Agencies modernizing for a low-code, agile environment

Federal Digital Transformation in a Post-COVID World - Oct. 27, 2020

For the Department of Veterans Affairs, it might be easier to say what the agency is not modernizing right now.

Jack Galvin, associate deputy assistant secretary of Office of Information and Technology at the VA, said the new electronic health record is days away from going live in Spokane, Washington, through a partnership with the Defense Department and Cerner. VA upgraded its supply chain management system in August, and this quarter the department is modernizing its financial management system.

Nevertheless, what the pandemic did was underscore the need for scalable, on-demand modernization, he said on a panel at FCM Bethesda’s 2020 Tech Summit. The panel moderated by Federal News Network Executive Editor Jason Miller included leaders from agencies undergoing major modernization efforts.

“Take the telework environment, for instance. We at any given time pre-COVID had about 45,000 workers in work-from-home status, and that quickly went up to 100,000,” Galvin said on Federal Monthly Insights – Federal Digital Transformation in a Post-COVID World. “We were able to ship 200,000 laptops, but to modernize that experience, instead of just expand what you have, we’re looking at virtual desktop, infrastructure and options there. We have a 5,000-person pilot that we’re investigating, looking for hopefully some clinical and administrative access in the remote environment, that perhaps you could use your own device.”

Intelligent provisioning is something VA wants to embrace more in the future, he said, as well as the DevSecOps framework to ensure security is built into applications. The agency is emphasizing a low-code/no-code environment to deliver software functionality up to six times faster; low-code/no-code is a group of visual software development platforms using drag-and-drop components to build applications.

This embrace of low-code/no-code environments came up during the panel discussion. When asked if this type of environment would come into play as agencies make increasingly agile systems, panelist Karl Mathias, assistant director and chief information officer for the Information Technology Division at the U.S. Marshals Service, affirmed it would.

“We actually use products like entellitrak, that you’re supposed to limit the amount of coding. I’m not saying there isn’t some customizations going on there – we know there is – but, we try and limit that down,” Mathias said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “And I think that’s been part of the secret to the success too, is because it’s low-code/no-code, you can make those agile changes, you could really make them on the fly even between sprints.”

As a result, the user does not have the burden of excess code “hanging around.”

“I’ve been in this business long enough to know what a million lines of Java and a million lines of C++ looks like – no thank you,” Mathias said.

The Securities and Exchange Commission may be further along in the agile shift. Jeffrey Hickman, the acting director of SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) Business Office, said EDGAR is now into a fully agile methodology from a program perspective. Its pipelines are close to DevSecOps, but Hickman said the office is still not mature. Their first agile initiative being modernization that was completed during the summer.

“I think like many legacy system owners, EDGAR was still riding on physical infrastructure and a tech stack that was launched in the late 90s. Using agile, using our great partnerships with our vendors, we completed a full back-end modernization in 15 months, within two weeks of the initial projected go-live date and under budget,” he said. “We now find ourselves in a fully modernized tech stock containerized; our development throughput is increasing by the sprint.”

It’s a substantial cultural shift but Hickman said it pays off with reductions in operations and maintenance costs.

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