For most of my consulting career I avoided working in the federal space based upon my admittedly biased and unnecessarily negative attitude that agencies were years behind the private sector in the adoption of new technologies, implementation of modern development methodologies like Agile and use of customer-first product management approaches. Ok, so I wasn't completely wrong, but there are many reasons that working in government is way cooler than it used to be.
Being a technological generation behind commercial companies has its advantages. Just as emerging economies have serendipitously avoided costly wired telephone networks by going straight to wireless communications, so to can government agencies benefit by skipping one or many of the painful steps of migrating between technologies that the private sector is all too familiar with.
So, what do I mean by that?
We are all familiar with the major waves of technological advances over the past 50+ years along with the countless ripples in between. Starting with the mainframe (amazingly still here), that first kid on the block freed workers from tedious, repetitive tasks enabling new levels of productivity. The PC and its millions of desktop applications rescued us from the mind-numbing green screens (almost gone) by putting the power of computing directly under our control. The internet ushered in a new era of global connectivity (perhaps not all for the best) unleashing a torrent of cultural and business change. The smartphone and its app ecosystem minted twenty-something billionaires (should’ve been me) untethering us from the cord. More recently we’ve learned that clouds contain silicon and float inside non-descript grey buildings, that SaaS does not only mean ‘disrespectful’ and that Things breathe out data much like trees breathe out oxygen.
Paralleling these technological waves behind the scenes were equally amazing advances in development languages, operating systems, and databases. The armies of engineers who built the modern computational world outfitted themselves with productivity enhancing toolsets to speed up code writing through accelerative development frameworks, smarter editing tools, reusable libraries, APIs, testing suites and deployment tools. Fundamentally, building applications still means writing much of the code from scratch. In enterprises or agencies where innovation or uniqueness of mission demands brand new code that is totally understandable. However, for commoditized business functions shouldn’t the code just write itself?
A typical industrial company with roots going back perhaps a hundred years moved from the mainframe to client-server architectures twenty five years ago, to COTS applications twenty years ago, to web applications fifteen years ago, to mobile applications ten years ago and to cloud today. They did so to reduce costs, generate new lines of business and keep up with the ever-increasing customer expectations. Companies that failed to keep up with this inexorable march live on today only in use case studies at elite business schools.
Government agencies by contrast are not faced with the same pressures. When you only have one taxing authority the urgency of moving from paper to bits is driven as much by budgetary constraints or political will as it is by customer demand. In such an environment, technological generations operate for decades longer than originally intended. Even IRS commissioner John Koskinen revealed in 2015 that the agency was running applications dating as far back as the Kennedy administration.
The lift of moving from ancient mainframe applications to modern cloud and web apps or even from older web apps is proving to be an immense challenge. A large agency can have well over 2,000 systems and moving each individually generates huge risks, financial crunch, resource challenges and time constraints. Government agencies have been more invested in lessons learned from the private sector through partnerships and strategic hiring and have increased appetite to implement new technologies. And luckily for them, maturing technologies known as “low-code/no-code” application delivery platforms may be their ticket out.
The vendor market for “low-code/no-code” platforms has exploded in recent years with the likes of Salesforce, ServiceNow, Pega, Appian and others seeing double digit growth and climbing stock prices. These platforms pave the way for shifting IT effort from writing code to configuration promising to lower costs, reduce time to deployment, increase application functionality and improve customer satisfaction. Configuration is conducted through web-based consoles rather than individual development tools to speed up the development of new applications while providing integrated testing and run-time environments. Certain functions can even be handed off to the business to build their own applications freeing IT to do the harder stuff and mitigate shadow IT.
Platforms hold promise for agencies looking to skip the intermediate steps that we’ve seen in the enterprise space. The productivity improvements for application delivery and the availability of out-of-the-box functions compel project teams to improve their products while modernizing at the same time. And reusing previously built assets (APIs, workflows, screens, etc.) can further accelerate modernization. In fact, the low-code/no-code platform may be the agency’s only path to technical parity and reduced application footprint while preparing to meet all of the future unknown requirements.
Platforms are an ecosystem requiring the combined nurturing of the organization, advances in business processes, platform configuration methodologies, adoption, standards and use case prioritization procedures in order to optimize derived value. Otherwise, the platform is just another expensive point solution that gathers dust on the digital shelf and complaints from procurement at license renewal time.
At Digital Forge, we help clients establish and operate platform centers of excellence and staff application delivery teams to unleash the potential of platforms. Stayed tuned to this blog and subscribe to our other digital channels
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Digital Forge, LLC advances digital design and transformation of enterprises into world-class, high performing organizations ready to take on the challenges associated with an ever-accelerating emergence of new technologies and increasingly hard to meet customer expectations. Our integrated digital design and transformation framework encompasses a holistic digital strategy combined with low-code/no-code application platforms and state-of-the-art networking capabilities to ensure your business outperforms competitors and pleases customers for years to come. With decades of experience in strategy, management and IT consulting experience, our team of highly skilled practitioners partners with clients to achieve new levels of success.
Chip Taliaferro is the Founder and Chief Digital Guy at Digital Forge. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or directly via email at email@example.com