NGA looks to speed up software development with key metrics, ‘CORE’ capabilities

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is looking to deliver software more like the tech industry under a new strategy that sets key metrics for both inter...

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is looking to deliver software more like the tech industry under a new strategy that sets key metrics for both internal development teams and contractors.

“The NGA Software Way” lays out how the agency envisions delivering software faster and more consistently, as NGA’s technology priorities increasingly revolve around software-enabled capabilities like automation and machine learning.

Officials believe automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be key at NGA to analyzing a rapidly increasing volume of satellite imagery and other geospatial intelligence data that could overwhelm human analysts. NGA also recently took over Project Maven, a major AI program that’s been at the forefront of the Pentagon’s recent software development projects.

NGA’s new software strategy describes three key metrics as “availability,” “lead time for changes,” and “deployment frequency.” Each individual software product will have its own “product-specific metrics” as well, tailored to track how well the software is working for its users.

“We put this out for really anyone delivering software at NGA,” NGA Chief Technology Officer Alex Loehr said. “That could be government employees, industry, even commercial products that NGA is buying. There are significant parts of the software way that relate to how we want to work with those companies. And so we hope that this will set common expectations of how we can deliver useful software faster and for our mission.”

The software strategy complements the NGA’s recently released technology focus areas. The big priorities include assured positioning, navigation, timing and targeting; accelerated tasking orchestration; data access and data integrity; and analytic workflow modernization.

Loehr said the software strategy is an “implementation guide” for NGA’s technology focus areas.

“If the tech focus areas are the ‘what,’ the Software Way is ‘how,’” he said.

NGA wrote the “Software Way” based off of several existing documents, including the U.S. Digital Service’s “Digital Services Playbook,” as well as the U.K. government’s “Service Standard,” according to Loehr. The agency also looked to research and data from industry, specifically from the DevOps Research and Assessment, or “DORA,” a company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Loehr said NGA took best practices from those documents and used them as a foundation for the software strategy, while taking into account the more unique needs of an intelligence agency.

“Some of those other documents are much more about citizen facing services,” he said. “At NGA, we do have some of those, but not everything we do is open and public. And so some of the elements from those other documents didn’t fit exactly, but we were able to build off the core of those documents in order to learn from those who came before and did a lot of really hard work and grow in a way that matches what we need at NGA.”

NGA published an initial version of the document last year and received more than 300 pages of responses from 47 companies.

“We got some feedback around things that were unclear, that didn’t make sense, as well as lessons that we learned about how we need to work at NGA and work with our industry partners to make this document successful,” Loehr said. “Some of that didn’t make it into the words of the document itself, but did start driving some work we’re doing to make sure that as we implement the NGA Software Way, we’re able to do it successfully.”

CORE developments

To help meet the goals of the strategy, NGA has established a Common Operating Release Environment, called “CORE,” to provide development teams with enterprise software delivery tools like version control, testing, and tracking and collaboration tools.

“Historically, we’ve let different teams choose their tools and their different processes of how they build software,” Loehr said. “That led to some really important things, but it also led to a lot of fragmentation. And what we’re trying to do is build one set of tooling and one set of processes.”

Many pieces of CORE are already in place and being used by mission critical applications in some cases, according to Loehr, including version control, the “CI/CD” pipeline, an API developer portal, and issue tracking and documentation spaces.

Enterprise workflow orchestration and messaging tools, respectively, are still “more in the beta phase,” Loehr said.

“The core of the CORE around the version control, the pipeline, the developer portal, all that is live, real and being used today,” he said. “And we are looking at growing that usage pretty significantly.”

Several years ago, NGA began developing an in-house software developer corp. Now, NGA is also looking to build out a key competency in the form of product managers who can shepherd a software project through development successfully.

“The person that acts as the interface between those end users and the development team and understands the vision for the product, creates the roadmap and makes sure that what is being built is actually both useful and actually used,” Loehr said. “That’s been a discipline that we are bringing into NGA, and then that we’re helping grow. I think will be really important for our future on how we make sure that we are building not just any software, but the right software, and it’s actually delivering on our mission.”

‘Build low, push high’

NGA is also increasingly developing its software in unclassified environments, called the “low side” in intelligence jargon, before it’s pushed to the “high side,” or a classified environment. The concept is “build low, push high,” according to Loehr.

“A lot of our workforce, and our contractor workforce doesn’t want to be in a [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility] every day,” he said. “And also a lot of our software itself isn’t necessarily classified. The data that’s in it might be classified, and often not in all cases, but often our software isn’t.”

The CORE tooling includes the ability to sync software versions across classified and unclassified domains, Loehr said, a key process for speeding up development.

“Those process pieces are almost just as important as technology pieces,” he said. “And enabling us to build low and move high, I think will help us move faster and really increase the diversity that we’re able to have in the people working on our products and how that work gets done.”

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