How one agency is strangling outdated systems in the cloud

Mark Schwartz, chief information officer of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, said by moving legacy systems to the cloud, updates become more agile.

Agencies can solve the problem of unwieldy, long-term transformation programs by leveraging cloud computing into the strangler pattern. The cloud can facilitate incremental updates, letting agencies modernize applications independently in stages. Little by little, the new system would grow around the structure of the old, much like strangler vines on a banyan tree.

This pattern is far more agile than the old waterfall pattern, where a new system is conceived, built and rolled out, in that order.

“Transformation programs are set up to fail,” Mark Schwartz, chief information officer of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, said during a panel sponsored by AFCEA Bethesda. “You can’t replace [the old system] until you’ve built the equivalent… in the agile world, that’s a terrible problem, because it means you can’t get something into the hands of the users for a long time.”

Schwartz said the cloud is a “key enabler” of the strangler pattern because it eliminates the need for hardware, which can take a long time to procure and configure.

“I think it’s crazy not to be using the public cloud,” he said. “Why do we need to deal with hardware, really? Just let Amazon Web Services or Microsoft… deal with the hardware for us.”

Development teams can build the software infrastructure on the fly using cloud systems, and users can access updated portions of the application almost immediately. This system would improve communication between users and developers as well, permitting quicker responses to customer feedback.

This fits neatly into Schwartz’s philosophy of success in an agile world. Currently, he said, agencies are too focused on hitting specific milestones, which makes change difficult. They can eliminate unnecessary ones, such as hardware procurement, to streamline the process.

“In an agile world, what success looks like is very different,” he said. “Success is learning as you go… and finish[ing] things as quickly as possible. In fact, you’re trying to do that by not doing some of the requirements.”

Schwartz contrasted scrum and Kanban frameworks, promoting a constant flow of delivery over fixed sprints to completion. The agile process, Schwartz said, is to keep learning and changing requirements.

“Anything that fixes a set of requirements is a problem,” he said. “Fixing the outcome that you want, that’s a very different story. That’s the direction I would go.”

Agencies that eliminate milestones will require a new way of incentivizing contractors and pricing contracts, including cloud services.

“What we’ve tried to do is create an environment where contractors are incentivized to show us how good they are,” Schwartz said.

Shorter, six-month contracts offer plenty of opportunities to do this, while also minimizing risk and cost because agencies can go back to the market frequently. Contractors are eager to please and perform better in order to earn repeating and increasing business.

“Rethink the whole thing,” Schwartz said.

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