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April 6, 2017

Not everything broken is in beta

CC-BY Kevin Gessner

A White House official has blamed the bumpiness of the ride so far on the White House being in “beta.” This has provoked Jennifer Pahlka — the founder and Executive Director of Code for America and a US Deputy Chief Technology under President Obama — to respond with heartfelt despair, worried that the tools she and her cohort brought to the Obama White House are now being used against all that that cohort accomplished.

It pains me to think that Pahlka, who is a hero of mine, has any regrets or fears about the after-effects what she has done for this country. For the foreseeable future, I think she need not worry about how the Trump administration is using the tools and mindset her cohort introduced to the White House. “This new administration lacks the understanding, competency, and value system to use those tools.”This new administration lacks the understanding, competency, and value system to use those tools.

Here’s the passage she cites from a New Yorker article

But, on Friday morning, Mike Allen, Axios’s editor-in-chief, reported that one of the officials in the meeting “views the Trump White House in terms that could be applied to the iterative process of designing software. It’s a beta White House.”

Allen went on, “The senior official . . . said the White House was operating on similar principles to the Trump campaign: ‘We rode something until it didn’t work any more,’ the official said. ‘We recognized it didn’t work, we changed it, we adjusted it and then we kind of got better . . . [T]his was much more entrepreneurial.’ In the White House, he said, ‘we’re going to keep adjusting until we get it right.’ ”
— John Cassidy, “The Keystone Kops in the White House” The New Yorker

“Beta” means “We rode something until it didn’t work any more”?? No, this official is describing what happens when you wake up one day and find out that your DVD burner is no longer supported by the latest upgrade to your operating system. That’s the opposite of “beta.”

The White House isn’t in beta. It’s in freefall.

Nevertheless, this passage bothers Jen because she and her colleagues used to say the same things about making incremental improvements when they were in the White House working to fix, the student loan process, and so much more. She writes:

Trump’s team is using the language of agile development to describe how they will strand millions of Americans without healthcare and ban Muslims from entering the country….

What are agile methods without the moral core of the movement for 21st century government, a commitment to users, aka the American people? My heart hurts so much I’m not sure my head is working quite right, and I don’t know if this bizarre application of agile methodologies is a farce or frighteningly effective.

Yes, agile programming can be used for evil purposes, but I don’t think Jen’s cohort should feel they carelessly left a weapon lying around the White House. The Trump administration lacks agile programming’s implicit understanding of how the future works, its theory or change, and its implied values. That’s why, at least so far, “the Trump White House is so non-agile that it’s not even the opposite of agile”the Trump White House is so non-agile that it’s not even the opposite of agile.

Agile software development is characterized by at least two relevant ideas: First, big projects can be chopped into smaller units that can be developed independently and often simultaneously. Second, agile projects are iterative, proceeding by small steps forward, with occasional small steps backwards. Both of these points stand in opposition to the prior “waterfall” approach?—?so-called because he project diagram looks like a series of cascading waterfalls?—?in which the steps for the entire project are carefully mapped out in advance.

To paint the differences too starkly, waterfall development is about command and control. Somebody maps out the flow, dates are assigned to the major phases, and managers make sure the project is “on track.” An agile project is instead about trust and collaboration. It breaks the software product into functional units — modules — each with an owner. The owner is trusted to build a module that takes in data in an agreed-upon format, operates on it, and outputs the result in an agreed-upon format. These independent module developers have to work closely with all the others who are relying upon their work, whether a module figures out what permissions a user has, determines if an arrow has hit its target in a game, or confirms that landing gear have been fully extended.

Agile development therefore cedes control from the Big Boss to the people most directly responsible for what they’re building. It needs a team — more exactly, a collaborative community?—?in which each person:

  • Understands precisely she needs to do

  • Understands how what she produces will serve everyone else’s input and output requirements

  • Can be trusted to get the job done well?—?which means getting it right for everyone else

  • Is in close communication with everyone relying upon her module and upon which hers relies

  • Understands the overall goal of the project

As far as anyone can tell from the outside, exactly none of this applies to the current White House.

