Medieval history takes Lipkin on high-tech career path

There are not many paths leading medieval history graduates to jobs at technology companies along the Beltway. But Joel Lipkin found one.

While earning his doctorate in medieval history at Catholic University, Washington, D.C., Lipkin, now vice president of business development at Government Technology Services Inc., realized his chances of landing a teaching job were "nil." He took up programming on the side, and that skill came in handy when he began working on a large database project that tracked the jobs of medieval clergymen.

When Lipkin went looking for a job, his choice of study and his decision to knock on PRC Inc.'s door were fortuitous.

"I was actually hired by a gentleman who had a degree in medieval philosophy and wanted someone to talk to at lunch, so he thought he'd give me a chance even though I didn't really have much of a formal background in programming," said Lipkin.

Starting off in services-related contracts at PRC provided a solid basis for Lipkin's 18-year career in government information technology, he said during an interview at his office, where a child's fingerpainting project brightens a room that still holds unpacked boxes 15 months after his arrival at GTSI.

Lipkin said those early contracts were valuable learning experiences because they required him and other PRC employees to work on-site with his customers.

"I learned a lot about program management, managing people and the customer relationship," Lipkin said.

His work at PRC led him to the Center for Naval Analysis, a Navy think tank, where he got involved in analyzing the Navy's IT requirements. Sitting on the Navy's side of the table rather than on the side of business was another valuable experience, he said.

In the early 1980s, while employed by the center, Lipkin spent a couple of weeks at a shore-based anti-submarine warfare group in Naples, Italy. He was fascinated by the amount of effort it took just to process text messages and keep data flowing in the organization. He also experienced how officers were trying to use PCs to bridge the gap between traditional systems and their desktops.

The knowledge gleaned in Naples served Lipkin well when he moved on to Zenith Data Systems Corp., where he concentrated on bids for and management of large indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, including the Air Force's Desktop II. His career at Zenith lasted nearly 10 years.

The work he did for the company made him a good fit at GTSI, where the job description was nearly the same. But when he joined the company, there was no hint that before his one-year anniversary he would be quarterbacking during the crisis brought on by GTSI's purchase of BTG Inc.'s reseller business.

Lipkin became a quick study on damage control as he dealt with a lot of unhappy government customers, especially during a 60-day period starting in February throughout which Lipkin admitted GTSI was not performing up to its usual standard. "Quite honestly, there have been impacts on the customers as we clear out backlog and transition products, contracts and processes over to GTSI," he said.

It took about 30 days to complete details of the transition, he said. And this was after a lag that already had caused some dissatisfaction.

Customers were unhappy, and it was part of his job to keep heads cool by repeating that GTSI was working extremely hard to catch up. The company has turned the corner, he said.

"We are starting to see the efficiencies that we anticipated in combining the BTG contracts with the GTSI contracts and making use of our distribution facility and our management and operation resources," he said.

And he is sure that when he looks back on 1998, he will count weathering the storm as one of his top accomplishments.

Lipkin laughed at the notion that his medieval history background gives him an advantage in managing in such tumultuous times or in dealing with the way government works. He credited his experience in programming, bids and proposals, and project management for sustaining his career.

He said he enjoys his current position most when it involves fulfilling the commitments of a contract, a challenge that requires constant communication during the bid and proposal process.

"The critical piece that I see for my job...is to make sure the promises that we make in the proposal stage actually get met in the post-award real world," he said.

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