working its way through the service that people are beginning to expect that at senior levels. I think at the junior level, a lot of people get used to it.
They look at their iPhone, they see updates on their apps every day, become accustomed to that kind of mentality. They don’t wait for a whole new version. It’s going to be a big, shut down and install process, it’s just happened automatically. I come to work one day. I log in. Oh, there’s a new feature. And I’m aware of it. I see the release notes. I can get to work.
Michael Fitzurka: Yeah, the iPhone updating apps analogy has always been one that sells it. Oh yeah, I expect that with my phone. I expect that and now, oh, I can get that out of my project that I’ve been waiting for years for, I could do that instead. And that’s always a good selling point.
And just to go back on the fun part. If you name yourself after Star Wars, you’ve got to be fun. There’s got to be something that’s going on there. You know something better be fun.
Rick Stewart: And the serious aspect of that is having fun, but you’re doing something very important for our warfighters. You’re working on a valuable service for them to protect us from our adversaries.
James Edmonds: I think that goes both ways, not only knowing that we’re doing something for them, but our folks get the benefit. I think there’s… You always want to be part of a winning team, that builds… I’ve always said, you want to improve morale, make them proud of what they’re doing. And I think at Kessel Run people know what they’re doing is important. They’re proud of what they do every day. It makes it fun. It builds morale.
You see it every day. You see the attitudes that people have when they come to work, at morning stand ups, you can just see in people’s eyes that they’re happy about what they’re doing. They’re proud of it. So, knowing that just the nature of our customer, who we’re serving, is one thing, but that being part of that is reflected on them every day, and they’re really happy with it.
Rick Stewart: And you get to wear cool T-shirts and wardrobe.
James Edmonds: That too.
Rick Stewart: Thanks Jim, I really appreciate your time on this episode. Thanks to listeners for listening in, as we “Search for X…in the ContinuousX equation or … in the SDLC equation.” And stay tuned for another conversation with Jim.