There’s a cultural change in the way the federal government develops and buys computer software — moving toward open source applications and a faster, more iterative approach to software development, according to U.S. officials and private sector executives.
A group of public and private sector IT leaders discussed how to effectively lead such a paradigm shift at a panel at the 2015 Red Hat Government Symposium on Tuesday.
Margie Graves. principal deputy chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security, stressed that the shifting climate in federal IT presents a “challenge and an opportunity to change the culture.”
In particular, Graves is helping lead a movement in DHS away from traditional “waterfall” software development — with its long gaps between major revisions — and toward a development schedule that involves smaller, more frequent changes, a model known as agile development.
She added that the gradual rollout of software instead of an all-or-nothing approach helps avoid scenarios where problems with a project arise at “the very end where it’s too late to fix.”
“What you find with the actual implementation that we’re trying to do today is the faster you get your customer embedded into the process, the faster you understand that that customer is going to be your lifeline to telling you what success looks like,” Graves said.
“The time has come to change,” she concluded.
Traci Walker, lead contracting officer with the U.S. Digital Service, noted that her group is in the midst of a major transition of its own as it moves toward open source software.
“We want to have ownership and control over the things that we buy, but we also want to be able to leverage that at all of the other agencies,” Walker said. “We have similar common problems at every agency.”
While she noted that there’s no way to find “one blanket fix for all” for various agencies her group works with, the move to open source can still pay major dividends.
“We’re trying to figure out the needs of the end user first, and then trying to figure out what that’s going to be,” Walker said.
Julie McPherson, senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton’s strategic innovation group, pointed out that similar issues affect some companies in the private sector, and her own company was no fledgling start-up.
“Coming from an organization that’s a hundred years old, it’s hard to create a cultural transformation,” McPherson said.
Even still, McPherson said her firm has also been working diligently to move toward agile development methods, and she stressed that “it’s really exciting to see how that transformation has taken root.”
“We knew that wasn’t the business we needed to be in to solve the problems of the future, let alone the problems of today,” McPherson said.