Agencies adapting agile services at their own pace

Agile development isn’t for everyone — or is it?

Depending on which federal CIO is offering their opinion, dev/ops could be the agency standard, or a work in progress.

Speaking at a Dec. 13 ACT-IAC event in Washington, Mark Schwartz, the chief information officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said for his agency “the impact of agile on us is that it’s the way we do things.”

“To be agile means to inspect and adapt,” he said. “It means as we go we’re going to learn from what we see and adjust our plan based on that.”

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But that’s not the case over at the Treasury Department.

Treasury CIO Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia told the audience that agile “is very good for certain things.”

“It’s not for everything that we do,” he said. “There’s incremental delivery and sometimes people conflate those things and just say incremental deployment is also agile. Right now sometimes we have ‘buzzword compliance.’ We don’t want ‘buzzword compliance,’ we need real agile.”

Momentum is building across agencies as they adopt agile services.

Rafael Diaz, CIO at HUD, said being agile turned his office from a contract management shop to an IT shop.

When he stepped into the CIO role 2 1/2 years ago, Diaz was faced with an office that had no credibility for being efficient or accomplishing the mission. He was told to find the best approach to organizing the program.

“One of the key components of agile is it helps you understand when something doesn’t work, you can turn around and say no, we can do it a different way,” Diaz said.

Diaz said his team realized that IT services needed to be done in a different way, and it became a central part of the department’s mission.

“Agile is more of a mindset. It’s not necessarily — though it includes — a set of processes and procedures. It’s how you think about what you’re doing, who you are and where you want to go,” Diaz said. “Now we’re an IT shop that’s developing solutions for the program in an agile way and making a difference, putting people in homes and helping end homelessness.”

But there were lessons learned in those years discovering how to be agile, Diaz said.

“One size does not fit all,” Diaz said. “The one way you do agile on one project may not be the same way you do it on another project, even within the same organization. So you need to be able to adapt.”

Schwartz echoed Diaz on the need to be flexible.

“We can’t make a big plan up front that says what the schedule, cost and scope are and then expect to stick to that plan,” Schwartz said. “Because there’s just too much that’s unknown. We make our plans very early in our process before we have a lot of the information that’s going to become important to it.”

Aim for accomplishing business objectives and staying on budget, Schwartz said.

“What we really are about is the ultimate outcome of delivering the work,” Schwartz said, because while contractors are responsible for being innovative and delivering good quality work, it’s up to the government team overseeing the contract to make sure the team stays focused on the objective.

Referring to his colleagues from USCIS, HUD, and the General Services Administration, Bhagowalia told the audience they can see for themselves where agile is practical and feasible and can do a lot of good, “but don’t put agile for everything and then suddenly start conflating incremental for agile.”

It’s important to have a concept of a culture that changes, Bhagowalia said. Being able to change requirements during a process is a good thing, as opposed to locking it down and freezing it in place.

That’s not to say Treasury isn’t working toward agile. According to the Office of Management and Budget’s latest portfolio on the agency, since 2011 Treasury roughly halved the amount of days it takes for incremental delivery — from upwards of 220 days to less than 100 days, Bhagowalia said.

Treasury does complete some sprints in one or two weeks and and some other deployments in months, Bhagowalia said, so while agile delivery is slow, it’s moving forward.

Bhagowalia said it’s it’s important to support giving flexibility to CIOs and chief technology officers, and provide executive support so they know it’s ok to “fail forward.”

Similarly, Navin Vembar, General Services Administration CTO,  said it was important at the cultural level in his department to find ways “to accept failure in the right way, and not repeating those failures over and over.”

But Rafael Diaz, CIO at HUD, said culture is really making friends and building relationships with people, and helping them understand the mission.

“I can’t say it was a walk in the part with HUD,” Diaz said. “We certainly built relationships that we needed to help people understand that here’s a direction, it’s different, it’s not perfect, it may not work. But it’s definitely something that we need to look at so we can start to be more effective.”

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