Agile Transformation at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Turning a Crisis Into a Powerful Opportunity & Pivoting to Products
A photo of the front of the United States Patent and Trademark Office building

While you may be most familiar with the agile transformations of corporations and private sector software and technology firms, government agencies also find ways to transform how they work. In a government setting, the main challenge to agility often boils down to how to work better, faster, and cheaper in work environments that have historically been structured by regulation and compliance. 

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is a federal agency that protects intellectual property rights. In recent years, the many thousands of people who work for the USPTO have undergone an agile transformation with support from Chief Information Officer Jamie Holcombe and others who saw the potential of this new way of working. 

What Is the USPTO?

The USPTO grants patents and registers trademarks for innovators, entrepreneurs, business owners, inventors, IP stakeholders, and creators in America. It’s a 200-year-old federal agency and an excellent place to work. “When you think about it, it’s a pretty sacred duty,” said CIO Jamie Holcombe. “It’s baked into the Constitution.”

The roughly 10,000 employees at the USPTO are in fact fulfilling a constitutionally-mandated duty under the commerce clause to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Every day they work to protect intellectual property, and one could certainly argue that the agency directly supports ingenuity, making it possible for people to safeguard what they’ve created.

Patents protect inventions while trademarks protect brand names, logos, symbols, and designs. The history of the agency tracks with the history of entrepreneurship in the country, beginning with the first-ever patent for potash, an ingredient in fertilizer, issued on July 31, 1790. Today the USPTO is at the cutting edge of technology and invention, granting patents for algorithms, heart stents, artificial intelligence, and much more.

Eighty percent of USPTO employees are happy with their jobs, and 92% believe the work they do is important, according to the agency’s website. Nonetheless, as is bound to be the case with any centuries-old institution, real change comes only after major disruption.

From Crisis Comes Clarity and Agility: The PALM Outage

Holcombe joined the USPTO shortly after the Patent Application Location and Monitoring (PALM) database outage left a major database inaccessible, making patent and trademark applications impossible to find.

On August 15, 2018, this foundational database connected to more than 50 systems experienced an internal issue and was taken offline. The outage continued until August 23, 2018. Shortly after the outage occurred, there were also problems with the backups. First, the wrong backup was used, and the second backup blanked and went down. The indices on the third and final backup were corrupted. 

All told, it took eight days to re-create 19 petabytes of data, leaving 9,300 examiners unable to process patent applications during that time. People applying for patents had to revert to paper applications, and the agency experienced a loss of revenue, which is a big deal for an agency that is 100% funded by fees.

The PALM outage was part of the reason Holcombe was brought on board at USPTO. Part of his job was to modernize the work processes and infrastructure so that something like the PALM outage would never happen again.

The Outage: Tightly Coupled, Co-dependent Systems

Holcombe discovered the interconnected systems of patents, trademarks, back-office business, and infrastructure were too tightly coupled. A change in one part of the system was likely to dramatically impact another part of the system because of the tight coupling. That became clear at the time of the PALM outage. What needed to happen was for the systems to be able to function on their own.

The PALM outage represented one backup system and Holcombe wanted to know what the plan was if “the entire place went down,” as he put it. It wasn’t entirely far-fetched: The data center is located on a floodplain. What would happen if it was flooded? The plan was to run out of a backup center in another state if something like that occurred. Holcombe decided they would put their resiliency to the test and run out of the backup center temporarily.

There were a couple of important findings from running out of the backup center. First, it was clear they didn’t have the bandwidth to get all the data back and forth and that they needed a new data center, which is in the works.

But Holcombe didn’t want to stop at building resiliency in the backup data centers. He wanted to create an agile culture and mindset at USPTO. The agency had been very effective at doing projects, but businesses currently evolve so rapidly these days that by the time the USPTO projects were delivered, the businesses had moved on. Holcombe realized he’d have to change the entire environment to move the focus from fixed projects to evolving products. 

