By Steve Kelman
Faithful blog readers will know that two or three times a year, I meet with a group of Chinese university students who are visiting the US for a few weeks with a program called China Future Leaders. I speak with them about my family (to illustrate the role of immigration in American society), about Harvard (including a topic that interests almost all of them, applying to a university in the US), and about current issues in US-Chinese relations. I also always take the opportunity of their visit to ask them some questions.
This time I mostly asked them about their use of weibo, literally “micro-blogs.” As you may be aware, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are all blocked in China, though most Western sites (including the New York Times, Washington Post, and this blog) are available. Each of these forms of social media, though, has a Chinese counterpart. The social medium with the most social importance in China is the Twitter-knockoff Sina Weibo (though it has some much smaller competitors with a similar format).
Over the last few years, it has grown into a huge force in Chinese society, and an outlet for information and comments that is extremely imperfectly under government control. Issues that might have been kept under wraps – such as the flight of a senior police official to the US consulate in Chengdu, China, which set in motion a huge political conflagration leading to the ousting of a major contender for national political power and the arrest of his wife for murder – have come into the public eye because of pictures taken by amateur photographers and posted on weibo. Weibo also routinely features skeptical comments by members of the public about government policy.
The government plays something of a cat-and-mouse game with weibo users, sometimes taking down individual posts or blocking all posts using certain key words, but the public reacts by starting to use homonyms or other circumlocutions for the forbidden words or names. There have also been efforts in some local jurisdictions to require “real name” registration on weibo, so people will not be able to make comments anonymously.
I asked the students about their own weibo use. About 70 percent of them reported opening up weibo at least once a day, and somewhat less than half three times or more a day. But their answers to my other two questions surprised me a bit. Only three out of the 20 or so students reported having their own personal blog on weibo – I had been under the impression that this practice was close to universal among Chinese students. Of the three who reported having a blog, one said that there had been a time when a post had been taken down.
Also, only about four out of the 20 said that they used weibo as a major source of news about what is going on in China, using instead more conventional Internet or other sources. At least among this group – and these kids are probably quite aware of the world around them compared with many – it doesn’t seem fair to claim that weibo has revolutionized their ability to get access to non-official news.
I also asked them about China-Japan relations, which have become tense in recent weeks over emotions about some uninhabited islets controlled by Japan but claimed by China. This subject has occasioned demonstrations and even Toyota burnings in China, boycotts of Japanese products, and a public statement by a military leader that the situation could lead to war. These students seemed to be fairly calm and free of extreme nationalism over these events. Only four of them said they had started to boycott Japanese products, and none of the 20 thought it was likely that there would be a war between China and Japan during the next five years.
Posted on Oct 04, 2012 at 10:06 AM2 comments
I want to thank the blog readers who took the time to engage in a dialogue on blog post I wrote first about agile development in general and then about contracting for agile development in particular. This was a conversation at its best, long on dialogue, substance, and listening, short on vitriol and name-calling. (If only American politics could be like this…) I also want especially to thank Mark Schwartz, the Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO about whom I wrote, for joining in the dialogue and responding to comments.
There are two issues I see coming out of the dialogue that I think continue to need discussion: They are "requirements” and “integration.”
On requirements: As a person coming out of contracting, I agree that the demand for “all requirements up front” is unrealistic, time-consuming, and ultimately fruitless since requirements will inevitably change over the life of a big project. It also fosters lengthy project development cycles to attain all these requirements, a system that has not worked well for agencies or taxpayers. So I have no problem with getting away from that.
But contracting people, not irrationally, want the contractor to know what they are expected to achieve, aka some form of “requirement.” I would have thought that one of the virtues of these really short development cycles (“sprints”) was that what you were trying to do was so controllable and short-term that it would become easier to develop something like “requirements” for the short sprint, and not have to change them (or at least very much).
In one of his comments, Schwartz wrote: “The contractor's performance can be assessed better because they frequently deliver finished product that can be assessed by the government.” I agree. But I can’t get away from the idea that to assess you need to assess against a standard or standards, and these are what “requirements” are. Brent Bushey from ICE wrote in a comment: “We agree to a fixed sprint schedule (currently adhering to 4 week sprints) and we expect our vendor to complete 80% of the story points assigned to a given sprint. Our hope is that this allows us to tie contractor performance to pay yet doesn't tie our hands on the requirements up front.” I’m possibly confused (it wouldn’t be the first time), but isn’t a “story point” some kind of requirement, though maybe not the traditional kind? And when Brent says the contractor is paid based on how much of the “story points” they achieve in a month, sounds like a kind of performance-based contracting to me.
Another issue is integration. I think, though I’m not certain, that the integration issue comes up mostly in the context of Mark Schwartz’s idea that agile sprints be done by several different contractors and that the government contract for big agile projects using a multiple-award IDIQ contract vehicle, with a small number (say 3 or 4) vendors in competition for individual modules. This approach maybe is especially suited for agile – and it has real potential virtues as a way to keep vendors on their toes and to keep pricing aggressive -- but as I understand it, agile could be done using a single vendor for all stages.
