Agile: It's just not for software geeks anymore

Government CIOs are co-opting agile software development techniques for their own IT management tasks

Admit it: You make a living knowing about computers and information technology, but there are certain topics that you never spent the time to learn about because you’ve got people who handle that or it’s just not on your organization’s radar screen.

Agile software development might be one of those topics.

What does it matter how the sausage is made and whether some software programmers buck the plan-first, code-later tradition in favor of a project management methodology that values constant feedback, quick deliverables, midstream course corrections, and identification of problems early and often rather than burying them?

Those latter traits are the hallmarks of agile development, and they might be coming to a chief information officer suite near you, not necessarily for writing software programs — though that will likely happen soon — but to accelerate how you evaluate new technology, conduct acquisitions and develop ways for your organization to operate.

The notion of applying agile concepts to those activities is already percolating in the minds of government leaders such as Navy CIO Robert Carey.

“IT runs at network speeds, so IT and information management decision-making needs to follow suit,” Carey said in a recent interview about CIO challenges. “We have to be far more agile in our ability to render decisions and policies and guidance. And we have to be cognizant of the technology of the day and what is coming so we can determine when best to embrace them and when to let them continue to flesh out.”

The larger defense establishment has also realized that it can’t take an average of seven years to field a major IT system, as it has in the past. The fiscal 2010 National Defense Authorization Act that President Barack Obama signed in October 2009 gives Defense Department officials a deadline of July to come up with new acquisition processes that can deliver IT systems in no more than 18 months by incorporating these agile principles:

  • Early and continual involvement of the user.
  • Multiple, rapidly executed increments or releases of capability.
  • Early, successive prototyping to support an evolutionary approach.
  • A modular, open-systems approach.

Those precepts are pulled straight from the agile software development playbook.

It’s easy to understand why the military is interested in agile development, an approach that has more traction in the private sector than government. For DOD, being the first to get a better widget, or weapon, to its market — the battlefield — is the name of the game.

But is agility a virtue for civilian agencies, too? Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., thinks so. "The faster we can bring new ideas to bear and the more efficient we can make government processes, in a shorter time frame — these are things that will benefit everybody,” he said.

Sivak wants to institute agile principles across his entire organization and operations. For example, a team exploring an idea for a new Web 2.0 application or permit-issuing process would set short but doable deadlines for frequent project deliverables. The team would also focus first on a limited set of the highest-value features and not get bogged down trying to plan upfront for the be-all, end-all solution.

Sivak’s efforts to adopt agile ideas are still in the early stages, so he can’t report yet on what is and isn’t working. But he does expect challenges because agile development requires a flexibility in people and processes that is quite different from the strictly ordered, plodding project management style that the government traditionally uses for IT.

That legacy is the biggest obstacle to the wider use of agile principles, said Richard Cheng, a managing consultant at Excella Consulting. Many software programmers are sold on agile, and a growing number of CIOs see the value of applying it to what they do. However, the hard nut to crack is the implementation layer, that enormous bureaucracy in the middle where managing risk and aversion to experimentation are institutionalized, he added.

That culture wants to minimize change because change is equated with cost. “Agile creates a framework for allowing for change,” Cheng said.

Given the pace at which technology is remaking the world and the government’s struggle to keep up, clinging to the old ways could be the costliest approach of all.


About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.


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