Dave Neumann knows all about risk—and innovation—and how Agile development is the critical link in navigating the two.
“Program managers tend to focus on avoiding failure when they should really be focusing on the ability to recover from failure – a.k.a. ‘mean time’ to recovery,” says Neumann, a partner with the Arlington, Va.-based business management firm Excella Consulting. “You must take risks to be innovative—more specificially, innovation comes from a culture that embraces failure on small efforts, learning and then quickly recovering.”
That approach may sound counterintuitive but, in Neumann’s experience, taking risks—and failing early—is the fundamental of advantage of Agile over waterfall. “You don’t need a separate risk process to deal with failure after months—or years—of investment if you realize and recover from failure early,” says Neumann.True Agilists understand that philosophy—and course-correct—before hefty investments ensue. That philosophy also appeals to federal customers, but that’s the easy part. What’s harder is for federal customers to know who’s a true Agilist in the first place, especially at a time when nearly every vendor touts their Agile expertise.
“That’s the billion-dollar question” says Neumann. “Whether it’s Agile or not is the challenge that government faces with each procurement.”
Clarity to Federal Customers
In the 12 years since he joined Excella, transitioning three years ago to partner, Neumann has brought clarity to federal customers – most recently, in the move toward shortened delivery cycles using Agile software development and accompanying deployment into the cloud.
That track record recently led the Department of Homeland Security to award 11 companies – including Excella – a spot on its new contracting vehicle, Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland, or FLASH. That win solidifies Excella’s role in an often crowded field, in which true Agilists are often hard to glean from those in name only.
“Anyone who is espousing a ‘hybrid approach’ is probably faking it – they’re just adding the word ‘Agile’ to existing projects, procurements and methodologies, and that’s not really Agile,” says Neumann. “The historical focus on documentation, lengthy review and approval cycles isn’t ‘Agile’ even if you add the word ‘Agile’ to it.”
True Agile, on the other hand, is about hiring cross-functional teams – spanning development to consulting – who deliver early, use automation, and operate in the cloud, says Neumann, whose firm maintains that focus in the hiring process.
“You have to be Agile, not just do Agile,” explains Neumann. “It’s not just something that a team in a room somewhere does – it’s a way the organization, as a whole, has to think.”
Technology to Match Process
That’s one reason why Neumann tells customers: Your technology has to match your processes – and your teams. That focus translates into a faster iterative approach, in real-time. To date, Excella’s projects have helped government customers achieve faster speed over legacy systems.
“It’s all about automation and rapid delivery, and you can’t really do that – in the fullest way – unless you’re using DevOps and deploying in the cloud,” says Neumann. “If you’re building up a data center and buying servers to scale up, you’re not going to get there – you’re just not going to be able to match the virtualization that you can accomplish in the cloud.”
That focus underpins Neumann’s approach to client needs.
“Delivery is always our top priority – we want to remain very connected to our clients and their missions,” says Neumann. “Responding to change,” he adds, is paramount — echoing one of the four values that 17 software developers outlined back in 2001 in the “Agile Manifesto.”
As Neumann sees it, the need for nimble, ongoing change takes precedence over a preconceived plan. That’s especially true in tackling IT modernization efforts for federal customers.
“The key to modernization is not waiting until a new system is ready to replace the legacy functionality, but instead to break off the pieces of legacy systems, move it to the cloud, and modernize it,” says Neumann, highlighting the “strangler approach” championed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ CIO, Mark Schwartz.
That like-minded approach recently led Excella to team up with USCIS to update its customer service portal. Excella’s Agile engineering experts worked alongside USCIS to develop myUSCIS, a new portal that helps users navigate the immigration process online.
Looking ahead, Neumann and the Excella team are spreading the Agile message through a variety of means. The firm hosts regular capability demos, where clients are invited to the firm’s office to see how projects unfold.
In addition, Excella engages with focus groups as early as possible to iteratively deploy working code. Excella sponsors and operates the Arlington Tech eXchange, a 1,500-square-foot space at the company’s headquarters dedicated to Agile/Scrum training, as well as for hosting events for the D.C. area’s tech and business community.
Throughout, Neumann prides himself – and the entire Excella team – on going beyond project delivery to become known as something more – “true software craftsmen,” as he puts it.
That craftsmanship extends to Excella’s work in digital services delivery and innovation, as well as data and analytics. “The trend we want to see more of is developing software that not only works but is beautiful – that engages visitors in a rich user experience,” says Neumann. “That is something we would like to do more of.”
In the meantime, Neumann is spreading the message of true Agile practitioners, helping separate Agile myths from fact. “It’s an exciting time to be in federal IT consulting,” says Neumann, “and we’re excited to find new clients for whom we can make an impact.”