How to make agile development your own

Pragmatics has grabbed the latest tech craze around agile development and molded a unique approach that combines software development and process improvement. So far customers like what they are getting.

Agile development has become a hot trend in the government in recent years, but for Fairfax, Va.-based Pragmatics, the trend is nothing new.

The company has been doing agile since 2004, said Kim Nguyen, chief business development officer and son of the company’s founder, Long Nguyen. It has now developed Pragmatic Agility, a methodology that combines agile with Capability Maturity Model Integration Level 5 practices.

The combination of CMMI Level 5’s process improvement capabilities with agile development’s quick software turnaround allows agencies to quickly assess new capabilities and refine requirements, Kim Nguyen said.

Taking a closer look at it, you can see the methodology’s roots are in agile development; “We try to get working software out in six-week cycles,” Nguyen said.

The company uses paired programmers, which help ensure that the work will not be set back if someone has to leave, he added.

Working in open-space areas, the paired programmers “have different tool sets to allow test through development,” Nguyen said, which means that the programmers develop test plans as they’re developing the code, enabling them to test it right away.

Pragmatic Agility also regularly involves users at different points to ensure that what’s being built is what the customer wants.

“Since we’re getting their continuous and regular feedback, we know that we’re producing something that they want, and meeting their priorities,” Nguyen said.

When you add CMMI Level 5 practices, you have an even more controlled and ensured methodology.

“Our agile process performance is monitored and controlled using process performance baselines and models that utilize test code coverage percentages to achieve stable and predictable defect rates per software lines of code,” Nguyen said.

Using this method, Pragmatics is able to ensure a predictable and controllable level of software quality for each software release.

“Each development sprint is monitored, and predicted defects are calculated based on input parameters. They are then compared against actual values found during internal test events. The differences are plotted over time, and a stable baseline is observed,” Nguyen said.

The development of a unique methodology such as Pragmatic Agility reflects the unconventional academic roots of the company, which was founded in 1985 by CEO Long Nguyen, a professor at Georgetown University.

“He wasn’t coming from the government, the military, or even from another company; he was coming from academia,” said Kim Nguyen.

While Long Nguyen may have been an academic, he developed an interest in business in Vietnam during the 1960s, when IBM set up a subsidiary in the southern half of the country. Long was one of its employees.

“Later on, when he came to the U.S., he got his Ph.D., and he became a professor, but he always remembered that entrepreneurial experience,” Kim Nguyen said.

When Pragmatics was founded in 1985, the company got involved in the 8(a) program, a nine-year program that helps small disadvantaged businesses compete in the market.

During that time, the company held contracts with the Army and the Healthcare Finance Administration, now known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Today, the company still has a relationship with the Army, and its major customer base has expanded to include the State Department, Homeland Security Department, DISA, the FAA and the Patent and Trademark Office.

These customer relationships have been fruitful for Pragmatics, especially as far as task order contracts go; the company is a prime contractor on 20 different contract vehicles.

“It’s one of our main differentiators in this industry; we have a lot of IDIQ vehicles comparable to, or even better than some of the tier 1 companies,” Kim Nguyen said.

Among these contracts are DHS EAGLE, DISA’s ENCORE II, the Army’s ITES-2S, the Treasury’s TIPSS-4 and the NIH’s CIO-SP3.

Pragmatics owes its success in part to its business development and proposal strategy, which Nguyen outlined for Washington Technology back in September 2012, in the midst of fourth quarter madness.

The business development strategy works hand in glove with the Pragmatic Agility methodology, and together have brought the company many successes.

“We’ve applied it for a number of different agencies within the Department of Defense,” Nguyen said.

“Part of the Global Command and Control system is developed with Pragmatic Agility, and when the FAA migrated from a radar-based air traffic management system to a GPS-based system, we applied Pragmatic Agility to develop that software, as well,” he said.

The company’s success with these contracts has garnered it some awards, too; in May, Pragmatics won the SmartCEO VOLTAGE Award, which recognizes leading innovators and implementers of technology.

A month later, the company won TechAmerica’s American Technology Foundation Award in the IT Services and Consulting category, which recognizes the “best of” for technology products and services across the technology industry.

The bottom line for Nguyen and Pragmatics is the payoff for customers.

“We're not giving them something six months later or nine months later when priorities may have changed for them," Nguyen said; “We know that we're producing something that they want."