Government // Leadership
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5/16/2011
09:50 AM
John Foley
John Foley
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FBI Recasts Sentinel As Model Of Agility

The agency's CIO and CTO share the methodology they're using to hasten completion of its overdue case management system, so that other agencies can learn from their approach.

Can the FBI transform one of the federal government’s most problem-plagued IT projects, its Sentinel case management system, into a model of success for other agencies? After five years of development and more than $400 million invested, we will soon find out.

Sentinel and its predecessor case management system have been a symbol of all that’s wrong with government IT -- over budget, behind schedule, short on functionality. Sentinel grew out of an earlier IT failure, the FBI's Virtual Case File system, which was started in 2001 and scrapped four years -- and $170 million -- later. To put this into perspective, development of a next-generation case management system has been a work in progress for the entire tenure of FBI director Robert Mueller, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in July 2001.

Last September, after a partially completed Sentinel had been put on hold, FBI CIO Chad Fulgham decided to take over management of the project from lead contractor Lockheed Martin. Fulgham, a former senior VP of IT with Lehman Bros., outlined a plan to use agile development to expedite the project’s completion, with a goal of finishing it this year. For the past eight months, a small team of FBI technologists have been developing "working software" in intervals of a few weeks, then rolling that into bigger releases every two or three months.

Speaking at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., Fulgham and FBI CTO Jeff Johnson, another former Lehman Bros. IT manager, explained how they shifted the Sentinel project from traditional "waterfall" application development -- where requirements are established at the beginning and can take years to deliver -- to the iterative, incremental methodology of agile development.

Fulgham, who inherited Sentinel when he joined the agency in December 2008, walked other federal agency CIOs through the principles of agile development that his team is following: the rapid development of useful software; constant adaptation to changing requirements; close cooperation between business people and developers; and self-organizing development teams.

Fulgham said a "system of record" will be delivered this summer, with a broader release in September. Already, 10,000 employees are using the system’s existing capabilities each month.

Their presentation was essentially a how-to guide for agile development in federal government. The FBI's CIO and CTO talked of a need to create a project storyboard, bring customers together with the development team, collocate testers and application developers, generate frequent releases, produce only what’s needed, and continuously integrate software, systems, and business processes. The FBI plans to publish a case study on its approach after the project is completed later this year.

Agile development allows for organizations to make mistakes without getting sidetracked by them. “Fail fast and fail cheap” is how Fulgham puts it. For a project on a tight deadline and one that has already suffered its share of setbacks, that philosophy’s essential.

When the case management system contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin in March 2006, it was budgeted at $425 million with a due date of 2009. The budget has increased to $451 million, most of which was spent before Fulgham’s change in strategy. How, when, and at what cost the project comes across the finish line are being watched closely. The Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and Congress have all weighed in on Sentinel’s missed deadlines and other shortcomings.

Sentinel is a software and hardware system that will be used by FBI agents to manage the information associated with the cases they handle. The digital system will replace processes that in some cases are still paper-based. Sentinel’s planned capabilities include records, document, and evidence management, workflow, records search, and a "workbox" for each user.

It's worth noting that the FBI team didn’t start from scratch with Sentinel when it shifted to agile development. Two of the project’s four phases were completed under Lockheed Martin, and much of the system’s functionality comes in the form of commercial software from EMC, Entrust, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle. (Fulgham personally called the CEOs of several of those tech companies to get their commitment to help integrate their platforms.) The way the FBI changed course mid-project is significant because it suggests a route for other agencies struggling with elephant IT projects.

Before anyone takes a page from the FBI's agile play book, however, Fulgham and Co. must finish what they’ve started. I’m optimistic they’ll succeed. But 10 years and more than a half-billion dollars into this effort, we're all waiting to see how it ends.

Join InformationWeek Government for a virtual event on cybersecurity best practices and government IT. It happens May 25. Download it here. (Free with registration.)

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