There is a small but interesting program within the Space Force that mimics the Air Force’s Airmen Coder program. It is called the Supra Coder program. There are some schools of thought that every Guardian should be at least capable of coding, if not engaged in some technical pursuit within their careers. This Supra Coder program is still relatively young, not yet 5 years old. Its intentions could not be better. Develop the talent needed to provide warfighters with capability from within the ranks rather than heavily depending on outside contractors to build those systems in silos or with IP protections that inevitably result in siloed systems. Thanks, lawyers.
The program runs a lot like commercial or nonprofit coding bootcamps. It introduces a student to coding concepts and a few languages, primarily frontend, but with exposure to the full stack of coding. Commanders have to release candidates for the period of the course, based on how it is structured. In some cases, that means full-time study, in others there have been part time participation. Each program culminates in a capstone presentation, which usually are impressive for two weeks of work by a small team of very green software engineering candidates. If you want to learn more from a much more authoritative source, check out https://www.supracoders.us.
Policy to Follow
The shortcoming of the program, if any, is that there are varying expectations by leaders within the ranks when their resource returns to work. There is plenty of work to be done on any base, and I understand the urge to put resources to work on things that seem more important than software applications, especially when you have a primarily junior group, or in some cases a single junior engineer available.
The trouble is software engineering is a hard, technical career to pursue. There are ceaseless changes and developments to track in the industry, and it is easy to fall behind if you are not focused on the work. Many engineers have to learn how to think, design, address, and solve business problems, which also layers in the understanding of things like processes and workflows to the complexity of the language and systems they interact with on a regular basis. Keeping skills relevant and well-tuned is a career and an everyday investment.
The challenge is career paths tend to err toward management. Folks who want to build a technical career face limitations and tend to be a part of the “out” group in an up or out culture. They then go off to successful careers in consulting companies that work for, you guessed it, the same branch of military that once was their uniformed service. Many mission-oriented dreamers would gladly stay if they could have a reasonable wage and a technical track for their development.
Is this possible? Probably. It is against the grain on culture, though, so it is also likely to hit some barriers. With strong leadership and advocacy, though, a talent group could start emerging within the ranks instead of fleeing to the lucrative market to charge back to the government plus profit, benefits, overhead, etc. I think the real question is a matter of desire and of will to change policy. Do we want to have uniformed people serving, and providing the capability to our service branches, or do we want to push them into t-shirts and hoodies to serve us at a higher cost?
Supra Coder Development – What it Will Take
The effort will be non-trivial. It will take years to develop a critical mass of senior folks that can also effectively mentor the next batch of juniors up to a senior level. Much like management development, mistakes will be made, progress will take time and patience, and not everyone will succeed. Partnering with various companies that do this now to blend Supra Coders with industry development, preferably small business innovators, we can start to see new exposures and capabilities driven to production. We can also start to train our next generation on previous generation applications in continuous development opportunities. That will build cohesiveness around the Supra Coder program post-graduation and help develop enough momentum to eventually displace the small business crutch.
I’d love to see this happen, wouldn’t you?