Software factories and their energizing culture
Mike Raker, Leidos Vice President and Chief Engineer for C4ISR Operations, shared details about his extensive technical experience and how he's helping the company establish a unique software development culture. Over the course of almost two decades, Raker has excelled at a wide range of roles with one goal in mind: using technology to allow customers to make and execute better decisions.
Here are some of the topics Raker covered during this podcast:
- What C4ISR technology involves
- What a software factory is and why it matters to DoD and other government agencies
- The perfect blend of startup culture and entrepreneurship found at software factories
- Why universities can influence where software factories are located
- How to match the level of innovation in software factories with the level of standards that need to be maintained
- Future trends in software development
- Why software factory isn’t a generalist term, but the best one to describe what they do
Mike Raker: This wasn't theoretical anymore. You were making recommendations based on the software you wrote for government spending money on people, programs, tools, et cetera. And that was the first time I think in a working setting that I really got the importance of what I do.
Bridget Bell: Welcome to mindSET, a Leidos podcast. I'm your host Bridget Bell.
Meghan Good: And I'm your host, Meghan Good. Join us as we talk with pioneers in science, engineering, and technology to understand their creative mindset and share their stories of innovation.
Bridget Bell: Our conversation this week centers around software development, and more specifically software factories.
Meghan Good: We spoke with Mike Raker who has made a career out of using technology to enable better decision making. He's been working with Leidos' software factories since their inception in 2013 and has been able to centralize efficiencies with software development to be shared across government agencies and commercial industries, but also having fun with all those developers.
Bridget Bell: I'd characterize his mindset as one of collaboration, and so we talked a lot about culture and what it takes to make a successful software factory.
Meghan Good: Okay. Let's dive in.
Bridget Bell: Welcome to mindSET. Today we're speaking with Mike Raker, vice president and chief engineer for Leidos' C4ISR operation. Mike also runs the Leidos software factories. Welcome, Mike. We're so excited to have you. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to your current role.
Mike Raker: Sure, thanks. So I've been with Leidos and formerly SAIC with that for over 19 years. I've had a great journey with Leidos throughout my career, having a number of different positions starting off in modeling and simulation ops research types of fields, progressively moving into software development, emission system software.
Mike Raker: And I think I've been really blessed in my career to be able to experience a whole lot of different opportunities and technology spaces and stay within the four walls of Leidos, which has really been a pleasure.
Bridget Bell: So you've seen a broad spectrum of opportunities and technology solutions in your career and your current role is with the C4ISR operation. C4ISR in itself is a broad portfolio of solutions. Can you talk us through what that acronym means?
Mike Raker: Sure, absolutely. Starting with the hard question, defining acronyms. So C4ISR, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. It's quite a mouthful. That's why it's C4ISR.
Mike Raker: It's all of the systems that have to come together to create insight from data across our customer set to make and execute better decisions in the field and all of the connective fiber that's required to communicate that decision from the tactical edge to the command center and back.
Mike Raker: It's often referred to or used primarily in the Department of Defense world, but the constructs of it really span across our customers. So everywhere from healthcare to our federal agencies and everywhere in between. It's about making better decisions to help the world.
Bridget Bell: What really got you interested in this range of technology?
Mike Raker: I got interested in it, initially early in my career we were doing a lot of development of modeling and simulation systems where we were trying to understand how to make our war fighters more effective in what they do. And we build large simulations to simulate the operations that they would go into.
Mike Raker: And what we commonly found in those simulations was the C4ISR part of the equation was often a limiting factor. And we could simulate these elements, and then discovered some of the simulations that we were building were more complex and sophisticated than things they were actually using in the real world.
Mike Raker: So that allowed us to really transition to say, well, rather than just simulate what this looks like, why don't we go and build the real software that helps provide better capability for our war fighters?
Mike Raker: One of the reasons that I got involved in it and why it's always been interesting to me is, that part of the domain and the technology changes very quickly. So it's an ever-evolving field that's really a catalyst to the war fighter and our customers.
