OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --
Cyber Airmen assigned to the 557th Weather Wing recently teamed together with the Defense Innovation Unit program making changes to how airborne tankers are scheduled.
The changes are the direct result of a March 8, 2018, memo from Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, where he stated, “bringing the future faster requires both expanding our culture of innovation and balancing prudent risk acceptance with agile reaction.”
That is the goal of the Defense Innovation Unit where members of the military partner with companies that specialize in fields such as artificial intelligence and information technology, to find new solutions to complex problems. DIU used to be known as DIUx, the ‘experimental’ part of the acronym was dropped due to the success of the program.
Three Airmen from the 557th WW have participated or are now participating in DIU projects. Senior Airman Erik Tatro, a 2nd System Operations Squadron alphanumeric collections technician, and Senior Airman Wayne Maung, a 16th Weather Squadron computer systems programmer, both worked on Project Jigsaw, whose goal is to optimize the efficiency of scheduling airborne tankers. Staff Sgt. Kassandra Johnson, NCO in charge of 2nd SYOS’s data routing team, is working on another project, Home One.
In these programs, Airmen go on temporary duty for six month assignments, collaborating with programmers in places like Silicon Valley, Boston and Chicago. Wearing civilian clothes and working in a start-up culture, part of the secret to their success is rooted in how the teams work together.
“Here we use a balanced team,” Johnson said. “We have engineers, projects managers and designers all sitting together and sharing ownership of each project. I think this is very different than at the 557th and many other software development shops where teams are often defensive and don't want to take on high risk projects because of the fear of being blamed for not meeting deadlines set by outside sources.”
The other secret is how they approach software design. Working like a start-up company, applications are created that rapidly tackle one small problem at a time. This can deliver a better product faster than waiting two or three years for a complete software suite to be delivered.
Any problems discovered in the software can be more easily corrected, a small failure being preferable to correcting the shortfalls of an entire software suite. Changes requested by the customer can sometimes be delivered in just a couple days.
Prior to Jigsaw, the tanker mission planners would use whiteboards to plot out their fueling rendezvous.
“Rather than taking hours to run the calculations by hand for the hundreds of sorties scheduled each day to find a feasible plan,” Tatro said. “The program logs events in order to detect and report errors in scheduling.”
It didn’t take long for the new software to start paying off.
“Before Jigsaw was delivered to the tanker planners, they would be spending 8 – 12 hours a day with a team of five planning a day of tanker missions,” said Maung. “Now they only need three people and it takes them 4-5 hours, usually done before lunch.”
Since the program was put into use in April 2017, Jigsaw has saved approximately $200,000 per day, just in fuel. There were other benefits as well.
“There’s the maintenance, the parts and the people are happier,” Maung said. “There’s so many small effects that it’s hard to take into account how much money is saved.”
Beyond the savings, the Airmen in these programs also benefit by becoming stronger programmers, finding new ways to tackle problems. When they return to their units, they can share their knowledge and experience with their coworkers.
“Being on a DIUx project was incredibly informative,” Tatro said. “The knowledge and expertise of those working at Pivotal Labs has helped to broaden my view of computer programming and its applications. Every day I was out there I felt that I had made a meaningful contribution by maximizing efficiency of resources through Project Jigsaw.”
Jigsaw’s success has led to it being rolled into a larger operation, Kessel Run, which seeks to improve the software used in air operation centers. Johnson’s Home One project is also part of Kessel Run.
“I am really enjoying my assignment,” Johnson said. “It has been a strange experience ‘being back’ in the civilian world, but I am enjoying it. I am learning a lot about my job every day, as well as getting a lot of professional development.”
The challenge going forward is to integrate the lessons learned in Jigsaw and Kessel Run to existing projects at the 557th.
“I think that with some hard work we could iterate towards the balanced team method,” Johnson said. “It would take some reorganization, but I think ultimately would be worth it. Paired programming and test driven development are the obvious and easy things that need to change if we expect to continue to deliver software.”