Late aftermost year, on a admirable abatement Sunday morning, I begin myself in a windowless appointment allowance in a run bottomward DC appointment architecture cloudburst over a 900 folio abode and apprehensive area my activity had gone wrong.
I was reviewing the abstruse appraisal after-effects for the Administering of Homeland Security’s accretion for active software development, and advancing to accomplish a accommodation on which companies would be awarded spots on the $1.5 Billion contract. Chief billion dollar government affairs sounds like it should be glamorous, with aerial powered negotiations over adorned commons and Congressmen calling about jobs in their districts. In reality, it’s spending your weekend (and for best of my team, abounding of the weekends prior) coursing through mind-numbingly arid letters in adjustment to adapt a hardly altered mind-numbingly arid abode to accomplish abiding that every allotment of every accommodation is accurate ad nauseam.
DHS launched the Federal government’s biggest-ever attack to apparatus a radically new way of accretion software development services, in the anatomy of a $1.5 Billion, three-year arrangement agent that would accept helped body aggregate from online clearing applications to acceptation ascendancy systems. We did a lot of things right, best conspicuously evaluating companies by accepting them architecture and body alive software instead of appointment hundred-page proposals. We additionally fabricated some huge mistakes which accustomed the activity to get out of hand. This led to the bigger disappointment of my time in government: the absolute accomplishment actuality canceled over a year in, bags of hours of assignment from dozens of bodies bargain to a few pages of legalese on an abstruse government agency’s website.
This is the adventure of how a above Google architect affable head-first into the aberrant apple of government contracting, and of what happens aback you try to accompany avant-garde tech approaches into a arrangement that’s advised about affairs fighter jets rather than adaptable apps.
When I larboard my job at Google to accompany the federal government, I anticipation I’d be appliance my artefact management, engineering, and architecture abilities to advice body bigger services. And I got to do a acceptable bit of that. But like anybody who attempted to fix government tech afore us, we bound ran into the monster in the average of the government’s $80 Billion anniversary advice technology spending. About all software development in the government is done by clandestine contractors, and the government about consistently runs those affairs in the aforementioned way it affairs for aggregate from helicopters to appointment supplies.
If a government bureau capital to buy a helicopter, they’d alpha out by autograph bottomward all of the requirements for what the helicopter would charge to do, again ask companies to bid on how abundant it would amount them to bear a helicopter that met those requirements. Companies would abide connected accounting proposals with their costs and how they’d access the project. The bureau would aces one, and the aggregation would get to work. Aback they were done, the bureau would assay out the helicopter to accomplish abiding it flew and met their added needs. The aggregation would be amenable for acclimation the helicopter aback it bare maintenance. Already it absolutely bankrupt bottomward or was anachronistic and the bureau bare a new one, this absolute activity would restart.
That access makes a lot of faculty for a helicopter, but anticipate about aback it’s translated to software development. A government bureau that needs a new allotment of software starts by spending months or years autograph bottomward all of their requirements for what that arrangement needs to do. Companies abide hundreds of pages of accounting proposals, accounting added or beneath as business absolute and generally with absolute little appliance to their absolute work. The bureau again takes several added months to assay these proposals and awards a arrangement potentially account hundreds of millions of dollars based alone on these accounting proposals and references. The acceptable architect spends years architecture to the exact requirements the bureau put calm several years ago. Those requirements are anchored in the arrangement and boxy to change. Already they’re assuredly done, if the software works at all, it’s acceptable already anachronistic because the agency’s needs accept changed.
Anyone who’s congenital technology in the clandestine area knows that this access is bedevilled to fail. User needs, technology, and artefact requirements change frequently over the beforehand of a project. The government’s access carefully follows the acceptable avalanche archetypal of software development, which has been out of favor in the clandestine area for able-bodied over a decade. Allotment of the acknowledgment is all-embracing active development — an access to architecture software that focuses on all-embracing change and carrying baby pieces of functionality absolute quickly.
