Member Insight

April 2021

Greg Gershman
Opeyemi Oshinnaiye
Deputy CISO
DHS - Immigration Customs Enforcement

Where Modernization Meets Transformation

Two of the most impactful words in Federal IT are Modernization and Transformation.  The words themselves are provocative enough to be part of marketing campaigns and are catalysts for investigative reporting. It is important to clearly define those terms for us to adhere to be consistent when we attempt to do either. It allows us to continue to create templates/playbooks that guide organizations and reduce the confusion that leads to inefficiency. 

The indicators of transformation vs modernization are IT driven but the benefits are not solely technical and are usually multifaceted. Benefits involve the scope and breadth of the change that will define your effort. Let’s use the automobile industry to represent Federal IT.  In this example, a modern approach would be improving a car by upgrading tires to have damage protection and improving the aerodynamic body of the car. The car essentially performs the same functions better. The experience does not fundamentally change.  In fact, it is culture and demand that motivate the modern approach. Car manufacturers must sustain a competitive advantage via performance and appeal which prompts change and a modern approach. An automobile that self-drives, self-parks, runs on alternative fuel source and converts maintenance visits in large part to software upgrades transforms the way the consumer interacts with the automobile. The change impacts the behavior of the consumer and provides a different context as to the benefit the product provides. Of course, at its core you have a vehicle but with more functionality and modifications that are made remotely via software. Changing how maintenance is performed, changes the paradigm of vehicle care and adds a different dimension to the automobile industry. You now have a CPU that can provide transportation services, which creates many more possibilities. Transformation focuses on the outcome. How change impacts the benefactor and who or what the benefactor interacts with. Transformation also creates a mechanism for continuous improvement. 

Modernization is important for ensuring the viability of effective services. To ensure that organizations can maintain operations and deliver consistent value it is important to avoid systems and infrastructure from becoming obsolete.  IT also impacts the security posture. Cost can be a driver for the scale of modernization that needs to occur. Where the lines begin to blur is when the scale of modernization becomes large enough that it transforms IT service providers and operations.  The lean-agile movement is a great example. Today lean-agile and DevOps culture exists throughout Federal IT, but when the change in paradigm occurred it was disruptive. Process, quality assurance, and risk management are significant tools for government IT to ensure that the way we deliver solutions can be repeatable and accurate.  The challenge with these tools is that when the system doesn’t catch inefficiencies and defects the impact is exponential. Prior to lean-agile, if a process promoted defects to production, the support teams spent as much time preparing and documenting how to deliver the emergency release to fix the issue as they did analyzing the process and the code that delivered the defect. The efforts were not focused and by the time the next proper release completely fixed the issue the requirement changed.  IT could not keep up with the pace of change and the demand for business features. As the world became more digital, the Government embarked on the journey towards lean-agile to deliver releases faster and implement DevOps tools to automate delivery in a way where code acts as the governance mechanism. When defects are introduced now there is more traceability and automated documentation that everyone has access to. Developers and operations staff are able to find the problem, change code in multiple areas and deliver in a rapid release (because agile paradigm is ‘release often’) so we skip the emergency release drill. In the most mature environments these changes hit production before the user realizes they exist. Given the magnitude of the changes in IT delivery and operations over time, one could make the argument that the way IT services are delivered is transformed

The IT professional does experience a significant change in culture and value. While accurate to say IT was transformed, we must understand that transformation in the broader context is focused on the business outcome that is delivered. It encompasses more than cloud, code and continuous delivery. If we transform IT and we deliver the same business features faster to provide similar capability, we have not succeeded.  The investment did not provide additional capability to the user. Accomplishing IT modernization directly enables transformation but is not a replacement for it. Sustaining playbooks for accomplishing both large scale modernization and business transformation amidst the high demand for digital products will shape the way the government does business. Currently, playbooks, tools and examples exist but one solution does not match all environments, technically or fiscally. As we continue to provide more clarity on how we approach both efforts we should provide more scenario-based templates and communities of interest to effectively and efficiently achieve both objectives.