The US federal government has painted a horrible picture of digital transformation — one marred by multi-year project timelines, overspending and the website failures.

But now the feds are using practices like agile development and DevOps to change history and fuel the migration of digital services to the cloud.

Incremental, Iterative Work

"The federal government is just like every other enterprise out there. It's facing a lot of pressure to join the world in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) transformation, but then be able to release and maintain applications with the shortened sprint times required to support those types of applications," said Aziz Gilani, a partner at the Mercury Fund.

A seed and early-stage venture capital firm, the Mercury Fund has investments in two companies that offer agile and DevOps project support to federal clients.

Christian Heiter, CTO of engineering at HDS Federal, said there are many ways federal agencies are using agile and DevOps in their digital transformation.

“The first is by deploying agile processes to improve citizen services and public facing websites. Agile development focuses on starting from user stories to provide agencies with a useful big picture perspective while the short iterations keep the project grounded in continually improving the site or tool's functionality.

"It also ensures that the operations team is highly involved in the development to ensure smooth transition and operation in the production environment with the multitude of other necessary applications,” he said.

Gilani thinks agile and DevOps are what the federal government needs to get away from multiple-year projects that end with in scope creep and no results to show.

Shorter Projects, Open Standards

The changes are evident. For example, 18F, a civic consultancy for the government within the US General Services Administration (GSA), is trying to change the way contracts are written.

It's a long-term solution because the goal is to alter fundamental procurement processes. The challenge is to get the feds to shift to more outcome-based contracting rather than arcane processes and stuff that isn’t particularly relevant to what’s getting built.

The United States Digital Service, meanwhile, is trying to move federal agencies over to more commercial business practices and technologies. The USDS partners technologists with public servants to improve the usability and reliability of the government's digital services.

The intended result of these changes will take the form of shorter term projects built on open standards with greater transparency during the project lifecycle.

Lessons Learned from Agile, DevOps

So what lessons can private industry learn from the feds adoption of agile and DevOps? Gilani is blunt: if those processes are helping the federal government advance digital transformation, then they can probably do wonders for any enterprise on the planet.

Of course, as Heiter notes, agile needs support from an IT infrastructure that allows for data to be readily accessible and transparent while remaining secure. Businesses must also optimize their procurement, reporting and training processes for agile development.

Steve Wallo, chief solutions architect at Brocade Federal, said DevOps complements the agile software framework. While this approach is new and somewhat distracting to some federal agencies, they see the value either through IT agility or innovation tailored to their specific business needs — and recognize that they can only accomplish their goals by identifying common problems across functional teams.

Bringing these teams together and working toward a common goal helps solve issues that in the past started with one team and were then passed, unresolved, to other teams in the development process. Giving value to each team creates buy-in that helps speed up problem resolution.

Overall, agencies cannot be expected to become fully agile overnight, Heiter said. But agencies will see their agility improve over time as development and production/operations teams improve communication and collaboration.

While the federal government is coming late to the agile and DevOps party, there are still lessons for private industry. These lessons are especially important because they are driving success in an organization challenged by the sheer scale of its infrastructure and cultural resistance to change.

Partisan politics and political spin can’t save federal government IT projects from failure. But agile and DevOps can provide a framework for success, helping the fed advance its digital transformation of services and generating important lessons for the private sector in the process.

Title image by Jacob Creswick