How one company is embracing agile

CivicActions harnesses open agile software development in its bid for the GSA's 18F agile blanket purchase agreement.

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The scrum starts, and some dozen members of a team spread across the country fire off status updates, questions and a “balance score.”

It’s scheduled to take 15 minutes yet runs closer to 25, but the crew doesn’t waste a moment, diving in immediately on a second call, a retrospective look at the project that dominated everyone’s schedule for the past few weeks: a swipe at the 18F agile blanket purchasing agreement.

The team is CivicActions, and they’re convinced they’re doing agile right – as organizations from 18F to the “dinosaurs” of contracting struggle to embrace the technique.

A way of life, not a buzzword

“Agile software development is transformative,” says Aaron Pava, the company’s co-founder and chief experience officer (recruiter, salesman and pep squad all in one).

The General Services Administration’s 18F put out a much-anticipated request for quotes last month, seeking to build an easily accessed pool of agile GSA Schedule 70 vendors through a novel process, and in response CivicActions embarked on a 10-day dash to get it done.

Instead of just a quote, 18F tasked vendors with producing a working product using Food and Drug Administration data.

CivicActions brainstormed and got in contact with real users of FDA data on the first day – “user-centered design” in practice – and banged out in little more than a week.

An agile mentality permeates everything CivicActions does, Pava said, even following the team home in a way – that “balance score” is a self-reported measure of how people are feeling on personal, professional and spiritual levels. (The most commonly reported scored on the July 2 call was a 9/10, indicating that the team was very happy and/or that a public self-reported scoring system promotes some degree of grade inflation.)

The team’s tools of the trade revolve around communication and collaboration: Slack, Trello and GitHub.

Email factored into the equation “only a little bit,” said co-founder and CEO Henry Poole, while the team used Jenkins for continuous monitoring and worked in Ubuntu on an Amazon Web Services stack – deploying “a lot of the tools any startup would use.”

‘Fiercely open’

Standard agile tenets – iterative design, failing fast and trying again with minimal viable products, constant team contact – underpin the team’s work, but their “fiercely open” attitude is what the team wanted to talk up.

“If some other vendor started using our work, that would be a success for us,” quipped Poole, saying CivicActions had fully embraced 18F’s call for open development long before the agile BPA.

The guts of CivicActions agile BPA project are viewable in an open GitHub repository, per 18F instructions, but the company has gone a step beyond calling for teamwork between contractors and offering bid advice to competitors on its blog.

Part of this attitude is predicated on the notion that any particular tool or line of code is far less important than the people who make an operation tick – competitors are free to technically mimic CivicActions, but the company’s selling point is its “humanware,” not its software, Poole said.

Older, established federal contractors can talk the agile talk, but they often stumble trying to walk the walk, making 18F’s BPA a great filter for future work, Pava said.

“Dinosaurs just can’t fake [a functional, open, agile process] and deliver in 10 days,” Pava said. “That’s why this [BPA] is so awesome.”

Dealing with delays

18F’s BPA originally opened June 17 and was slated to close June 26, but that deadline was pushed back once, then again, because of a torrent of vendor questions about the novel approach.

Now solicitations close July 7.

“Right as we’re closing up, they extend that deadline,” Pava lamented. “It feels like you’re running a race, you’re winning the race, and then the race gets extended.”

The delays gave laggards a chance to catch up, Pava noted, and partially defeated the whole purpose of the BPA: giving vendors a chance to show they could pump out a working product in a short time span.

But even with delays, CivicActions' leaders say the BPA process will be a force for good within government.

Plenty of big contractors are angling to be among the 20 firms chosen by 18F for the agile BPA pool, “but I think it’s scary for them,” Poole said.

“Win or lose, it’s not really the point,” Pava added. “This is the first step in what’s probably going to be a long game.”

That “long game” involves bringing feds around to truly accept agile, and while it won’t be easy – 18F hasn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms by the whole of government – the BPA is a valuable step, Pava said.

“If we’re truly going to transform government, it has to be collaborative, it has to be open,” he said.