We’re getting exactly the government IT we asked for

If there’s one complaint that I hear consistently in my studies of IT in large organizations, it’s that government IT, as traditionally practiced, is fucked. Compared to the private sector, the amount of paperwork, the role of contractors, and the seeming separation between doing a good job and working software drives all sorts of angst and failure.

Mark Schwartz’s book on figuring out “business value” in IT is turning out to be pretty amazing and refreshing, especially on the topic of government IT. He’s put together one of the better “these aren’t the Droids you’re looking for” responses to ROI for IT.

You know that answer: you just want to figure out the business case, ROI, or whatever numbers driven thing, and all the DevOps-heads are like “doo, doo, doo-doo – driving through a tunnel, can’t hear you!” and then they pelt you with Goldratt and Deming books, blended in with some O’Reilly books and The Phoenix Project. “Also, you’re argument is invalid, because reasons.”

A Zen-like calm comes over them, they close their eyes and breath in, and then start repeating a mantra like some cowl-bedecked character in a Lovecraft story: “survival is not mandatory. Survival is not mandatory. Survival is not mandatory!”

Real helpful, that lot. I kid, I jest. The point of their maniacally confusing non-answers is, accurately, that your base assumptions about most everything are wrong, so before we can even approach something as precise as ROI, we need to really re-think what you’re doing. (And also, you do a lot of dumb shit, so let’s work on that.)

But you know, no one wants to hear they’re broken in the first therapy session. So you have to throw out some beguiling, mind-altering, Lemarchand’s boxes to change the state of things and make sure they come to the next appointment.

Works as Designed

Anyhow, back to Schwartz’s book. I’ll hopefully write a longer book review over at The New Stack when I’m done with it, but this one passage is an excellent representation of what motivates the book pelters and also a good unmasking of why things are the way we they are…because we asked for them to be so:

The US government is based on a system of “checks and balances”—in other words, a system of distrust. The great freedom enjoyed by the press, especially in reporting on the actions of the government, is another indication of the public’s lack of trust in the government. As a result, you find that the government places a high value on transparency. While companies can keep secrets, government is accountable to the public and must disclose its actions and decisions. There is a business need for continued demonstrations of trustworthiness, or we might as well say a business value assigned to demonstrating trustworthiness. You find that the government is always in the public eye—the press is always reporting on government actions, and the public is quick to outrage. Government agencies, therefore, place a business value on “optics”—how something appears to the observant public. In an oversight environment that is quick to assign blame, government is highly risk averse (i.e., it places high business value on things that mitigate risk).

And then summarized as:

…the compliance requirements are not an obstacle, but rather an expression of a deeper business need that the team must still address.

Which is to say: you wanted this, and so I am giving it to you.

The Agile Bureaucracy

The word “bureaucracy” is something like the word “legacy.” You only describe something as legacy software when you don’t like the software. Otherwise, you just call it your software. Similarly, as Schwartz outlines, agile (and all software processes) are insanely bureaucratic, full of rules, norms, and other “governance.” We just happen to like all those rules, so we don’t think of them as bureaucracy. As he writes:

While disavowing rules, the Agile community is actually full of them. This is understandable, because rules are a way of bringing what is considered best practices into everyday processes. What would happen if we made exceptions to our rules—for instance, if we entertained the request: “John wants to head out for a beer now, instead of fixing the problem that he just introduced into the build?” If we applied the rules capriciously or based on our feelings, they would lose some of their effectiveness, right? That is precisely what we mean by sine ira et studio in bureaucracy. Mike Cohn, for example, tells us that “improving technical practices is not optional.”15 The phrase not optional sounds like another way of saying that the rule is to be applied “without anger or bias.” Mary Poppendieck, coauthor of the canonical works on Lean software development, uses curiously similar language in her introduction to Greg Smith and Ahmed Sidky’s book on adopting Agile practices: “The technical practices that Agile brings to the table—short iterations, test-first development, continuous integration—are not optional.” I’ve already mentioned Schwaber and Sutherland’s dictum that “the Development Team isn’t allowed to act on what anyone else [other than the product owner] says.”17 Please don’t hate me for this, Mike, Mary, Ken, and Jeff, but that is the voice of the command-and-control bureaucrat. “Not optional,” “not allowed,” – I don’t know about you, but these phrases make me think of No Parking and Curb Your Dog signs.

