Empowering Public Housing Authorities Through DevOps

When Kevin Portanova came to HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) in 2014, he brought with him experience using Agile software development in the Navy.

At the time, Agile was a new concept across government, but one that Portanova saw great value in. “We started doing Agile first, and we didn’t really see the need for DevOps until the team started growing,” he said. As the team grew, so did the amount of work that the developers produced. The issue became how to get that software into production in a timely and efficient manner.

Although there are still a fair amount of manual processes, HUD as a whole is starting to implement continuous integration and continuous development, key tenets of DevOps. More specifically, REAC is using DevOps to modernize the way public housing authorities interact with HUD. REAC is charged with providing accurate, timely and reliable information for assessing the condition of HUD’s portfolio, and GovLoop sat down with Portanova to learn how software is driving those efforts.

The responses below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

GovLoop: Can you give our readers a sense of the critical role software plays in your organization?

Portanova: REAC, and HUD as a whole, has traditionally done all their software development through contracts and contractors. Back in 2014 now — so it’ll be five years in September — then-[REAC] IT Director Patrick Evans and our Deputy Assistant Secretary for REAC, DJ LaVoy, said, “We have breaks in service, we have contractors who leave for other contracting jobs, so there’s that loss of corporate knowledge. There’s the inefficiency; we can’t pivot these contractors to work on other high-priority things because they’re locked into a particular contract for a particular system.” For all those reasons, and I’m sure many others at the time, DJ and Patrick came together, and said, “Hey, you know, I think we can do this better ourselves. We want to hire some federal staff and hire a manager to run that organization as far as software development is concerned.”

So in September 2014, they hired me as that manager and four software developers. We were quickly successful with the support and skillsets that we brought to the table. That team of four developers quickly grew to 10 by the end of 2014. We’re currently sitting at a staff of approximately 40 in our IT department, and about 35 of those are what we call IT specialists, our 2210 [IT management job series].

As REAC develops new software, are you also maintaining a dual environment with legacy systems?

Yes. The team of 40 is broken out into unique jobs and skillsets. We really have six teams. Four teams are dedicated to software development solely. More than half of the developers are focused on one of our largest projects. It’s the modernization of our inventory management system. They’re solely dedicated to that and have been for the last couple of years. Then the other two teams, we’ve been moving around as fires surface. We’ve had instances of the contract going away, or the funding for that contract went away, but we still have a need to support a system internally, a legacy IT system, and so we’ve had a team that’s stepped up and taken that role. And then the final team is that DevOps unit.

Can you tell me more about that modernization project and what capabilities you hope DevOps will provide?

What DevOps is helping us with is that deployment pipeline. I like to tell everybody we’re paving the road while we drive on it. We’re learning as we go. That particular project is really unique because we deal with a lot of public housing authorities on the HUD side. Those public housing authorities a lot of times either have their own IT systems or a vendor that supports them in some function or another. And so we are really focusing our interaction on how we integrate our systems with their systems. We’re migrating that inventory management system to a government business solution using application programming interfaces, web services, RESTful JSON.

Today, a lot of those organizations have to log in to their own systems at the public housing authority, or PHA, and then they have to log in at HUD and do the same work. There’s a lot of duplicity involved. There’s a lot a redundancy, not always for the right reasons, but just because that’s the way the system was designed 20 years ago. REAC’s been in existence since 1998. Most of these systems that we still [support] today were built around that early 2000 timeline. We really haven’t had the ability to modernize those systems. And this inventory management system is really that first leap into that endeavor.

What will this mean for the public housing authorities?

It means an easier way to communicate with us instead of having to remember a username and password. About 605 of the calls we get in our Technical Assistance Center are username/password resets. Some people log in weekly or monthly, some people log in a couple of times a year when they have to do certain kind of work, whether it be the financial piece or the physical inspection piece. We do a lot of username/ password resets. It’s kind of a waste of our time and theirs, and so we’re trying to move to a methodology where they don’t have to worry about that. They just interact with their system, and their system will talk to us either real-time in a synchronous method, or asynchronously, [such as] nightly or weekly.

What metrics show how DevOps is enabling modernization?

Through that inventory management system, we receive a HUD 50058 form. That’s the data PHAs have to submit to us for every household, and when they move [and for] annual reexaminations, where they review the documentation to make sure it’s up-to-date. That’s the process we’re modernizing. Today, that system receives about 10,000 unique logins per week. Annually, we get about 10 million submissions of those 50058 forms. About 13% to 14% of those forms have issues and cause individuals at the PHAs to rework that process. That’s about 1.3 million forms annually that they have to rework.

We anecdotally — and incorrectly, I might add — assumed it takes 10 to 15 minutes for PHAs to fix it and send it back. Truthfully, it takes at least an hour. So, one hour at 1.3 million forms, that’s 1.3 million man-hours that are wasted annually that we could fix tomorrow if we make a system-to-system communication. As quick math, 1.3 million hours is 625 full-time equivalents. That’s 625 people nationwide that could be hired across the PHAs if we just fix that one problem.

How did you go about getting talented people on board? What skills did you look for?

As far as the job announcement perspective, we focused on skillsets that are here in this organization, whether it’s Java, Oracle — those kinds of things. The 2210 [job] series, is relatively new for this organization. It had traditionally done IT with management analysts, the 0301 series, which is very generic. The 2210 series offered us some jump into technology expertise. But it’s that capacity of learning, but also the willingness of expanding your skillset, stepping outside your comfort zone that I look for. And also, from a personality standpoint, are you going to fit on this team? Are you going to fit in an organization that does Agile, where we require you to collaborate and communicate? Truthfully, a lot of people go into software development because they like to sit at a computer by themselves and solve problems.

This article is from GovLoop’s recent guide “Your Guide to DevOps in Government Today.” Download the full guide here.

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