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When a micro-purchase doesn’t work out, we try to learn from it

Two months ago, the 18F acquisitions team ran a public micro-purchase auction to find a vendor to develop a small new feature for 18F’s cloud.gov, and for the first time after several successful micro-purchases for other products, the contracted vendor didn’t deliver the code on time. This was very interesting to us — we’re early in the life of the micro-purchase platform, and we believe that failure is a great way to learn. In the spirit of experimentation and sharing our lessons, here’s how we went about analyzing this, and here’s what we learned.

Learning through doing

In brief, the way a micro-purchase auction works is that 18F identifies a task (a public GitHub issue in an open source project) for auction and sets a starting price as high as $3500. We advertise this opportunity to vendors who have registered on our platform, and the vendors bid against each other during a short bid period. The lowest bid wins the auction.

This task had very clear acceptance criteria, and we gave the winning bidder a week to deliver the code. Things looked positive, given that the vendor seemed motivated to deliver and appeared to have the technical wherewithal to get it done. But it didn’t work out as we’d hoped, and the vendor didn’t deliver the code on time. This means that we didn’t pay the vendor, and we didn’t get the new feature that we wanted. Our goal is to set up the customer and the vendor for success, so we wanted to get to the bottom of this.

Failing is important

We welcome the opportunity to gain insight from any situation that didn’t work out as we’d expected. Especially early on in the life of our platform (launched in October 2015), we need to welcome these kinds of experiences because we’re still trying to understand all of the conditions and variables we contend with whenever we run an auction.

Talking it through

To this end, we scheduled an Agile retrospective (a friendly discussion of what went well, what went wrong, and what could be improved) with all parties: the cloud.gov team, the micro-purchase team, and the vendor who worked on the task. Because micro-purchases involve targeted tasks and timeframes that are basically short sprints, an Agile retrospective is the perfect way to get the data we need. We plan to make this a normal part of our process going forward so that we can learn from our mistakes and improve the platform together with vendors and customers.

We started the half hour Google Hangout call by acknowledging the “retrospective prime directive”, a reminder that that this kind of meeting isn’t about assigning blame, but instead about considering what happened and how to improve. We aligned on the following problem statement:

The cloud.gov AWS SQS broker auction was not delivered in the allotted delivery timeframe as we expected it would be based on the requirements.

And, we employed the “5 Whys” technique to get to the root cause. Here’s what what we learned:

  1. Why 1: There was a lot more friction/tech debt uncovered when the vendor started work, which made it difficult to make the deliverable behave the way we wanted it to without a lot of refactoring.

  2. Why 2: This led to much more back and forth than anticipated as we worked with the vendor to figure out the problem.

  3. Why 3: No one anticipated this result because the context of the ask (the reasons behind the recommended implementation) was not clear until the winning vendor started work.

  4. Why 4: The vendor waited until after the auction ended to ask about context and this added to the delay.

  5. Why 5: The vendor did this because he didn’t want to give any other bidders a heads up.

  6. Why 6 (bonus!): The vendor didn’t want to give other vendors a heads up, as he believed this would potentially cause them to change their floor bid and outbid him at the last minute.

Our takeaways

  1. Context is important: Detailed acceptance criteria and a clear definition of done will usually be enough detail, but in some cases, context is also important. In this case, we were not clear about why we wanted the suggested implementation, and this caused delays in delivery.

  2. Vendors take risks too: Before even placing a bid, vendors have already done work to estimate the size of the ask. And, when when we make updates, they have to update their estimates. They hesitate to ask us for additional details as they’re concerned about tipping off their competition.

Next steps

The cloud.gov team decided not to rerun this particular auction for unrelated reasons, but we’ll be more explicit about context in future auctions. We’ll also continue to have retrospectives for failed auctions so we can learn from our customers and vendors and grow the platform together. We want to find that sweet spot for both the customers and vendors to ensure that we have a formula for successful auctions.

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