Second, agile development is iterative?—?a series of small changes because it assumes that you cannot fully predict how exactly the end product will work, or even what exact functionality it’s going to provide. That is, agile development assumes that life, the universe, and all that are so complex that precisely planning a project from beginning to end requires an act of arrogance that borders on stupidity. And measuring the success of a project by its micro-adherence to a fixed schedule in a world that is changing around it rewards stubbornness over serving end-users as well as possible.

Now, Donald Trump’s preference for deal-making over policy
aligns with iteration’s acceptance that “the future is not the next card in the deck but is what we make of our hand”the future is not the next card in the deck but is what we make of our hand. But Trump’s style of deal-making is based on the superior skill of the individual (Donald), a ruthless commitment to “winning,” and is all about one big step?—?the end result?—?not a series of small changes. Ultimatums of the sort that Trump issued once he saw he was losing the health care battle are the opposite of the incrementalism of iteration. An iterative approach is exemplified by the Democrats’ approach: Let’s tinker with Obamacare to fix what needs fixing.

So, Trump’s White House is anything but agile.

But neither is it proceeding through a waterfall approach, for that requires a commitment to an end result, a rational and realistic understanding of the steps necessary to get there, and well-coordinated managers who are all on the same page. The Trump White House does have a commitment to end results, expressed as mob-inciting campaign promises that are often at the sweet spot where delusion and heartlessness intersect on the Venn diagram of policy-making. Beyond that, this White House exhibits none of the processes, commitments, or accountability that are the hallmark of waterfall development.

Jen’s cohort left tools the White House can’t use because it lacks agile development’s understanding of how change happens and agile’s fundamental trust in its community of practitioners. In short, Jen’s cohort brought a community to a knife fight.

Posted also at Medium.

1 Comment »

October 26, 2015

[liveblog] ACT-IAC opening session

I’m at an ACT-IAC conference. (I’m the dinner speaker.) The opening session is a discussion with seven government IT and industry leaders.

  • Case Coleman, Unisys

  • Mary Davie, GSA

  • Annie Rung, OMB

  • Lisa Schlosserl e-gov office of OMB

  • Kathleen Turco, Veterans Health Admin

  • Renee Wynn, NASA CIO

  • Margie Graces, DHS (moderator)

Yes, all women. I know from the organizers that this was not done on purpose. Unfortunately, there are no name signs or labels on the screen I’m looking at—I’m all the way on the margin of a wide breakfast room with maybe 1,500 people in it, so I can’t tell who is who, so this will be unattributed except where the speaker indicates where she’s from.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

– The moderator asks how the Internet of Things is affecting them.

– The person from NASA points out that this now includes devices beyond our solar system.

– The growth of the Net into the physical world brings challenges. E.g., drones.

– NASA: We have to bring together all sorts of info, for example in a disaster. That includes drone info but also about physical infrastructure, health care records,etc. We have to integrate the stove pipes. “One single stream of info won’t give you the whole picture.” She gives as an example the fact that she sometimes takes off her FitBit, so it does not give a complete picture.

– Also for intel assessments.

– This requires a progressive view of what’s going on in computing.

– We need to be able to embrace the cloud, scale up and down, embrace the new environment.

– “The privacy side terrifies me.” There’s been progress made in the “sprint” to modernize IT, to change the conversation. But it’s a marathon. The effort has support from the top. It’s a consistent part of the agenda. We need to measure, measure, measure.

– NASA: Cybersecurity has to change. Moats and castles are no longer adequate defenses. When the human body gets a splinter, it sends antibodies right to that splinter so you won’t get infected. “Are we going towards an injection into our network and then quickly sending the right bots to isolate and report back so we can decide what’s the best way to proceed? We have to evolve.”

