Collaboration Outside the Tech Silo

James Stewart - Director of Technical Architecture at UK Government Digital Service

Mark Coleman is blogging live from Velocity 2014 Barcelona for Container Solutions.

When James and his colleagues first began trying to improve software delivery at the UK Government Digital Service, a large, high-profile, and incredibly complex organisation, they initially began by making changes “under the radar.” This initially yielded results but eventually the under-the-radar changes that they were able to make in their own silo started to run out and they started bumping up against the rest of the organisation.

James notes that DEVOPS, by bringing Developers and Operations engineers together, is a step in the right direction, but what happens when you need to start communicating with other, very different departments such as government policy departments?

The first challenge that James and his team came up against was working with the government’s procurement procedure. Initially GDS (UK Government Digital Service) had been able to keep their EC2 usage below the threshold which requires explicit approval but eventually they needed more firepower. “It is important for the government” James said, “to be able to show how it is spending tax payer’s money.”

The result of this requirement for transparency is an involved process which is too long to work within an agile context. James quoted Steven Shorrock’s talk from the first day of the conference: “How does this system make sense to the actors within it?”

Rather than judging the procurement procedure as inefficient or ‘un-agile’ James and his team were instead able to find another team within the Government, ‘GCloud’, who were already trying to solve the same problem, and worked with them to find an acceptable solution, albeit outside of GDS’s own agile process.

James gave a few more examples of how they had successfully worked with other departments who would normally be considered outside the technical domain and the overall point seems to be twofold:

  1. Keep an open mind towards other silos. They have reasons for doing things the way they do so approach these reasons with patience and curiosity instead of the “naive” view that you know how to do everything better.
  2. Where possible, get other silos involved in your process as soon as possible.

James also mentioned however, that GDS has support from the “very highest levels of Government” which must also contribute to their ability to drive change across the organisation.

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