Agile alone not a cure-all for government software development concerns

Agile software development strategies have gained a tremendous amount of traction in the past few years, and with good reason. With Agile, software development projects can become much more collaborative and continuous, which can lead to greater efficiency, productivity and user satisfaction.

All of this makes Agile appealing not just within the private sector, but to government agencies as well. And indeed, numerous public sector organizations at the federal and state levels have embraced Agile. However, it is very possible that some decision-makers and software developers have formed unrealistic expectations when it comes to Agile. As U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott recently explained, Agile cannot solve all of the federal government's technology issues. 

Agile limitations
Speaking at a panel focused on Agile IT development, Scott explained that Agile can be extremely useful, but it should not be seen as a cure-all. 

"I think we're immature as an industry in really understanding the context in which agile can survive and thrive in a large organization," Scott said, according to Nextgov.

"Scott did not depend on Agile exclusively."

Going further, Scott noted that during his career he has experienced a significant amount of success leveraging Agile strategies for software development projects. He noted that by working closely and exchanging constant feedback with fellow developers, he's seen software efforts run more smoothly and work better, the source noted. In many of these cases, though, he and his teams did not depend exclusively on Agile. 

"[S]ome of the best Agile projects I've been associated with are the ones that have borrowed liberally from all the good known practices in waterfall," Scott said, Nextgov reported.

Disruption incoming
Another key issue to take into consideration when it comes to federal efforts to embrace Agile software development is the likelihood of disruption. David Bray, CIO for the Federal Communications Commission and another speaker at this panel, noted that he began to leverage Agile when he first took on this role in 2013, FCW reported.

However, he also pointed out that the typical employee had been with the FCC for more than 15 years at that point. This long tenure means that any full-throated embrace of Agile will inevitably cause significant disruption throughout the organization's IT department.

"Agencies would benefit from a more gradual shift to Agile."

Agile options
This doesn't mean that federal organizations should resist Agile completely for fear of causing confusion or frustration among the workforce. It does suggest, though, that federal IT decision-makers should exercise caution when considering Agile strategies. Instead of making a sudden switch to Agile, agencies would benefit from a more gradual shift, one which takes into account the techniques and strategies personnel are already familiar with and attached to. 

This can be easier said than done. As Scott pointed out, the federal government's efforts in the realm of Agile software development remain relatively immature. Not only does this increase the risk of problematic disruption, but it also adds to the likelihood that agencies may struggle to see the maximum return from their Agile engagement. Agile may be intuitive in many ways, but it still represents a significant shift from earlier software development methodologies. What's more, a purely Agile-based approach is often a sub-optimal option, yet agencies will need guidance to develop a more refined, best-of-breed strategy for business process improvement.

To this end, it may be wise for agency decision-makers to consider partnering with software development firms that can offer an approach that combines the best aspects of both Agile and traditional strategies in a single, unified approach. By doing so, government departments will be able to advance their software development capabilities without causing undue frustration or other problems among their existing staff.