Agile comes with pressure and pain

Top federal IT managers say that if agile development doesn't make you uncomfortable, you're probably doing it wrong.

Agile development often takes federal employees out of their comfort zones, which is precisely why it's so beneficial, IT leaders say.

During a panel discussion sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, Environmental Protection Agency CTO Greg Godbout said agile's short delivery cycles require regular meetings and demand accountability.

"You know you will see them every two weeks," he said, and "the group will ask, 'Who didn't deliver?'"

That kind of pressure can produce results, said David Shive, CIO at the General Services Administration.

He added that GSA adopted agile development several years ago and retooled some of its acquisition and business operations using the techniques. The improvements did not come without pain, however. He said 60 percent of the people involved were wary of agile development, but the other 40 percent were ready to get their hands dirty in the "scrums" that set the agenda for agile development.

Shive said the techniques have soaked deeply into GSA and transformed business services delivery by making IT a "shared outcome" for the staff and its agency customers.

Implementing agile development for the first time, however, can be messy and uncomfortable. Peggy Stroud, deputy CIO in the Agriculture Department's Rural Development office, said she was responsible for adopting agile techniques under the watchful eye of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The process involved getting people out of their comfortable cubicles and into conference rooms, which she said she "stuffed with buffet tables" to lure dozens of employees together to hash out needs and expectations.

"The first six months are hard," she said, but eventually people are forged into teams working toward the same goal.

She cautioned that adopting agile "doesn't happen overnight." But USDA officials persevered and used the techniques to develop an online application that speeds rural loan applications.

Technology comes and goes, she said, but people and teamwork are the keys to agile success.

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