Software Development

Going agile? Get your IT managers ready.

gears on diagram

Capable and nimble managers are necessary to make agile software development work, experts say. (Stock image.)

Government and industry experts alike predict the role of agency IT managers will expand in 2013, as business analysis and requirements management become crucial to bringing projects to successful conclusions. As agencies increasingly adopt an agile development approach for IT projects, they will rely more heavily on managers’ interpersonal skills and knowledge of a program’s evolving requirements, said Bill Damare, vice president of government markets at ESI International, a project management training company.

"Agile is really kind of the talk of the town right now," he said. Agencies are moving beyond the curiosity stage and will adopt the approach more frequently in 2013. "Once it takes hold, it can run like wildfire."

When agile development spreads, IT project managers become more important because the approach has tighter deadlines and the potential for continuous evolution. The traditional "waterfall" approach sets the requirements at the beginning of a project and does not release the program or system until it is fully complete.

For too long, the government has been hampered by runaway IT projects that squandered billions of dollars and lagged behind schedule, Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel and Joe Jordan, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, wrote in July 2012 on the OMBlog. By the time some of the technology initiatives were released, they were obsolete.

"In many cases, these failures can be traced back to lengthy acquisition and IT development efforts that aimed to deliver massive new systems over years, rather than providing new functionality in an incremental manner — as the private sector does," VanRoekel and Jordan wrote.

Agile development projects are released in smaller segments. Chase Garwood, deputy CIO at the Small Business Administration, said the approach benefits customers because they get access to new services sooner. It also allows agencies to create programs that meet current needs rather than working for years to develop technology that is out of date by the time it hits the streets.

Agile releases a project faster "instead of analyzing it to death and building something that the customer doesn’t need," Garwood said during a Jan. 17 panel discussion hosted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management.

Another important aspect of agile development is the opportunity for users to identify problems within a project while there is still an opportunity to correct them. By choosing agile development, officials are accepting the importance of constantly communicating with stakeholders inside and outside government to incorporate changes and resolve any issues that arise along the way.

"In 2013, business analysts will sharpen their business acumen and become responsible for communicating messages up and across an organization," said Nancy Nee, vice president of global product strategy at ESI. Managers will still need their classic technology skills, but they will also need their new soft skills that enable them to partner more effectively with product owners, stakeholders and other members of the agile team, she added.

In addition, IT managers must be able to share their "user stories," Damare said. A user story allows a manager to express his or her vision for the project’s future to various partners. "It’s a short, simple way to describe requirements more understandably from an outcome perspective for all the stakeholders," he said. The Obama administration has expanded from TechStat meetings about individual projects to an annual PortfolioStat meeting that reviews entire portfolios of agency projects. Agencies have begun conducting a more disciplined analysis of their portfolios in preparation for those meetings.

As a result, strategic enterprise analysis will become the foundation of business architecture, and business analysis centers of excellence will focus on proving their worth and driving innovation, Damare said. Several agencies, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, have such centers, but other agencies can develop the necessary analytical skills through project management courses.

In general, agencies should consider more clearly delineating the role of the business analyst in project management. "Without a defined role, it is just a shared discipline," Damare said, "and when you share something, you dilute it."

About the Authors

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Tue, Jan 29, 2013

The waterfall approach is engineering never-never land. Nothing in reality works this way. In developing systems, the "requirements" that are supposed to be static aren't. In fact, requirements are usually not correct AND constantly in flux. How can an engineer expect end users to settle for a fixed configuration when those very users are constantly hit with their own changing environment. ALSO, I submit that if your requirements are really so set, then you can wire the whole project - you don't need software at all. If you're using software, then somewhere down deep, you are EXPECTING to accommodate change, and lots of it. In fact, if you are not using "Agile Development" right now, you are not doing your job. So wake up and smell the change!!

Tue, Jan 29, 2013 Dave W.

What I find refreshing is in this article they acknowledge that the adoption to an Agile process is a bilateral approach with both technical (program/Agile) and business acumen being equally as important. All involved in the Acquisition lifecycle much like the IPT approach will need to be a part of this transformation to maximize its effectiveness. As a taxpayer I'd like to see the Government focus some energy on making this approach work and commit to it by investing in its workforce to prepare for this change. You have spend some money to save money in the long run. The GOV is already doing this with the recent investment on IT transformation projects. Let's make sure those investments truely save US money by properly implementing them.

Tue, Jan 29, 2013 DC Fed Washington DC

When I saw the title of the article, I put it on my must read list because I have been transitioning my development shop toward the use of Agile methodologies for the better part of a year. I was hoping for practicle advice, some suggested training venues for my project managers, perhaps a case study for a successful program that prepares PM's for the change, or a toolkit recommendation. I got none of that from the article other than the title's obvious recommendation "Get your IT managers ready". Next time you lead an article with a title like this, how about putting some how-to meat into the article. Dissapointed, you can do better than this.

Tue, Jan 29, 2013 Beltway Billy

I suggest its even more stressfull for the Govt acquistion folks supervising their contractors. Not only are they not coders, but they grew up in a strict regulation, very risk adverse, there-is-only-one-acceptable-way-regardless-how-slow-it-is environment. I even see it in federal research lab, supposedly the ideal & designated place for fast R&D, innovation, experiments, etc.

Tue, Jan 29, 2013 Bill DC area

Agile is not just for IT!! The principals of an agile response to changing conditions and issues can be used for a number of other kinds of projects -- something I think will be happening more & more!

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