Management of Change

Sneaking up on agile development

Agile Development Stock Image

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 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 at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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