How did the Defense Department (DoD) succeed in rolling out its commercial virtual remote (CVR) capability – in non-military speak, Office 365 – to the entire department in 30 days at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to meet the demand for widescale telework capabilities?

By breaking “a lot of eggs” along the way as part of an agile development process, said Sharon Woods, director and program manager, Cloud Computing Program Office, in DoD’s CIO office, during a presentation on Dec. 2 at AFCEA International’s TechNet Cyber 2020 virtual conference.

DoD’s success in giving more than 900,000 personnel telework abilities by April – and upping that number to more than million by June – is already well known. What’s more of a mystery is how the agency pulled off that feat.

Enter Woods, who runs the seven-person team that got it done.

In her presentation this week, Woods said that as the pandemic took hold, “the question of the department became how do we keep doing our jobs under these circumstances.” The imperative was to provide the means to telework, and the enabling technology was a cloud-based commercial collaboration suite.

Woods said she got a call on March 18 tasking her with deploying Office 365 to all of DoD. “I was shocked, I said what are you talking about,” she recalled. But her team, she said, “was confident they could do it quickly … I trust my team, they would not give me a load of BS.”

On March 20, Woods and her team began a weeks-long cycle that she recalled as the “Thursday that never ends … we started to build and deploy the O365 tenant, the CVR.”

“The day never ended for us,” she said, adding, “we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week … people stopped sleeping, people stopped showering … we drank too much coffee.”

Woods said her team first tested Office 365 user accounts on March 20, and the pilot users went live on March 25 – among them senior DoD personnel. “Leadership ate its own dog food” by being among the first users, Woods said, adding, “that was really powerful, that sent a strong message”

By March 26, the team had worked out documentation, and a few weeks later, “we codified with Cyber Command and DoDIN [DoD Information Network] that CVR was an area of operations.”

And by April 19, all accounts for DoD had been created. “That’s one month for deploying the world’s largest O365 tenant at historic speed,” she said. “I hope you can appreciate just how ridiculous that timeline is … there was no way that would be reasonable by any standard” in the pre-pandemic era, Woods said.

The creation of the CVR, she said, “is a really good example of authentic agile development … It is true to its name, it is minimally viable,” and it works.

“When you move fast like that you can break a lot of eggs – that’s what agile development looks like,” she said. “It is possible to count tech deployment across all of DoD in weeks and months, it doesn’t have to be years.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.