Switching to cloud-based services and agile development is as much about changing agency culture as it is about technology.
Taking cloud services and agile development more deeply into the heart of government requires a combination of technological finesse and evangelical spirit, say those who have spent the past few years trying to accomplish that mission.
"IT exists to serve missions. Always ask how it contributes to that," Greg Godbout, soon-to-be-former executive director of the General Services Administration's 18F digital incubator, said during a panel discussion on cloud services at FedInsider's quarterly executive forum in McLean, Va.
Godbout, who won a 2015 Federal 100 award for his efforts at 18F, recommended agencies keep that mission in mind when implementing cloud services, as well as in their approach to IT development more broadly. Changing over to cloud-based services is as much about changing agency culture as it is about technology, he said.
The federal government has many innovative employees, Godbout said, but the environment they work in can be closed off. Opening up that environment will accelerate innovation. "You don't want innovators to be a firework in the dark, sparking from brilliance, then to darkness."
Both the use of agile development methods and the move to cloud services need evangelists to carry the message forward. And while Godbout's last day at 18F will be April 10, he said he will be that team's core ideals of open, agile and effective development to his new job. "I'm continuing the cause at another agency. I'm excited about it."
"It's been a difficult shift" toward the cloud at the Federal Communications Commission, Chuck Aaron, the FCC's deputy chief information officer, told the panel. The FCC is in the midst of overhauling its legacy IT systems, leaving data centers behind in favor of more agile, modular and cloud-based services. That can take some doing in a long-tenured workforce set in its ways.
Aaron said the agency has been successful in implementing several cloud environments. Just at other agencies should, he said he's sharpened his skills at developing individual service level agreements depending on specific application needs.
Understanding SLAs, he said, is key to cloud development as well as implementing other rapidly developing technologies. Not relying solely on proprietary solutions, he added, is another. "I refuse to paint us into a corner" by using a proprietary cloud solution, he said. "We have to be able to lift and move" applications and capabilities as needed.
Developing more agile acquisition capabilities is also crucial to implementing cloud and effective future IT projects in general, according to Godbout. As he leaves the digital incubator, he said GSA is about to issue in late April or early May an initial blanket purchase agreement to 15-20 vendors to allow agencies to buy what 18F calls agile delivery capabilities.
Since January, 18F, which is part of GSA's Office of Integrated Technology Services, has been asking industry for information about how to more quickly acquire services such as user-centered design, agile architecture, agile software development, test-driven development, API-first design, and software development and operations.
The idea, said Godbout, is to break down what would have been large, sprawling contracts into a series of more targeted and flexible "micro" acquisitions. The contracting vehicle, he said, will let agencies focus on specific needs in a larger project, instead of cementing itself into a potentially unwieldy contract. The smaller contract bites, he said, could be turned around in four weeks instead of the months and even years that larger IT contracts can take.
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