Report Cites Problems with FBI's Approach to Agile Development

Add the FBI to the list of federal government agencies that are reportedly failing to correctly implement Agile software development practices -- a move mandated by the Obama administration.

Last month FierceGovernmentIT reported an independent investigation  that concluded there were numerous "high-level concerns" and "weaknesses" in the FBI's plan -- called the Path Forward -- to complete an oft-troubled case management system named Sentinel.

The report, commissioned by the FBI, was conducted by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (SEI) and was obtained by FierceGovernmentIT through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The FierceGovernmentIT article was published near the same time that other articles reported problems with the Veterans Administration implementation of Agile methodologies.

The SEI report specifically cited problems with the FBI's implementation of commonly accepted Agile practices. Some of these problems included:

  • Size of teams. While Agile typically calls for small teams of five to 10 members, the FBI development and testing teams consist of about 25 people each, with only one ScrumMaster.
  • Role sharing. While Agile typically calls for all roles to be shared and team members to be in the same location, the FBI's plan includes separate development and testing teams, with members located in different locations.
  • Not using Agile techniques. The report said "we heard comparatively little discussion of such Agile techniques as continuous integration, sprint retrospectives, user involvement, story development, team-based incentives or automated testing."
  • Management. While Agile teams are supposed to be self-managed and self-organized, interviews with team members "seemed to assume that many decisions would be deferred to management." The report also listed one of the "high-level concerns" with the plan was undefined details and that "the program manager will apparently be making most of the decisions about those undefined details, instead of those decision[s] becoming the shared responsibility of the scrum team[s]."

Other concerns with the correct implementation of Agile centered on a non-Agile "fixed time/fixed scope approach" instead of a more flexible schedule, a "separate QA and verification and validation team" and lack of product owner or "user community at large" involvement, among others.

The report also listed several strengths in the plan, such as:

  • Clearly defined overall objectives, including cost and schedule
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities and use of a common document repository
  • An intention to use existing assets
  • Co-location of the development team in the Washington FBI facility

However, the report's first listed "high-level concern" was that the plan meant "an enormous change in direction for the FBI." It also noted the FBI's tradition of a rigorous and exacting culture may make it difficult or impossible for team members to "rapidly acquire so different a perspective on their work" as is required in Agile development.

And even though the SEI cited numerous weaknesses that should be addressed and remedied, it said, "We cannot go so far as to predict that, should these weaknesses be remedied, the Path Forward project will succeed."

About the Author

David Ramel is an editor and writer for 1105 Media.

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Reader Comments:

Wed, Jan 19, 2011 Ed Seattle, WA

Sounds like they forgot the most important aspect... having the right people.

Thu, Jan 13, 2011

Scrum and Agile are both ephemeral notions of what the elusive silver bullet should be. Experience has demonstrated both devolve into the chaos that led to the notion of rigorous ceremony being the answer. Most often the problem is that people who know little hire people who know less but talk a good show. There are few Jedi Grand Masters who can manage grand-vision programs. Most software program managers are coders in over their head.

Wed, Jan 12, 2011 Adron Seattle, WA

Well, right off there is a HUGE problem with the view and reference of "Agile" here. Agile is a set of ideals and there are management processes that adhere to these ideals. It sounds more like they're trying to implement Scrum and failing miserably. There project, if it isn't already over budget and failing, will. Interesting that they conducted an entire study on this.

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