Why do feds rank cloud, agile development down on their priority list?

Government agencies may be destined to operate in the cloud, and even adopt speedy mechanisms such as agile software development, but they must first lay the groundwork with standardization and automation, a recent survey suggests.

Serena Software interviewed 225 federal civilian and defense agency IT professionals — nearly half of them app developers — who attended a federal user conference in Washington in March about their IT priorities.

Sixty-two percent ranked methodology standardization as a top priority; 57 percent said faster delivery of applications, and 49 percent cited automation of the application development process. Agile development, at 22 percent, and cloud technology, at 19 percent, were far down the list.


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That might not mean they don’t think cloud computing is important, however, but that they see other priorities as coming first, said Miguel Tam, Serena’s senior product marketing manager.

“Even though there is a government mandate to move to the cloud, survey respondents felt that they first need to tackle issues of standardization, automation, etc., because failing to do so will lead to poor cloud deployments,” Tam said in an e-mail interview. “Respondents seem to want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the ‘on-premise’ era and using different cloud platforms or practices that eventually require significant effort to work together.”

Agile development, which is in use at several agencies, is in a similar situation, behind higher priorities such as standardization and automation that promise more immediate cost reductions, Tam said. “Respondents looking at Agile seem to be struggling with the same question of speed vs. control that private-sector companies face, but because of the higher emphasis on cost, have ranked agile below other priorities.”

A core reason for the focus on standardization may be the number of application development tools federal IT professionals use. Sixty-eight percent of the survey respondents use between three and nine tools, 16 percent use 10 to 25 tools, and 5 percent use more than 25 tools. Only 1 percent of respondents use only one or two tools.

The government survey results differed from those in a similar, private-sector-focused study Serena performed last year at Gartner's Application Architecture, Development and Integration Summit.

Although both groups viewed delivering applications faster as a top priority (68 percent of private-sector respondents), expanding the use of agile methodologies and reducing application development costs were the second and third highest priorities for private-sector developers, coming in at 52 percent and 49 percent respectively.

Agile focuses on developing rapid and flexible software methodologies. Agencies including the General Services Administration and the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are applying agile methodologies.

Serena’s federal survey results echo other opinions in the federal sector: Adopting agile development is tricky for federal systems when traditional government IT acquisition projects follow a different development life cycle.

Unlike traditional federal IT projects, “planning on agile teams happens frequently, focuses the team on short-term goals (between a week and a month for deliverables), and allows for shifts in feature priorities based on actual needs,” Brian Button, vice president of engineering at Asynchrony Solutions, wrote in a 2011 GCN column.

“You must fit agile; agile doesn’t fit you,” Michael Daconta, vice president of advanced technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and author of GCN’s Reality Check column, wrote in 2010.“Techniques such as refactoring, test-driven design and continuous integration are considered best practices. So can you use agile development successfully? Absolutely. But only if you are a good fit for the method.”

And although the federal sector considers agile development a lower priority than the private sector does, agencies have adopted more automated development processes than the private sector, the report states.

Both sectors agreed that management of application development as a business process; a central or federated repository for all application development artifacts; and end-to-end traceability from production back to requirements was key for all initiatives.

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