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Federal CIO: Agile Won't Solve Everything

Federal CIO Tony Scott testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2015, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on federal Cybersecurity and the OPM Data Breach.

Federal CIO Tony Scott testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2015, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on federal Cybersecurity and the OPM Data Breach. // AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Agile development -- a buzzy phrase referring to large tech projects divided into smaller chunks -- won't solve the federal government's technology programs, said one of the White House's top tech officials, U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott. 

"I think we’re immature as an industry in really understanding the context in which agile can survive and thrive in a large organization," he said on Tuesday, prefacing a panel during discussion on agile IT development in Washington. 

While he emphasized that incremental development -- as well as close and frequent communication between parties involved in the project -- can be beneficial for tech projects, Scott noted that sometimes, "you get a great experiment going and then the antibodies come out and kill it."

Throughout his career, including as a CIO at the Walt Disney Corp., "some of the best agile projects I've been associated with are the ones that have borrowed liberally from all the good known practices in waterfall -- [they] just didn't do waterfall," he said, referring to an older project management process in which requirements are set at the beginning of a project and in which prototyping can take several months or years. 

Scott explained his first experience with agile development was in 1979, when he and a colleague were designing software to could predict the number of visitors to theme parks on a particular day and allocate employees accordingly. 

"I ran back and forth between my office and the person that I was working with...and kept showing him every couple hours the progress we were making on the design of this software," Scott said. "That constant feedback made the whole thing work better."

The most important part of agile development, he said, is the “tight loop between the imagination cycle and the development cycle.”

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