Back to Work: Modernizing Our Government Technology

After eight years of working within government to lead technology policy and implementation, I’m excited to announce the launch of 580 Strategies to continue the work of cloud modernization. We’ve come a long way since 2009, but much of our work was focused on establishing the tools needed for digital transformation. By pivoting now to using those tools to help agencies better achieve their mission, we can continue to serve our country in new ways. I created 580 Strategies to help you establish the digital practice of people, platforms, and processes your organization needs to achieve success.

As soon as President Obama’s hand left the Lincoln Bible, it was time to get to work. Photo:

Step back with me to early 2009: there were no laptop computers in the White House, Executive Residence staff didn’t have access to the internet, Blackberry 8330s were the ubiquitous government mobile device, and data centers were chock-full of bare metal servers.

Imagine a team of risk-tolerant digital organizers coming off of a victorious presidential campaign that broke barriers with its online grassroots fundraising, data analytics, and early adoption of social media only to be faced with the bleak reality that inside government access to the internet was restricted, social media usage was taboo, and remote access to critical systems necessary for your job was arduous if it worked at all. We quickly realized that government wasn’t in a position to excel on the digital front. In fact, agency policies had been left behind by rapidly evolving technology and government was ill-equipped to handle the challenges of an increasingly connected citizenry that demands higher standards of service.

Hordes of laptops were issued to Inaugural Staff in 2009. Photo by author.

So, team Yes We Can rolled up our sleeves and got to work laying the infrastructure and building the tools needed to make government work better for its citizens. Efforts to modernize agency technology began very tactically during the early days of President Obama’s first term, and I put my experience from various roles across traditional enterprise technology shops to work to lead government technology into the 21st century. We began implementing virtual server farms as a bridge to cloud computing and working on consolidating data center physical footprints or eliminating them entirely where we could. We simultaneously advocated embracing both internet access and social media in appropriate ways in order to meet citizens where they were online. Those were tough old days where system downtime was a fact of life, hours of delay from clicking send to actual delivery of email to our lists was standard, and remote work options weren’t meaningful options.

SBA’s First Enterprise Virtual Server Farm (2011) Photo by author.

As the physical aspect of government technology began to improve with virtualization and consolidation, we pivoted to cloud computing under the direction of the first federal Chief Information Officer. We formed a cloud working group and wrote what became the Federal Risk Authorization Management Plan (FedRAMP): the rules for cloud service providers to be pre-certified for government use. We partnered with some of the early cloud providers such as Google, Amazon Web Services, and Salesforce to usher them through the FedRAMP process and pave the way for other agencies to use them. The policy decision to pursue a cloud-first approach made immediate impacts to lowering operating costs and vastly increasing system up-time and security.

But we soon realized one of the biggest obstacles to starting initiatives to improve technology was the awkward way government bought technology in the first place.

Most projects were destined for failure long before the kickoff meeting ever occurred. Contracts were often issued on a “lowest price, technically acceptable” basis, which often meant the government wasn’t getting much value for that money. Too frequently I saw “beltway bandit” companies enjoying multi-year contracts where no software was being shipped, teams of government staff and contractors were frustrated, value was not being added to the citizen experience, and yet somehow the invoices kept being paid like clockwork.

Similarly, lots of agencies had “approved software” lists that were maintained by security teams, but there were almost no cloud offerings to be found on them. Staff were frustrated that it was very easy to get and use new software in their personal lives, but it generally took bureaucratic jujitsu to get the exact same thing inside the walls of a government building.

Though the worst by far were the big, bulky “waterfall” software contracts that spanned multiple years. These beauties were based on hefty volumes of “functional requirements” documents that were obsolete before the ink was dry. The entire methodology relied upon vendors adhering to the letter of the contract, looking into their crystal ball to divine what the “Definition of Done” looked like, and not actually shipping any code until approximately three-fourths of the way through the project. By that time everyone was frustrated and the government got little to nothing in terms of working software for it’s investment. Oftentimes those contracts were re-competed just to get the government out of a bad situation and reset the requirements…but the new contract would sometimes follow the same old rules! Process improvement in terms of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) as it applied to technology didn’t happen very quickly.

