IT Mod Trailblazers Chapter 1: Just Get Started, featuring Rob Klopp

August 29, 2018
Blog, Leadership
By Yasmeen Burns

As we mentioned in our inaugural IT Modernization blog, IT Mod is a large organizational, financial, and cultural commitment. It can feel like an insurmountable task to steer your company in this new direction. Leaders we work with on IT Mod efforts often ask, “Where do I begin?”

The simple answer? Just get started—and figure it out along the way.

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Klopp, the former CTO, CIO, and Deputy Commissioner of Systems at the Social Security Administration (SSA). Rob is recognized as a leader in IT Modernization with experience at both the federal government and state levels.

Prior to his career with SSA, Rob worked in Silicon Valley. His modernization philosophy stems from this background, and draws heavily upon concepts like Agile, Lean, Minimum Viable Product, and Skunkworks. He never had any intention of entering the public sector, but that all changed in 2014, when he was invited to Washington D.C. to attend the kick-off of the U.S. Digital Services program, and former President Barack Obama entered the room.

Rob describes how Mr. Obama addressed the 30 people gathered: “He basically said, ‘Look, IT is extremely important. We need some help to get this thing moving in the right direction. While we can’t pay you very much, I know it will be much more difficult for you to say no now that the President has personally come in and asked you to join—so are you in?’” Rob was instantly hooked and signed on.

Once on board at SSA, he was faced with the daunting task of modernizing a 40-year old legacy system–one that many employees were comfortable working with. Coming from Silicon Valley, Klopp was accustomed to Agile development methodology, but he knew that this approach was new to the government.

During his tenure at SSA, Klopp helped transform the Agency by setting the foundation for IT Mod to deliver greater value to the American public. Before Klopp got into office, SSA had spent almost $300 million on software and had little to show for it. Klopp and his team took over the management of the disability case processing system (DCPS) project, listened to their customers at the state level, and applied an Agile and Dev/Ops approach. The first iteration of DCPS was launched on Dec. 16, 2016 and updates and deployments will continue throughout 2018. Under Klopp’s leadership, SSA turned DCPS from “zero” to “hero” in less than 14 months.

This accomplishment, along with many others, has been widely recognized in government circles, and Klopp has received several prestigious awards such as FedScoop’s Tech Champion of the Year.

Klopp, now an IT Mod consultant to the State of California, sat down with us to reflect on his experience with the federal government and to provide advice on how all leaders can successfully implement IT Mod at their organizations.

Q: What does modernization mean?

Let’s put it this way: the government is driving around a 30-year-old car—for the sake of the metaphor, let’s say a 1988 Chevy. We agree that we need to modernize, but we start looking at a 2012 Ford Taurus, which is relatively more modern, but not actually modern. Modernization means looking ahead to the 2019 Tesla.

The IT equivalent of really modern, leading edge but not bleeding edge is cloud-native software: systems built and optimized for the cloud. To be cloud native, new applications should utilize current best practices (although not necessarily leading edge) in software engineering. Although these practices might be considered somewhat geeky, they are captured very well in the highly popular short manifesto “The Twelve Factor App”.

The moral of the story is that if you are building something that is not cloud native, you are putting that hard work into systems that are not truly modern and will not stand up over time.

Q: What kind of internal support did you have throughout this transformation?

Having another C-suite executive on your side during agency-wide transformation is invaluable, and I was lucky to have support from the Chief Technology Officer. More importantly, I had air cover from my boss, SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin. And I had my staff. I was honestly very impressed with the capabilities of the government employees. There’s this urban myth that government employees are not as competent as their commercial counterparts. This is not true, and I experienced it firsthand.

Q: Can you elaborate? What was it like going through IT Mod in the public sector vs. the private sector?

I found that in government sometimes “consensus” means “unanimity”. This is a recipe for failure. As “the boss” in a government agency, as long as I could reach the beginnings of consensus by enrolling the thought leaders, I could push the product through to completion.

