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By Steve Kelman

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FBI Sentinel a test for agile development

As part of its effort to improve the performance of IT investments, the federal government aims to move from a traditional model of software development, in which everything is developed in one fell swoop, to the modern model of agile development.

With the agile approach, software is developed in small chunks, quickly providing users with incremental capabilities and letting them adapt to adapt to technological changes in closer to real time. This approach makes it possible to identify problems with projects before huge sums of money have been spent.

Agile development is a key feature of the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point plan for improving IT management, and it was a central recommendation of last year's industry-sponsored panel on improving IT acquisition, which I co-chaired with Linda Gooden from Lockheed Martin (you can read the report here).

The latest issue of InformationWeek -- a trade weekly that covers the business aspects of IT, with the occasional article on government IT -- includes an interesting column titled "FBI recasts Sentinel as a model of agility."

The FBI has a relatively new CIO, Chad Fulgham, a senior IT executive at Lehman Brothers. (Readers, resist the temptation to snicker here -- IT had nothing to do with Lehman's collapse, and actually the government would have an almost-impossible time attracting somebody with those kinds of credentials absent a corporate bankruptcy). Fulgham, coming from the private sector, probably takes agile development more or less for granted. He is trying to apply this approach to Sentinel, the FBI’s long-troubled effort to digitize and automate case handling at the bureau. Using agile development principles, developers are trying to come up with some new incremental capability every few weeks, with a broad release scheduled for September. It is interesting that InformationWeek, which runs very little on government IT, thinks this is an important enough development to be worth writing about.

Friends of improved government IT management will be watching the September date to see what happens. If this works, the federal IT community will want to think about how to make agile more of a way of life in the government. If it doesn't, it'll be time for another post mortem about why improving federal IT is such a challenge. So let's all be looking -- and rooting for the bureau's efforts.

Posted on Jun 03, 2011 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Jun 10, 2011 Rory Calsette Boston

You mention L. Gooden and LockMart. You cochaired an event with her. As your subject is Sentinel, do you care to offer a view on LM's performance in the re-do of Sentinel? It now appears to require another re-do. And Director Mueller is about to leave, having not delivered on his promises to fix this program with better govt mgt and a new contractor. How can you blithely talk about agile development without discussing the much discussed and FUBARed of this program by the Bureau and its trusty integrators? You are ignoring the main event here. You shouldn't be concerned about Fulgham's pedigree at Lehman, but rather how The Best and the Brightest Contractors can't seem to get this done to spec, on time, or on budget.

Tue, Jun 7, 2011

How is a release three months from now (and several previous) agile development? They might be building in small pieces, but they're rolling it out like a traditional waterfall project. A rose by any other name......

Mon, Jun 6, 2011 Matt McKnight Reston, VA

I fail to see how this is a "test" for agile development. Even if the September deployment is not successful, they will have spent les money getting to that point and can adjust course, rather than waiting 5 years and $500M for the moment of truth.

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