Transforming Software Delivery in the U.S. Department of Defense with a Portfolio Product Strategy

October 1, 2021 Colleen Green

The Kobayashi Maru, first featured in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is the final test administered to Starfleet Academy cadets. It involves overcoming a no-win scenario, proving one's character, or finding a solution by redefining and "managing an insurmountable problem gracefully." At the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), Kobayashi Maru is a program dedicated to modernizing the United States Air Force, including its Space Force, "with new agile software solutions for the warfighters of both today and tomorrow." 

Changing the mindset of any organization can be difficult. For government agencies, this is doubly so. The DoD, for example, attempted to build a monolithic software suite for the Joint Space Operations Center, an estimated $800 million effort spanning several years. In the end, the so-called Joint Space Operations Center Missions System (JMS) was deemed "not operationally effective or suitable for its space situational awareness mission." So, when First Lieutenant Oscar Chacon joined Section 31 at Kobayashi Maru, he had a monumental task ahead of him. Following the initial failure to launch JMS, developing cloud native greenfield apps in an agile manner would take a large investment in both people and processes and an organizational shift in thinking. VMware Tanzu Labs was brought in to help with the transformation. 

Benefits of a portfolio approach

Together with Chacon, VMware Tanzu Labs consultants including Staff Product Designer Jackie Ho were tasked with building a team to manage software delivery across five Section 31 teams. Rather than drawing on existing approaches, they came up with one that had never been utilized by the DoD program before: They introduced a new org structure with a portfolio, composed of the individual product teams, and a balanced portfolio leadership team, accountable for the portfolio's delivery of outcomes.

The team they created to manage the Section 31 application portfolio includes developers, product managers, and product designers. Bringing together such diverse disciplines not only allows each contributor to focus on achieving their key objectives, it means they can make decisions efficiently and effectively. Moreover, it ensures that all perspectives with regard to mission value, user experience, user value, technical complexity, and scalability are brought to the table while eliminating  the handoffs and misalignments that often slow teams down. 

The role of leadership

As Ho explained in their recent joint talk at SpringOne 2021, "good portfolio and product leadership is often an afterthought in leadership structure." Leadership often stretches across many different responsibilities, she noted, so by creating a clear separation of concern between different types of leaders (e.g. portfolio leaders vs. people managers), leaders can focus on their designated functions. This focus means that portfolio leaders can have the availability they need in their calendar to dedicate time toward solidifying product strategy or to respond to critical product issues. 

Chacon and Ho helped the portfolio team create objectives and key results (OKRs) for their products that link to the broader portfolio mission, which includes a unified vision for a system of applications and a strategy for how to get there. OKRs help the team prioritize their work, track progress, and create alignment around measurable goals. They are the articulation of the prioritized problems to address and the value solving those problems will bring to the portfolio. OKRs also give stakeholders and users a way to see how a product is progressing, including the outcomes they'll be receiving, and the impact to their mission.  

Leadership also needs to see program progression and to understand the constraints and blockers that impede progress to achieving a program's goals. When these things are made transparent, leadership can become an advocate for the portfolio team; they can help to remove blockers and support a system of incremental development. Stakeholders can also contribute to the workstream and assist in keeping the product teams on track by helping to define the overall mission and reminding them of it as the work progresses.

The most crucial tactic in the overall transformation was working closely with product teams through activities including portfolio check-ins, pairing on engineering challenges, and collaborating on user research. Close working relationships create shorter feedback loops and eliminate the need for unnecessary status update meetings. The portfolio team promotes a culture of collaboration, empathy, and trust. By maintaining a solid understanding of teams and their work, the portfolio team is able to connect product teams with overlapping problem spaces, personas, and integration points, in essence providing a solution in lieu of a more involved framework such as SAFe. When it comes to enabling transformation, the portfolio team is the special sauce.

With dedication, determination, and original thinking, Chacon and Ho continue to demonstrate how effective teams can get things done. Today, their portfolio is on track to deliver their integrated system with at least four integrated apps by 2022. Furthermore, Section 31's portfolio model has been so successful that the rest of the Kobayashi Maru program has adopted it; Kobayashi Maru now has six product portfolios, each aligned to a specific domain. 

Together Chacon and Ho have overcome what initially seemed like an insurmountable problem with grace and ingenuity and in the process, have proved that even a highly bureaucratic organization in the United States government can deliver massive mission impact.  

For a more in-depth look at this program, be sure to check out their presentation from SpringOne 2021. And learn more about how VMware Tanzu Labs can help you transform your organization.

About the Author

Colleen Green

Colleen Green is a product marketing manager focusing on platform services at VMware Tanzu Labs, the software consulting services branch of VMware Tanzu. Previously, she handled product marketing for various managed services and managed security services providers. Colleen also has a background in graphic design and education. She holds a BFA from Syracuse University, an MAT from SUNY Oswego, and an MS in Marketing from Texas A&M University - Commerce.

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