Meghan Good: So with that, Mike was talking about actually getting into the development of new capabilities and trying to accelerate that. Can you just give us a little bit of a background about what is a software factory and why does it matter right now to DOD, and even broader to other government agencies?
Mike Raker: So the software factory, we started our first one in about 2013, so we've been running for about six years on them now. And the reason that we did that was, particularly in mission system software solutions, we were solving a lot of hard challenges and problems for our most important customers.
Mike Raker: And we recognized that if we started to centralize some of our software development we got better reuse from customer to customer. And we started to create more discipline in all elements of engineering when we were bringing those solutions together. So it was a force multiplier for us.
Mike Raker: So what is a software factory? To me, it's the accumulation of the facilities, the people, the processes, the tools, all combined together in executing the discipline of software engineering across customers and industries. The most important component for us in our software factories is the culture.
Mike Raker: And that culture is really driven by highly innovative people that like to work together, like to be open and transparent. They like to reuse things. They like to push the edge and continually be open, both internally across our engineering teams as well as externally with our customers, so that it creates an environment where everybody's on the same team and going towards the same goal.
Mike Raker: And if you get that right, if you get that culture right, everything else will happen. If you get it wrong, then the culture, you'll start to build stovepipes and walls inside your own organization and you'll fight the culture and it'll distract from delivering on the mission. I think we've done this pretty well across our locations.
Mike Raker: And it matters to the government because at the end of the day, it allows us to bring solutions better, faster, and cheaper, and to bring the power of a 30,000 plus person company to each and every software customer and to tailor that solution directly to the customer's needs.
Bridget Bell: I want to go back and ask a question about that culture. It sounds almost like the culture of entrepreneurship or start-up culture. Do software factories have a foundation in the commercial sector in Silicon Valley?
Mike Raker: Their genesis was in the commercial world and in Silicon Valley and places like that where there is that culture of start-ups and fast innovation around it. I think what we've done at Leidos starting in 2013 was, well, why can't we do that inside of DOD? What we've built internal to Leidos is effectively, the series of start-up culture locations that satisfy all four pillars of Leidos across the board.
Mike Raker: And even within our own software factories, we have commercial customers that we serve inside of Leidos. So it's not just a defense capability. So the commercial solutions we build, those people sit right next to the people working for DOD and those teams cross-pollinate.
Mike Raker: So I think this is the recognition in the industry, and what Leidos has been doing is, you can use commercial best practices and run fast like a commercial software company while embedding the security and other aspects that are necessary for our traditional customers through our factories, into our process and into our solutions.
Bridget Bell: It's really the best of both worlds.
Mike Raker: They're synergistic, right? So our commercial customers get the benefit of the enhanced security that we typically deliver in DOD and Intel programs. And at the same time, our DOD customers benefit from what we do in the commercial market, where we can move and pivot and turn very, very fast and get that commercial experience and then embed that in our DOD team. So it really is a mutual benefit for both of those industries and across from customers.
Meghan Good: So today there are a couple of different locations of the software factories. I know of the ones in Morgantown and Charlottesville, are there others that you're developing?
Mike Raker: Yes, absolutely. So we started in Morgantown. Charlottesville was the second. And now we're in the midst of spreading those across the globe, including in Australia and the UK. Omaha, Orlando, and other emerging locations are part of our global fabric with Morgantown and Charlottesville being the two that started it all off.
Meghan Good: Now with both of those, they're located next to some really great universities. Are you finding that that's a great draw for you of bringing in new talent, the best and brightest from those schools?
Mike Raker: Absolutely. And that's part of how we've designed the locations and where they pull from, with WVU and UVA being a good examples of that in Morgantown, in Charlottesville. Great universities, lots of talent pool, and the local communities typically have a little bit of a brain drain because of the fact that students that graduate from UVA tend to go to work in Northern Virginia or the West coast or New York, et cetera.
Mike Raker: This allows us to keep that talent locally in Charlottesville to continually fuel that engine. And the same in Morgantown, and over time, our partnerships with the universities, we're a part of the community. We have offices in the universities themselves, and allows us great access to the students and the professors and bi-directionally. Being part of the community is important to us so that we go in and guest lecture, we go in and give talks, we go in and make sure that the students are prepared for their career, hopefully at Leidos. But recognizing we can't hire everyone, we try and make sure that we do things to help the student body out as well.