– DHS [I think]: We’re doing the band-aids we need to do now. But we know we have to evolve, both in the private and public sectors. There are no edges any more. We’re piloting some of this different thinking in our R&D efforts. You’ll see more about this in the very near future.

– Part of this is predictive analysis, so we can “skate to the puck,” as they say.

– We need to create environments where people can do their best work. We’re no longer in an industrial age where everyone does the same thing in a repetitive fashion. Info workers each bring a unique intellectual contribution.

– We’re all trying to adopt the “servant leadership” model, getting obstacles out of the way.

– NASA: We have to raise the next generation of leaders. I talk to my 23 yr old son — “parenting by text”—sound familiar to any of you? — and there’s no sensitivity to privacy, and, distressingly, little consideration of cyber. E.g., the next gen will have to think about how to have a workforce that’s human and robotic. How do we prepare them for the next big change?

– Moderator: How do we get our message out so we can hire better?

– DHS: We brought together 30 student leaders and had them engage on this. It was amazing.

– Mod: There’s a lot more circulation through employers. That’s enriching for the organizations. Then there’s FITARA, which empowers agency-level CIOs.

– Some CFOs are scared of it, but I welcome it. We need the CIOs and the acquisition folks to be at the table. There need to be joint decisions across the agencies and departments.

– FITARA calls for IT cadres [?]. We kicked off our first class for acquisition professionals. Six month hands-on training. We want to train them going from the 90 page specification document to much more compact, ourcome-focused descriptions, smaller work modules, etc.

– We’ve got to do problem solving in every corner of the room, whiteboarding, brainstorming, move on from the problem to the solution quickly. When the acquisition and finance sides of the equation start to support that, we’re getting some of the old obstacles out of the way.

– We’re all in agreement that we need to do things differently in the federal market, moving to rapid info sharing. Currently we spend a couple of years to get the requisition out, then a year to make a decision, and then the tech is out of date. Now the contracting community has to know the org charts for every agency so they can gather info. “You shouldn’t have to know the org chart of the agency to get the info you need.”You shouldn’t have to know the org chart of the agency to get the info you need. We’re now starting to provide the right tools for info sharing and collaboration.

– VA: Funding isn’t going to increase. We’ve got tto find savings in the system: collaboration, governance, and do new things in acquisition.

– An example: Someone [couldn’t get who] is narrowing bidders down to five and asking each to do a quick prototype.

– Category management: divide the things that agencies acquire into categories and bring in a category expert who may not be a procurement expert. The supplier piece is crucial. it means figuring out what your customers need. Category mgt began in the retail industry. They developed customer profiles. We need that approach.

VA: We’re at last beginning to treat our veterans as customers, putting them and their experience first. They’re not happy but we’re getting better. Same for employees. Too many hoops to hire someone new. We need to speed that up.

– We’ve never asked industry how agencies do in acquisitions. Now we’re doing 360s on specific IT acquisitions. The first set of data comes in in Nov. We’re going to identify best practices and where we’re not doing so well. Was there an adequate debrief? Were you given enough time to respond? We’ve never asked these questions before.

– Within your zone of trust in govt you don’t realize that people outside of it have so much trouble getting info.

– We should be using all of our authority to make progress in acquisitions. There’s lots we can do.

– Our contracting officers are recognizing that the more conversations we have about the actual challenges we’re facing within IT, we can brainstorm things before we even get to the table. There are many mechanisms for doing that, including prototyping, etc.

– We have to move away from the rules based approach, to focusing on the outcomes. [applause] “Yeah, break the rules! Nah, I’m not saying that. Take responsible risks :) ”Yeah, break the rules! [clearly joking] Nah, I’m not saying that. Take responsible risks.

-It’s a huge challenge to let your appropriators know that we have to move forward

– Mod: This is more like a revolution than an evolution. It’s a groundswell. We’re not going to let up. There’s a lot of education to do. A consistent message coming from IT, acquisitions and finance sectors, it’ll get through.

[Not a single mention that this was an all-woman panel, which makes me even happier.]

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