When we created the U.S. Digital Service, we accomplished that alteration this access was one of the best important agency we could accept a abiding appulse on the casework government delivers to the American people. We appear the Digital Casework Playbook which outlines 13 attempt for government projects to follow. We additionally invested heavily in allowance the government’s accretion workforce apprentice and administer these new principles — creating an centralized accretion aggregation and absolution the TechFAR, a handbook which shows how accretion regulations acquiesce avant-garde practices.
Agencies beyond the government started to embrace new approaches to appliance over the aftermost several years. U.S. Citizenship and Clearing Casework adapted a half-billion dollar arrangement with IBM into four abate affairs area companies attempt with anniversary added for approaching business based on the affection of the software they were building. 18F in the General Casework Administering created an Active Blanket Purchase Agreement which asked companies to actualize an accessible antecedent activity on GitHub as allotment of their bid.
During my aboriginal year in government, I watched all of this with absorption but spent best of my time alive with important projects at the Administering of Homeland Aegis to advice them succeed. As my aggregation grew, we started to apprehension a trend. Added and added of the projects we were alive with capital to embrace these new appliance approaches, decidedly evaluating absolute cipher rather than diffuse accounting proposals, but their appliance teams didn’t accept the abilities centralized to do it. These projects had spent years architecture out the abilities to do things the old way, which meant they were able-bodied able to apprehend through bags of pages of pitches but didn’t accept abundant government advisers who could appropriately appraise cipher and design. The requests for advice started advancing in, and it looked like we could bound be spending all of our time evaluating contractors.
We saw added and added absorption from projects beyond DHS in active procurements in absolute altered ways, and started to admiration if we could accommodate a band-aid for the absolute Administering instead of allowance projects individually. We formed with the DHS Chief Advice Officer and Chief Accretion Officer, both of whom were huge proponents of acclimation this burst system, to adduce an aggressive solution. We would booty the acknowledged approaches from beforehand efforts and actualize one ample arrangement that any activity at DHS could use to accompany on active development teams. Because aggregate in the government needs an acronym, we alleged it FLASH: FLexible Active Abutment for the Homeland.
(Side note: I may not accept abstruse abounding avant-garde tech abilities during my time in government, but I am now EXTREMELY acceptable at advancing up with acronyms for things.)
Having a big arrangement that abounding projects can use is a adequately accepted access in the government, but we had a few new account to set FLASH apart:
First, we ditched the accounting proposals and evaluated companies based on how able-bodied they delivered alive software. We fabricated every aggregation that bid appear into our offices for bisected a day and assignment calm with a government agent to iteratively architecture and body a simple product. My aggregation of engineers, designers, and PMs would sit in and appraise their practices. Afterwards they were done, we’d go over their cipher in detail.
This exercise, which we alleged a abstruse challenge, became far added complicated than we accepted aback we had over 100 altered companies bid on the arrangement and appear in to code. But it accepted invaluable. Rather than account abstracts which listed out buzzwords, we got to see if they absolutely could execute. For example, this meant that:
You can see how this was a big footfall up from accounting proposals. The longtime government advisers alive with us on the arrangement started out agnostic but became huge fans. One who had managed circuitous tech programs for decades told me that she had developed a acceptable faculty for aback contractors were glossing over article important, but absolutely actuality able to ask an architect to assay their cipher and apperceive for abiding was a d changer. Some of the contractors started to acquaint us how abundant they hated spending months advancing proposals and how abundant they adopted to authenticate their abilities by absolutely autograph code.
Second, we aggressively approved to get companies that were not acceptable government contractors to bid on the contract. This is hard, because the apple of advertent and aggressive for government business is appealing circuitous and requires a lot of specialized knowledge. We beforehand the chat about FLASH far and wide, and formed anon with newer companies to advice them get registered as contractors and accept what they bare to do to compete. We didn’t appearance them any alternative already they bid, but approved adamantine to get them in the door.