While the Affordable Care Act teams at Health and Human Services were unknowingly proving the need for a better approach to technology acquisition (with what would become our most visible and infamous technology failure as an administration: we were partnering with some stellar folks in the procurement shop at The White House to try experimental new approaches that would ultimately solve a lot of these problems.

In the early days of the Obama Administration, government acquisition processes were better suited to buying battleships and pencils than they were for buying software-as-a-service or contracting for coding teams. But after some iteration and improvement applying agile principles from the technology world to the government acquisition world, we prototyped some contract models that set the bar for cloud-friendly government procurement and eventually came together as a set of best practices called the TechFAR Handbook.

The first form-letter printed from the new White House Correspondence system built on Salesforce in 2013. Photo by author.

We awarded a first-of-its-kind, multi-vendor blanket purchase agreement that allowed for flexibility and price competitiveness for software development atop the Salesforce platform at The White House. And soon, that model went from experimental to absolutely vital to our own technology operations.

After a couple of years of demonstrated success at the White House, we pitched the contract model to the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget to scale it up for government-wide use. All of that hard work from so many people who were invested in a better way of stewarding taxpayer dollars resulted in a six-vendor contract valued at $500 million that any federal agency can now use to quickly access high quality software development firms for their Salesforce platform. Success isn’t guaranteed, but barriers to entry and the quality of both the technology and the integration teams are vastly superior to what they were in a world.

Beyond positioning the right technology platforms, an equally important part of our success was changing the way the government writes software on a daily basis. Cloud systems helped us by reducing downtime and improving security, but they didn’t resolve the dreaded waterfall approach to writing code. So we introduced basic agile software development methods that Silicon Valley had been using years.

Introducing Scrum teams, Sprints, and Kanban methods greatly accelerated delivery and satisfaction.

First, we demonstrated success with using Kanban methods for real-time development tasking, capacity estimation, and status tracking. Later we expanded using Scrum teams for our Salesforce practice to deliver incremental portions of working software in sprints. For the first major version of the Presidential Correspondence System, our integration team went from design to go-live in an astounding 60-days, a time frame unheard of in government at the time!

Program by program and team by team, we were able to work with our stakeholders to show them that government technology could actually respond to their needs in days or weeks instead of months and years. We also helped lead the way in giving code written on the taxpayer dime back to the community by publishing it as open source.

State of the Union 2014 with Augmented Livestream Experience -Live from the White House. Photo by author.

Once agency leadership and staff began to see that we could partner with them to reliably deliver software on par with the private sector — and do it quickly — they were hooked. We finally had the tools in place to make major technology modernization happen across government on a large scale.

This is why I’m excited to announce the launch of 580 Strategies to continue building on this success. There’s been a tremendous amount of progress and we’ve laid a firm foundation for successful digital practices across the government; but there’s so much work left to do. The progressive spirit of our country invented the internet and employs the largest single-employer workforce in the world, yet the technology that supports both staff and citizens has a long way to go before it reaches the level of responsiveness that Americans require of their government. It’s critical to have trusted partners working with you to achieve digital success, and 580 Strategies is experienced — we helped write many of the rules for the modern state of the digital art in government — and we can help you tackle these challenges too, regardless of whether you work for federal, state, or local government.

“Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.” -President Obama, State of the Union Address, January 20, 2015

Let us help you assemble the people, platforms, and processes your organization needs for digital success. How can we help?

A Native-owned company pursuing 8a small business set-aside status, 580 Strategies is grounded in the spirit and wisdom of a resilient people coupled with the experience of a digital-first Presidential administration. Our company is excited to bring this combination to bear supporting digital transformation for all levels of government around the world. We are named for the 580 area code of the phone line from which our founder, Rusty Pickens, first accessed the internet in his hometown of Stonewall, in the heartland of Oklahoma; home to the Scissortail Flycatcher pictured in our logo, and the Chickasaw Nation where Rusty is an enrolled tribal member.