An idea developed by a number of the commentators, including Schwartz, seems to be to do integration itself on a gradual, ongoing basis, rather than some big integration activity at the end of a long development project. “The idea is to integrate frequently (preferably through continuous integration) throughout the development process, and then run a suite of automated tests ... Integration is performed by a government team (supported by a contractor) in my model, and that team can work with the contractors to solve any integration issues that arise.”
I feel slightly worried that “continuous integration” will produce a lot of rework, where integration at one stage doesn’t work when a new stage comes on, requiring the integration to start again. However, I suspect that under the current system, big integration efforts also need to be redone (or recede into the indefinite future) as requirements change and start dates keep moving outward. I also wonder whether the government is likely to be good at taking integration responsibility, but perhaps an agency using agile could simply have an integrator on board constantly to work on these small-scale integrations.
I don’t know if I’ve summarized the discussion well or posed my questions clearly. Can we continue the dialogue? This is important stuff, and it’s great to see some dedicated civil servants engaging this.
Posted on Oct 02, 2012 at 10:06 AM19 comments
The new issue of CIO magazine, a trade journal oriented mostly to private-sector CIO’s, has a fascinating article by Stephanie Overby in the new issue, called “The Risks and Rewards of Using Startups.” This is an issue government IT managers face as well, with the added element of pressure to meet small business goals and a perception by some small-business advocates of government bias against small firms.
The CIO article is long and detailed, and, as its title suggests, presents a very balanced picture of upsides and downsides .And just about all the upsides and downsides apply to government as well.
The upsides of dealing with startups are three: price, innovativeness, and responsiveness.
The article is pretty up-front in noting that a clear advantage of dealing with startups is that they are typically considerably cheaper than larger, established firms .This is both because their costs are likely to be lower (less overhead, for example) and because they provide advantageous pricing to get their foot in the door and show what they can do. In today’s federal budget environment, that is no small advantage, and it should definitely be something very much on the government’s mind .The problem in a government context is that small startups sometimes expect to be able to charge the same prices as their big competitors, despite the challenges (noted below) of working with them .That doesn’t add up .Government should expect to get services from these firms at a lower cost, and startups should expect to charge the government ultra-competitive prices.
The second advantage is innovation and new ideas. Startups, the CIO article notes, “are answering the technology questions that older vendors won't even ask.” This is of course also a big advantage, especially in areas such as cyber where new answers are definitely needed .One problem is that startups in the government space often are simply me-too body shops that seek to survive on set-asides, rather than the kinds of innovative Steve Jobs-in-a-garage startups that people often think about when they hear the phrase “small business startup.”
The third advantage is responsiveness. "When you're working with one of the behemoths, you might get a quarterly visit or someone asking you at the end of the fiscal year what they can do for you. That drives me crazy," one CIO quoted in the article says. "With a startup, there's a much tighter interaction. You know the engineers and the owners, and they're actively involved in how things are going."
Against these advantages must be weighed problems. Most obviously, startups can go bankrupt, leaving the government holding the bag .More generally, the private firms quoted in the article note that the organizations that “partner with them have to do a lot of hand-holding throughout the relationship.” Furthermore, as the CIO of the British National Health Service ( a government-owned entity) notes, "there is relatively little third-party validation out there that [a startup] product can deliver," and therefore the customer needs to do more technological validation themselves .Both of these situations may often be really serious problems for government’s ability to use startups, since deep technical talent inside the government to hold hands or do technical validation may be exactly what the government is least able to do.
The CIOs quoted in the article are, like their counterparts in government, concerned about the financial viability of startups with whom they do business .The article reports that CIOs “often have certain metrics or guidelines for assessing financial viability. Who is funding them? Are more than half of their users paying customers? How many recurring contracts do they have? How much cash flow is there? "
The CIOs mentioned in the article have different approaches to how they use startups, taking advantage of the rewards in light of the risks .One states: "We're not [working with startups] for parts of the business that are small or insignificant. We're doing this with vendors that will have the ability to truly be transformative for us." But another says: "Startups are a good way to experiment at the edges of your priorities and position your company as an innovator,"
The article notes that customers often focus on the risks posed by startups, but dealing with bigger firms brings risks of a different sort.” The desire for lower risk pushed a lot of CIOs toward the bigger players with deeper pockets and more money for R&D. But they gave up one risk for another," says Christine Ferrusi Ross, research director at Forrester. "They traded the risk that a smaller, newer vendor would somehow fail for the risk that they would be held hostage to a supplier with whom they have no leverage." On balance, as I read the article, I conclude that agencies can and should look for places to make use of startups, especially where budgets are tight or the need for innovation is great .But startups, rather than just complaining or relying on set-asides, should also be thinking about how to alleviate some of the challenges a relationship with them can create for the government customer.
Posted on Sep 27, 2012 at 7:03 PM0 comments