Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to correct the series number under which USPTO hires computer science workers.
When John Owens II came to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2008, he was met with the news that the agency would soon deploy a new system for searching trademarks.
“Does it provide a new feature or function?” Owens remembered asking a manager at the time.
“No,” the manager replied.
“OK, what does it do?”
“Well, instead of crashing six times a day, it will only crash three.”
Owens “got a bunch of hemming and hawing” when he started demanding answers, he recalled. Frustrated, CIO Owens took the code home and debugged it. He later laid into the contractors who produced the system — and promptly fired them.
“I think the government, at least when I got here at the USPTO, was accepting a lot of garbage,” he said. But he’s been working on a cultural shift that would improve the quality of information technology that the government deploys.
By increasing collaboration, sending out fast updates and bringing in a tech-savvy workforce, Owens hopes to make his agency’s dated IT systems so dependable, so modern that a system failure would be big news.
“If our systems went down … I want to make the front page of the Washington Post,” Owens told FedScoop in an interview last month. “Because then I’d know we’ve done it.”
Improvements to the agency’s IT systems come at a critical time. The patent office has been criticized for its massive 600,000-application backlog. And this fall, recently nominated USPTO chief Michelle Lee touted improvements in information technology as a means of making application processing more efficient.
Already, the department has made some headway. Under Owens, the agency has released several new systems. Dependability has also improved. Owens said the patent office’s original systems weren’t even configured for 90 percent availability, which meant days of downtime every year. Since then, the patent office has improved availability to about 99.9 percent.
But, he said, progress takes time.
Legacy systems: built like a ‘battleship’
Owens, who joined government following a career at AOL, is working to integrate into the USPTO an industry idea called “DevOps,” a concept linked to continuous, automated deployment of new software.
In the early days of government IT, “we built software like we built battleships or aircraft carriers,” he said. You’d build and assemble pieces. Test. Build more. Test more.
Things took a long time.
“It works pretty well when you’re building a building or you’re building a boat,” he said. “What it doesn’t do is work very well when you’re building a piece of software.”
But now, the agency is working to more quickly develop and release software. It is bringing in examiners to see what kinds of things they’d like to see. And the agency is using cloud technology as platform to quickly make, test and deploy new software and updates.
A critical part of DevOps is encouraging people to work together, particularly staffers in development and operations, to best make these rapid deployments. Owens said he’s trying to set positive examples that will increase collaboration.
“Being a software engineer myself, I like to say, ‘I wish I could just debug people.’ Unfortunately people are not like that — as my wife likes to remind me,” Owens said.
To promote collaboration, Owens has been encouraging “blameless post-mortems” — discussions that analyze the good and bad of a deployment. Owens also gives out challenge coins to people in the agency who exhibit the DevOps mindset, and the agency has ordered small glass trophies to honor exemplary employees.
The agency also has been working with members of industry who have seen success from integrating DevOps into their culture.
Last month, the agency hosted a DevOpsDC event where representatives from WebMD and Netflix discussed how to best integrate DevOps. And Jan. 14, the patent office is holding an event where it is inviting contractors and members of private industry, including Etsy and Spotify, to talk about the DevOps philosophy.
“DevOps is about people,” he said. “It’s about changing the culture to get people to embrace the risk and collaboration across both vertically and horizontally.”
Government obstacles to DevOps
“PTO has always been a leading-edge agency,” said Raj Ananthanpillai, head of IT services company InfoZen. “Everybody’s moving to a cloud and DevOps environment, and, in my opinion, they are leaders of the pack in terms of adopting this kind of approach.”
The patent office isn’t the only government agency to start using DevOps, though. He said his company has been working with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and NASA to apply DevOps.
Mike McGarr, engineering manager for the Netflix Build Tools team, said in an email that, regardless of where you are, applying DevOps means making a change to how people in an organization work. But there are aspects of the federal government that make it even harder to deploy than in private industry.
“There are regulations, unions, elected officials, and other challenges that don’t exist in the corporate world,” said McGarr, who spoke at the DevOps event at USPTO last month.
He also said one of the biggest challenges is finding a motivation for change.
“Most companies are driven by profits and you can make a case for a change based on how it can impact the bottom line,” he said. “This motivation doesn’t exist in the federal government. In fact … significantly reducing costs is discouraged in the federal government, based on the budget process.”
A way to target Patents End-to-End
So far, USPTO has deployed Trademark Electronic Search System, Trademark Status & Document Retrieval and Trademarks Next Generation using the DevOps mentality. One of the next big targets is Patents End-to-End, a major new patent examination support system that will be introduced in a series of modules. And one of first major releases provides new search tools (see below) to help examiners conduct prior art searches as they evaluate applications.
In a recent talk, Lee pointed specifically to fully deploying Patents End-to-End, or PE2E, as a means of improving patent quality. Several in the intellectual property community, like Cozen O’Connor Partner and patent prosecutor Ed Weisz, also have high hopes that the system could help examiners streamline their workload and help cut into the backlog.
“From a practitioner’s point of view, one of the benefits I could see is they may handle patent applications a little bit more quickly,” said Weisz, who has more than 20 years experience in patent law.
Tyron Stading, president and founder of patent analytics software company Innography, said, as the patent office works to deploy Patents End-To-End, it faces significant IT challenges with integrating different systems and handling large amounts of data. Meanwhile, the department is working with a limited budget and lumbering legacy infrastructure.
“It’s a very ambitious project,” he said.
The agency already has been working for years on Patents End-to-End and the agency’s other core software systems. However, efforts have stalled — first during the economic slump of 2008 and 2009 when the fee-funded agency saw a decline in applications, then amid 2013’s sequestration.
While USPTO’s IT has since experienced an increase in funding, a recent report noted the boost at the agency “has simply put the Office back on the right track as far as IT is concerned and that continued and even faster progress must be made in order to overcome the deficiencies.”
A computer-savvy workforce
Meanwhile, Owens is also revamping the USPTO’s IT workforce.
He is shooting for more technologically sophisticated staffers. Owens has called for the use of more software engineers in the federal government, though he lamented the challenges of recruiting talent.
“The biggest impedance to hiring more federal employees is obviously what we can pay for them. Industry pays a lot for software engineers,” he said.
He started to hire computer experts under the hire people under GS-1550, which requires a computer science degree, rather than GS-2210, which does not. He also spoke to the importance of having procurement officers who are code-literate.
“NASA doesn’t use the janitor to inspect the rockets they’re going to get — they ask aerospace engineers,” he said. “Why in the federal government do people not expect software engineers to be on staff to inspect the software that they are getting custom built for them I have no idea?”
Perhaps the most well known IT contractor flop in the federal government was the initial launch of Healthcare.gov. A GAO report from this year that looked at the problems with the site noted Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services identified problems with the federally facilitated marketplace contractor “but took only limited steps to hold the contractor accountable.”
A prior patent holder, Owens said he has a lot of faith in the office — one of the few agencies that can trace its existence back to the Constitution.
“I truly believe in the system,” he said. “We are trying to take the best that I can find in industry, the best contractors I can find, the best tools I can find, the best technologies … the best methods for open collaboration to support what I want to have here, which is a very modern, of-this-century IT systems.”