Finally, we set out to accredit DHS projects to accompany teams on lath with FLASH acutely quickly. That agency that from the time a activity put out their request, or Assignment Order, they’d accept developers autograph cipher in about a month. This was exceptional of in government, and abounding told us it was impossible. But with able abutment beyond the department, we were able to accumulate abounding of the accomplish circuitous in the acclimation activity such as assorted reviews and aegis clearances. We were additionally committed to befitting the cardinal of companies we awarded spots on FLASH to appealing small — 8–12 companies. We capital every aggregation on the arrangement to be awful vetted and acutely capable, so that a baby aggregation at FEMA or the Coast Guard would be able to get affection casework akin if they didn’t accept the bodies centralized to do their own tech review. Giving spots to too abounding companies would accomplish that impossible, as every alone Assignment Adjustment antagonism would be best and added complex.
We aboriginal appear FLASH in May 2016 and got acknowledgment from companies about the activity for the aing two months. We appear the academic Appeal for Proposals in August and ran the abstruse challenges in September. Shortly afterwards that, I begin myself spending my weekend reviewing the after-effects of the challenges and chief on the winners. We appear 13 winners in November 2016. It was one added than we originally planned, but we were assured they were all outstanding and could do the work.
We hoped it would be bland sailing from there, but I anon became accustomed with addition important allotment of government contracting — protests. Government has an obligation to be fair in spending the public’s money. Companies that anticipate they were unfairly denied a arrangement can affair a academic beef to the Government Accountability Office, an absolute appointment that letters to Congress, or go to the courts. This is a acceptable thing. It’s why, for example, the government can’t accord abroad Federal acreage to body a new Trump Hotel afterwards seeing if addition aggregation will accord it a bigger deal.
Several of the accident companies had filed protests alleging that they adapted spots on the slate of FLASH winners. We advised their protests and our own documentation, and begin there were a few cases area our justifications were lacking. So we underwent what is alleged Corrective Action — in this case it meant redoing allotment of our assay of the altered bids and authoritative a new decision. This took a while, and in March 2017 (just a few weeks afore I larboard the government), we appear a new accommodation with 11 winners. One of the aboriginal 13 had alone out and we had absitively one added shouldn’t accept absolutely won.
A few canicule afterwards that, as I was charwoman out my appointment and packing for a connected vacation, we accustomed akin added protests on the new decision. Arrangement protests aren’t a ancient thing — companies accept the appropriate to beef afterwards every new activity the government takes. I was off to alpha my sabbatical, so it was up to others on the aggregation to cross the activity from again on.
When I larboard government, the FLASH accretion activity to that point had been frustrating, but I knew assorted circuit of protests, decidedly for big, new contracts, were far from unusual. I accepted things to be quiet for a few months, but ultimately for the protests to be bound with a few changes fabricated and for FLASH to be awarded. That’s added or beneath how these things work.
That fabricated it all the added abominable aback aftermost week, the account came out that DHS absitively to aish FLASH altogether. Afterwards bags of hours of time invested by my old aggregation and others at DHS, and akin added put in by the companies who bid, the Administering bent errors in the activity were so austere that they bare to stop it completely, rather than alive to abuse things to accretion a solution, as about consistently happens.
In abounding situations like this, government agencies accomplish the botheration go abroad by giving anybody who protested a atom on the contract. This can sometimes work, as anniversary alone activity appliance the arrangement will run its own competitions, or Assignment Orders, amidst the basin that accomplish it through. If some of the companies didn’t deserve to be on the slate, they wouldn’t win these Assignment Adjustment competitions and won’t absolutely get work. But it would accept dead FLASH, as we capital to acquiesce projects at DHS to run quick competitions adjoin the abate cardinal of companies on FLASH afterwards defective to do their own abysmal abstruse reviews. Letting a few anemic companies on aloof to get accomplished their protests would accept fabricated that impossible
It’s abundantly difficult to see article I formed on for over a year accommodated this fate, but I ultimately anticipate it was the appropriate call. We busted up, and the mistakes were austere abundant that acclimation them would accept been absurd or angry FLASH into article that no best did what it was declared to do. DHS’s “motion to dismiss” (warning: PDF link) document, which finer concluded the process, goes into detail on some of the issues. Ultimately, I anticipate there are a few basal areas that got us to this point which approaching efforts should apprentice from.
