The state Department of Health Care Services is reporting success so far with a new concept in IT product development.

DHCS calls it the Factory and describes it as the department’s “new enterprise approach” to modernizing the state’s aging Medi-Cal Enterprise Systems and its components. The first project for the Factory, undertaken in the summer of 2019, was to overhaul and modernize the Federal Draw and Reporting (FDR) system, which is how the department captures and tracks federal health-care funds.

Where a traditional state software shop would buy software and licenses from vendors and then pay another company to integrate those components into a system, the state technologists on the Factory team write some software, buy some, and then integrate it themselves.

The goal, according to a state project-tracking document, is to “design, build, and operate digital services to replace the functionality currently provide by the DHCS CMS-64 application, Excel spreadsheets and multiple manual processes.”

“This is the first step in what is going to be 100 steps that we do over time,” said Crystal Taylor, the team’s liaison with the business side of DHCS. “This is one product, one project, that has crossed the first step of the finish line into production. But there’s a universe of modernizations that this is that first key step for. The intent is to go out and improve strategically the business process by facilitating technology for many of our internal organizations.”

Steve Trimble’s title is Medi-Cal Enterprise Systems Division Chief and he essentially runs the Factory. The chiefs of three teams report to him: Taylor, chief of the Product Branch; Ryan Mosley, chief of the Factory and Engineering Branch; and Anand Surve, chief of the Project Management Services and Support Branch. Mosley runs the tech side of the Factory, while Surve secures the funding, legal clearances and executive support for the initiative.

“We don’t want this just to be an experiment,” Trimble said. “We want it to be a proof of concept. We want to demonstrate that the way the rest of this world builds software is also the way that the state government should be building software. Right now, it’s a bit of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, because it’s hard to be an agile project in a waterfall world, but we’re pushing and nudging and trying not to be annoying … enough to where we’re effecting change. We’re hoping that it becomes the foundation we can use to modernize and build software.”

Trimble said this is DHCS’ first custom development where it did the systems integration.

“We haven’t put that burden on the vendor,” he told Techwire in an interview along with Taylor, Mosley and Surve. “We’ve taken responsibility: ‘OK, this is the way we’re going to build software; this is the factory where you’re going to live and operate; and if it fails, it’s going to be our fault. We’re going to take responsibility for the products we are delivering."

Mosley readily identifies himself as a passionate champion of agile methodology and said it’s a huge part of the Factory’s success.

“If you think about the agile process,” Mosley said, “one of the concepts is consistency. That consistency is preparing you to handle anomalies, because you don’t have to worry about all the things you normally do; those are just habits. You’re better prepared to handle those things that come at you that are different. So if we do have a new system that does need a variation, we don’t need to rebuild our Amazon environment; we just need to address that need, and then move forward. We don’t have to re-engineer everything around it. And we’re quicker to respond and address those things.”

Though the Factory team works collaboratively, the shift to remote work earlier this year didn’t cause even a hiccup in the team’s workflow, Mosley said.

Because of “the processes that we’ve put in place and the tools that we’re leveraging … we did not have an impact on productivity or velocity,” he said. “These groups were able to maintain and push right through it. ... It’s almost seamless.”

Added Trimble: “There are certain types of work that are very compatible with working remotely. The work we do as we develop software is very accommodating to remote working — I know Ryan said there was no impact, and I would actually argue that there may have been a positive impact in the way we work.”

Overall, Trimble said, the effort has been very gratifying.

“Just over a year ago, we wrote our first line of code,” he said. “So, within about 14 or 15 months, we’ve gone from writing the very first line of code to delivering our MVP (minimum viable product) into production, and our users are now using the system. We are very proud of the velocity of delivery that we have accomplished, where we go from the first line of code to thousands and thousands of lines of code that work, and is delivered to the customer in a relatively short period of time. Our vision is to be much more efficient at building and delivering software for the State of California. 

"Our intent was to build a factory by which we could build FDR — and then use that factory to continue to modernize other legacy systems, because there’s a lot of other systems hat are aging and in need of modernization. So we’ve got a lot of modernization in front of us. And now that we have that factory in place, that we’ll use to run all the modernization efforts through, we expect that we will be able to deliver solutions much more efficiently.”