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How a defense agency took a collaborative approach to app development

Cindi Stuebner,
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Government defense agencies, like private enterprises around the world, are undertaking significant enterprise system modernization projects to reduce risk and increase efficiency, agility, connectivity, and responsiveness. The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is one of those entities.

Charged with multiple strategic imperatives, including from the National Defense Strategy, National Defense Business Operations Plan, Commandants Planning Guidance, and Department of the Navy Business Operations Plan, the USMC Enterprise Business Transformation Office is tasked with modernizing the force, reforming business operations, and reducing business operations costs.

We had the opportunity at a recent webinar to hear directly from Captain Andrew Hutcheon, who is leading the USMC’s Business Area Mission Modernization program. He provided an overview of their collaborative approach to systems modernization, what’s working, and lessons learned.

Piloting a plan for improvement

The USMC has six lines of business (Human Resources, Logistics, Financial, Acquisition, Training & Education, and Other Lines of Business). It runs these business operations across 97 systems and a few hundred applications. Critical data and information were getting trapped within business areas, systems, and applications, limiting information sharing, obscuring risk, and creating duplicative work. To modernize operations, they developed and piloted a plan to replace their legacy systems with a cloud-based, agile, connected platform.

Changes to a defense agency enterprise architecture don’t happen within a month or two. U.S. Defense agencies must meet a number of controls to gain the Authority to Operate (ATO). In May 2018 Captain Hutcheon’s group began building out the new cloud architecture on a commercial cloud provider and received an ATO for the base cloud layer in April 2019. Over the next six months they built platforms on top of that base cloud layer, earning accreditations for 390 of 403 application controls. With the foundation in place, developers are now able to more quickly build and approve applications.

Moving from silos to shared services

Evolving from siloed, bespoke systems and applications to a cloud-based, shared services environment is helping accelerate the speed at which the USMC is modernizing. By sharing application management controls, rule sets, and services built on their Pega platform, they are able to reuse objects and components – building out application functionalities once, then implementing across other applications. For example, a function for digital signatures can easily be applied across all applications.

Tara Teaford, Program Manager at scrLogic – the USMC’s delivery partner on this project – says shared services make reuse possible within the same organization. “We can share the same capabilities across enterprises and organizations, such as the Army. Shared services dramatically reduce time to production because you don’t have to build from scratch any longer. We only need to develop truly unique and new requirements. It reduces the amount of time it takes to get an application into production."

How Agile delivery is making a difference

The USMC is further streamlining app dev operations by adopting an Agile delivery methodology and using low-code application development capabilities. “Through research and advisory services and business case analyses, we determined that no-code would be a good use case for business apps and processes. We’re not building weapons,” says Captain Hutcheon, “We’re building applications.”

The combination of low-code capabilities and agile delivery has increased the velocity at which the USMC dev team is able to develop and deliver applications, with new apps built at the rate of every three to four months. Plus, by using by a comprehensive inheritance model for risk management framework control, a majority of the application control issues are already resolved, leaving developers only a handful of controls to address.

“Organizing this work into an agile methodology has definitely paid off for our implementation,” says Captain Hutcheon.

“The USMC has really embraced Agile methodology,” explained Ms. Teaford. “Just as Pega provides developers with coding guardrails, Agile provides process guardrails. It provides a structure that enables flexibility but keeps a project moving quickly, successfully, and smoothly.”

The ability to develop and implement applications across lines of business more quickly is a significant improvement over old USMC systems. Another important benefit of the modernization product is the way data is collected and shared. By creating a structure for data collection and a single data environment, reporting can now be done in real time. This provides leaders with more visibility into risks as well as the ability to apply business intelligence to help further recognize opportunities for improvement. As Captain Hutcheon explains, the amount of time previously spent collecting info was, in turn, not time spent on a USMC mission. Their system modernization has so far saved “thousands and thousands” of person-hours and related costs.

What pointers does the team have for other government agencies looking to modernize?

Ms. Teaford’s advice is to take advantage of internal audit findings to determine which mission-critical business processes need to be automated first, then apply a methodical approach to modernization.

Captain Hutcheon says, “Our first wrong step was we racked and stacked four different platforms to be built on top of the cloud infrastructure – so, four competing lanes. The result was we didn’t get to complete on any of them; we’d move on after 80%. Instead I’d adopt and land-and-expand model. Get one done completely with everything from zero to 100%.”

Next steps in USMC modernization plan

USMC’s next frontier is to mature their DevOps pipeline built around Pega and their other platforms. “We have a lot of DevOps tools,” say Captain Hutcheon, “But the challenge is stringing those tools together so our dev team can rapidly build and secure applications that are well tested to automatically deploy in different environments.” He added, “For your DevOps developers: Code in the environment where the application will be deployed. Demo in the government environment. Test in pre-production. And manage production on your network. If you’re not doing that, you’ll run into delays caused by problems between environments.”

Transformative change is possible through collaboration

What I love about the USMC story is that it highlights how any government organization can realize significant, positive outcomes when they are ready for the type of transformative change that combines a low-code automation platform with a delivery expert in agile implementation. When your teams work collaboratively, operations and IT can successfully achieve modernization goals, just as the USMC and srcLogic have.

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Challenge: Enterprise Modernization Industry: Government Product Area: Platform Topic: Digital Transformation

About the Author

Cindi Stuebner, Pega’s Defense director and industry principal, helps Defense clients plan for and realize successful digital transformation.

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