Meghan Good: So I liked that you talked about culture with the software factories in addition to scaling them I think is a good challenge for that culture too. So it's not just one individual group working on reusing software packages that they built for different customers. It's how that's going to spread around too.
Meghan Good: I think that creates this other sense of where, again you mentioned stone pipes and building walls. What are you planning on doing to make that more seamless and to make that more collaborative around those groups so that you're still reaching the level of innovation that you want, but yet you have kind of the level of standards that you need to?
Mike Raker: So if you think about it back from your comments about it being a start-up culture, I think that's one of the challenges of any start-up is, as you start to have success, how do you maintain that culture and speed, but do it at a larger scale? And that's what we've been doing for the last few years is, as we get more and more scale, how do you put the right amount of process, procedure, oversight, et cetera, to provide some commonality and provide some guardrails around how to run the business? But at the same time, not stifle its own entrepreneurial spirit and development.
Mike Raker: So the collaboration and openness are the core elements of what makes that happen. So that starts in our facilities where lots of open space, where people are in development pits and collaborating across projects organically. Then we provide all kinds of different mechanisms to make sure that communication between teams, between locations, between programs is as frictionless as possible.
Mike Raker: Starting with today's modern tools in IM and chat, everybody's on chat all day across locations. So that provides some transparency and location. We're on phone calls frequently. We're also blessed with leadership that understands and values the travel requirements to do face-to-face communication. So you don't just know somebody from a chat room but, but also from meeting them face-to-face and being with them.
Mike Raker: So we've tried to combine that openness and transparency with light levels of governance over the top of it to make sure we can grow in a controlled and fast way, but maintain the discipline and entrepreneurial spirit that we started with.
Bridget Bell: Well it seems like that has been a success. Being able to really combine that collaboration and openness and give it a defined structure. So talk more about in the software factories or in your career today, what has been your most interesting software development effort? And what did you learn from it?
Mike Raker: So I think one of the, probably the most impactful personally for me was one of the original programs when we were back writing simulation software where, as I was making the transition between an academic setting into the workforce and we were able to start writing simulation software that was helping guide major decisions in the government budget. We were able to really quantitatively prove where the best allocation of the next marginal dollar was for the government.
Mike Raker: So that was really impactful to me where this wasn't a theoretical anymore, you were making recommendations based on the software you wrote for government spending money on people, programs, tools, et cetera. And that was the first time I think in a working setting that I really got the importance of what I do.
Mike Raker: More recently, another impactful one to me with the recent hurricane, we have a software solution called CHIMERA that we built. We just saw that Moody Air Force Base was using it to do some of the preparations for potential hurricane issues at that location. So those sorts of things come across my desk frequently where it really reminds you of the impact you can have on our war fighters and on our population and on the US marketplace and being impactful to your everyday mission.
Meghan Good: What sort of trends in software development are you most excited about?
Mike Raker: I think software just as an overall field is always exciting because it changes so fast. I'm somebody that gets bored pretty easily. So there's always something new. And the pace at which it continually evolves, I think is a paradise for someone that has an entrepreneurial spirit and is always looking to do what's next and do something better, faster, and cheaper.
Mike Raker: Trend-wise, I think most people in my position would probably answer things like AI/ML or infrastructure as code or 5G, those overall macro moves in the community. But I'll take a little different track on that because I think one of the most exciting trends to me is not necessarily in an individual technology, but it comes out of what I'm seeing in places like academia and the uptake of the software profession more broadly in all disciplines.
Mike Raker: I'll give you an example of that. UVA has massively expanded the computer science offering that the university provides to make sure that all students at the university have a chance to write software and to learn to code, even if they have no expectation that they'll ever be a professional software engineer. And I think that's important because it starts to knock down those barriers where software development and software isn't just left to CS grads and people in that discipline.
