NGA Seeks to Accelerate Software Development with Key Metrics and CORE Capabilities
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is seeking to deliver software closer to the tech industry as part of a new strategy that outlines key metrics for internal development teams and contractors.
“The NGA software method” discusses how the agency plans to deliver software faster and more consistently as NGA’s technology priorities increasingly revolve around software capabilities such as automation and machine learning.
Officials believe automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be essential for the NGA to analyze a rapidly growing 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 has been at the forefront of recent Pentagon software development projects.
NGA’s new software strategy outlines three key metrics as “Availability”, “Time to Change”, and “Deployment Frequency”. Each individual software product will also have its own “product-specific metrics”, tailored to track how well the software is performing for its users.
“We offer this to everyone who provides software at NGA,” said NGA Chief Technology Officer Alex Loehr. “These may be government employees, industry, or even commercial products purchased by the NGA. There are important parts of the software that relate to how we want to work with these companies. So hopefully this will set common expectations for how we can deliver useful software faster and for our mission.
The software strategy complements the technology focus areas recently released by the NGA. High priorities include assured positioning, navigation, timing and targeting; accelerated task orchestration; data access and data integrity; and modernizing the analytical workflow.
Loehr said the software strategy is an “implementation guide” for NGA’s technology areas.
“If technology focus areas are the ‘what’, the Software Way is the ‘how’,” he said.
NGA wrote the “Software Way” based on several existing documents, including the US digital service’s “Digital Services Playbook,” as well as the UK government’s “service standard,” according to Loehr. The agency also looked at industry research and data, particularly from 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 the basis for software strategy, while also considering the more unique needs of an intelligence agency.
“Some of these other documents are much more about services for citizens,” he said. “At NGA we have some, but not everything we do is open and public. And so some of the elements of those other documents didn’t match exactly, but we were able to build from the core of those documents in order to learn from those who came before and did a lot of very hard work and grew from a way that fits what we need at NGA.
The NGA published an early version of the document last year and received more than 300 pages of responses from 47 companies.
“We received feedback about things that weren’t clear, that didn’t make sense, as well as lessons we learned about how we should work at NGA and work with our industry partners. to make this document a success,” Loehr said. “Some of these things haven’t been picked up in the words of the document itself, but have started to guide some of the work that we do to ensure that we are able to do this successfully when implementing the NGA Software Way.”
To help achieve the strategy goals, NGA has implemented a common operating release environment, called “CORE”, to provide development teams with enterprise software delivery tools such as control tools release, testing, tracking and collaboration.
“Historically, we’ve let different teams choose their tools and their different processes for building software,” Loehr said. “It led to some really big things, but it also led to a lot of fragmentation. And what we’re trying to do is create a set of tools and a set of processes.
Many elements of CORE are already in place and are being used by critical applications in some cases, according to Loehr, including version control, the “CI/CD” pipeline, an API development portal and tracking spaces. and documentation of issues.
The enterprise workflow orchestration and messaging tools, respectively, are still “more in beta stage,” Loehr said.
“The core of CORE around version control, pipeline, developer portal, everything live, real and used today,” he said. “And we’re looking at increasing that usage quite significantly.”
Several years ago, NGA started developing an in-house software development company. Now, NGA is also looking to develop a key skill in the form of product managers who can successfully guide a software project through development.
“The person who acts as the interface between these end users and the development team and understands the product vision, creates the roadmap and ensures that what is being built is actually both useful and actually used. “, Loehr said. “It’s a discipline that we bring into the NGA and then help to develop. I think that’s going to be really important for our future on how we make sure that we’re not building just any software, but the right software, and that it actually fulfills our mission.
‘Build low, push high’
NGA is also increasingly developing its software in unclassified environments, referred to as “down” in intelligence jargon, before it is pushed to the “up” or classified environment. The concept is “build low, push high,” according to Loehr.
“A lot of our workforce, and our contractors don’t want to be in a [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility] every day,” he said. “And also a lot of our software itself is not necessarily classified. The data there may be classified, and often not in all cases, but often our software is not.
CORE tooling includes the ability to synchronize software releases between classified and unclassified domains, Loehr said, a key process for accelerating development.
“These process elements are almost as important as the technology elements,” he said. “And allowing us to build low and scale high, I think that will help us move faster and really increase the diversity that we can have among the people working on our products and how that work is done.”