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Building digital services the agile way: a developer's view

I’m a senior developer in the Secure Communications team in DWP.

Phil Mawson, Senior Developer, DWP
Phil Mawson, Senior Developer, DWP

When I started my career back in the 1980s, developers were often stuck in a room coding all day long, only interacting with other IT managers and developers. Communication skills were definitely not a requirement of the job!

But that’s all changed. Developers are now an important part of a wider project team. We see and hear users’ stories, we work with business analysts, we know the big picture, we voice our opinions and importantly, we collaborate.

Giving developers a voice

We didn’t have to revolt for this change to happen – it’s all to do with the emergence of agile. This gave developers a true voice and a place within a project team. People realised that developers have good ideas and if you ask them their opinion on requirements and give them context then they can not only contribute, but they can do their job a lot better.

Since 2006 I’ve only ever worked in agile environments, mostly in the private sector. I joined the DWP Secure Communications team in 2014 and, as well as relishing the chance to work in Leeds instead of London, the opportunity of using my experience to build a development environment and the capability to develop new digital services was too good to miss.

Phil Mawson at desk

As soon as I started I was given every opportunity to share my experiences, and to help find like-minded people who shared my passion for agile development to persuade them to join the team. What I didn’t expect was the foundations that had already been put in place by the business. The Digital Academy was in full swing, helping the business community to adopt an agile way of working, and from what I have seen so far achieving this with flying colours.

Fast forward to now. The Leeds hub is buzzing: story cards adorn every inch of free wall space and an array of noises from cuddly and plastic toys announce stand-ups every morning. Developers are right in the thick of the action, projects are progressing and services are being built to meet users' needs.

Story card discussion between Phil and a Secure Comms colleague
Working with story cards

Developing the Secure Communications service

All this leads me nicely onto the day job. In Secure Communications, we’re developing a service that lets verified third parties securely send DWP information, or receive information from us. From a developer’s point of view it’s a brilliant project to work on as it involves building a system that hides all its complexities from the user and seamlessly does its thing in the background.

The prototype we’re building allows GPs to securely submit patient medical report forms online, instead of by post. This is more efficient for GPs and also means terminally-ill patients get their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) faster.

Our main challenge is communicating with NHS systems to make sure we can authenticate the GPs who are sending us the forms. In future we want to adapt and roll the solution out to other departments or sectors, so our development work is rooted in making sure what we’re doing is reusable and scalable. We also need to make sure we can deploy software quickly and efficiently. To meet all these technical challenges, we’re using the very latest development tools.

Secure Comms digital service
Secure Communications digital service

Amongst all this, the days – and the sprints – go by so quickly. Processes are always iterating, new people are coming into the team and we’re making progress. Our project is on track, we’re engaging with our sponsors and users and with their help we’re heading in the right direction.

We’re about to go into beta. Building an end-to-end prototype, testing it with GPs and preparing to run it will provide yet more technical challenges. But it’s a really exciting place to be, and as a developer, it’s all a far cry from the days of being distant and separate from everything going on in a project.

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