Guest View: It's Not Too Late to Learn

August 15, 2005 —  (Page 1 of 4)
On Feb. 3, 2005, Robert S. Mueller III, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, appeared before a Senate subcommittee to explain how the FBI had managed to waste US$104.5 million.

This couldn’t have been a very comfortable position to be in.

In 2001, the FBI had launched the Trilogy project, a project designed to update the FBI’s IT infrastructure.

Trilogy came in three parts: update the network, update the hardware and update the software. Guess which one Robert Mueller was talking about?

That’s right—the software. “Virtual Case File,” or VCF, was intended to allow FBI agents to upload information to a centralized database so that it could be easily accessed by others.

It was a disaster, and the $170 million project was canceled for a loss of $104.5 million.

Sadly, the loss was entirely avoidable: The FBI made many classic mistakes. In this article, I’ll take a look at three of these mistakes and apply lessons learned from the agile software movement.

Classic Mistake No. 1: Ignoring the Users. User involvement is a critical factor in the success of software projects.

In its 2004 CHAOS report, the Standish Group cites user involvement as the top project success factor, and lack of user input as the top cause of project problems. Despite this, there is no indication that the FBI made the involvement of actual agents a priority in VCF development.

In agile projects, user involvement is a central concern.

Many agile projects have an “on-site customer”—a user representative who is directly responsible for picking priorities and defining features. Agile teams produce working software every month (or even every week) for demonstrations and user review. They recruit outside customers to regularly review these releases and provide feedback.

User involvement isn’t easy. At the March meeting of the Portland Software Development Roundtable, a participant described a government project for the state of Oregon. For several periods of six months, different groups of seven to eight users were physically moved to the capitol in order to work out detailed requirements. Larger user groups did extensive testing and review close to each release.

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