#DigitalAF: Digital Air Force - Part Two

The Prelude proved it was possible, Part One proved there were early adopters to embrace it and Part Two will prove that it can be scaled responsibly in the context of Defence and a diverse set of communities.

The follow-on work started February 2021 and completed February 2024, a three year term. Despite starting with grand ambitions, the team was initially halved and a key parter within the RCAF decided to pursue ambitions outside of the RCAF.

Not a perfect start, but as you'll see, by the end we would have grown the platform by thousands of users, added a Globemaster-full of features and delivered the blueprint for a defence service worthy of the heroes it serves.

Progress the Hard Way

Hard would be an understatement as the team embarked on the final phase of work with the RCAF. With the headcount halved, key resources departing to pursue greener pastures and yet so much opportunity on the table, it was a challenging start to what would end as an amazing story.

Through 2021 and 2022 the platform continued to see steady growth in features, usage and operational criticality. The team had to shift gears to gracefully transition from startup "learn fast and break things" mode to an enterprise mindset. It was clear that many detractors would like nothing more than to see a giant crater where this project once stood. Fortunately, our team wasn't interested in that outcome.

Over this period, the integrated feedback system saw thousands of votes of confidence from motivated and empowered members of the RCAF. We democratized a voice for those typically without and implemented features on their merits, independent of hierarchy. With early adopters saturated, the project expanded into the early and late majority.

The expansion of usage brought to the forefront the uniqueness and disjointedness of operations with the RCAF. Not uncommon when driving consolidation through digital. We found that the communities had largely evolved independently. The centralized structures shied away from dictating procedures in order to empower the individual squadrons. The problem? It is very hard to develop quality software at scale for such a use case. We also faced dated policies and approaches to technology left a cloud based offering as the "odd one", requiring our team to educate how the approach worked and how to understand the benefits and risks.

Let's Go

Despite the global pandemic having created a near-impossible hiring situation, the summer of 2022 brought much needed growth to the team. The team surged to 13 headcount, added additional senior staff members and prepared to tackle some big hairy audacious goals. These reinforcements brought new energy and the spark the team needed to re-attack the big and impactful work that they were committed to doing.

The first order of business was to prepare to migrate the production runtime to a new cloud environment, with a robust infrastructure as code deployment and multi-stage deployments. A monumental achievement in industry and a bunch of computer talk in the RCAF. Safe to say we executed it perfectly, with no noticeable impact to operations and a resulting CI/CD and scalable production runtime more appropriate for the significance of the usage.

Over this period the team grew the base platform to deliver over 140 capabilities in support of air operations, culture and innovation. And maybe most importantly, the RCAF was shown a glimpse of what a true digital air force could look like.

Zero to One

After four years, the #DigitalAF team from Harled has, against all odds, delivered the zero-to-one of a modern, digital cloud offering for the Royal Canadian Air Force. An incredible accomplishment. It also became clear that it was a good time to support the RCAF in graduating to a larger, more established organization to continue to operate and iterate on what we had jointly created. We also hope it has paved the way for additional modern technical projects to be undertaken that deliver world-class solutions to service members and ask more of our contractors on behalf of tax dollars invested.

The original user case and users account for less than 0.5% of the current active users. They represented the foot in the door needed to bring modern software to thousands of air crew, support staff and civilians working in the RCAF. It also created a much needed sparkler to show others in the Department of National Defence, and Canada that not only is modern possible, but it greatly improves the efficacy of our government and the incredible missions they are responsible for delivering to Canadians.

We will continue to cheer them on and can't wait to see what comes next.