PTO’s new approach to IT system development begins to pay off

Listen to USPTO's John Owens on Ask the CIO

Jason Miller | April 17, 2015 10:56 pm

The Patent and Trademark Office has turned a corner most agencies only dream of when it comes to spending on IT projects.

PTO spends about 60 percent of its $600 million IT budget on development, modernization or enhancement (DME) projects, and 40 percent on operating and maintaining (O&M) legacy systems. On average, most agencies spend about 72 percent on operations and maintenance, according to a recent TechAmerica Foundation Vision Conference report. The 60-40 ratio is up from the 50-50 ratio PTO said had reached in 2012.

John Owens, the chief information officer of the Patent and Trademark Office, said even though the agency increased its budget to finish two key initiatives, the patent end-to-end system and the trademark next generation program, the real difference has been understanding their limits and working with their customers to overcome them.

Owens said the CIO’s office and customers work together “to make sound judgments” on where best to spend those resources — money, people and time.

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“Another thing that has contributed to it is agile. [The customer] sees a turnaround every two to six weeks with a demonstration every four to six weeks,” he said. “We build and iterate, build and iterate and then show them a demo of what we have got. It’s not vaporware to them. They are not waiting a huge amount of time. So they realize once we make this initial release with patents end-to-end, we will get quarterly releases and updates that they are in control of.”

Owens said customers know their needs are met within a few weeks to a few months so the need to sink money into old systems is not as great as it once was because new capabilities took years.

PTO is one of a growing number of agencies making the move to an agile approach to software development.

The Office of Management and Budget encouraged agencies to use agile in 2012, releasing a how-to guide. OMB and the General Services Administration further pumped up the agile approach with the launch of two new offices — the U.S. Digital Services office at OMB and 18F at GSA.

Reducing its technical debt

But PTO is one of the few agencies — along with the Homeland Security Department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services directorate — that is leading the move to agile without USDS or 18F having to “SWAT” or “parachute” in to help.

Owens said PTO faces a huge “technical debt,” which is when an organization maintains legacy systems for too long and the cost to move off them increases with each change.

He said using the agile approach, combined with user-centered design, can do a lot to lower that technical debt, but there are unintentional — or sometimes intentional — roadblocks because of the natural complexities between development and operations. To overcome those roadblocks of sorts, PTO has turned to the development/operations (Dev/Ops) concept to create and implement new capabilities.

“The concept of Dev/Ops is oriented to a culture change, which is the hardest thing to change. Really building an amount of trust between all the various parts of the organization, whether it’s development or the oversight people in our command, control center, our security folks and our operations folks, and really break down those walls and allow everyone to work together as teams from inception to deployment so we can more rapidly deploy those features,” Owens said. “Now what costs the most time is you do a bunch of agile iterations and then you have to build up for a big release, and even if you do it quarterly, takes a huge amount of time and effort, and it really shouldn’t. Industry has proven you can have multiple releases a day.”

Over the last year, Owens said he’s focused on creating these smaller teams and automating the process to build and test capabilities.

“Soon, in fact the patent end-to-end and trademark next gen will deploy this way, is one button deployment to our cloud. Literally, you tell the system to build, it’s one click. It gets built. It gets deployed to a test environment, and the automated tests run against it,” he said. “If it get passed, it’s moved into production. Boom, done. It happens through a series of scripts and applications called Puppet and other tools, and we get literally one button deployments. We’ve invested heavily in that for the next gen systems and some legacy systems.”

Owens said this approach doesn’t replace the important role people play, but it does address some of the major time challenges.

“We’ve made it as easy and simplistic as possible by scripting all of the parts that we possibly can,” he said. “That’s all toward embracing this ideal of Dev/Ops and joins those teams together, breaks down those barriers and allows us to rapidly deploy, which is our last step to taking care of our backlog of that technical debt over time and embracing the rapid development. Now we have rapid development, rapid test, automatic deployment and we can focus on building better products for our customers to meet their needs.”

Long process to change the culture

Owens said moving to a Dev/Ops approach includes tools, but it’s mostly changing the way people interact and view their roles. He said over the last six years PTO has implemented approaches such as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), good configuration change management and other disciplines to create a Dev/Ops organization.

PTO plans to hold a Dev/Ops industry day on Jan. 14 where leading industry experts will help the agency improve its processes.

“We also heavily are embracing our federal hires and the types of contractors we are trying to get toward more engineering-type of disciplines,” Owens said. “We are embracing the Pathway Program to bring in college students with computer engineering, computer science degrees. We will be bringing those on in the coming years, filling our ranks with people who can actually do some of the work to help build that culture of trust. A lot of people who are currently out there that have embraced Dev/Ops have realized it’s really about community of trust. And to break down those barriers, it’s a simple decision on everyone’s part not to have a barrier where it’s not useful.”

Owens said PTO put out a notice to industry to demonstrate their technologies and approaches to agile and Dev/Ops.

“We hope to be one of the first to truly embrace Dev/Ops in the federal government. I believe that it is a standard that will continue to push the excellence inside the federal government, to embrace the best technology industry has to offer and to drive government efficiency forward as we replace older legacy systems that are stringed throughout the federal government with real modern equivalents.”

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