This article, the fourth in a series, originally appeared on CIO.gov, the website of the U.S. chief information officer and the Federal CIO Council. Richard Spires is CIO of the Department of Homeland Security and vice chair of the Federal CIO Council.
In my first three posts on the challenge of delivering successful IT programs, I introduced the topics of tiered governance and the need to have effective governance at the enterprise, portfolio, and program level. Now let’s move on to key program and project management disciplines.
Over the past two decades, I have conducted hundreds of program and project reviews. Through this experience, I have developed a sense of what does and what does not work.
The single most important element to program success is the skills and experience of the Integrated Program Team. (Former federal CIO) Vivek Kundra understood its importance – IPTs are number 9 in the “25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management.” The 25 Point Plan specifies the inclusion of the business owner, IT and acquisition professionals, finance, human resources, and legal specialists.
The plan then states “At the hub of these IPTs is a strong and effective program manager who stewards the process from beginning to end.”
Nothing could be more true, and, in particular, I agree with the importance of having a skilled and experienced program manager (PM) and the need to have dedicated resources throughout the program lifecycle, co-location when possible, and aligning performance objectives of the IPT members.
Then what is the point of this blog, given my agreement with the 25 Point Plan? To emphasize and provide additional detail on two areas: the role and qualifications of the IPT members, to include both personnel representing the business and the IT specialists.
When organizations embark on large IT programs, it is critical to ensure the right business involvement. My second blog post discussed the need for program governance that has the right business executive engagement in program oversight.
But at a working level, it is necessary to have full-time representatives of the business who can not only successfully work within the IPT to define requirements of the system, but also support the trade-off analyses that are a constant in a program.
In assessing a program, I look for individuals on the IPT who are steeped in the current process end-to-end, who have true credibility with senior management, and who demonstrate flexibility to deal with unending change as a program unfolds and matures.
Unfortunately, these crucial individuals are all too often absent in Federal IT programs. The business simply does not give up the star players to fill these roles. Many times you will get specialists in particular business areas, but no one person who has an end-to-end knowledgeable view. This negatively impacts the change management process on a program, ultimately impacting the program’s schedule and cost. This does not in and of itself doom a program, but it is a predictor.
In regards to the IT specialists, there is a lot of focus on the program manager position, and to reiterate, you need a skilled and experienced PM. For large, complex IT programs, someone who has successfully managed and delivered numerous programs is vital. I recognize that we don’t always have the talent base to fill all PM positions with experienced PMs, but it is an absolute must for large and complex programs. What I find truly surprising, however, is how many programs will set up shop without all the other key IT management disciplines in place.
Large, complex IT programs vary greatly, so there is not one model that fits every IPT. The following positions, however, are typically core, and I consider programs that lack solid individuals filling these positions as high risk:
System Architect – this individual is both a technologist and engineer and can develop a technical solution to meet the requirements, and fully understand the Agency’s enterprise architecture and how this system will interoperate with our Agency’s systems and external systems.
Data Architect – for any highly data-centric system, this individual is an absolute must to ensure the proper integration of data from different unrelated data sources.
Requirements Manager – this is not the business lead discussed above, but the individual that understands the life-cycle of managing requirements, from elicitation through the requirements change management process, to test and evaluation.
Development and Integration Manager – too often, this individual is missing; but, if you are developing software or implementing a complex configuration of a COTS package, you need such an individual dedicated to this task.
Test Manager – this individual brings a solid end-to-end view of the testing process.
Configuration Manager – this individual accounts for everything, and runs a very tight change control process.
Operations Manager – an individual who knows how to field and operate systems is always required. As we drive to more incremental delivery in the federal government, this individual is even more critical because it is not unusual for programs to have a release in production, another in development and testing, and a third in requirements definition and design simultaneously.
Too often, I find the PM cannot point to individuals filling each of these key roles. Further, many times such roles “de facto” become filled by contractor personnel. I recognize that many successful systems have been delivered with contractors filling many of the roles above. My experience, however, at both IRS and now DHS, is that this again adds risk to a program. I much prefer a model of government personnel filling these roles.
It is not that the contractor personnel do not possess the competence. The key is for an IPT to be “integrated.” That is difficult to do with contractor personnel in some of these key roles. We need strong contractor teams to help us execute large complex programs. But even more importantly, we need strong government IPTs to provide leadership and oversight to direct the work.
Keep reading →