Staying agile in a shutdown

January 22, 2018

Light switch in an off position

Today marks the first workday since the federal government shutdown. As a federal contractor helping run several large systems, we seek to be of greatest use to our customers and for the people we all seek to serve. Here’s our thoughts on this:

The number one thing for us is to be cognizant of the human experience of our partners within government. Whether they are designated as essential or are out of the office, any government shutdown is an uncomfortable experience.

Second, a government shutdown presents a unique set of challenges to our agile environment. Waterfall methods enabled a contractor to continue working on the giant set of requirements they had built up over the years. The impact of a shutdown was minimal. When you’re shipping a monolithic system in 2 years and you have thousands of pages of requirements, you can continue working on them without much input — great in the short term when you’re dealing with a work stoppage, but bad for long-term product development.

We ship in days, not years. The benefit of agile is that you can quickly change direction or re-prioritize, but this comes with the need for continual Product Owner (PO) engagement. We love this engagement. It brings us closer to the problem we’re helping to solve. Our Product Owners love it as well. It allows them to reconfigure the size, shape, and timeline of the solution. It also gives them better solutions, as developers have a deeper understanding of the need. When Product Owners aren’t present, we need to find alternatives to our usual collaboration with them. These are some important items we believe enable agile work to continue even when the government is shut down.

Product Roadmaps

Product Roadmaps are the overall vision for the product. It’s important they’re up to date, and that the team has a deep understanding of the Product Owner’s vision. The Roadmap should serve as a guide in answering product questions when a PO is absent.

Support Systems

Every team is enabled by a set of systems (JIRA, github, etc). These tend to be the lifeblood of how a team operates. In a shutdown, they’re not always available. It’s important the team understands the nature of how a team functions, and that “agile” is just the term for a flexible, driven, team. When this is true, a team’s communication goes up, and they become less dependent on tools to be successful.

Commitment to Operations

Websites break. We remain committed to building resilient systems, and part of that is incident response. Our number one priority remains the reliability of the website. Our default is to keep systems running, even when we may have an alternate approval chain during a shutdown.

We look forward to our government partners returning to business. While we can make agile work while they’re out, the best products are created when everyone is present and participating.

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