Agile AF: How Kessel Run Lab Innovates in the Air Force

By Dave Sebastian |  May 2, 2019

When picturing what it’s like to work for the United States Air Force, you might think of perfectly pressed blue uniforms in a government facility — maybe one with concrete, bunker-like walls near a busy airfield. But the employees of Kessel Run Experimentation Lab are located about 13 miles from the closest base, and they sip cold-brew coffee and craft software code with a view of Boston Harbor.

At Kessel Run, a new Air Force-run software studio, people in t-shirts far outnumber those in uniform. The workspace has that startup vibe, partly because it’s managed by WeWork, the co-working firm. The glass front doors are emblazoned with a black logo inspired by the Millennium Falcon (which “Star Wars” fans know as the spacecraft that could make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs), and conference rooms have Star Wars-inspired names like Scarif and Tatooine.

Named for the route that Han Solo often traveled while smuggling contraband, Kessel Run operates as if it is “smuggling [new software development approaches] and innovation into the world’s largest bureaucracy,” says Kessel Run Director Adam Furtado.

Kessel Run’s team of about 200 staffers seeks to move from initial whiteboard ideation to getting working software to users in as fast as 88 days. That can be a tall order — especially in an environment like the Air Force, where a chain of command and required approvals prevail, and status is all about the stripes on your uniform.

While the military’s traditional structure and hierarchy might be key to success on the battlefield, Furtado says, “You need the opposite environment to have creativity thrive.”

“We do a lot of work here to build psychological safety [for] our teams,” Furtado says. “Everybody’s on a level-playing field — [we have a] flat management structure. … The best idea wins. They’re not bogged down by rank, and things that traditionally exist within the military.”

Adam Furtado, Kessel Run Director

The Kessel Run Origin Story

Kessel Run started when a group of employees at Hanscom Air Force Base in the Boston suburbs began considering new ways to revamp an array of legacy software systems, which were developed about a decade ago, Furtado says.

“We got together and said, ‘How can we move these [software systems] into the cloud?'” Furtado recalls. “‘How can we move the needle and stop doing the status quo?'”

So Furtado and his colleagues reached out to the Defense Innovation Unit, a Department of Defense organization that works to acquire military technologies in new ways, to learn how their approach might be relevant to software. They then partnered with Pivotal Labs, a San Francisco-based software and services consultancy.

According to Furtado, the team was focused on one question: “There are tons of regulated, bureaucratic industries that have been able to make significant changes. Why can’t we do that?”

Embedding new software into the military’s classified networks and domains used to be a years-long endeavor, Furtado says. At Kessel Run, the wheels are turning faster with automation and more fluid communication.

“Traditionally, you get stuck behind waiting on email responses. … [At Kessel Run,] we have teams that are co-located and talking all day long. It really cuts down on the communication overhead in order to get things done,” Furtado says.

And Furtado points out a big “first” for Kessel Run that helps the group maintain momentum: “We have a continuous authority to operate, which is a first in our industry.” That means that bits of code and fixes, after being tested, can go onto the network and into production continually — rather than having a fully-built system get tested only when it’s “finished.” It’s a widely-used approach from the business world that hadn’t previously been approved inside the Department of Defense.   

Employees gather in the common area of Kessel Run’s office for the daily stand-up meeting.

Building the Team

Employees gather in the common area of Kessel Run’s office for the daily stand-up meeting.

Hiring in the military often runs on a longer timeline, due to extensive background checks and security clearances. According to Furtado, the process typically takes between four and six months.

Compared to that, Kessel Run’s search for new talent moves at light speed. At a January hiring event, the software development group onboarded an applicant within four hours of meeting.

“We were able to vet candidates ahead of time,” Furtado says. “Then, we had [candidates] come in. The people who had to make all these approvals — [which] usually stretched over months waiting on people to get to certain things, or approvals to be made, or signatures and papers — they all came [to our office] physically.”

In order to attract talent with varied experiences, Furtado says Kessel Run hires both civilians and members of the armed forces. According to Furtado, half of the 50-some civilians hired in January had no military experience.

“It’s really [about] adding new voices, and bringing in some industry talent,” he says.

