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Agile Means More Prototypes, Fewer Meetings, Even in Government

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Federal agencies appear to be warming up to agile development, a project management process that breaks large projects into smaller "sprints."

The General Services Administration has debuted an agile blanket purchase agreement, which pre-approves vendors skilled in agile software development; the Homeland Security is Department working on its own counterpart. The U.S. Digital Service and GSA's 18F have been trying to help federal agencies, often used to a "waterfall" approach, embrace the culture of agile development. 

Joe Crobak, a member of USDS embedded at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told an audience at a recent ATARC event that agency leadership is beginning to participate more in the development process. Crobak has been working on the Medicare Access & Chip Reauthorization Act—a payment reform effortusing agile software development practices. 

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Startup-types often proclaim "a prototype is worth a thousand meetings," he said. In government, he's found that agile development has allowed his team to create prototypes quickly, which is "very powerful to the point where leadership is now asking for demos instead of PowerPoint decks."

Still, he quipped, “[l]et’s be realistic, there’s still lots of meetings."

But agency leadership now attend sprint planning sessions and demos with developers, he explained.

"Once we're able to put together a wire frame and show that ... if it looks good,” the next development team can start from there.

When the government first started adopting agile practices, "there had been an initial focus on velocity," which meant having rapid two-week sprints for the sake of developing products faster, Pamela Isom, the Patent and Trademark Office's director of applications, engineering and development, said during the event. 

"When we started to think better and broader, we began to focus on is the velocity driving toward fulfilling the feature and delivering a product,” she said. Now, she gives her development teams the time they need, which sometimes means a three-week sprint instead of a two-week one, she added. 

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