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Building prototypes

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Principles of prototyping for acquisition

Software prototypes are one tool available to governments to “de-risk” software acquisitions where there are substantial unknowns, or not-yet validated technology choices, by providing out or invalidating a concept. They can help to reduce risk in complex IT procurements, especially when coupled with the adoption of agile practices and procurements that are smaller and more modular.

Overview

Technical prototypes serve many useful purposes, but they can be particularly useful to support an acquisition. An prototype before a larger acquisition can help uncover hidden risks and validate core technical assumptions. It can help buyers better understand what they are asking a vendor for, and help them to craft a more meaningful scope of work for an acquisition. It can also serve as a reference implementation for prospective vendors, complementing procurement documents with a working example of what a buyer needs.

Rather than having a vendor raise questions during a contract’s period of performance, prototyping allows the buying agency to anticipate hurdles, so that those can be shared with potential vendors in procurement documents. Knowing the constraints and issues before putting together a proposal helps to set up vendors for success.

The following principles are meant to guide product teams in the use of technical prototypes in support of an acquisition. Note: This is a living document, and will be modified frequently as product teams become more proficient and experienced in using prototypes.

Guiding principles

Avoid premature optimization

A prototype should support a procurement and be thought of as a research tool. It should be developed rapidly, using a relatively lightweight approach and at low cost. Guard against over-optimization.

The government should leverage prototypes to obtain user feedback, validate technical decisions, and better understand the organizational barriers to deploying software in modern ways.

If the logic behind modular procurement is to break down large projects into smaller chunks to reduce risk, employ this same approach when prototyping. Instead of thinking of a prototype as an immutable whole, consider how it can be broken into pieces to address assumptions about customer value and technical risks. Don’t obsess about documentation, but highlight to the what assumption this prototype was meant to assess, and how this tool measured up against those hypothesis.

For example, consider using a boilerplate app (or simple demo app) to support development, or building out a minimal DevOps pipeline pipeline to help identify bottlenecks in your process before a vendor is brought on.

Help vendors, don’t handcuff them

A prototype can serve as a reference implementation for a vendor, by demonstrating one approach to technical issues like data access or authentication.

A prototype should not dictate a choice of specific technology or approach (e.g., one language over another), unless there are compelling reasons to do so. But a prototype should adhere to the technology requirements of the client (e.g., if a client’s IT standards dictate Microsoft .NET platform as the preferred technology stack, the prototype should be built on this stack).

Use all the tools in risk mitigation toolbox

A prototype should reduce risk prior to procurement, but probably won’t eliminate it. There may be questions unanswered or risks present when issuing an RFP — that’s normal. RFPs themselves should have some provisions for managing risk (particularly if they are smaller in scope), and using an agile methodology can provide opportunities to change course as issues arise after contract award.

Helping our partners develop prototyping capacity

One of the goals of 18F engagements) is to impart strategies and techniques to our partners that will allow them to practice modular procurement on their own going forward, and on other projects. We strive to intentionally include partner staff in prototype work so they have an ownership stake in the process and familiarity with how to use prototyping to support future procurements. We work to assess the capability of our partners to continue prototype work after our engagement is over, and intentionally structure the work to best help them develop the capacity for continuing to do it going forward.

Understand security requirements

It’s important to understand security requirements in the client environment that can impact prototyping work.

Do you have the policy and technical infrastructure in place to support prototyping? Is a full System Security Plan required to build a prototype that isn’t intended to be deployed to a production environment or require ongoing O&M?

Do you have the technical infrastructure in place to support prototyping? Is test data available for use in building a prototype? Is there an environment where test apps or prototypes can be efficiently deployed?

Consider adding someone that can represent the client’s security office to the product team. Give this person a seat at the table from day one.

Focus on lessons, not artifacts

Sometimes the outcome of the prototyping process is not (or not just) a finished prototype, but a better understanding of the environment in which procured software will run. For example, developing a prototype might involve evaluating different methods of accessing data in a legacy system, which could yield multiple viable data access techniques. Having a better understanding of the different ways a vendor solution might access legacy data could be enormously valuable to a project.