Cloud Native Works in Government — the IRS, US Air Force, and contractors

“We have already slashed the time needed to implement new ideas by 70 percent while avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.” M. Wes Haga, Chief of Mission Applications and Infrastructure Programs for Air Force Research Lab

Slowly but surely, the US government is improving how they do software. Working at Pivotal, I’m lucky to see some of this change and talk with the people who’ve actually done it. Just as we’re seeing huge improvements in the private sector with Pivotal’s cloud native approach, we’re now seeing successful examples of transformation in government. As with any sweeping transformation trend, there are several early case studies that have proven change is possible in the government. The cloud native practices of agility, DevOps, and relying on cloud platforms are spreading through the US Federal government and it is encouraging and cool to see the outcomes they have enabled.

People often complain about red-tape, funding problems, staff’s unwillingness to change, and an overall defeatist attitude. These cases show not only that the cloud native approach works, giving agencies and the military new, modernized capabilities with clear, positive ROI, but also show that it’s possible. In fact, it’s not as hard as it may seem.

IRS

If you’ve seen my talks, this IRS story is one of my favorite cases of what it means to do “digital transformation.”

The IRS had been using call centers for many, many years to provide basic account information and tax payment services. Call centers are expensive and error prone: one study found that only 37% of calls were answered. Over 60% of people calling the IRS for help were simply hung-up on! With the need to continually control costs and deliver good service, the IRS had to do something.

In the consumer space, solving this type of account management problem has long been taken care of. It’s pretty easy in fact; just think of all the online banking systems and paying your monthly cellphone bills. But at the IRS, viewing your transactions had yet to be digitized.

When putting software around this, the IRS first thought that they should show you your complete history with the IRS, all your transactions. This confused users and most of them still wanted to pick up the phone. Think about what a perfect failure that is: the software worked exactly as designed and intended, it was just the wrong way to solve the problem. Thankfully, because they were following a small batch process, they caught this very quickly, and iterated through different versions of it until they hit on a simple finding: when people want to know how much money they owe the IRS, they just want to know how much money they owe the IRS. When this version of the software was tested, people didn’t need to use the phone.

Now, if the IRS was on a traditional 12 to 18 months cycle (or longer!) think of how poorly this would have gone, the business case would have failed, you would probably continue to have a dim view of IT and the IRS. But, by thinking about software correctly — in an agile, small batch way — the IRS did the right thing, not only saving money, but also solving people’s actual problems.

Digitization projects like this, however, can be hard in the government due to the all too well meaning process and oversight. The IRS has been working with Pivotal to introduce a very advanced agile approach, e.g., shipping frequently, pairing across roles, and intense user-testing. Along the way, they had to manage various stakeholders expectations, winning over their trust, interest, and eventually support for transforming how the IRS does their software.

This project has great results: after some onerous up-front red-tape transformation, they put an app in place which allows people to look up their account information, check payments due, and pay them. As of October 2017, there have been over 2 million users and the app has processed over $440m in payments.

Check out this interview with Andrea Schneider (IRS) & Lauren Gilchrist (Pivotal) for the story and details, and an older but helpful overview of the project from Andrea:

Keeping the Air Force Flying

It’s rare to get details on military IT projects, so these stories are particularly delicious as it’s a literal case of “digital transformation,” going from analog to digital.

The US military has for a long time realized that they need to rapidly respond to changes in the field, not only a weekly or daily basis, but on an hourly basis. Software drives a huge amount of how the military operates now, “Everything we do in the military, and everything we do in combat, is now software based,” as Lt. Col. Enrique Oti put it. With so much reliance on software, when most IT projects take five to seven years to ship, there’s a bit of a crisis in how IT is done. “This idea of not taking action is not an option that the United States Army actually has,” said Army CIO Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford in a recent talk.

Much can be blamed on the procurement process (and the associated needs of oversight, but overall the issue is putting more agile approach to software in place. The Air Force has several projects under its harness that are showing the way.

One of them is a story of literally going from analog to digital. They’d been planning out refueling schedules in the Middle East with a large white board. While the staff were working earnestly, it took about 8 hours and, clearly, was not the ideal state for planning something as vital as refueling.

After working with Pivotal, they digitized this process and dramatically reduced the time it took to prepare the whiteboard. They shipped their first version in 120 days (an amazing speed for any organization, private or public sector). Even better, they now regularly ship new features each week, continually improving the system. Moving from shipping every 5 years to every week, adding in the ability to adapt to new needs and operational challenges means this piece of software is directly supporting and improving the overall mission.

Because they could schedule more precisely, they were also able to remove one tanker from regular usage each day (see at about 1h47m in this video), saving about a million dollars a day. The ROI on this project, clearly, was off the charts. In fact, they were able to make back their investment in this project in seven days, based on the fuel savings. They were also able to cut the staff needed dramatically, while at the same time improving the service and freeing up staff to work on other important missions and tasks.

Looking forward, this also opened up the possibility to integrate other data into this planning, and provide this schedule to other processes. But in a software-driven organization, there’s plenty of other opportunities. They’re now working on seven more applications, including, a dynamic targeting tool. More broadly, this approach to development reduces risks of all type, but especially blow up budgets. As M. Wes Haga put it:

Previously, every time we added a new capability, we would have had to build, test, and deploy the entire IT stack. A mistake could cost $100 million, likely ending the career of anyone associated with that decision. A smaller mistake is less often a career-ender and thus encourages smart and informed risk-taking.

Contractors too…

“You gave me what I asked for, but not really what I wanted.”

Raytheon is with the program as well, having recognized the need to need to become more agile in its delivery practices. The software needs to evolve as quickly as possible, years long contracts just won’t cut it. As one of Raytheon’s engineers put it: “employing Agile and DevOps is going to speed up the software lifecycle, getting new features into the hands of the men and women of the Armed Forces a lot quicker.”

They’ve been working with Pivotal to switch over to faster feedback cycles and apply DevOps practices to their software life-cycle.

Working with the Air Force, as with all these types of transformations, they started with one project, built up skills and knowledge, and have been expanding to other products. The first project was the Air Force’s Air and Space Operations Center Weapon System (AOC Pathfinder). They’re also working on one of the Air Forces intelligence systems, the Distributed Common Ground System.

Software release cycle speed (from years to months, if not weeks) is important in these systems, but matching the evolving and emerging needs for those systems is equally — perhaps even more! — important. “The DevOps model allows our customers to ask for the products they really want,” Raytheon’s Quynh Tran said, “The results [are that] we are shortening deployment times and prioritizing work based on their needs. We’re going to be better at meeting their expectations…. Military users get their requests changed in months instead of years and see the results of continuous feedback.”

See also this interview with Keith Salisbury.

(Thanks to @dormaindrewitz who helped me track down many of the facts and figures above.)

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