Evolving Government: Why goal alignment is the No. 1 factor in engineering velocity

(Code For America image)


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In a competitive landscape, where speed is your best friend, how do you empower everyone on your team to move faster? There’s a simple answer: unwavering alignment on a single goal.

Our team at CircleCI has been analyzing data for organizations building with our continuous integration and delivery tool to identify the fastest teams. Once we knew who they were, we were curious to see what we could learn from them about how they were able to operate at such a high level. While many of the top-performing organizations were startups and established tech giants many of us know, we were pleasantly surprised to see Code for America keeping pace with the unicorns. How did they contend with both nonprofit budget constraints and the bureaucracy of the government, yet keep their velocity and productivity high?

A little background: Code for America is a nonprofit focused on delivering software services for the public sector. They use CircleCI to enable them to make small, incremental changes to their applications every day. Their philosophy is that technology and government are the two biggest levers to improve American lives at scale, so their work applies technology to government systems to increase access to public services.

One of their projects is GetCalFresh, a web app that makes it easier for people to apply for food stamps. Their aim is to help get California residents’ applications completed and processed as expediently as possible. They’ve made huge strides toward simplifying a complicated and confusing system. The process of applying for food stamps used to take an hour to complete. With Code For America’s GetCalFresh, it now takes about ten minutes to apply.

When we spoke to the team behind GetCalFresh, we wanted to understand their process: How did they land in the top 10 percent of engineering teams in our study by number of deploys? Turns out it’s not a fancy office with lots of snacks, or a complex management hierarchy that tells them what to build and when based on a precise point-allocation system.

The reason Code For America gets things done with such speed and efficiency is that they are absolutely aligned on their No. 1 goal: to get food to people who need food.

That’s it.

“In other jobs, you have a lot of different hierarchies of needs: ‘This customer segment and that customer segment and enterprise, and they have a service-level agreement but these customers don’t…’” said Ben Sheldon, engineering manager at Code For America. “For us, it’s just, ‘Somebody applied that needs food stamps. We want to make sure that we get their application to the county as quickly and in a high enough quality way that the county can process it quickly and that person can get food.’”

Mission alignment is the key ingredient that keeps the team moving quickly and purposefully to serve their constituents. This allows them to spend time focused on making small, incremental changes to their product every single day, to accomplish their goal and serve their users.

This broad alignment also empowers the team’s decisions at an individual level. They don’t waste time on vanity features, or painstakingly perfecting their work before shipping. If they can make a functional improvement that gets someone food a day faster, they will do it.

What can you learn from Code For America? Ask yourself:

  • What is the most important function of our organization?
  • What’s the thing on my to-do list that would best serve that group of constituents?

Government agencies often have more obstacles and hoops to jump through than private sector organizations. Even though many of these constraints are outside of your organization’s control, there are levers you can pull to help your team emulate the most nimble of the private sector startups– namely: goal alignment.

If your organization can get absolutely aligned on the highest good you’re trying to achieve, that confidence filters through the org and makes work at every level more effective. Teams can more easily decide what they should be working on, and individual contributors are empowered to prioritize their own daily workload. There is less wheel-spinning, less internal debate, and things start to move faster. So ask the hard questions, see where you have competing priorities, and you’ll know where to make some edits in the name of greater speed.

Gillian BenAry empowers engineering organizations do their best work via CircleCI, a continuous integration and delivery platform that helps software teams rapidly release code with confidence by automating the build, test, and deploy process. CircleCI recently graduated from the federal technology accelerator, Dcode and works with multiple agencies across government. 

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CircleCI, Code for America, continuous integration, Dcode, evolving government
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