Agencies' Grasp of Agile is ‘All Over The Map,’ One CTO Says

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Developing software in an incremental fashion may mean rethinking contracting and personnel's duties, an Excella Consulting's chief technology officer said.

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct Jeff Gallimore's title. 

“Agile” might not be the word you associate with the citizenship process.

Yet, the online portal supporting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—among the most trafficked federal websites—is the product of one of the largest-scale agile collaborations by federal technology teams and private contractors.

The site, called myUSCIS, walks visitors through a simplified naturalization application and creates accounts managing their applications, among other features. The General Services Administration’s digital consultancy 18F, the White House’s tech troubleshooting team the U.S. Digital Service, and Excella Consulting, a D.C. firm specializing in the iterative development methodology known as agile, worked together on the project.

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Bringing agile development to the federal government occasionally poses a cultural challenge for the 15-year-old company, whose portfolio includes both public and private-sector clients, Excella Partner and Co-Founder Jeff Gallimore told Nextgov.

In a “waterfall world”—a reference to a methodology in which leaders agree on all the project specifications before development, instead of a more piecemeal approach—business leaders take “quarters or years to get stuff done,” Gallimore said. For myUSCIS, Excella’s team delivered pieces of the site to production multiple times in two-week increments.

As Excella expands its federal customer base, Gallimore said he’s found the “level of maturity around agile ... is all over the map.”

Though representatives from most agencies he’s talked to are aware of the term, some “don’t know where to start” and aren’t aware the new approach requires more frequent check-ins and often, changing the way they issue contracts.

Some agencies must reform their agencies’ software development life cycle policies that outline the plan for testing and deployment. Often, those policies aren’t agile-friendly, and favor a longer development cycle, he said.

And agile development forces teams to meet more often, and sometimes for people to be assigned to overseeing the development of specific products.

“The roles and expectations of those roles have to evolve,” Gallimore said.

He said he expected the Trump administration, whose rhetoric highlights the need for a more modern government, to support agile software development as a means for “getting more and better results more efficiently and effectively in the federal government.”

Asked what advice he’d give to federal agencies eager to take on agile projects, Gallimore suggested reforming the purchasing process.

The current standard contracting process asks technology companies to respond to requests for information or request for proposals, but businesses specializing in agile software development might be better off demonstrating products and code, he suggested.

“It would be better to actually evaluate companies on what they can actually deliver for that agency, by actually doing it,” Gallimore said.

Agencies should be more thoughtful about the way they split up contracts, he said. Some agencies tend to award one contract to the software developer and another to the product tester, for instance.

“That doesn’t work well, or isn’t ideal, when it comes to ... delivering high-quality software fast,” he said.