In 2017 the U.S. Army announced a bold new plan. Over the next decade, America’s oldest military branch would modernize, upgrading its global forces to ensure a competitive edge on the battlefield and to better prepare for emerging threats.
But modernizing the Army meant more than just replacing physical assets like weapons and vehicles. It also meant digital transformation: adopting new technologies to keep the organization agile and effective. Part of that digital effort is being championed by a small but mighty new unit, the Army Software Factory (Army SWF).
The Army SWF launched in July 2020 with just a handful of members working from a college campus in Austin, Texas. Today the program is growing rapidly, with new cohorts of 30 soldiers being added every six months. Under the Software Factory’s guidance, soldiers gain the digital skills to build and deploy modern software solutions to Army problems.
Like any organization, the Army SWF’s success hinges on a few key factors: clear communication, efficient collaboration and a healthy team culture. How does it achieve all of that while also accounting for strict government policies around data security? With Slack as its digital HQ, of course.
“With Slack, we can get information to people right when they need it, without waiting for a meeting two or three days later. That’s critical.”
Building a home base for culture and collaboration
“Slack is our primary method of communication between teams,” says Captain Austin Herrling, the Army SWF’s chief data officer. He tracks the usage and impact of all the organization’s software, including Slack. According to Herrling, Slack channels have become the team’s main forum for organizing and maintaining day-to-day institutional knowledge.
“We have channels for different organizations—both ad hoc teams and more established teams. We have vertical team channels, and horizontal channels for organization-wide discussion and communities of interest,” Herrling says.
Conquering routine tasks with automation
Soldiers accepted into the Army SWF embark on a three-year training assignment, building software solutions with tech industry partners and sharing findings with new cohorts. Long-term, the Software Factory envisions a model in which Army soldiers can be deployed to the edges of the battlefield to build and deliver software capabilities for commanders on the scene.
Speeding up administrative work
Most startups have to battle a steady stream of small daily tasks—submitting timesheets, requesting time off, updating support tickets and the like—and the Army SWF is no exception. To streamline all that administrative work, it leverages two of Slack’s most helpful features.
“We use Slack workflows and bots to automate our basic admin processes, and then we use more advanced workflows for things like ticketing and notifications,” Herrling says. “We’ve been able to quantify the time it takes for service requests to be processed before and after implementing workflows, and, on average, our platform team is able to save about 40 work hours a week with this flow.”
They’ve even created bots to help foster a positive team culture, including one that cheerfully reminds people to go offline for the weekend every Friday afternoon.
Easily sharing information, internally and externally
The Army SWF works closely with other military teams, regularly sharing and requesting information. Instead of setting up meetings or starting email threads, they rely on Slack workflows to streamline information requests, saving time on both ends.
“You don’t have to wait for someone to check the ticketing system. Instead, they can quickly share updates without leaving Slack,” says Angelica Phaneuf, the Software Factory’s chief information security officer.
Collaboration like this is made possible by Slack Connect, which lets teams work securely in Slack with external partners. Thanks to Slack Connect, the Army SWF can easily share information with its counterparts within the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as non-military partners and vendors, right in Slack channels.
“The vast majority of our internal communication occurs in Slack. It’s a truly user-friendly collaboration platform.”
Marching into the future with GovSlack
Working within the heavily regulated Defense Department, the Army SWF has to follow rigorous policies around data security and privacy. Slack offers an enterprise-grade environment that’s certified for the FedRAMP Moderate impact level, which helps keep the Software Factory’s Slack usage secure and supports their compliance needs.
But to do even more with Slack, the Software Factory has been participating in the beta for GovSlack, a dedicated instance of Slack purpose-built to support the compliance requirements of the U.S. federal government and the organizations that work alongside it. GovSlack will run in an AWS GovCloud data center and will support key security standards, including FedRAMP High, ITAR, FIPS 140.2, CJIS and DoD IL 4—all without sacrificing the ease of collaboration in Slack.*
*GovSlack is currently pursuing FedRAMP High and DoD SRG IL4 compliance certifications.
Unlocking new functionality and efficiency
“Being able to integrate our IL4 workstream with GovSlack would just open up all kinds of doors,” Herrling says. “We use tools that are IL4-certified, and to be able to incorporate those tools with Slack, which is where our daily work takes place, would help us realize significant savings in areas like data transfer.”
Hannah Hunt, the Army Software Factory’s chief of product, agrees. “The ability to say, ‘Hey, I’m in an Impact Level 4, FedRAMP High environment’ will allow us to integrate with new tools and implement new workflows,” she says.
Securely integrating third-party apps and services
“We use apps for trip requests and general administrative tasks like checking in in the morning and making appointment requests,” Herrling says. “Being able to use Slack as the entry point for those tasks, instead of having to go to another tool, would help us operate much more efficiently.”
The fact that GovSlack uses Amazon’s AWS GovCloud solution gives the Army SWF team an extra level of confidence. “Knowing that we’re riding on top of AWS GovCloud, and that the people who have access to that data have been vetted, makes a big difference for us,” Phaneuf says.
“The Army uses a lot of different communication tools. The more we can centralize everything for the Software Factory in Slack—which we’re very familiar with, really enjoy using, and depend on for all of our work—the better it is for us as an organization.”
Enjoying the benefits of cloud-based collaboration
Phaneuf notes another big benefit of GovSlack for the Software Factory: not having to build and host a collaboration solution themselves, which would require time and resources they’d rather allocate elsewhere. “We don’t want to be in the business of maintaining our collaboration platform,” she says. “We would rather use GovSlack, which we know is safe and secure.”
By fully vetting GovSlack and tailoring it to their specific needs, the team can enjoy the same benefits as if they had built and deployed their own on-premise solution. “With GovSlack, we don’t have to host our own solution, but we’re able to get the same amount of security as if we were hosting it ourselves,” Phaneuf says.
Keeping the military on the front lines of innovation
“Something that the Software Factory really champions is bringing in new and innovative technologies—things that the Army in particular has not leveraged—and using that to our advantage as we’re building software for soldiers,” Hunt says. “So it was a natural fit for us to partner with GovSlack on its accreditation process, while also helping to shepherd the adoption of new technology within the agency.”
And given the success that the Army SWF has had with GovSlack, Hunt predicts that other organizations in the Army will follow. “We’re optimistic that the Software Factory’s usage of GovSlack will inspire other Army customers to try something new,” she says. “Seeing how successful it’s been for us should be a big win.”
“If we have users of our platform offerings who aren’t part of the Software Factory, we can bring them into specific Slack channels where they can make requests. That is really, really beneficial.”
Mobilizing to meet new challenges
Despite having launched just two years ago, the Army Software Factory has already produced impressive results. In 2021 alone, Army SWF soldiers considered more than 100 Army problems, and are now developing 10 different applications to solve them. These include apps for:
- Mapping the ideal location for storing explosive weapons in supply depots
- Reserving scarce training areas for Army units in Hawaii
- Helping workers more easily find goods and materiel in warehouses
- Streamlining the job search process for National Guard members
The Software Factory is now accepting applications for its next cohort of 30 soldiers. That means 30 new teammates will soon join the Army SWF’s workspaces in Slack, bringing with them new ideas, skills and energy—and undoubtedly, new solutions.
If you’re a soldier or civilian interested in signing up for the Army Software Factory, learn more about joining the team. And if you’d like to learn more about GovSlack, visit slack.com/solutions/govslack.