USDA’s Risk Management Agency uses agile to solve financial systems problems

The Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency has been on a journey to modernize its financial management systems for the past four years.

An unintended consequence of RMA’s long-term effort is it hastened the agency’s move to agile development.

Chad Sheridan, the chief information officer of the Risk Management Agency, said he hopes to complete the financial management upgrade later this year or by early fiscal 2016.

“What we found in 2011 was the stability of our systems was not where we thought it was,” Sheridan said. “It took us another good year to finalize and fix our policy acceptance systems and our actuarial systems to the point where we could accept our policy information to where we didn’t have hundreds of change requests backlogged, some of which were more than a year old. What ended up happening was that work started to bootstrap our effort into agile development. We finally started to make hay when we dedicated a team to the effort, we had them sit down with the business unit leader weekly if not more to prioritize which change request needed to get done and kept all the other work out of their way.”

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Sheridan said RMA brought the first part of the system online earlier this year. He said RMA customers, insurance companies, can now establish an escrow account to support timely payments to farmers and others when they submit a claim.

“This is exciting because our escrow system was built on a business process management platform, Appian, and we built this platform in the cloud. It was our first platform-as-a-service cloud implementation and it was a huge part of our effort to build our agile development process,” he said. “The one system we are looking to field in the next couple of months is our ineligible tracking system that has been undergoing for a year in a half or more. We had to refactor our design efforts and converted that effort to an agile development one. About half way through, we found we had started the project and our technical approach was flawed. So we refactored, restarted, brought in the right development team and said we will finish this job in an agile manner.”

Agile growing pains

RMA should make the first production release for the ineligible tracking system, which is a database of producers who are not eligible to participate in any crop insurance programs insured or reinsured by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC), in May and the entire system should be upgraded this summer.

Sheridan said RMA is about to start the first project to reengineer the reinsurance accounting system, which reconciles, provides reports with companies on the premium they owe, ensures the escrow accounts are correct and feeds the agency’s general ledger system.

The experience of the financial management system helped RMA move out of the waterfall approach to IT system development and to agile.

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Sheridan said the journey was not without lessons learned and growing pains.

One of the first one is how to train employees around agile.

“We trained everybody as scrum masters. But you don’t train product owners as scrum masters. That’s not their role. So you have a business community that has historically been very involved in design, probably more than they needed to be. So we did a lot of dictating of design instead of letting the team tell us what your requirements and processes are, and we will build the system to meet your needs,” Sheridan said. “Combine that with training as scrum masters, now they think they are in charge of the development effort. We had to refactor that and now we train everybody as product owners so we represent the role.”

A related people challenge is product owners needed to grow into their role as decision makers about the development priorities. Sheridan said it took two or three iterations before they felt confident in leading these types of agile efforts.

A second one is getting the business users engaged in the iterative development process early on, and a third is around changing all management approaches to meet agile development standards.

“One of the biggest complaints I kept hearing was, ‘We tell you what we need and you guys go away in a corner or dark hole for weeks or months, and you come back with something and it doesn’t meet our needs.’ I said, ‘We can do better.’ So we started into our agile development,” Sheridan said. “We brought in some trainers and trained some of our people up, but we missed the boat a little bit because we didn’t rethink our project management processes. We were still trying to plan our big upfront planning effort and then execute in an agile manner. It doesn’t work. Over the course of 2012 and into 2013, and finally into the spring and summer of last year, we found about every way to bump our heads imaginable. We found things like we were trying to adhere so strongly to a baseline, well agile is supposed to be fluid. There was fear that the baseline changed and we can’t change it, but you are supposed to change the baseline because it’s agile. We hadn’t changed all of our processes to match execution.”

Sheridan said RMA really started to “click” last summer in using agile, and now over the last nine months, they have 10-12 active development projects, compared to two-three efforts under the previous approach.

“Without a huge increase in budget, we are doing a lot more work and delivering a lot faster, our on-time, on-function delivery is that magic 80- plus percent,” he said. “And when we do change, it’s usually because of a business need. It’s made a huge difference in the relationship with our business folks because they now believe and trust that when we say we will get something done, we get it done. It allows us then, maybe transition to move higher up on that food chain of value because people are confident that we can deliver.”


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