Modernization is about people and processes, not just technology

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Government agencies looking to modernize their information technology systems need to keep in mind that the process involves a lot more than technology. It requires a cultural shift away from outdated, slow-moving development processes and toward an open philosophy that focuses on transparency, collaboration, and an iterative but continuous delivery of improvements. If modernization begins and ends with technology, it effectively could end before it begins.

Cultural change isn’t easy, especially for huge public-sector organizations like the Department of Defense that are saddled with bureaucratic requirements that, though intended to ensure fairness and integrity in its projects, hinders it from keeping pace with new developments in technology.

Adopting agile methodology, DevOps models, and continuous, incremental delivery of new software can speed up development times while improving the quality of the finished product. It also can help the government attract and retain IT talent by improving the work environment and offering those employees additional training and opportunities.

A cultural shift needs to take place throughout an organization, and it starts with taking stock of the current culture. Change is accomplished through not only adopting new methods but also in leaving the old ones behind. An organization might adopt a DevOps model, for instance, but continue to hold onto its old waterfall testing approach, said David Egts, Red Hat chief technologist for North America Public Sector. That slows down delivery of new software, it also affects the quality and results in the need for a lot of rework. “Digital transformation is more than technology,” Egts said. “It’s people, processes, and technology.”

The results of making the change can be significant. A case in point is Red Hat’s work with Lockheed Martin’s software development for the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet. For years, Lockheed largely relied on waterfall methodology, which requires any phase of development to be tested before the next one begins. In this case, it resulted in a five-to seven-year window for getting software upgrades from the requirements stage into the jets themselves. In 2012, Lockheed decided to try agile development but didn’t go all-in, still falling back on testing until development was completed, which didn’t result in much improvement.

After prodding by the Digital Defense Service and the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, Lockheed engaged Red Hat® Open Innovation Labs in 2017 to implement agile methodology and DevSecOps (adding security to the DevOps model), built on Red Hat OpenShift® Container Platform. A year into the project, which included an eight-week residency by an Open Innovation Lab team, Lockheed had shaved three years off of its project schedule for new software.

Part of making the transformation to agile is learning how to effectively apply its principles, such as those in the Agile Manifesto. Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of enterprise open source solutions, offers technologies and teams to help organizations implement agile and DevOps practices—and become more innovative and collaborative.

According to Red Hat, agile doesn’t come in a box—it has to be taught. And its principles need to be adopted throughout an organization’s hierarchy. Egts noted that retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in his 2015 book Team of Teams, described today’s most effective leaders not as chess masters moving inanimate pieces around a board but as gardeners creating and nurturing the best environment in which leadership can thrive.

“A major area of concern with government IT executives is the workforce,” Egts said. IT talent is in short supply in every sector, and it’s compounded in government both by a competitive disadvantage that the government has with industry in terms of pay and opportunities, and the “silver tsunami” of baby boomer retirements that has been affecting agencies for years.

Nevertheless, any modernization effort requires a skilled workforce familiar with new technology and processes, and the Pentagon has cited recruiting and retaining IT talent as its biggest challenge. The DOD is not alone: the Office of Management and Budget’s Cloud Smart policy and the White House’s Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence, both emphasize the important role that talent will play in their plans.

An agile environment built on transparency, collaboration, and shared purpose can create a more appealing work environment. Retraining employees to keep them up to date on new technology gives them greater flexibility and opportunities within the agency. This training can make government a more attractive and meaningful option for those employees, Egts said.

Automating systems to handle routine tasks, such as installing upgrades and software patches,  frees employees to focus on more value-added activities. “There was a time when some people spent all of their time going from computer to computer doing patches,” Egts said. “Why not reskill those workers?” The federal government has some efforts to retrain workers, such as the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy, which teaches new skills so employees can remain viable in the IT workforce.  These trained employees can now spend more time on innovative projects that better serve an agency’s mission.

If the DOD and other government agencies are going to meet their mandates to stay on the forefront of technology while maintaining the skilled workforce necessary to accomplish their IT initiatives, they need to make a cultural shift toward an open, agile, and innovative environment. That change starts by focusing on people and the processes they use, in addition to technology.