Mike Raker: But we use it so rampantly throughout all of our lives. Everyone needs to understand what it can and can't do. I think those are the trends that I start to see almost culturally in the community where you're pulling people together. And it's all about software because a software is running more and more of the world. And that's what excites me.
Mike Raker: And so as you start to drive that into, that's where it's coming out of academia, that's what excites me. Because I can bring that knowledge, I can bring that innovation into our software factories. That's one of the other things that the software factories provides and just Leidos as a cultural baseline is, we do so many cool things across this company that one of my objectives is no one should ever have to leave Leidos to find their next job.
Mike Raker: Part of how we matrix our people and our culture in the factories, our developers can be working commercial healthcare one day and autonomous systems the next and on command and control systems the next. And they get that diversity of experience, which is, it's good for them, it's good for our customers, it's great for the workforce. All that cross-pollination of ideas. So that's definitely what we want to continue to grow and expand across the enterprise.
Meghan Good: Now that makes sense. Now I wonder, with the term factories, do you ever get any pushback on it being called that? I know as a computer scientist by background and another software engineer who's probably not allowed to code again, I would like to think that the work that I'm doing is still very creative and still something that, although there's value to creating things that have reuse, there's also this value in it being customized for a particular solution. So do you ever hear from people that the word factory overgeneralizes what you're doing?
Mike Raker: So we've had lots of discussion about exactly that. I think that's an industry recognized term right now. We've kicked around some other ideas but never found anything that we like better. And to me, it's, what's in a name? What's most important to me is, as you said, the people that work in our software factories have that diversity of work. There is artistic license in it. It is innovative. It is all of those things that make it a fun place to come to work every day. If we continue to get that right and grow it, then whatever we call it is likely just a name.
Meghan Good: Gotcha. That makes sense. I like the what's in a name. There you go. So with that, with what you've been developing with the software factories, what's your vision going out in a couple of years from now? How are you seeing those as far as where they're expanding? You mentioned a bit of how we're geographically expanding, but what kinds of impact do you see that these software factories will be having?
Mike Raker: I wanted to touch every corner of Leidos, and we're getting closer and closer every day. I think we've got some really unique capabilities in inside of the company and are growing. So for example, our partnership with Leidos Australia, Leidos UK, we have the ability to do true 24/7, follow the sun development for our customers. And to look at Leidos as a software company. And I think we're on the way to do that.
Mike Raker: So I think there's a couple of ways that we're thinking about this right now, all focused around how do we scale and how do we do that correctly and not break the culture that we built. We've been extremely successful at this up till now. But you've got to stay at that so that you don't just build scale and lose the culture, because then you lose what's truly special.
Mike Raker: So we're continuing to expand in Lincoln more and more locations. We're providing more and more online training and things like that so that people in remote sites, we don't have to build all the software out of our factories. They can be anywhere in the world and take part in the culture.
Bridget Bell: So Mike, looking more broadly then, what advice do you have for the market looking forward?
Mike Raker: I think to our customers and the people in the industries that we satisfy and support, we want to be your partner and an honest broker. This isn't about selling licenses for us. This is about doing things that are custom, doing things that impact the world and impact the mission, and doing it as a partnership with our customers.
Mike Raker: Come see us. We love to give tours and talk about all the things that we do across the industry. And we want to be the honest broker in the partner with that customer. Because I always think about it as, if you have infinite transparency with your customers down to the second on everything that you're doing for them, then you can focus on solving the problem, not spending your time figuring out, why did this happen? Hey, when things happen that aren't perfect, let's work on fixing them, not figuring out whose fault it was. And that's how we like to work.
Bridget Bell: Well, it's clear from just speaking with you for this short time that you're so passionate and committed to continually learning to find solutions. So who wouldn't want to come work with you?
Mike Raker: Yeah, and that comes with our partners. I mean we have lots of small business partners, large cots partners. This is working together as a community to solve really hard problems for our customers. If we get that right, then the business will take care of itself.
Bridget Bell: That's wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today. It's been great speaking with you and learning more about the software factories.
Meghan Good: And thanks for listening to mindSET. If you've enjoyed this episode, please share with your colleagues and visit Leidos.com/mindSET.