ATF settles into IT transformation strategy

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives isn’t known for jumping into cutting edge technology with both feet.

ATF, like many of its brethren in the Justice Department, takes a cautious approach to using the cloud or moving toward a DevSecOps methodology.

Mason McDaniel who is the chief technology officer at ATF, said the agency overcame its apprehension of modern technologies to accelerate the delivery of new mission capabilities.

Mason McDaniel is the chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the Justice Department.

“Five or so years ago, we were running everything out of our on-premise data center. We were, at best, doing a push to production per month with mostly just bug fixes and minor changes, not doing much system enhancement at all. They were largely static systems, and they largely looked like they did 10 years ago,” McDaniel said. “Now, most of our systems are now running production in the cloud, full automation underneath it, infrastructure, automation and deployment automation. Now, we are pushing multiple deployments to production per week, and at times, we’re doing one production push per day and the applications themselves are evolving.”

A big piece of the change has been moving applications and workloads to the cloud.

“We’re about 80% in the cloud now. A few years ago, we were zero. When we started out there was nothing in the cloud, and in fact, we had a mandate to move all of our systems over into another law enforcement on premise data center. So it actually was about a six month back-and-forth negotiation, just to get approval to take our first system into the cloud,” McDaniel said in an interview with Federal News Network after speaking at the recent ACT-IAC Emerging Technology Summit. “Now far more of the net of servers in our data center have already been shut down, and there’s a really small number of servers left in our data center operating the remaining systems that we’re looking to get over this year into the cloud.”

McDaniel added ATF is using the gov cloud regions of commercial providers whether Microsoft or Amazon Web Services.

Changing how employees view IT

But technology alone didn’t move ATF forward. McDaniel said the bureau also is undergoing a culture change for how to develop and implement new capabilities.

“We were very project centered before where any change was made within the context of a project. From our users’ perspective, if they didn’t get the changes in that project, they were never going to see them. It was really difficult to get a final approval for something to go live, because there were always features that people wanted that weren’t in there,” he said. “But now, they have seen that they put a request in for a feature, and it gets added into the backlog. They help to set our priorities, and they see those coming through into production quickly. It started getting them thinking about evolution. What can these systems do? How can they get better, instead of just accepting that things aren’t going to change?”

The end result of these changes isn’t just more or better capabilities, but overall better technology. Where at one time ATF faced “the blue spinning wheel of death” for five minutes when moving between applications, they now have a better overall experience with the technology.

McDaniel said the CIO’s office started to remove unnecessary steps in using systems and that led to better use experiences.

“They’re starting to think about how would they like to do business? What kind of business process changes would they like to see? We’re now capturing those so that we can start laying the groundwork to go ahead and do that, and really lead to higher level restructuring reinventing of our processes,” he said. “It has been a long journey, we started out for a year trying to reassess our existing governance processes and policy documents and rewrite and edit them. We eventually gave up on that.  We took the lessons learned on the difficulties that we ran into doing that, but then started over and just did a complete ground up rewrite of how we thought IT governance really should work within the bounds, of course, of the Justice Department’s governance framework. We had to make sure we were consistent with that, but did a complete rewrite first of the overall framework and concept of how we wanted to govern things, and then breaking it down into the specific policy documents.”

McDaniel said those policy changes are going through final approvals, but the agency is adhering too many of the changes they expect to be in place later this year. He added he hopes to see the final policies in place later this year.

“Our priority for this year is to finish migrating our systems into the cloud. We want to get those last remaining applications that were still in the process of refactoring and migrating into the cloud,” McDaniel said. “Then we can make use of all of those automation features that we have to really start focusing on fixing the business processes, getting rid of a lot of the redundancy and start automating a lot of the interfaces and interconnections between our systems that will continue helping our users to be a lot more efficient.”

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