These are the kind of thought-trains that only ever evoke “well, of course my intention wasn’t the awful!” from the other side. It’s like with the ITIL and the NRA, gun-nut people: their goal wasn’t to put in place a thought-technology that harmed people, far from it.

Gentled nestled in his wry tone and style (which you can image I love), you can feel some hidden hair pulling about the unintended consequences of Agile confidence and decrees. I mean, the dude is the CIO of a massive government agency, so he be throwing process optimism against brick walls daily and too late into the night.

Learning bureaucracies

The cure, as ever, is to not only to be smart and introspective, but to make evolution and change part of your bureaucracy:

Rules become set in stone and can’t change with circumstances. Rigidity discourages innovation. Rules themselves come to seem arbitrary and capricious. Their original purpose gets lost and the rules become goals rather than instruments. Bureaucracies can become demoralizing for their employees.

So, you know, make sure you allow for change. It’s probably good to have some rules and governance around that too.

Often, people just won’t change, or, there is no magic to thaw the frozen mind

Under the auspices of “how can we DevOps around here?” I’ve had numerous conversations with organizations who feel like they can’t get their people to change over to the practices and mind-set that leads to doing better software. The DevOps community has spent a lot of time trying to gently bring along and even brain-hack resistant people and there are numerous anecdotes and studies that doing things in DevOps/cloud native/agile/etc. way not only make businesses run more smoothy and profitably, but make the actual lives of staff better (interested in leaving work at 5pm and not working on weekends?)

Still, for whatever reasons, the idea of “the frozen-middle” is reoccurring. In government work, there’s often the frozen-ground” with staff throwing down their heels as well.

Most of the chatter on this topic is at the team level, and usually teams in already flexible, new organizations (like all those logos on scare-slides in presentations from people like Pivotal: UBER! AIRBNB! TESLA! SOFTWARE-IS-EATING-THE-WORLD, INC.!) If you’re already in a company that can change its culture every year, the pain of these “frozen” people is almost nil in comparison to being in government, a 50-100 years old company, or otherwise “in the real world.”

Right here, I’m supposed to establish empathy with these frozen people to get them to change. I should stop calling them “frozen people” and treating them like “resources,” and think of them as people. That is all true, but what do I do after I’ve cavorted with them in empathy splash-pads for months on end and we still can’t get them to configure the firewall so we can do the DevOps? What do you do with enterprise architects who have become specialists in telling you how impossibly fucked up everything is? How do you work with all those “frozen middle-managers” who are acting as a “shit umbrella” (or maybe in this case, a “rainbow umbrella”?) to all your fanciful DevOps notions?

There’s one last ditch tactic: money and firing. When it comes to changing the culture in a large orginizations, this is the big hammer that upper-level management has. That is, the middle-manager’s manger is the one who has to tools to fix the problem. By design, the surest, easiest, sanctioned way to change behavior is to change cash pay-outs and other compensation based on not only the performance of people (management and staff), but their willingness to adapt and change to new, better ways of operating. That is: you reward and punish people based on them doing what you told them to do, or not.

There’s all sorts of “little and cheap” things to do instead of bringing out the big hammer:

  • Giving out acrylic trophies, showering people in attention from high-level execs
  • Fame and glory internally and externally
  • T-shirts (no, really! They work amazingly well)
  • Sanctioning goofing off (“we may have a 15 day holiday policy, but, you know, you should leave work at 4 every day and don’t log vacation”)

Matt Curry covers most of these management-hacks in a great talk on changing large organizations. But let’s assume those aren’t working.

At this point, “leadership” (middle-management’s management) needs to reward and punish the unfreezing or freezing. If middle-management changes (“unfreezes”), they get paid more. If they don’t unfreeze at least their pay needs to freeze, and at “best” they need to get quarantined or fired (as a tone-note, back when I was young and the idea of getting “laid-off” or “RIFed” started being used I reprogrammed myself to only ever say “fired” in reference to loosing your job: those soft, BS words obscure the fact that you’ve been, well, fired – so, feel free to s/// whatever more HR-correct phrase you like into there).

