Businessman drawing agile development diagram

Why agencies are learning to love agile development

An aggressive timeline to replace an older vehicle safety inspection system in a mere eight months prompted officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety to consider a more agile approach to system development.

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An agreement with an existing service provider was set to end on Aug. 31, 2012, and DPS needed to roll out the new solution and accompanying hardware to 6,500 car inspection sites across the state. Just defining the requirements might have taken close to eight months using a traditional development approach.

“We wanted to make decisions quickly and expedite the development, requirements and project management processes to be daily processes,” said Erin Hutchins, general manager for NIC Inc., a provider of e-government services working with Texas DPS.

Program managers also didn’t want each process to be enveloped into individual, long-term steps where each one had to be checked off before moving onto to the next process, Hutchins noted.

The DPS and NIC teams adopted an agile methodology and tools to make the process more iterative and incremental, developing the new solution through repeated cycles and in smaller portions in order to meet the August deadline.

Both small and large agencies are feeling the lure of agile.

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is looking to modernize its Passport and Visa systems and has turned to Data Computer Corporation of America, whose development team will apply agile software development tools, along with other disciplines such as Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) and service-oriented architectures to deliver replicable, integrated solutions.

DCCA will use agile for the design effort, which, while not pioneering, is a less common use of agile, said Carolyn Rowland, senior program director for DCCA. However, agile is well-suited for this task because the development effort involves a mixture of subject matter experts – architecture designers and security experts, for instance – who have to work together to build the high-level design that will serve as a foundation for everything that will come after it.

Agile development is a group of software development methods that are based on incremental development, in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing teams. Agile involves adaptive planning as well as a “time-boxed,” iterative approach to promote rapid and flexible response to development changes.

Many federal agencies are applying agile in pocket test pilots, and small teams are starting to experiment with the methodology, said Tim Hoechst, CTO of Agilex, an information services company specializing in agile development. A small number of large organizations are trying to understand how to scale the use of agile throughout the enterprise.

However, whether or not their organizations are applying agile development for IT projects, most managers realize that agile is the direction they need to move toward, he said.

The U.S. Postal Service is one such large agency, applying agile development at the enterprise level. As of March, agile development has been standardized across IT, with some exceptions for cases where it may not work for certain reasons. Agile is now the way the agency is going to do development across the organization, through all four development centers and in conjunction with contract business partners, said John Edgar, USPS’ vice president of information technology.

USPS has used agile development in 60 to 70 projects — some were new systems, others were enhancement projects to legacy systems. The most recent project is the Mail Transport Equipment Ordering System (MTEOR), which allows users in industry to order mail transport equipment (MTE) — pallets, priority mail sacks, mail tubs, rolling containers sleeves and trays -- online.

Built in conjunction with USPS’ mail operations group, MTEOR helps Postal Service workers get a better understanding of the needs of people who handle mail in industry and use MTEs to bring it to post offices. There were gaps in the Postal Services’ understanding of who had the various types of equipment, Edgar said.

Development work started last year, and within 90 days the first release was launched. MTEOR is now into its third functional release, developed with the Scrum agile methodology.

But agile is not a silver bullet. Like all development endeavors, agile projects can fail if not approached and implemented properly.

Some observers say agile methods oversimplify valuable processes, and just because agile methods such as Extreme Programming or Scrum are successful in one project, it doesn’t mean this will be the case in other projects. Lightweight development has its risks and government managers should be aware of this and use the right tools for the right situation, development experts say.

Does agile save money? Experts say agile methodology is not any cheaper than the traditional, waterfall methodology. The savings come through a better product for the user with fewer defects. IT projects are not for IT, they are for somebody else to use the system and they get the value for what is delivered.

If the IT development group can deliver a quality product — even in its first phase — to an organization sooner, IT is then delivering higher value to their organization, USPS’ Edgar said. “That is where the savings come from,” he noted.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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