GSA CIO: Agile scrum ‘is not a happy place,’ but it works

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Despite the benefits and success stories often tied to agile software development, the reality of moving a team to such a model can be a painful adjustment, according to a group of senior federal IT officials.

“To have a team physically, or in some cases virtually, sort of staring at each other” adds tension when team members don’t perform, EPA CTO Greg Godbout said. “Who didn’t deliver?”

Part of a panel of federal IT leaders speaking about agile development during an Association for Federal Information Resource Management luncheon, Godbout described how the quick-paced “scrum” process — a model in which development teams move rapidly and iteratively, and meet often to assess issues — can be a painful adjustment for federal software developers and others with stakes in a software project, but a healthy one.

“That pressure cooker of not delivering for you teammate always gets the work done,” he said. “And it’s to the core of what makes agile work. It’s easier not to deliver something for a factory model in a room and a group of people you never talk to or rely on. But when you know you’re going to see them every two weeks and hold each other accountable…it works. We all should be working for successful delivery.”

David Shive, chief information officer at the General Services Administration, said his office has been successfully operating an agile scrum process for five to six years now. And like Godbout, he said the adjustment and culture change was a painful one.

“Scrum is not a happy place,” Shive said, likening the term to its rugby namesake, when players physically smash around the ball to take possession. “But the end result is a good thing,” he said, especially when other parts of the business begin joining in and sharing feedback earlier in the development process.

Agriculture Department Deputy CIO Peggy Stroud compared the change to “being shoved in with the holiday family every day,” especially when developers, who are used to working by themselves, are made to work constantly with operations personnel and other stakeholders. The first six months of the learning curve, she said, were the worst.

But all three officials said once their teams became comfortable with agile and the scrum process — or “learned the game,” as Stroud put it — the benefits quickly materialized.

“While it may be painful, this shared pain” is worth it, Shive said. By taking what would traditionally be massive waterfall deliveries and “taking bite-size chunks” out of them, delivering and “getting some wins” in the short term, he said of his agency’s early agile pilots, his team was able to snowball the smaller victories into bigger ones.

“We learned some things, and it was difficult, but in the end…we delivered capability with people, process and technology that was much, much better aligned with the business of GSA,” he said. “Rather than IT delivering a system, there was a shared delivery with shared outcomes” across the business.

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Agencies, App Development / APIs, Applications & Software, David Shive, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Departments, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), General Services Administration (GSA), Greg Godbout, Tech
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