I learned if you are going to do this stuff you have to exhibit leadership. Leadership means leading. It doesn’t mean facilitation. It doesn’t mean slowly trying to build unanimity. It means gaining a thinking consensus and driving forward from there.

Q: Speaking of leadership, what is your advice to other leaders attempting IT Modernization?

Simple: Just get started. You can’t go into analysis paralysis. Agile is all about just starting and refining along the way. The beauty of it is that you’re only thinking about the minimum viable product (MVP), you’re not thinking about this fantastic, perfect future. Once you get started, you incrementally and continuously improve, and that never stops.

I’m not saying the magnitude of IT Modernization isn’t large or that it’s not expensive. I’m saying that it’s not intractable. Staring at a blank page to create something is always hard. Staring at an old and complicated system and trying to create something simplified is perhaps even harder.

But the old and complicated systems are complicated because when they were developed they were at the edge of what commercial computing could achieve. Forty years ago, the SSA Title II application pushed the mainframe to the limit. Today, it would not be considered an extremely high-transaction volume.

Get started: think about the core business process as the basis for your MVP, build out the easiest part of that process and deploy it, then iterate.

Q: Is IT Modernization as difficult as people think?

It requires you to be a little bit bolder than you would be otherwise. However, it’s easier than everyone assumes it is.

The cloud is very useful to getting started because you don’t have to build the infrastructure; you can rent it by the hour.

Furthermore, today a software “build” is really a “borrow”. Modern applications built in Silicon Valley utilize open source components from public libraries like GitHub and SourceForge. A new application may consist of as much as 80% borrowed code. Even commercial products are built from this stock.

Q: Can you explain more about the “buy” vs. “build” dilemma with IT products?

There is a fundamental belief in the government that a “buy” is always better than a “build”. Historically this was because the cost and the risk associated with a build was higher, although the benefit of a build was that you received a bespoke application designed specifically to satisfy your user needs.

But today, the equation is changing. Departments can “borrow” code and arrange it into that desired bespoke application.

IT Modernization makes the borrow and build option even more attractive because you can build a cloud-native application that will leverage cloud computing to dramatically reduce operational costs. Very few commercial packages are elastic and scalable in the cloud.

Note that this trend may not help the commercial off-the-shelf product vendors. It will, however, benefit the systems integrators and custom development houses. In other words, this is not an anti-commercial message. It is just that cloud computing and software technology have reached a point where the economics of a buy are changing relative to build options.

Finally, there are also low-code packages that are somewhere in between. Leaders don’t think about these as alternatives and so they often revert back to the way we thought about “buy” vs. “build” 10 or 20 years ago.

Q: So, how should leaders consider using low-code packages?

A low-code package can be an interesting option. There are some questions you should ask to determine what makes sense for you. Is the resulting application from a low-code package cloud-native? Cloud-native means elastic and scalable, deployed in containers, and in-the-best-case deployed as microservices. Does the low-code package deploy applications that follow the 12 factors? Can you use DevOps and Continuous Integration techniques with the package where code quality is automatically checked against develop-specified automated unit tests and product owner-supplied automated acceptance tests? Is the amount of low-code less than the amount of full-code once you factor in borrowing open source components?

Q: You’ve given us a lot of your current insight. What are your predictions about the future of IT Mod?

After IT Mod, comes more IT Mod…and after that comes more IT Mod. The reality is technology is moving so fast that the idea of software as a fixed asset—and once you build it you can just milk it for 20 years—is simply not realistic anymore.

In Silicon Valley, engineers spend two years to build a giant new product capability, deliver it into production, take a deep breath, and then immediately start re-writing it from scratch. It’s important to understand that the future is continuous improvement and continuous modernization.


Stay tuned for more interviews with federal and commercial IT leaders to learn their perspectives. If you’d like to learn more about leadership strategies through IT Modernization, contact The Clearing today.

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