Mashed Potatoes and Digital Modernization

There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss) shapes a pile of mashed potatoes into a mushy replica of Devils Tower.

Neary, after a brief encounter with an alien spacecraft, has become so obsessed with the shape of Devils Tower that he starts to see it everywhere, even on his dinner plate.

Sometimes, when I think about digital modernization in government, I feel sort of like Roy Neary. But instead of big piles of mashed potatoes I see small pieces of software.

So much of the work we do to improve government digital services involves breaking big things down into smaller pieces. A few years ago, I started to see this same “shape” everywhere, as clear to me as the iconic image of Devils Tower.

The inherent risk in massive, “big bang” deployments is widely known and its now common among digital service teams to advocate for smaller, more tightly scoped projects.

The agile practices we bring to agency projects are really just a way to break big risky tasks into smaller less risky tasks that can be delivered more quickly.

DevOps and iterative delivery are about smaller changes delivered faster.

Microservices move organizations away from big monolithic solutions to small, independently deployable services.

Modular contracting shifts procurement from huge RFPs to smaller, interconnected contracts.

The same theme (the same shape) runs through all of these approaches. Turning big things into small things, removing risk and delivering value more quickly.

At the end of Close Encounters, Roy Neary is chosen to accompany the alien visitors onto their mother ship and travel to outer space. It’s a happy ending. I think. (Actually, it’s kind of a confusing ending and I’m not really sure what it all means.)

But ultimately I think the ending of the movie is about an obsession that pays off. Roy is obsessed with the aliens and in the end he is chosen to travel with them into space.

I like to think that anyway because I want my obsession to pay off in the end too. I want to keep thinking about how to break big risky things down into smaller, less risky things. I want to keep thinking about delivering faster.

And I don’t want to end up with people looking at me oddly while I play with my mashed potatoes.

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