Agile must be optimized for best software development results

The push for superior software development throughout the federal government has never been greater. Virtually every agency now depends heavily on mobile and desktop applications in order to maximize employees' productivity, efficiency, flexibility and collaborative abilities. Apps have essentially become a basic resource in the majority of departments, and only dedicated software development efforts can deliver the most powerful, useful apps to end users.

More and more, government organizations are turning to Agile approaches in order to achieve these software development goals – and rightfully so. Agile represents a powerful, effective strategy and philosophy. At the same time, though, it is imperative for government decision-makers to recognize that Agile software development is not in and of itself guaranteed to lead to satisfactory results. For government agencies to truly move ahead with their development efforts, they must adopt Agile in the right way.

"The project turned around once the FBI embraced Agile software development methodology."

Agile value
First and foremost, it's worth emphasizing that Agile is indeed a valuable resource for wide swaths of the federal government. For example, CIO noted for years the FBI struggled to develop and deploy Sentinel, a new information and case management system. This project ate up more than $600 million and a decade of work, and seemed to be a catastrophe in the making. However, the effort turned around once the FBI embraced Agile software development methodology, eventually resulting in a successful roll-out.

Additionally, Mark Schwartz, CIO of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department, emphasized how Agile development helped his organization cut through massive amounts of bureaucratic red tape, InfoWorld reported. Speaking at the Devops Enterprise conference, Schwartz explained he mandated his personnel to embrace Agile in order to address government mandates, which were unnecessarily arduous and time-consuming. He brought in Agile experts to teach his workers and soon developed ways of achieving compliance while drastically speeding up software development projects.

Thanks to these and other examples, a growing number of federal agencies now either actively rely on Agile or are considering embracing this approach, as an American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council report made clear. The advantages offered are simply too significant for government decision-makers to overlook.

Agile obstacles
That being said, it is also true that federal agencies have and continue to run into a number of obstacles as they pursue Agile software development strategies, as the ACTIAC report acknowledged.

"Disruptive for any organization, Agile adoption is particularly so for federal agencies where waterfall software development is most familiar and deeply entrenched in practices from procurement to deployment," the report explained.

This study was released in August 2013. Certainly, in the time since, Agile has grown more popular and, therefore, familiar to agency leaders and IT professionals. However, this approach remains a challenge in many cases, as only an optimized Agile strategy can actually deliver high-quality results and most agencies lack a robust roster of IT personnel with Agile experience.

"Some personnel do not even know what Agile is."

Luke Fretwell, founder of GovFresh, told FCW that there are significant discrepancies when it comes to Agile expertise among government employees. While some personnel are extremely well-versed with Agile approaches, others do not even know what Agile is, much less how to utilize this methodology to improve software development within their agencies.

Going further, it's important to note that straightforward Agile development is not always the best choice for a given government agency or project. In many cases, Agile can prove valuable, but it may need to be modified to maximize results.

Moving forward with Agile
This raises several issues. For one, government IT leaders need to determine whether Agile or some variation thereof is ideal for their specific, unique software development and mobile app creation efforts. Second, if the answer is yes, decision-makers must figure out whether they have the necessary skills and resources in-house in order to pursue these objectives.

In many cases, these considerations should lead government agencies to partner with third-party consulting and IT service providers. Specifically, government firms should look for partners that not only demonstrate a mastery of Agile, but can combine Agile's benefits with the advantages offered by more traditional milestone-driven development. This will allow government entities to experience the best of both worlds, and far greater returns as a result.