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Memo to CIOs: Try an agile approach to software development

Jun. 5, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By PETER DUPRÉ   |   Comments

I recently heard the CEO of one of the world's largest financial institutions say, "we are a software company, masquerading as a bank."

Business is built on software. If we aren't building precisely what business users need, we're on the road to irrelevance.

Federal information technology managers have to effectively manage technologists — contractors and suppliers — to make sure they are hitting the mark every time for users.

The statistics are inexcusable: Only 32 percent of software projects are considered a success, meaning they meet the budget, schedule and features expected, according to a 2009 study by the market research firm Standish Group International. While there were slight improvements in government and health care project success, all others showed an increase in project failure. In general, some federal organizations my company has profiled have demonstrated good project cost control; however, they are still challenged in meeting schedule and functionality expectations.

Over the past 18 months, Micro Focus has profiled the software development processes of more than 150 U.S. and foreign companies and government organizations. Our data indicate that defining and managing software requirements, and the ability to rapidly respond to change, are still the principal issues plaguing IT in government.

While government organizations had some improvements in project success and implementing repeatable processes, there is still a long way to go. For example, the federal IT Dashboard — the website that tracks and evaluates more than 7,000 federal IT projects — shows that more than 40 percent of the 800 major projects are operating below a normal standard. Considering that many of these projects involve IT modernization, it's clearly a big challenge.

The most prominent characteristics of software project failures are lack of collaboration and absence of business relevance. How will your organization improve collaboration and drive business relevance? Government organizations have been talking about software quality concepts for a long time; ask your team: "What's different now about our concepts?" Look for ideas to drive competitive advantage and business agility.

In our profiling of companies, we have seen tangible results in cost reduction, time to market and user satisfaction when the organization used new techniques in interactive software requirements simulations, allowing business users to visualize and validate.

I am a believer in agile methods — software development methodologies based on iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration among self-organizing, cross-functional teams and the business. Agile development accelerates delivery, in contrast to the traditional methods that most government organizations still use. The point is that the expectations of the user can change continuously and an agile process accommodates and responds to change more dynamically than traditional methods. The ability to react to change leads to better alignment with the business need and greater user satisfaction with the end product.

Historically, government organizations have worried that agile methodologies are too immature, and not well suited for large-scale enterprise development projects. In fact, the Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center based at Carnegie Mellon University, is publishing extensive information regarding the use of agile software development, demonstrating, for instance, the feasibility of having agile methods coexist with CMMI to optimize performance improvement. CMMI refers to the Capability Maturity Model Integrated, which defines software project practices that improve success. Those practices include: eliciting and managing requirements, decision-making, measuring performance, planning work and handling risks, among others.

Experiment with agile development processes — it may help you keep some of your projects off the hit lists.

Peter DuPré is chief solutions architect for Micro Focus, which has provided modernization and migration software solutions to government organizations for over 30 years.

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