Management of Change

Sneaking up on agile development

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According to one of the top federal practitioners of agile development, the most effective way to implement the strategy might be by stealth.

"As soon as you say 'agile,' people get nervous," said Shawn Kingsberry, CIO of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. Even though he led his agency's efforts to get Recovery.gov onto the cloud in 22 days using agile development techniques, he advised agencies not to emphasize those techniques but to focus on desired results instead.

In a workshop on agile development during the Management of Change 2014 conference, Kingsberry and other agency CIOs and chief technology officers commiserated about the difficulties of implementing agile development in a sometimes stubborn federal bureaucracy.

After five years of trying to pioneer agile techniques at the Internal Revenue Service, all Management and Program Analyst Jerome Frese said he had to show for the effort was a "water-scrum-fall" mishmash of agile and traditional development practices.

Frese said the slow adoption of agile development at the IRS was attributable to management's reluctance to pursue it. Given agile's looser goals and sometimes less-than-concrete delivery of service capabilities, leaders were not enthusiastic.

"Agile is a mindset change," he said. "Everyone has to be on board for it to be effective." Even after efforts that spanned years, leaders of only two or three of the agency's hundreds of IT projects are asking to incorporate agile, he added.

Megan Schmith, manager of platform strategy and innovative solutions at the General Services Administration, said moving from traditional to agile development is not an easy transition. Even the new job title can take some getting used to, with the leap from "project manager" to agile development's "scrum master" jarring for some people. In addition, finding a stopping point for agile's open-ended development process is a must, she added.

Kingsberry agreed that agile development requires commitment but added that sometimes coaxing IT managers into using the techniques can be done stealthily. "You don't have to say, 'This is a cool agile thing,'" he said. Instead, adoption can be done incrementally by introducing some development techniques, such as setting looser goals and focusing less on technology and more on what the agency wants to accomplish.

"The view is not 'I can't leverage agile' but finding out what works for you," Kingsberry said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer covering acquisition, procurement and homeland security. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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