AUSTIN, Texas — The culture of the Air Force is known for being somewhat risk averse, which can make it difficult for Airmen to experiment when working to improve processes and solve problems.
Yet, from July to November, 18 enlisted, officer, and civilian service members flocked to the AFWERX-Austin hub to participate in Project NEXUS, an Air Education and Training Command initiative testing how to equip Airmen with industry-standard digital competencies including software development, data science, and user interface/user experience design.
Championed by Capt. Kyle Palko—an operations research analyst by trade and an Air Force game-changer by spirit—the course intended to uplift the service’s standards for organic talent development and align them with those in the civilian sector.
“The Air Force is losing the war for technical talent,” Palko said. “We are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the Googles, Amazons, or Facebooks of the world to recruit digital talent. Instead, the Air Force is going to have to enable opportunities to build our expertise from within.”
In an effort to preserve and expand the U.S. military’s advantage in this new operating environment, the Department of Defense is making it a priority to cultivate talent for an adaptive, innovative, and capable digital force.
The Air Force is losing the war for technical talent...The Air Force is going to have to enable opportunities to build our expertise from within.
Capt. Kyle Palko
With that challenge in mind, the AETC Technology Integration Detachment designed a program to train three cohorts of six Airmen each in partnership with Air Force organizations like the Air Force Chief Data Office, Kessel Run, and LevelUP, and executed by three vendors: GrowthX Academy, Data Society, and The Tech Academy.
In addition to standalone training, the course provided Airmen the opportunity to formulate solutions for 12 Air Force problems as their capstone projects, which resulted in three prototyped software applications and nine data science models for programs like Pilot Training Next and organizations like the Air Force Recruiting Service.
“Agile software development is key to the Air Force’s future and this nation's ability to compete in a near-peer, multi-domain environment,” said Lt. Col. Eric Frahm, ATID director. “Innovation efforts like NEXUS are unleashing the power of Airmen to solve problems at the unit level. The students demonstrated how ordinary Airmen, given access to the right data and training, can produce applications to assist with everything from aircraft mission planning to service-level force management.”
As with any experiment, the bulk of the planning and execution process was spent on testing educated assumptions, tweaking operations as needed, and collecting all the necessary feedback and data to determine the effectiveness of the course.
Through the evaluation process, Palko found that one of the key benefits of NEXUS is the cost savings of training by utilizing Air Force personnel. For the price of a single contracted mid-level software developer, NEXUS can train about six Airmen with similar competencies.
“This proved that the immersive bootcamp model is a viable solution to take high-performing Airmen of any rank or career field and upskill them at a fraction of the cost of outsourcing,” Palko said. “With organic technical talent, we can develop and field software faster, provide data insights for commanders on demand, and build the DNA of the Digital Air Force in preparation for the wide-scale adoption of artificial intelligence.”
In order to maximize the students’ time spent in the course and set them up for success following graduation, they also were exposed to the AFWERX ecosystem and embedded in a tech hub.
Whether it be Maj. Rachel Ramirez taking advantage of a weekend hack-a-thon to put her UI/UX design skills to the test or Senior Airman Jacob Traugott choosing to join the Vance Air Force Base Spark Cell following graduation, the resources available to Project NEXUS students served as the foundation for a career bolstered by robust personal networks and the exposure to new ways of doing things.
“When you read about different technologies and actually see it in action here, it opens up your worldview,” said Staff Sgt. Gavin Munoz, 81st Training Support Squadron software developer and Project NEXUS graduate. “Now, we’re wondering what’s next, what other possibilities are out there for us.”
After 120 days filled with technical training, mentorship events, and integration into a support network, the students wrapped up their participation in the experiment on Nov. 4 with developed skills ranging from full-stack and iOS development to collaboration via notebooks and machine learning with Python, ready to tackle their unit’s challenges with a new perspective.
“This isn’t about solving the Air Force’s biggest problems all at one time and it shouldn’t be,” said Maj. Gen. Mark E. Weatherington, Air Education and Training Command deputy commander, during the course’s graduation. “This is about grassroots efforts solving local problems, small problems that make a big difference for our Airmen.”
As the result of the service’s investment in these 18 Airmen combined with their commitment to bettering themselves, the graduates are now moving on to build a smarter, faster Air Force.
“Bettering the Air Force starts with you,” Munoz said. “There’s one thing I learned from listening to everyone talk and from the classes we’ve been through, and it’s that every individual has the ability to change the Air Force.”