Transforming the Environment

In many ways, teams are now empowered to execute. Said one technical lead, “Even the way we get help has changed – from leaning on dedicated support to troubleshooting on our own. Now the support team is OUR team…now we don’t wait to resolve issues and tackle them ourselves.”

To change the entire environment, as Holcombe describes, he had to transform the program management office. While reorganizing structure isn’t necessarily uncommon in the private sector, it’s a dramatic move for a government agency: “Project managers, program managers - they’re the people that do everything,” said Holcombe about the way government agencies are accustomed to managing projects. Holcombe shifted the teams to product management.

They created product teams and product owners across the four product lines (patents, trademarks, back office, and infrastructure). Instead of individual projects as before, they now had products. At first, Holcombe says some folks doubted the transformation and assumed that just the titles were changing and nothing else. Holcombe noted that the biggest change was from IT managers managing projects to product owners making business decisions. “And we’re going to prioritize; it’s not a project,” Holcombe said. “A product has a lifecycle. And maybe this product is not needed any longer - you can throw it away. Or maybe this product is actually run by somebody else on the web as a service.”

An Early Win

It’s not uncommon for agile changemakers to encounter doubt, hesitancy, and resistance from the people who perform the work and their managers. Change is hard, and teams and organizations may not accept those changes with open arms right away. Mr. Holcombe knew a win for the team would demonstrate the benefits of working in a new way.

An early win was the development of the patent end-to-end search tool. This tool is a graphical, user-oriented search and replaced an old Boolean search method that required a lot of time and parsing of words. The P E-to-E search tool includes drag and drop functionality and makes it possible to work much faster and more efficiently. The developers were happy with the way the tool improved their ability to get their work done. 

“You develop momentum slowly by getting those wins,” said Holcombe. “You also have to expect there’s going to be some losses. The biggest thing about failure is to learn from it and not repeat it.”

Other wins included pivoting to roughly 30 business products instead of more than 150 IT projects. They also launched new AI features, moved from annual planning to quarterly, and started creating roadmaps across four product lines. 

Agility Put to the Test

Earlier this year, in January, the IT world became aware of critical issues with the Log4J component that teams use almost everywhere to collect and log system events. When they became aware of how serious the issue was, the Acting CTO said dramatic measures were called for from the CIO, including shutting down external access to USPTO’s IT assets so they could find and fix these problems where they exist.

The first question was, “where is Log4J used?” One initial assumption was that every one of the systems that uses Java is vulnerable unless proven otherwise. Unfortunately, almost all of the business applications are written in Java and run on platforms written in Java. The good news is that they had a pretty simple way to mitigate the problem with a configuration change. The other good news is that they had pretty good tooling to show where Log4J exists in their software and what version is in use. They quickly produced a list of the systems that needed the change.

The operations teams shut down public access and the product teams went to work. They were only offline for a couple of (weekend) days and had all of the public-facing systems mitigated within about four days. There is no way they could have reacted so fast under the old ways of working, in a project-only ecosystem, where they would have funded this kind of effort through an “IT Project.” It probably would have taken more than four days to get a project charter written – never mind gathering cost estimates, funding, and resources together.

Later, they heard at DevOpsDays DC 2022 that some agencies are still working to mitigate this issue 10 months later. The fact that the USPTO was able to respond immediately and rapidly mitigate the Log4J situation shows how agility and a product focus allow them to produce rapid results.

The successful outcome of the situation is attributable to all of the product teams for their quick response, as well as Holcombe’s courageous decision to shut down public access and Acting CTO Stephan Mitchev for bold and decisive leadership to pull teams together to ignite rapid execution.

Getting Buy-in for an Agile Transformation

As a leader, Holcombe knew he may encounter resistance to changing the way people were working at USPTO (by introducing product teams and AI classification, for example). For the resistance he did encounter, he knew that some of it was coming from a place of historical average tenure for executives. Employees knew that other managers and C-suite executives would come and go, often leaving after three years. Some folks felt they could wait out a new leader and then go back to working as they always had. Holcombe assured them he is there for the long-term and can trust this new way of working.

