In mid January, HHS' CTO Todd Park (now United States Chief Technology Officer) asked me to come help him stand up this new HealthData.gov. The goal was to deliver the new site by June 5th, just in time for the 3rd Annual Health Datapalooza. Being an active practitioner of Agile development and scrum, I don't think in terms of days or months, but iterations. I figured that in order to pull this off, we'd need to be code complete by mid-May, allowing 2-3 weeks for testing and bug fixing. That would give the development team 8 sprints to get to code complete and another 1-2 sprints to test. Not impossible, but by no means easy.
Of course, working in the Federal government comes with a different set of responsibilities and challenges than the private sector, and for many good reasons. Thoughtful procurements take time, proper governance and oversight take time, and finding great talent takes time. To make a long story short, what started out as a mid-January conversation ended up being a full-blown project... that didn't kick off until March 19th!
We had 5 1/2 sprints to launch.
Having grown up on Agile and scrum at The Motley Fool, and then instituting it as a standard practice for all software development at the newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau(CFPB) last year, I knew we could do it if the team rallied around Agile and embraced the idea of Minimally Viable Product (MVP). I was nervous to learn at our first planning session that only one of the members of the team had actually been on a team that used Agile and scrum before. In so many ways, this is the victory of Agile.
Agile development allows you to bring together a cross-functional group of people, many of whom may never have worked together before. It allows you to admit that there are things you don't know up front. It requires personal accountability to your teammates on a daily basis, and it's beautiful in its simplicity. More importantly, it allows you to produce results in your projects faster, less expensively, and with lower risk. What's not to love about that? Unlike more traditional project approaches where you throw a lot of money at the problem and then hope that what you get at the end works, Agile development seeks to deliver a minimally viable product as fast as possible, and then iterate on it to improve the functionality and user experience. Don't tell anyone, but if Todd had asked us to deliver after 4 sprints, we could have.
More than anything, I hope this simple posts serves to encourage friends around government, especially my C-level colleagues with the authority to drive change in their organizations, to start shifting towards Agile, not just in software development, but all of the project work that you do. And please don't fall into the trap where you think that other places might be able to do this, but you don't have the right people. You can, you do, and you're not alone. If anyone would like to discuss how Agile works and what we did in this project, drop me a line at email@example.com and we can have coffee someday soon. I'm happy to share.