With rapid growth and a blend of employee experience sets, Furtado says his team uses a buddy system, which pairs new hires with more experienced employees.

“We do paired programming here,” Furtado says. “It enables us to bring in new talent, pair them with people who have been here, who are being immersed in this culture … and allow mitosis to take care of the rest…”

Among the tasks some of the new hires were given: crafting software for the Autonomous Logistics Integration System, a string of applications that gives operators of the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet the ability to delve into the aircraft’s operations and maintenance data.

The Need for Speed

In the private sector, investors pour money into a company to support its operations, hoping to get a return on their investment. But Kessel Run is driven by something different: Air Force leadership holds the team accountable.

“I’m not being judged by my profit that I’m producing or having to answer to shareholders,” Furtado says. “We have to make sure we are truly understanding the strategies of commanders and [Air Force] stakeholders, and make sure that we’re actually meeting their needs.”

In order to serve the military community, Kessel Run treats speed as crucial to its mission, Furtado says. “Speed becomes a new security,” he says. “In a previous world, with legacy systems, you’re unable to adopt very quickly. … [Now,] we’re able to react within minutes. How fast can we get notifications of something? Then, push an update to fix that.”

Kessel Run has set up “growth boards” to track progress and assess new ideas — a group of leaders that meet quarterly, and seek to emulate how venture capitalists choose which ideas to back and with how much money. Employees can pitch projects, demonstrate how they might add value, and, for projects already underway, make the case for why Kessel Run should keep funding them, Furtado explains.

The growth boards are one of the ways Kessel Run can ensure fast feedback loops. Furtado says they help the team “adapt, and expend resources in other places if we’re not achieving the value that we thought we’re going to.”

That means that failure isn’t a taboo topic at Kessel Run. Furtado says employees have the “freedom to be open about those [failures] and those learnings.”

“It’s great when people come to me and feel comfortable [saying,] ‘Hey, we missed the mark here; we need to go this direction.’ I like that,” Furtado says.

Kessel Run operates out of a Downtown Boston office that is managed by WeWork. Meeting rooms all have Star Wars-inspired names.

Kessel Run’s Impact

Kessel Run doesn’t operate on a commercial scale. The applications it works on are typically used by thousands of people, Furtado says, but not hundreds of thousands. And the team’s product development approach involves layers of small-scale testing and prototypes, he says.

With each new application, “we usually deploy first to a small subset of our user community to make sure we are testing those things and getting feedback,” Furtado says. “Everything we do is based on testing. Every line of code that we write, we first write a pass-fail test for it…”

A significant chunk of Kessel Run’s work is geared toward optimizing the way the Air Force uses expensive aircraft and flight time. The JIGSAW tanker planning tool, for instance, automates the process of planning aerial refueling.

“We’re at a point now where the efficiencies that we’ve gotten from that are saving about $12 million a month in fuel, just by doing some automation and optimization,” Furtado says.

And by automating some of the labor-intensive data entry work involved in orchestrating combat operations, Kessel Run has helped save about 1,100-man-hours per month, the Air Force said in a recent press release. The lab has also made it easier for roughly 280 different groups inside and outside the military — like civilian contractors — to collaborate more efficiently on building and maintaining software applications.

Since Kessel Run was created, about 18 of its applications have been deployed in combat and military exercises, and it has attracted a budget of nearly $140 million, according to the Air Force.

Don’t Look for the Checklist

Kessel Run operates out of a Downtown Boston office that is managed by WeWork. Meeting rooms all have Star Wars-inspired names.

Senior military leaders visit Kessel Run’s office regularly. “We learned early on that we had to find some senior champions that were going to carry the mantle for us, [since] there is only so much we can do at our level,” Furtado says. “It’s important to find the people who want to evolve as senior leadership, so that they can help tell your story and help remove some of [the] roadblocks along the way.”

Other government entities can emulate aspects of Kessel Run’s culture of learning and evolution, Furtado says. But there’s a caveat: Don’t imagine there’s a checklist that can instantly turn your team into the next Kessel Run.

“It takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice, and hard work, and learning, and diving into things,” Furtado says. “That learning along the way is what allows you to be a successful organization going forward. It’s hard work.”