Another source of resistance and doubt related to people’s jobs. Some people worried that their jobs would be eliminated with the transition to AI classification. Holcombe realized he needed to show them that the tool was there to augment processes and that there was still a place for USPTO personnel. In fact, the new ways of working even provided some opportunities for certain people to excel and grow in their professions.

They’ve developed a messaging campaign around the transformation called New Ways of Working, or NWOW. If you mention NWOW at the agency now, everyone knows what it means. Someone may mention NWOW to remind a colleague that they’re straying back to the old ways of doing things and to provide support as they transition their ways of working together.

The new ways of working (NWOW) has had a positive effect on frequency. Via the automated pipeline, “We used to deploy every quarter, but now can deploy two or three times a month." -Technical Team Lead

Faster Time to Market, Happier Teams

“Our three main goals - improving our security culture, our resilience, and migrating to the cloud - they’re really all just different angles on the same goal. It’s about providing the best customer experience for our stakeholders and for the whole world.” - Stephan Mitchev, Director of Business Product Delivery Office and Acting Chief Technology Officer

The 100 product teams at the USPTO are empowered to drive the work, as business staff and technical teams work side by side. Some teams work with scrum, others with kanban, as well as many other agile structures. The frequent delivery and iterations have made a difference.

The USPTO agile transformation involved forming teams and giving them decision power. This put the prioritization in the hands of the business instead of the CIO office. 

Said one technical lead, “even the way we get help has changed, from leaning on dedicated support to troubleshooting on our own. Now the support team is our team. We learned to be more proactive in troubleshooting and tackle issues ourselves.” 

Holcombe and others at the agency have heard from USPTO personnel who can see the difference in the rate of deployments. Whereas several teams deployed quarterly, in some instances, they now do deployments two to three times a month.

Some USPTO employees have noticed that agile ways of working mean that instead of being told how to do their work, they’re instead informed of what they need to get done. By defining product goals and deliverables and deadlines, employees know what they need to do and have room to bring their creativity and passion to what they do.

For Holcombe, one of the biggest benefits of an agile transformation is the shift in mindset and culture that occurs. For him, it’s not about completing a checkbox or making sure everyone is “doing agile.” It’s really about “being agile,” with a cultural and mindset transformation that make a difference as the entire agency works to get things done and live up to their mission.

“Don't do everything at once,” Holcombe advises other agency leaders who may be considering agile. “Don't do ‘forklift upgrades.’ Synchronize things and make them slow. And realize for every five wins, you're going to have one loss. And if you don't handle that loss well, you will fail. You have to be able to handle a loss to the point where people see it as an advantage - not as a loss, not as a step back. Yes, we took a little more time. Yes, it cost us a little more. But look at how much better we are because of it.”

A Word From the CIO

Scrum Alliance · Jamie Holcombe - CIO - US Patent and Trademark Office

In the clip above, USPTO Chief Information Officer Jamie Holcombe describes key points of their agile transformation: "We transitioned over 150 projects to 30 business product teams. From doing agile to being agile. Our teams move faster and adapt to deliver results that make a difference for the USPTO to award patents and register trademarks. I'm so proud that our team drives American innovation from ideas to impact."

Learn More About Agile and USPTO Careers

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is a 100% fee-funded government agency that protects intellectual property for commerce by granting patents and registering trademarks. Learn more about USPTO job openings.

If you’d like to stay updated on scrum and agile, and read more stories of agile transformation, please subscribe to receive Scrum Alliance articles in your inbox.

Special thanks to Jesse Fewell, Certified Agile Coach and author of Untapped Agility: Seven Leadership Moves to Take Your Transformation to the Next Level, for contributing to this article. 

Stay Connected

Get the latest resources from Scrum Alliance delivered straight to your inbox