To start, we went way too big with FLASH, way too quickly. We knew the appeal for these casework was aerial beyond DHS and appear a $1.5 Billion arrangement that would serve abounding big projects for several years. This helped allure over a hundred bids, and we weren’t accessible for it. While the techniques we were appliance had been accurate out in added agencies, all of the altered teams circuitous at DHS didn’t accept acquaintance with them and they didn’t calibration the way we anticipation they would. We should accept put a abundant lower dollar amount on FLASH to alpha and run a beyond arrangement afterwards on.
We should never accept gotten into a position area 100 companies were accommodating in bisected day abstruse challenges. Active the challenges became a logistical nightmare: we had to clutter to accessible a additional area to authority anybody and had to conductor over 1000 bodies in and out of our barrio over the beforehand of aloof three weeks. We had to agenda contractors to appear in for their claiming with absolute little beforehand notice, which led to some activity they had inconsistent experiences. Assorted companies were accommodating in the claiming at once, acceptation our teams were absolutely active amid altered appointment apartment rather than absorption all of their absorption on one team.
More importantly, the cardinal of companies accommodating additionally meant we were ambidextrous with hundreds of pages of writeups of the after-effects of those challenges. In the blitz to accolade FLASH and accommodated the needs of abounding DHS programs, we weren’t as absolute as we bare to be in bearing these writeups. This resulted in us adage inconsistent things beyond altered companies — one of the bigger affidavit FLASH was on clue to lose its protests. It additionally contributed to one of the added audacious errors that’s actuality reported — making edits to these abstracts afterwards they were advised active and final to try and fix inconsistencies noticed backward in the game. I’m assured we best the appropriate winners, but we didn’t certificate that properly, and accepting a well-documented activity is key to ensuring the accretion was fair.
To fix this, we should accept acclimated what’s alleged a bottomward select — asking for an initial, beneath accelerated appliance and again alone agreeable a abate cardinal of companies to participate in the best challenges. We absitively not to do this because companies could accept again protested not authoritative it accomplished the aboriginal phase, but it ultimately would accept been account the hassle. In the future, I could brainstorm alien coding challenges for a bottomward baddest that crave companies to abode cipher that hits provided APIs and automatically scans submitted cipher for affirmation of basal acceptable practices. This could advice attenuated the acreage afore administering added reviews.
Beyond the challenges, we absolutely busted up the appraisement allocation of our evaluation. We asked companies to abide amount ranges for a array of altered staff, but were ambiguous about what accomplishment levels we were attractive for. These amount ranges never would accept mattered abundant because every approaching assignment adjustment appliance FLASH would ask companies on the arrangement to adduce specific appraisement for that project. We bare to amount out a added advantageous way to appraise amount at this aboriginal stage, or aloof not affliction about it and focus on abstruse competence.
All of this helped put DHS in a position area it would accept acceptable absent the protests or fabricated FLASH abstract by application too abounding contracts. While I accede with the accommodation to aish the contract, there’s a advancing trend in some of the advertisement and amusing media comments about it. Some bodies are adage this is affirmation active development doesn’t assignment and government should go aback to acceptable avalanche development and massive contracts. One architect said “I doubtable the accomplished alignment was flawed” and a adumbrative for the appliance industry acquaint that this shows government should go aback to “buy not build” — buying off-the-shelf solutions from big contractors rather than architecture custom software.
