ABS: Agile for the long haul

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has been using Agile methodologies for around seven years, but has more recently widened its adoption as part of a broader transformation within the organisation, assistant statistician and head of technology engagement and design Lane Masterton told an audience at the Technology in Government 2014 Summit last week.

The ABS has around 450 in-house IT staff looking after some 400 application systems. There is “a big legacy tail for us to manage,” he observed. With ongoing changes in the nation, the economy and in IT, the ABS uses Agile to address issues around speed, coordination and the ability to change, so that it can deliver the information its clients need to make better decisions.

One effect of all this change is that a system that is exactly right today will not stay that way over time. The more tailored a system is, the harder it will be to adapt to the changing environment, Mr Masterton suggested.

So the ABS has worked hard to get its architecture right from enterprise and capability perspectives, establishing a common language for business and technology units, and adopting a services oriented architecture (SOA) with around 3000 services that can be assembled as needed.

On the development side, the ABS uses the Scrum methodology with sprints that typically run for two weeks including planning, development, delivering the working software, and reviewing what worked, what didn’t, what should be done differently and what was learned during the sprint. The process includes several quality gates, such as checks on the logical design, the physical design, and whether the software is ready for release.

Since a good architecture is in place, the ABS’s high-performing development teams are able to use techniques such as team and extreme programming to deliver quality software within rapid development cycles, he said.

Occasionally extreme sprints - usually over three days - are needed to address specific business problems. “Agile’s very much about time boxing,” he said, but warned that extreme sprints should not be very frequent due to the risk of burning people out.

“Agile is about people,” he said, explaining that communication is key to building what you intended and that it is of value to users. But where Mr Masterton mentioned ‘people’ he did not mean ‘IT people’ - Agile involves both IT and business people. Training together and other measures help build a sense of team, and project owners are always team members drawn from the business side.

One aspect of Scrum is that the team commits to delivering the agreed functionality over the course of a sprint, and individuals commit to specific deliverables each day: “some people find that confronting,” he warned.

Even though development generally proceeds in two-week sprints, the ABS uses a six-week to three-month release timetable, due in part to the use of relatively traditional testing techniques. Mr Masterson said Agile puts pressure on other teams in the organisation such as the change management and infrastructure groups, so the adoption of automated deployment tools is under consideration.

Overall, “we have found Agile to be really beneficial,” he said.


This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

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