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Tension and disconnects between software and systems engineering functions are not new. Grady Campbell wrote in 2004 that "systems engineering and software engineering need to overcome a conceptual incompatibility (physical versus informational views of a system)" and that systems engineering decisions can create or contribute to software risk if they "prematurely over-constrain software engineering choices" or "inadequately communicate information, including unknowns and uncertainties, needed for effective software engineering." This tension holds true for Department of Defense (DoD) programs as well, which historically decompose systems from the system level down to subsystem behavior and breakdown work for the program based on this decomposition. Hardware-focused views are typically deemed not appropriate for software, and some systems engineers (and most systems engineering standards) have not yet adopted an integrated view of the two disciplines. An integrated view is necessary, however, because in complex software-reliant systems, software components often interact with multiple hardware components at different levels of the system architecture. In this blog post, I describe recently published research conducted by me and other members of the SEI's Client Technical Solutions Division highlighting interactions on DoD programs between Agile software-development teams and their systems engineering counterparts in the development of software-reliant systems.
Foundations of Our Research
In the last several years, the DoD has focused efforts on decreasing the length of time needed to bring new software and other technical capabilities to soldiers. To accomplish this goal, members of the DoD acquisition community are increasingly turning their attention to Agile and other iterative development methods. The DoD 5000 series and other guidance for acquisition programs still offer a system-oriented perspective on acquisition. However, they do not provide strong guidance on how to leverage iterative software development methods within the greater context of iterative development methods.
With this research, our team--which also includes Suzanne Miller, Mary Ann Lapham, and Timothy A. Chick-does not advocate a particular development method. Instead, we explore the ways in which Agile software development teams are engaging systems engineers and associated stakeholders to identify factors that will help the DoD benefit from Agile methods and barriers to achieving those results.
As detailed in our technical note on this research, Agile Software Teams: How They Engage with Systems Engineering on DoD Acquisition Programs, two key facets of systems engineering help us to understand why systems engineering is an important player in programs adopting Agile methods:
When we analyzed these two facets, what emerged were two distinct possibilities of how the systems engineering community might take advantage of Agile methods.
On the product side, the incremental, iterative approach with heavy user involvement common to all Agile methods could be leveraged to increase the speed of development of key requirement and design artifacts needed to implement different mission or system threads. Some methods, such as test-driven development, could be incorporated into the activities of systems engineering to increase the connection between the two sides of the typical systems engineering V lifecycle.
On the service side, at the scale of a program that requires a separate systems engineering function, the coordination, communication, and conflict-resolution services that systems engineering provides could translate into a product owner surrogate role, a Scrum of Scrums facilitator role, or other specialty roles that show up in scaling approaches, such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), which provides an interactive knowledge base for implementing agile practices at enterprise scale.
Three Different Approaches to Systems Engineering with Agile
At a high level, we envisioned three different approaches, which we refer to as engagement models:
In the first of these approaches--where traditional systems engineering is being used, and the systems engineering team is interacting with an Agile software team without being members of that team--we observed that Agile software engineering teams were providing deliverables to the systems engineering function at the boundary between the systems engineering function and software functions. These deliverables can include code or documentation and work products to facilitate technical reviews. The Agile team engaged in its Agile practices up to that point, assembled what it needed to hand off to a systems engineering function, and then passed those things over those boundaries. So, the Agile team was free to operate in its iterative and incremental way until it handed everything over. The team then entered the systems engineering domain, and the systems engineering teams executed according to their plans and processes, typically, with the traditional V model.
As a result, some of the decisions typically made in an Agile software project--such as the selection high business value or high technical infrastructure value--could not always be made because the programs were bound by the manner in which the systems engineering function had allocated the requirements and defined the work packages. For those teams, we did not always see all the benefit we observed in what I would call a "pure" Agile space because they had to deal with this interaction.
In the second of these approaches, a systems engineer typically operates on a software Agile team in the role of product owner, who is the person in charge of requirements and their prioritization. The systems engineer would be involved in the prioritization of features and functions going into a particular sprint. This involvement enables the systems engineer to follow the testing of the features and functionalities, so that when work products come to the boundary between the software team and the systems engineering function, systems engineers know what is coming into test and evaluation. Just as importantly, the systems engineering team is prepared. There is a smooth transition as the work product flows from one part of the engineering process to the other.
With this approach, we observed a smoother transition as well as additional opportunities for making changes in the systems engineering ideas and designs. We attributed these benefits to early learning enabled by the incremental approach and more detailed involvement with software. Some of the software implementation can change some of the system designs, so the software team actually had a little more influence on the systems engineering products when systems engineers worked in this way.
In the third approach, where systems engineers apply Agile methods to their own work, they iterate requirements development, develop the baselines, establish the baselines, and establish the designs throughout the lifecycle. The biggest issue we observed with this approach is the translation of "working software," a fundamental tenet of Agile methods when applied to software, to an equivalent in systems engineering. We observed this more often in commercial IT organizations, where there is no significant hardware development component. We did, however, observe one large project that adopted Agile systems engineering methods across system, hardware, and software tasks.
Although we only found one project, we have seen indicators of increased interest in this approach. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) established a working group on Agile and systems engineering. Also, The National Defense Industrial Association has established an Agile and systems engineering working group. While this approach is the most novel, our research team did observe instances in which that dichotomy between product and service common to systems engineering comes in to play. Systems engineering functions that recognize the service side were more prepared, because their vision isn't limited to product artifact transformation.
Through our surveys and interviews, we observed that the greatest opportunities for successful Agile implementations occurred when systems engineering teams were, at the very least, aware of and engaged with the Agile processes. More generally, we identified successes and challenges in the following key areas:
One of the most important aspects of an Agile implementation is the use of the continuous improvement mechanism of retrospectives. During our interviews, we noted a variety of answers to the question
If you could change one thing about Agile interaction with systems engineering, what would it be?
Several themes emerged from the responses, including
These retrospectives inform future areas of work, including the appropriate use of metrics for reporting and managing programs employing Agile software development and on DoD contract vehicles and provisions that support the use of these methods.
We welcome your feedback on our research.
To download our technical note detailing this research, Agile Software Teams: How They Engage with Systems Engineering on DoD Acquisition Programs, please visit
To download the technical note, Potential Use of Agile Methods in Selected DoD Acquisitions: Requirements Development and Management, please visit
To view all of our recent publications regarding Agile adoption in the Department of Defense, please visit