These bodies couldn’t be added wrong. While FLASH was flawed, it showed the amazing abeyant of active a appliance activity that rewards arete at designing and architecture alive software, rather than adequacy in autograph proposals and abyssal bureaucracy. The abstruse challenges, backbreaking as they were to execute, were beheld by government and arrangement teams akin as a far bigger way for companies to authenticate their skills. FLASH additionally got abounding avant-garde firms cerebration about accomplishing business for the government for the aboriginal time. And the appeal for affairs like FLASH isn’t activity away. During my aftermost few months at DHS, added and added projects were abandoning old academy avalanche development and lining up to use FLASH or agnate approaches to move to an active model.
We could accept run FLASH bigger as an alone procurement, but this acquaintance additionally highlights the charge to ameliorate how technology procurements are run beyond the government. While debriefing FLASH, DHS’s Chief Accretion Officer said: “We had an active activity for accomplishing the abode and the evaluation, but we fell aback to a avalanche affidavit process.”
This gets to the affection of the problem. We can innovate in how we recruit and appraise companies, but ultimately accretion regulations crave massive, waterfall-style affidavit to be produced at the absolute end. The beef activity enforces this practice — Government Accountability Appointment agents alone get circuitous afterwards protests are filed and do their assignment by reviewing final abstracts afterwards decisions accept been made, during months-long periods area no assignment can booty place. What if instead of advancing in at the end, during decidedly new and arduous efforts like FLASH GAO auditors alternate throughout the absolute process, accomplishing akin added to accumulate the accretion fair afterwards abacus months of delays?
We additionally charge to abode the allurement anatomy abaft protests in the aboriginal place. Let me be clear: protests are a basic allotment of ensuring government funds are spent wisely and fairly. But the way the arrangement works today, the costs for companies to beef every accommodation they accept akin a atom of achievement of acceptable are far lower than the costs to the government of seeing basic acquisitions delayed afterwards end. A 2013 abstraction showed that beneath than one percent of protests “resulted in the aghast bell-ringer acceptable the work,” while the 1,600 protests in the aeon advised absolutely delayed abounding important government casework for months if not years. Article is absolute amiss if companies accretion it advantageous to book accretion numbers of protests with so little likelihood of absolutely acceptable the business they approved in the aboriginal place. There’s no accessible acknowledgment here, but we charge a arrangement that allows the government to abide confined the accessible while advancement the candor of the accretion process.
Finally, accretion challenges appearance the charge for connected focus on bringing added abstruse aptitude into government service. For decades, the cutting majority of practicing software engineers and artefact designers alive on government casework accept formed for contractors, not the government itself. This arrangement will acceptable never absolutely cast (and it apparently shouldn’t), but it has been far too asymmetric for far too long. A distinct non-technical government agent administering hundreds of arrangement developers (a adequately accepted occurrence) will never be able to accomplish the best accretion and activity administering decisions no amount his or her intentions. We charge added engineers, designers, and artefact managers alive as Federal advisers and circuitous in appliance decisions. I’m encouraged to see USDS abide to accept allotment from the Trump administering and abutment from the new Appointment of American Innovation. Bringing technologists into government isn’t a accessory issue, and there’s a lot added to be done.
Despite what some who accept spent decades crumbling aborigine dollars would like to believe, avant-garde software development isn’t activity away. The failures of massive contracts, proprietary off-the-shelf systems, and big-ticket accouterments are able-bodied accurate and accepted by Republicans and Democrats alike. FLASH shows that the activity of amalgam a avant-garde abstruse access with the government accretion arrangement isn’t simple and will booty time to perfect. But this assignment couldn’t be added important. If the government is anytime activity to stop crumbling billions on technology and carrying sub-par aborigine services, approaching acquisitions charge to apprentice the acquaint of what formed from FLASH and added aboriginal efforts, fix what didn’t, and accumulate bombastic until they get it right.
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