Macon, Ga. --
Standing on the gravel surface, Keri Stevens didn’t see just an unfinished indoor construction site. Her vision was also a picture of what the space will become.
“It had a modern feel,” Stevens, a computer scientist for the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, said. “I can’t wait to see it finished.”
Given the time and place, Stevens’ forward-looking visualization was understandable. The 17-year veteran of the 402nd Software Engineering Group was attending the ground breaking for a contemporary laboratory.
Brig. Gen. John Kubinec, WR-ALC commander, and a team of community partners broke ground on the future software engineering lab at The Lofts at Capricorn in Macon Oct. 14.
The project is made of a distinctive blend of old and new -- a proven partnership, a historic location, and the desire for a modern high-tech facility. The result is bringing welcome change for a new generation of Robins software engineers and scientists.
The venture is a collaborative effort of two longtime partners, WR-ALC and Mercer University, in conjunction with the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, Macon-Bibb County consolidated government, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority and NewTown Macon.
The new software lab location is on historic musical ground, the former site of Capricorn Records, the birthplace and 1970s home for the music genre known as “southern rock.” The legendary Allman Brothers Band, members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recorded on the Capricorn label, as did popular artists such as the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop and more.
The innovative software development facility will bring 50 new high-tech jobs. It is expected to open in early 2020.
Teams from the 402nd Software lab – a free environment for tech-savvy pros to innovate and create.
The Robins software professionals set to occupy the lab are excited by the promise of an open and easy atmosphere more conducive to the nature of their work.
“This will make development and integration easier for how we continually develop, test, and integrate our software,” said Stevens, a Georgia College and State University graduate, now a project lead in the 577th SWEG.
Robert James, a software engineer with the 579th Software Engineering Squadron, arrived on base in December of 2018, fresh from earning his degree at Kennesaw State University. He believes the new lab will be a prime setting for getting software development done faster and better.
“After a while, I saw the benefits of having an environment where you can rapidly experiment and try different things,” James said. “I’m always excited to try new things. I’m glad the Air Force seems to have a similar mindset.”
Clifford Johnston, a 579th SWES computer scientist who has been at Robins six years, said the free-thinking, creative atmosphere promised by the new lab along with the added freedom of being off base will be a boost to the mission.
“No check points. Being able to work in the cloud with new technology, that’s going to be tremendously beneficial. We get to use the latest technology available,” said Johnston, a Georgia Southwestern State University graduate with a bachelors in computer science.
Johnston said the change in work environment will improve the “method and speed to which we deliver solutions to the warfighter.” He is confident the time for completing software projects will be sped up by months.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited about it,” Johnston said.
At the ribbon cutting ceremony, Kubinec said the crux of the project is the teaming of the Robins’ software mission and Mercer’s engineering and computer science schools. The general spoke of the priceless merits of creating a modern-day laboratory for the complex’s team of software engineers, the crew at the heart of the lab idea.
“We want to be here close to the students and Mercer,” Kubinec said. “We have a huge workforce of Mercer grads. But I want it to be bigger and bigger. … If we can be closer and more integrated with those students, it’s better for everybody.”
Kubinec listed three reasons why the software lab project at Capricorn was a good idea: sparking innovation and partnership; raising the level of awareness and excitement for the software group and for engineering and science students; and moving a vital Robins presence into the “ecosystem” of a vibrant downtown Macon.
The general called the lab project “a regional win for us.”
“We want to be a part of what’s happening here in downtown Macon. We want to expose the work that we’re doing for our Air Force to a larger audience, and we want to spark innovation and spark partnership,” Kubinec said.
Stevens has sentimental reasons for her fondness of the new lab location.
“I always loved visiting my mom’s office in downtown Macon as a child,” she said. “It is exciting to have the opportunity to work downtown, now. I can’t wait to see everything during Cherry Blossom time.”
According to a project description from the complex, “WR-ALC aims to create a space for ingenuity by networking with community and educational leaders in Computer Science and Engineering. While continuously delivering war-winning software to our Airmen, this endeavor will allow for the furtherance of software agile development. Set in historic middle Georgia with ambitions to foster community involvement and grow revitalization efforts, WR-ALC will utilize the setting as a stage for recruitment of nationwide talents in the fields of extreme programming, lean production development, research and development.”
“I fully expect that we’ll have computer engineers and computer scientists down here working with the folks at this facility on an ongoing basis,” Mercer President William D. Underwood said. “I think it’s going to be a great recruitment tool for Robins, and I think it’s going to be great for our students to see the opportunities available through the Air Force.”
As a recruitment incentive, Kubinec said $30,000 would be offered to new hires as either a payment on a student loan or a signing bonus.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert said the project is good for all involved.
“It’s mutually beneficial because just as Robins Air Force Base sees the potential of being downtown because it’s ‘cool’ to be downtown in Macon, those individuals that come here from Mercer are going to find that working for the Air Force is a pretty cool place to be,” Reichert said.
Kubinec said giving Robins’ software pros a contemporary lab strengthens the ultimate goal -- increasing readiness for the Air Force and the airmen who defend the nation. Reichert echoed those sentiments.
“It’s all about supporting the warfighter. It’s all about giving the software engineers a place where they can thrive, where they can really grow,” the mayor said.
Reichert also suggested a moniker for the lab, “Project Blue Sky.” He said the name suggestion, derived from a popular Allman Brothers song, denotes the flying mission of the U.S. Air Force.
The new laboratory concept is modeled after the Kessel Run Experimentation Lab, a software development center started in Boston in May of 2018. Affiliated with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Battle Management Directorate at Hanscom Air Force Base, Kessel Run is named for a smuggling route in the “Star Wars” movies.
Kessel Run has proven the open lab model a success. It began with 30 software engineers and now has more than 200 employees working on Air Force projects. Software jobs that formerly took five-to-10 years to complete have been finished by Kessel Run teams in months.