The work before the work: what agencies need to do before bringing on an Agile vendor.

Government agencies often hire Agile software vendors to build software for them, but then fail to do the pre-work that would allow the vendor to be successful. Interfacing a great scrum team with a standard government IT shop is like dropping a Ferrari engine into a school bus. There’s work to be done up front before there’s any sense in bringing on a team.

18F, the federal government’s software development shop, has done a lot of work to address this problem, and much of what I know about how to do this right comes of my four years there.

I’ve seen what happens when a high-performing team is dropped into a low-performing agency. The agency spends weeks or months running the team through mandatory security trainings, getting the team their PIV cards, procuring and issuing them agency laptops, getting them accounts on the VPN, getting them access to the various servers that they’ll be using, etc. The team expected to start writing software on day one, but instead they were left twiddling their thumbs at a collective $1,000/hour. They get bored, and after a few weeks, anybody competent gets sprung from their purgatory and put onto a project that’s actually doing stuff. When the team can finally get to work, all that remains is the people who weren’t good enough to escape, and morale is low.

Don’t do this.

Agencies need to prepare for vendors, not a couple of weeks before the vendor shows up, but months beforehand. Ideally before a solicitation is even issued. That’s because it’s a lot of work! It requires user experience research, journey mapping, process automation, coordination between agency silos, and perhaps even a prior procurement. Here are some of the specific things to do:

  • Allow the vendor to work entirely in the cloud. To the greatest extent possible, make it possible for the vendor to never touch your environment. That means that your agency needs to contract with a cloud vendor (but you did this long ago because it’s 2023, right?), ideally Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services, since those are the most widely used. That way the vendor can replicate your environment within their own cloud environment, and never have to touch your cloud environment, and certainly not your agency’s VPN and warren of physical servers. This eliminates a big part of the onboarding process, with the happy side benefits of significantly reducing stress among the vendor team (they can’t break your environment if they don’t have access to it) and reducing the cost of the vendor’s professional liability insurance policy.
  • Don’t make the vendor use GFE. Government-furnished equipment is awful, the cheapest stuff that Dell or HP makes, bought in lots of 1,000. Developers are disproportionately likely to be Mac users, but even the Windows users don’t want to use the laptops you got from the lowest bidder. They want 32 GB of memory so they can run the software entirely in Docker containers; your laptops have 8 GB of memory because they’re optimized for people using Word and Outlook. It’s like hiring a great woodworker to build stuff for you, but forcing them to use your collection of Harbor Freight tools. If they’re working on agency equipment then they have to jump through a bunch of hoops like acceptable-use policies, mandatory trainings, and you have to do things like actually procure the hardware, send it to them, and get it back when they’re done. No Agile team wants to use your lousy equipment, and you don’t want to deal with issuing it, so just don’t.
  • Put together a journey map of the vendor onboarding process. Once you’ve ensured that the vendor team will work in the cloud on their own equipment, step through the process of what’s left in bringing on a vendor. Talk to employees of vendors who have recently gone through it, or are currently going through it. Map out every step. Now, worst case, you have a document you can share with the new vendor to understand what’s ahead of them and where they are in that process. But, better: optimize the hell out of that process, removing anything that you can, simplifying anything that you can. Every hour that you shave off this process will save $1,000.
  • Study and document the process when the vendor starts. The first time you bring on an Agile vendor, the process you’ve put together won’t be done. It will be better, but there will still be frustrations. Discuss this with the team during their first days on the project, ask that it be a subject of their first sprint retrospective, and turn that feedback into specific change for the next time that a new person joins the scrum team.
  • Designate a product owner. Agile projects’ success is heavily dependent on the product owner’s abilities to do their job well. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the short version is that the agency needs an empowered product owner to start to take an ownership role over this project before the vendor shows up. This person will be the vendor team’s primary interface with the agency, the fixer for onboarding problems, the smiling face who will greet them at 9 AM on day one of sprint one. Have them in place many weeks before the vendor starts.
  • Create a path to production. Two weeks after the vendor starts, they’ll have code that’s ready to go to production. If your agency has an authority to operate (ATO) process that requires completing a 250-page system security plan (SSP) as a Word file to get anything in production, you’re going to have a bad time. You need to pilot a new ATO process that can move at the speed of software developer, or else your vendor team will be unable to get their software before actual end users. And Agile is impossible without that crucial feedback loop. This problem is really hard. Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is single bullet point in a list of six items—it’s of greater difficulty and complexity than the others. This is a 6–12-month process for agencies, probably longer for federal agencies. Consider making the immediate project a pilot, so that instead of proposing that your CIO overhaul the ATO process entirely, you’re simply proposing that an experiment be run to see if a continuous ATO process could work.

You don’t want to do all of the hard work of procuring a top-notch scrum team only to send them face-first into a brick wall of bureaucracy. You’ll lose all of the momentum, lose the best members of the team, waste $40,000/week, and when the project finally starts it will be with a demoralized team. By doing the right prep work, you can leave that team free to do what they do best—develop software—and get the best possible performance out of the vendor.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

2 replies on “The work before the work: what agencies need to do before bringing on an Agile vendor.”

  1. Great advice. We simply stopped working with the government. It was too frustrating and we always got blamed for their incompetence.

  2. Most of these points seem like great additions to the 18F De-Risking Guide, especially if they can be coupled by some additional “how” knowledge (for example: *how* does an agency evolve to allow vendors to use their own equipment vs GFEs, and where are some successful examples of that happening). These tips are great ways to shave off risk from the project at the outset.

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