Federal IT’s 'Golden Gate' moment
- By David Egts
- Nov 09, 2018
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of our nation’s most famous landmarks, but it’s also a work in progress. First begun in 1933, the structural and aesthetic wonder is continuously being worked on to ensure its coat of “international orange” paint keeps its iconic sheen and protects the underlying steel infrastructure from erosion. It’s a monumental achievement that will never truly be finished.
Digital transformation is federal IT’s equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not something that can be defined by a singular goal, built and then left alone. Digital transformation is a journey of continuous innovation and improvement that extends beyond technology into the people and processes that drive agencies forward.
Here are three important considerations as agencies begin their journey of transformation.
1. Use commercial partners for support
Budget constraints and the need to “keep the lights on” often leave federal IT professionals with little time for strategic thinking, let alone the fostering innovative ideas. When a technology reaches its end of life, the IT team may replace it without factoring in what may happen even further down the road. This isn’t true modernization; it’s a short-term fix that can ultimately lead to long-term technical debt.
Working with commercial partners who emphasize a lifecycle approach to customer solutions can help. Most successful commercial organizations have a definitive and published lifecycle for their solutions -- two years, five, or 10, for example, offering a good frame of reference for how long they will support their offerings. When the time to sunset the solution approaches, they provide their customers with an onramp to the next version and possibly extended lifecycle support for those not quite ready to move.
Just as the engineers who manage the maintenance on the Golden Gate Bridge hire professional painters, government agencies work with commercial partners to keep their systems running. These partners can provide a stable and supportive foundation for innovation by providing security updates, patches and new features. They effectively provide the roadmap to innovation so that agency IT professionals can focus on their application layers rather than their platforms or infrastructures.
2. People and processes are just as important as technology
People are an agency’s most valuable asset, and investing in training is important. In addition to being trained on modern technologies, such as containers and other innovative solutions, IT staff must be knowledgeable about what is going on in the industry. Agencies' goal is to hire and nurture intellectually curious employees that have an acumen for working with industry partners and the ability to manage critical tasks while keeping an eye toward the future.
There will likely always be some form of “brain drain” from the public to the private sector, but agencies must continually strive to entice highly skilled people. The Trump administration’s recently announced “Cloud Smart” policy is a step in the right direction, as it outlines the importance of chief human capital officers and identifies skills gaps.
Meanwhile, processes like agile development and DevOps can help employees build and deploy applications faster and more effectively. These methodologies are built on collaboration and iteration, core concepts that effectively support agencies’ desires to work toward faster development and continuous innovation.
Thomas Edison is fabled to have said that he didn’t fail when developing the lightbulb, but found 2,000 ways how to not create one of his most notable inventions. Similarly, federal IT teams should be encouraged to fail fast, learn from their mistakes, move on, developing in smaller increments. They can then make corrections along the way toward the final solution, all the while accelerating their journey toward digital transformation.
3. Today’s hotness becomes tomorrow’s legacy
Agencies shouldn’t chase technology for technology’s sake, because today’s shiny objects will eventually become tomorrow’s legacy solutions. Instead, they should carefully consider the business value of the technologies they pursue and adopt practical and sensible approaches to transformation.
Consider, for example, prioritizing application modernization into three buckets: easy, medium and hard. Applications that can be easily modernized go into the “easy” bucket for quick wins, which will help encourage management support to tackle tougher upcoming challenges. Money left over can be used to invest in modernizing applications that are in the “medium” bucket and are a little more challenging. Those that go into the “hard” bucket may end up being modernized last, or even never, particularly if they are legacy technologies that may soon no longer be needed.
Maintaining the Golden Gate Bridge is about protecting its infrastructure just as much as it is about keeping it looking shiny and bright. The same applies to government IT modernization efforts. True transformation is not about replacing an old solution with something new. It’s about setting up government agencies for success now and in the future. As such, it must be an ongoing process without a clear-cut conclusion. But a combination of the right technology, partnerships, people, and processes can elevate the chances of success.
David Egts is chief technologist, North America Public Sector, Red Hat.