If you look at the patterns of change in most companies going cloud native, they do exactly this. Organizations that successful change so that they can start doing software better set up separate “labs” where the “digital transformation” happens. These are often logically and physically separate: they often have new names and are often “off-site” or well hidden, in the skunk-works style. They do this because if they stay mentally and physically in the “old” system, they end up getting frozen simply due to proximity. The long-term, managerial strategy, here, is an application of the strangler pattern to the “legacy” organization: eventually, the new “labs” organization, through value to the business and sheer size, becomes the “normal” organization.

The staff process they use – almost as a side-effect! – is to only move over people who are willing to change. I’d argue that “skills” and aptitude have little to do with the selection of people: any person in IT can learn new ways of typing and right clicking if the company trains them and helps them. We’re all smart, here.

What happens is that you cull the frozen people, either leaving them behind in the old organization (where there’s likely plenty of work to be done keeping the legacy systems alive!), or just outright firing them. That’s all brutal and not in the rainbows and sandals spirit of DevOps, but it’s what I see happening out there to successfully change the fate of large organizations’ IT departments.

You don’t really hear about this in cheery keynotes at conferences, but at dark bars and (I shit you not) in quiet parking garages I’ve talked with several executives who paint out this unfreezing-by-attrition process as something that’s worked in their organization. One of them even said “we should have gotten rid of more people.”

This pattern gets more difficult in highly labor-regulated industries – like government work and government contractors – but setting up brand new organizations to shed the frozen old ways is at least something to try.

And, barring all else, as I like to say, if nothing is working, and people won’t actually change, Pivotal is always hiring.

If that’s too grim, don’t despair! My buddies have a much light-hearted, hopefully whack at the problem in a recent discussion of ours:

“It was just dumb”

This a good parable on what can go wrong in large organizations when incentives are not working as planned.:

But the reality seems to be messier and more boring: Wells Fargo wanted its employees to push lots of real accounts, it asked too much of them, and the employees rebelled by opening fake accounts to get the bosses off their backs. The fake accounts weren’t profitable for Wells Fargo, and no rational executive would have wanted them, which is why Wells Fargo kept telling the employees not to open them. But the employees did anyway because they felt like they had no other choice. It was not an evil high-level plot. It was just dumb. It was a form of employee resistance that was channeled into fraud by bad incentives and bad management. There is a limit on how many times you can ask a guy in a hearing “this thing you did was pretty dumb, wasn’t it?” Though look for the Senate Banking Committee to test that limit.

Knowing very little about the details, back in IT-land problems like this usually mean the culture needs some tweaking.

Check out some more commentary.

Improving IT recruiting by rethinking IT priorities

Allstate people working

Most people seem to have complaints about hiring IT staff. They can’t find the right skills, or just people. Of course, what little economics I know would suggest that this means the price (wages) should be higher.

Also, there’s probably a need a rejigger how organization’s think about IT, namely by dividing projects up into low-value (non-differentiating), and high value/differentiating buckets. Those answers are all too simple, really. The question is how to get the IT department to the point where management can do those things.

Jon Reed summerize a and comments on an article on this topic:
Continue reading Improving IT recruiting by rethinking IT priorities

The return of story telling with splash of booze

“Tony is an incredibly strong storyteller—he tells stories through food and travel and a little alcohol mixed in,” says Zucker. “Really, that’s what CNN should be about. I learned as much about Israel and the Palestinians from Tony’s hour on Jerusalem as I did from any reporting that I’ve seen.”

I think there’s something magical in that statement. As the Boomers disappear into retirement and the next generation starts running things, I sure as shit hope that framing takes over media and “story telling.” That Cronkite-cum-PC, “everything is clean and tidy and yet culturally balances” has been stifling.

Which is to say: gonzo, hopefully it’s back.

The return of story telling with splash of booze