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Turning learning up to 11: Knowledge sharing

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 the second post, I described a few of the initiatives we’ve undertaken to increase transparency into 18F’s internal operations, which we hope will inspire other organizations to follow suit. In this final post of the trilogy, I’ll describe other knowledge-sharing initiatives we’re working on that we believe are also of immediate benefit to other organizations, and will maximize our impact on government IT beyond product delivery.

Working Groups and Guilds

We have a thriving ecosystem of internal volunteer groups, known as working groups and guilds (aka “grouplets”), dedicated to a diverse array of organizational concerns. The Documentation Working Group in particular has helped many of these groups become more productive and visible thanks to the 18F Guides vehicle. In terms of software products, the Agile Guild is currently leading the effort to enhance our externally facing 18F Dashboard, and the Testing Grouplet has prototyped an internally facing dashboard for the code health of our projects. As mentioned in the previous post, our Hub, Handbook, .about.yml standard, and Team API projects were all spawned from working group activity, and are now all staffed with an official product team.

One of the tricky aspects of grouplet activity is measuring whether your work is having any impact on the organization. Many groups have begun to establish quarterly Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), and the User Research Guild has contributed a draft guide to creating OKRs to help us focus on measurable outcomes. We’re also in the process of building an alliance between product managers and each of the grouplets. We hope to cultivate a dynamic whereby product managers can become better informed on each grouplet’s chosen topic, and in return, product managers can gather feedback from their teams that they can relay to the grouplets. This information will help the grouplets gauge their impact on an ongoing basis. It will also help the grouplets identify specific needs of 18F projects, so that they can work to better serve those needs.

All of these efforts are still in their early stages, but the amount of activity is promising. By getting the people who are passionate about particular issues to seek creative solutions to challenging problems, we’re creating the environment that will eventually produce insights and breakthroughs that benefit not just 18F, but hopefully like-minded instigators at other federal agencies who are facing similar challenges. (Likewise, we hope to steal and adapt as many ideas from other agencies as we can!)

18F Pages and 18F Guides

Since launching our 18F Pages service in May, many groups within 18F have taken advantage of the platform to produce 18F Guides on a broad array of topics. Several of our guides, including the Content Guide and the Open Source Guide, have been announced on our blog and have attracted public reviews and contributions from folks outside our team. We now have the (wonderful) problem of generating so much content that we need to do a better job of organizing it and making it more discoverable. There’s a content tiger team assembled to address this very issue.

The 18F Pages publishing platform has also served us very well. We’ve stamped out (and tested!) a handful of bugs, and added (and tested!) a number of new features, including:

  • The ability to listen to multiple branches and publish each to a different location
  • GitHub webhook (automated notification) authentication
  • Publishing repository contents as-is (as opposed to using Jekyll)
  • Publishing “internal” and “external” versions of a site from the same branch

What’s more, the github-webhook-authenticator npm package is reusable across webhook servers, and the 18f-pages-server npm is completely configurable and available to everyone. If you’ve a mind to run your own Pages instance, we’d love to hear how it works for you!

18F Edu

To build on the momentum of 18F Guides, we’ve begun piecing together an in-house training effort we call 18F Edu. Through Edu, working groups, guilds, and other subject matter experts will produce hands-on training content that’s available to everyone in the organization. This content will build on 18F Guides to give people a more tangible feel for a particular topic by providing exercises that walk through the nuances of a real-world problem. It will also provide the basis for lightweight training sessions that we hope will catch on even outside of 18F. The Edu group plans to polish off training modules on website accessibility compliance, selected aspects of content production, and unit testing in Node.js. We’re also exploring possibilities with the DigitalGov University team, such as developing training materials that will expand upon some of their most popular content.

Bringing it all back home

Fellow Devops Enterprise 2015 speaker Steve Spear had a quote in his presentation, “Creating High Velocity Organizations”, that said: “If you’re not building a learning organization, you’re losing to someone who is.” This concept of a “learning organization” resonated deeply with me as it encapsulates what I consider the real opportunity 18F has to change the way that the government builds and buys software. What we do isn’t just about consulting and writing software, and billing for time and materials. It’s also about introducing a culture where the government, the vendor community, and all of their employees feel that they are empowered to seek out fresh challenges, to grow, and do their best work for the people.

In that light, though the artifacts and processes discussed in this trilogy may be outside of our agency partner projects, investment in organizational learning capability is what supports the long-term development and delivery of high-quality products and services. Rather than taking resources away from customer requirements, it’s what enables those requirements to be (truly) fulfilled, and to not merely meet customer expectations, but actually exceed them.

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