A man wearing a skeleton t-shirt from the movie Spinal Tap“This is my exact inner structure, done in a tee shirt. Exactly medically accurate. See?”

In the first post of this trilogy, I summarized my DevOps Enterprise 2015 talk that focused on transparency, autonomy, and collaboration as primary factors in producing organizational culture change. In this post, I’ll describe a few of the initiatives we’ve undertaken to increase transparency into 18F’s internal operations. While primarily for the benefit of our team members, we hope they will inspire other organizations to adopt similar models and tools.

18F Hub and the new 18F Handbook

About a year ago, I began writing the 18F Hub as a prototype of a very lightweight intranet tool to help organize our team information and expose the connections between people, projects, skills, interests, and locations. One of the most important functions of this tool was to improve the onboarding experience by providing the content new hires needed to feel acclimated and productive.

The tool still has some rough edges and hasn’t fulfilled every promise yet — nothing, after all, is a silver bullet. However, the Hub has helped convince all of 18F that documentation, information architecture, and transparency of team information are critical to our continued success as an organization.

As a result, the 18F Handbook effort spawned from the Hub and the Documentation Working Group. It’s a ground-up re-architecture of content that organically grew within the Hub, our shared document drive, and people’s heads. It’s nearly complete, and we’re excited to report that it has already contributed to a vastly improved onboarding experience for our recent new hires.

At the same time, we have a product team dedicated to further development of the Hub and related products, with the Handbook serving as the minimum viable product. We’re currently evaluating whether to build or buy the functionality we need that the Hub doesn’t currently provide. Once that decision is made, we expect to migrate the Handbook content into whatever we come up with to provide an even smoother experience.

Getting our internal documentation in better shape will benefit not only new hires, but also existing team members who need to travel to a new office, remember how to register for benefits, or who want to see the current array of working groups and guilds; in short, it will benefit everyone. Ultimately, we hope to provide the tools, or at least a repeatable model, that other agencies can easily adopt and adapt to suit their own needs.

.about.yml files and the Team API

Dropping down to a more technical level, we’ve begun to develop and promote a metadata standard we call .about.yml. The idea is that these files will appear in each of our GitHub repositories where they’re accessible to everyone and easily maintained by project members. They will provide information regarding active project contributors, partner agencies, technology stacks, milestones, and more. In addition to our actual software products, we’ll add these files to documentation repositories that serve as working spaces for working groups and guilds.

In addition to providing immediate transparency into a particular repository, we’re already harvesting this information to produce what we call the Team API. It joins .about.yml metadata with information from other sources regarding 18F team members and 18F at large and creates a completely connected graph between people, projects, places, skills, and interests. We’re working to make this system as generic as possible, with all of the code publicly available, so that it might be reused by other organizations.

In other words, we extracted the data indexing logic from the 18F Hub into a generic RESTful JSON API so that it’s available to the Hub, the 18F Dashboard, our project code health dashboard, and whatever else 18F or other groups might create in the future. An extra layer of indirection not only solves all problems, but often introduces new possibilities beyond what’s currently imaginable.

Stonehenge wasn’t built in a day

The Hub, the Handbook, the .about.yml standard, and the Team API all started as prototypes developed by myself and my colleagues within the Documentation Working Group, the 18F Testing Grouplet, and the Working Group Working Group. After developing these concepts and products in a largely ad-hoc fashion for months, 18F decided they were important enough to evaluate using our intake process, just like any other project. We now have an official product team assigned to developing all of them as an integrated ecosystem. We’re also closely coordinating with the Agile Guild, our first internal partner, to update the 18F Dashboard, our first consumer of .about.yml data via the Team API.

We’ve built this product team because we understand that our organization needs these tools and artifacts to support our processes and values. We believe that how we work is just as important as what we produce for our partners. Product is a reflection of process. By setting an example of an open, thriving learning organization, 18F provides an example that members of other federal agencies can use to introduce similar methods into their teams.

In the final installment of our trilogy, I will discuss our community of Working Groups and Guilds, how they have produced an explosion of 18F Guides using our 18F Pages platform, and our ambitions to foster in-house training development via the 18F Edu initiative.