A more Agile CIA?

This past weekend was my first as a graduate student at the University of Virginias McIntire School of Commerce, where I am working on a Masters degree in Management of Information Technology.  It was a great 3 days of intensive classes on IT strategy, and I really enjoyed it.  Over the next year as I continue my studies, I will try to blog regularly about topics we are learning about.

CIA LogoAs part of the program, the faculty regularly bring in interesting guest speakers with CIO experience.  This Saturday was a great example, since Jill Singer joined us.  Ms. Singer was formerly the Vice President for Project Management at SAIC, and is now the deputy CIO of the CIA.  She gave a great presentation on the role of the CIO, and the process they use at the CIA for evaluating, architecting and implementing their internal IT projects.

The CIA, despite the mystique and the fact that Ms Singer was not free to answer all the questions we asked, is still a lot like any other IT shop.  The process they follow for IT initiatives could easily be found in any Fortune 500 company.  In short, they follow these steps: understand the mission, establish the vision, develop the architecture, define plans, resource plans, execute plans, and measure progress.

Sounds pretty traditional, right?  Many other federal agencies probably follow a similar approach, which sounds a lot like a spiral development method.  But even within the constraints of this process, I was very pleased to hear Ms. Singer talk about regularly using Agile methodologies.

According to Ms. Singer, the CIA regularly uses Scrum, most often in 4 week development cycles.  Their customers, which would generally be some sort of internal analyst, really like the fact that Scrum encourages regular and tangible deliveries.  This allows them to try out the prototypes, and their customers also enjoy being able to add features and change priorities during each iteration.

This has worked very well for them on many projects, and Ms. Singer feels that the move from a more waterfall style to Scrum has really helped them improve many of their projects, though with an interesting side effect.

The biggest challenge she has seen on their is knowing when they are done, or as she put it, “defining what 1.0 is.”  They cant fund their projects forever, just like any other IT shop.  Sometimes they end up doing iterations indefinitely though, and then realize they have gone longer than they originally thought because they keep adding features.  But unlike most project methodologies, if they slip on a project schedule using Scrum, Ms. Singer has found their customers are much more forgiving then when a waterfall project is late.

The reason for this is simple, and it is one of the fundamental advantages of Scrum and Agile, regardless of whether you are a start up company, a government agency, or even the CIA.  By engaging your business owners with burndowns, daily stand ups, and short iterations for which the customer helps set the priorities, you are empowering your customer.  Its important to note that this is done in a way that does not infringe on the creativity of your development team.  Your developers are likewise empowered by choosing what they work on and in what order within a sprint, setting their own estimates, and providing regular feedback and ideas directly to the customers.

Its never good when a project is late, but if the customer has seen constant progress along the way, and they are empowered to help decide what features should be added or removed, then you have successfully created a collaborative environment between your customers and your IT staff.

Determining “what 1.0 is” can be a real challenge – we just had a good discussion on that today with one of our current clients.  By employing Scrum, it sounds like the CIA has also learned the advantages of a highly iterative and collaborative process, and it is helping them to stay efficient and productive.  By the very nature of what they do, the CIA must be innovative, and so it should come as no surprise that they are using the latest in software development methodology.  I hope that other federal agencies will follow their lead.