USPTO Gets Agile
Blog by Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO David Kappos
Since my first days at the USPTO, I’ve been committed to modernizing our outdated IT infrastructure. Modern tools are a cornerstone of our strategic direction to leverage 21st century technology to make your work easier, faster, and better. To deliver on that promise, and to rapidly transform our systems to achieve the agency’s goals, it’s essential that the USPTO learn to be more nimble in our approach to modernizing our systems.
Last May, John Owens, our CIO, directed a top to bottom review and enhancement of our procedure for developing IT products to embrace the “agile” development methodology. Traditionally, the USPTO utilized a “waterfall”’ development methodology that was characterized by several serial phases that resulted in long, drawn out delivery cycles. As a result, users had to wait many months and often years, to receive new functionality and tools with no guarantee that the delivered product would satisfy their needs. By contrast, agile is an iterative development methodology commonly used outside of the federal arena and is embraced at many successful technology companies. Agile emphasizes rapid delivery and user involvement from the beginning, to ensure successful delivery of tools that the users want and need.
In December, Vivek Kundra, the U.S. Chief Information Officer, unveiled an ambitious 25 point plan to reform federal information technology management. Included in this plan are agile techniques. Namely to take smaller steps, tweak them based on feedback from our stakeholders and current business needs, and end up with systems that deliver higher value and increased user satisfaction.
Agile does three fundamental things that are different from traditional methods. First, agile embraces change as a constant. Change is expected, constantly planned for, and prioritized in real-time as business needs change. Second, agile time-boxes risk into 30-90 day “sprints.” This “if you’re going to fail, fail early” risks only 30-90 days’ worth of project time instead of finding issues or quality concerns late in a multi-month or multi-year project. Finally, agile techniques allow us to incrementally deliver higher quality products with improved features that are based on our users’ needs.
Agile requires cultural change to be successful. The project teams contain users who interact and test throughout the sprint. The user can work with and exercise the results of the sprint and provide valuable feedback that can be quickly integrated into future iterations. Users can therefore see results and improvements in months rather than years!
We’ve made substantial progress in USPTO’s understanding of agile and are beginning to pilot several smaller initiatives using this new methodology. We hope to have a better understanding and more established processes for working in this environment in the coming months so that we can leverage this experience for marquee programs like “Patent End to End” and “Trademarks Next Generation.” Additionally we are launching extensive training for IT staff and users in agile and we are hiring program managers with deep agile.
As with all cultural changes, this one does come with some risks. As I mentioned, agile embraces, expects, and plans for changes, and to some extent failures, but due to the limited nature of the sprints, the risk and costs of such failures are small. Now it’s up to us to educate ourselves, stakeholders, users, customers and support the CIO that this is all part of the process and ultimately results in a much better product for the end users.
I applaud the hard working staff of the CIO’s office and other business units for undertaking this transition. I know embracing change can be difficult, but as we mature our understanding and acceptance of the principles of rapid development and delivery, we will all benefit by the delivery of modern and improved tools and technologies used in industry for over a decade to deliver high-value business functions faster.