Going agile? Get your IT managers ready.
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allows agencies to create programs that meet current needs rather than working for years to develop technology that is out of date by the time it hits the streets.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."
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.