Require demos, not memos

Historically, progress in software development projects has been measured by comparing the work that has been done to the schedule of work to be done that was established at the outset. This is done by producing artifacts like Gantt charts and lists of completed tasks. But this doesn’t work — agile software development is premised on the idea that this doesn’t work. Modern software development teams have never heard of "CMMI" or "Earned Value Management Systems," and won’t bid on work that includes these requirements.

A better philosophy is demos, not memos. Instead of measuring progress by looking at purpose-made artifacts, look at the actual work that is being done. Join the reviews that are held at the end of each sprint, where the work done in that sprint is demonstrated to the project team and invited end users. Try out the website. Install the app. Ask for a "burn down chart" — a graph of work that remains to be done and how much time that will take.

An important part of ensuring that progress isn’t illusory is for the contract to include a Quality Assurance Surveillance Plan (QASP) that requires, at the end of each sprint, that all work meet specific standards. The QASP describes the method by which the government will determine that the vendor’s work is of sufficient quality to accept at the end of each sprint, enabling the vendor to perform those same tests to ensure that there will be no surprises. (See Appendix B for a sample QASP.)

The QASP does not require producing any artifacts explicitly for the purpose of monitoring the work — the way to monitor the work is by seeing if it actually works. This is a very different way to monitor the progress of a technology project. It has the added benefit of being a more objective, observable, functional test than requiring subjective or legal interpretations about whether the work satisfies a long series of system requirements.

Checklist

  • [ ] An empowered, dedicated government employee will serve as the product owner
  • [ ] There will be no planning or reporting requirements that run counter to agile (i.e., there are no dates by which specific tasks are to be completed and no specifications of exact functionality that will be required — whether in the RFP, the acquisition plan, or legislation)
  • [ ] There will be a government-employed software developer who will ensure compliance with the QASP at the end of each sprint
  • [ ] People providing oversight, above the level of the government product owner, are willing to primarily receive "reports" in the form of demonstrations of functioning software and burn down charts, combined with a review of user stories that have been completed and those that remain to be completed
  • [ ] There is an identified person within the agency who is prepared to provide repeated explanations of progress to each level of oversight, because artifacts of measuring progress on an agile project are unfamiliar to people accustomed to waterfall projects

Key questions

  • Is it feasible to provide the end-to-end support for such a radically different approach to measuring progress, from the agency to the governor’s office to the legislature? Is there anybody with the power to dig in their heels and demand a Gantt chart, thus potentially making agile methodology non-viable?
  • Whose job will it be to report progress up and out of the agency, e.g., to a legislative oversight committee?