Cover: Personnel Needs for Department of the Air Force Digital Talent

Personnel Needs for Department of the Air Force Digital Talent

A Case Study of Software Factories

Published Mar 30, 2022

by Kirsten M. Keller, Maria C. Lytell, Shreyas Bharadwaj

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Research Questions

  1. What is the history, mission, and structure of DAF software factories?
  2. What are the current and future personnel needs of DAF software factories?
  3. What are the personnel-related challenges that software factories face?

Software factories have emerged as part of U.S. Department of the Air Force (DAF) efforts to modernize software acquisition and development practices. Software factories were cited by DAF stakeholders as one type of entity within the DAF in which specific types and levels of digital talent (both military and civilian) would likely be needed, but the specific requirements had still not been identified.

In fiscal year (FY) 2020, the DAF established a Digital Talent Taskforce to help define DAF talent needs, including developing requirements and competencies for digital talent. To support the taskforce's efforts, the authors conducted a case study to identify digital talent needs in the area of software development by exploring DAF software factories that use modern and agile software development practices.

Key Findings

  • Although software factory missions primarily focus on serving their parent or owning organization, they also have customers that expand beyond the owner, including the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
  • Because software factories are start-up organizations, funding for most of the factories during FY 2020 appeared to be ad hoc, with the parent or owning organization providing initial funds and billets and customers that use factories' software development and platform capabilities providing the majority of remaining funds.
  • Software factories have some funded billets and assigned personnel, but they do not have all the billets and personnel that they feel they currently need or will need to meet future demands.
  • Although there is a desire to have military members at the software factories, the factories reported challenges in acquiring more military members because of the absence of a dedicated pipeline of military personnel with the necessary technical skills.
  • Training and development of military members that occurs at software factories is not currently used in determining future assignments.
  • Attracting and retaining top civilian talent can be difficult because of less competitive compensation and rigid degree requirements.
  • Although there are frequent informal connections across many of the software factories, as of FY 2020, there was no formal oversight or coordination to ensure information sharing and prevent the potential for unhelpful competition.


  • Continue working toward dedicated career specialties or paths if the DAF wants to sustain a digital workforce, such as the organic technical talent desired by the software factories.
  • Include key developmental opportunities, such as those at DAF software factories, for personnel in specialties or career paths that are dedicated to maintaining digital talent.
  • Provide continued opportunities for assignments that are more technical in nature for personnel in digital career paths because technical skills could be perishable if not used on a consistent basis, or they might become obsolete as technologies and techniques change.
  • Consider establishing technical core specialties or using a technical career track model for officers within the cyber community to ensure sustainment of technical skills.
  • Continue exploring innovative ways to acquire top civilian talent, such as through partnerships with industry and academia.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Director of Force Development (AF/A1D) under the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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