Overcoming the Challenges of Acquiring Agile Digital Services in Government
On November 5, 2015, Phil Fewell, Managing Director at CC Pace, and I attended ACT-IAC’s Emerging Technologies Community of Interest sponsored workshop held at GSA Headquarters on the topic, Overcoming the Challenges of Acquiring Agile Digital Services in Government. I moderated the panel of experts on the subject which included Traci Walker from US Digital Service, one of the original architects of the TechFAR and the Digital Services Playbook; Eric Cho from DHS’ Procurement Innovation Lab; Navin Vembar, the IT Director for the Integrated Award Environment (IAE) who we work with at GSA; and Dave Zvenyach with 18F, a GSA entity that provides digital services, including some Agile development to other Federal agencies.
The discussion centered on how the acquisition process and the contractual language of the Request for Proposal (RFP) can be structured in order to better facilitate acquiring Agile digital services, while still adhering to the Federal Acquisition Regulation known as the FAR. Attendees heard what others are doing in the government to support their agency’s adoption of Agile methodologies and frameworks.
Traci Walker, who has 15 years of experience as a Federal Contract Officer, emphasized that the TechFAR document, of which she was a key contributing author, should make it clear to all agencies that the FAR in no way prohibits the adoption of Agile development practices in government. In fact it encourages such innovation. Eric Cho outlined some of the experimental approaches that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been implementing to acquire Agile services in their component agencies. David Zvenyach from 18F shared some of their recent awards to industry and how 18F interfaces with government agencies interested in their services. Navin Vembar discussed the advancements at GSA in using Agile development on their large IAE program.
The response to this topic was so strong that we had to turn some people away. So ACT-IAC will be doing two more of these sessions, one on December 10th and another on January 21st. We are suggesting that the December and January sessions both limit industry attendance to no more than 50% of the total in order to allow for more government participation. I expect to moderate the January panel and hope to see you there.
In my last post, I talked about the interesting Agile 2015 sessions on team building that I’d attended. This time we’ll take a look at some sessions on DevOps and Craftsmanship.
On the DevOps’ side, Seth Vargo’s The 10 Myths of DevOps, was by far the most interesting and useful presentation that I attended. Vargo’s contention is that the DevOps concept has been over-hyped (like so many other things) and people are soon going to be becoming disenchanted with the DevOps concept (the graphic below shows where Vargo believes DevOps stands on the Gartner Hype Cycle right now). I might quibble about whether we’ve passed the cusp of inflated expectations yet or not, but this seems just about right to me. It’s only recently that I’ve heard a lot of chatter about DevOps and seen more and more offerings and that’s probably a good indication that people are trying to take advantage of those inflated expectations. Vargo also says that many organizations either mistake the DevOps concept for just plain operations or use the title to try to hire SysAdmins under the more trendy title of DevOps. Vargo didn’t talk to it, but I’d also guess that a lot of individuals are claiming to be experienced in DevOps when they were SysAdmins who didn’t try to collaborate with other groups in their organizations.
The other really interesting myth in Vargo’s presentation was the idea that DevOps is just between engineers and operators. Although that’s certainly one place to start, Vargo’s contention is that DevOps should be “unilaterally applied across the organization.” This was characteristic of everything in Vargo’s presentation: just good common sense and collaboration.
Abigail Bangser was also focused on common sense and collaboration in Team Practices Applied to How We Deploy, Not Just What, but from a narrower perspective. Her pain point seems to have been that technical stories that weren’t well defined and were treated differently than business stories. Her prescription was to extend the Three Amigos practice to technical stories and generally treat techincal stories like any other story. This was all fine, but I found myself wondering why that kind of collaboration wasn’t happening anyway. It seems like doing one’s best to understand a story and deliver the best value regardless of whether the story is a business or a technical one. Alas, Bangser didn’t go into how they’d gotten to that state to start with.
On the craftsmanship side, Brian Randell’s Science of Technical Debt helped us come to a reasonably concise definition of technical debt and used Martin Fowler’s Technical Debt Quadrant distinguish between different types of technical debt: prudent vs. reckless, and deliberate vs. inadvertent. He also spent a fair amount of time demonstrating SonarQube and explaining how it had been integrated into the .NET ecosystem. SonarQube seemed fairly similar to NDepend, which I’ve used for some years now, with one really useful addition: both NDepend and SonarQube evaluate your codebase compared to various configurable design criteria, but SonarQube also provides an estimated time to fix all the issues that it found with your codebase. Although it feels a little gimmicky, I think it would be more useful than just having the number of instances of failed rules in explaining to Product Owners the costs that they are incurring.
I also attended two divergent presentations on improving our quality as developers. Carlos Sirias presented Growing a Craftsman through Innovation & Apprenticeship. Obviously, Sirias advocates for an apprenticeship model, a la blacksmiths and cobblers, to help improve developer quality. The way I remember the presentation, Sirias’ company, Pernix, essentially hired people specifically as apprentices and assigned them to their “lab” projects, which are done at low-cost for startups and small entrepreneurs. The apprenticeship aspect came from their senior people devoting 20% of their time to the lab projects. I’m now somewhat perplexed, though, because the Pernix website says that “Pernix apprentices learn from others; they don’t work on projects” and the online PDF of the presentation doesn’t have any text in it, so I can’t double check my notes. Perhaps the website is just saying that the apprentices don’t work as consultants on the full-price projects, and I do remember Sirias saying that he didn’t feel good about charging clients for the apprentices. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that the “lab” projects, which are free for NGOs and can be financed by micro-equity or actual money, don’t get cross-subsidised by the normal projects. I feel like just making sure that junior people are always pairing and get a fair chance to pair with people they can learn from, which isn’t always “senior” people, is a better apprenticeship model than the one that Sirias presented.
The final craftsmanship presentation I attended, Steve Ropa’s Agile Craftsmanship and Technical Excellence, How to Get There was both the most exciting and the most challenging presentation for me. Ropa recommends “micro-certifications,” which he likens to Boy Scout merit badges, to help people improve their technical abilities. It’s challenging to me for two reasons. First, I’m just not a great believe in credentialism because I don’t find they really tell me anything when I’m trying to evaluate a person’s skills. What Ropa said about using internally controlled micro-certifications to show actual competence in various skill areas make a lot of sense, though, since you know exactly what it takes to get one. That brings me to the second challenge: the combination of defining a decent set of micro-certifications, including what it takes to get each certification, and a fair way of administering such a system. For the most part, the first part of this concern just takes work. There are some obvious areas to start with: TDD, refactoring, continuous integration, C#/Java/Python skills, etc., that can be evaluated fairly objectively. After that, there are some softer areas that would be more difficult to figure out certifications for, though. How, for example, do you grade skills in keeping a code base continually releasable? It seems like an all-or-nothing kind of thing. And how does one objectively certify a person’s ability to take baby steps or pair program?
Administering such a program also presents me with a real challenge: even given a full set of objective criteria for each micro-certification, I worry that the certifications could become diluted through cronyism or that the people doing the evaluations wouldn’t be truly competent to do so. Perhaps this is just me being overly pessimistic, but any organization has some amount of favoritism and I suspect that the sort of organizations that would benefit most from micro-certifications are the ones where that kind of behavior has already done the most damage. On the other hand, I’ve never been a boy scout and these concerns may just reflect my lack of experience with such things. For all that, the concept of micro-certifications seems like one worth pursuing and I’ll be giving more thought on how to successfully implement such a system over the coming months.