Inside the FBI – Getting Agile with Sentinel
For the past few years, the FBI's IT team has been busy upgrading the agency's networks, desktops, and enterprise systems. The FBI's CTO provides an update on the agency's IT strategy and implementation.
Jeff Johnson doesn’t look old enough to be the Chief Technology Officer at the FBI. His bio lists his graduation date from the U.S. Naval Academy as 1998, probably putting him in his early 40s. But his boyish good looks and easy conversational style aren’t what you would expect from a man with Jeff’s level of responsibility.
Jeff was a returning speaker at the Government IT Leadership Forum. Moderator John Foley invited Jeff to provide an update on the FBI’s migration to an agile development methodology, specifically around the development of their Sentinel Case File Management system.
Sentinel is a major, central system within the FBI’s IT infrastructure. Back in 2005, the system was billed as a replacement for a largely paper-based reporting process. Sentinel is an electronic information management system that provides a web-based interface for searching across multiple FBI databases. The project has received scrutiny and criticism for delays and cost overruns for years. “We’re technically finished” reported Johnson.
The FBI’s public adoption of an agile development process was likely both an operational and political solution to continuing delays. Johnson seemed proud to announce that the system is now in beta testing and functionality is 98.6% complete. He also offered that training and change management processes are currently underway, with some configuration to be performed post-production.
The FBI is using Scrum with 2 week sprints. Jeff appears to be a true Scrum evangelist. He spoke proudly and confidently about the FBI’s successful migration to agile. “Agile is not just a methodology or a process, it’s a way of being. You don’t ‘do’ agile. You are agile.” A number of other agencies have come to observe the FBI’s methodology. And the FBI has made arrangements to loan their Scrum Master to other teams to get them trained.
One of the best statements Jeff made about agile development was in response to questions about how responsive the agency was to changes in stakeholder requirements. Jeff answered that his teams are disciplined about conducting and communicating half day planning sessions between sprints. He observed that increased transparency kept stakeholders in sync. Further, stakeholders would modify their expectations, based on the increased visibility of the process. But ultimately, he dismissed the concern, citing the brevity of sprint cycles, “We’re only talking about 9 days of risk.” As a Scrum practitioner, that statement dripped with authenticity for me. As a product manager in an organization running Scrum, the thing I like best about the methodology is the ability to quickly adjust to stakeholder feedback and dynamic priorities. Jeff went on to say, “We spend less time developing code than if we had won the argument on scope creep.”
Asked about other key initiatives, Johnson discussed the FBI’s interest in leveraging shared-services, a common theme at the 2012 Government IT Leadership Forum. Jeff said that he is working to define and understand key metrics to help him understand which shared services could be adopted based on the FBI’s demanding SLAs.
Jeff referenced data integration and visualization, and enabling search across multiple databases and systems. Jeff reported that the agency has developed a prioritized list of data sources to be integrated with key systems.
Jeff provided an update on the adoption of mobile technologies at the agency. Like most of the agencies we heard from at the conference, the FBI is standardized on the Blackberry. Jeff said the agency supports 30,000 Blackberry users. However Jeff did mention that they are now developing for the Android platform. Going forward, Jeff described the focus on mobile as eliminating or minimizing downtime associated with working offline. “What are your capabilities when you’re not connected with a wire?” He also suggested that providing connectivity for mobile command centers was a top priority.
What’s the next big thing for IT at the FBI? BIG DATA. Jeff talked about the need to put context around structured data. “Many things at the FBI are inherently unstructured.” But he discussed the importance of meta data, taxonomies and entity management.
Overall Jeff left me with an impression of smart competence. He was extremely credible discussing the agency’s adoption of Scrum. I congratulate him and his team on bringing a happy ending to the long saga of Sentinel and I thank him for sharing his insights and experiences with us at the Government IT Leadership Forum.