Lee champions e-commerce

The frustrations of an Army master sergeant in Saudi Arabia trying to buy information technology equipment and the introduction of Mosaic, the first World Wide Web browser, combined to give John Lee an opportunity that changed his life.

The sergeant, coping with time differences and geographical challenges while trying to shop for computers, needed a price list for Falcon Microsystems Inc., the Landover, Md., company where Lee was director of computer operations in 1994. At the time, Falcon was the second leading reseller in the federal market, and company officials were searching for ways to distribute catalogs electronically to meet customer demand. But the company's systems were proprietary, Windows-based applications that were still in development and did not provide a universal front end.

Lee, now business line partner at Electric Press Inc., heard of the sergeant's woes at about the same time he first saw Mosaic, which is the software that provided the missing piece. Lee recalls the convergence of these events as if he still can see the light bulb click on.

"When I saw Mosaic, I said, 'There you go; that's the tool right there,' " said Lee, whose early devotion to the use of electronic commerce in federal procurement helped advance the buying model.

Mosaic meant the sergeant's problems could be solved by Falcon making the catalogs compatible with the browser, and Lee knew the federal government was the perfect market for the technology. "The Internet was built for the government in the first place," he said.

Lee rushed to his mentor, then-Falcon chief executive officer Dendy Young, and made a case for a new electronic commerce initiative that would give government buyers an interactive online catalog and ordering system.

"Young basically told me this: 'John, here's the opportunity of your lifetime. And if you really do it right, it's going to change your life forever,' " Lee said, recalling how Young instilled determination in him.

With only six weeks to develop the product, Lee, who had just been appointed the company's director of electronic commerce, scrapped the company's other proprietary electronic commerce initiatives. And by August 1994, Falcon On Line was ready to launch.

From the beginning, Falcon On Line was more than a price list, Lee said. It included Falcon's General Services Administration schedule and its open market contracts, and it allowed users to select items, put them in a basket and place a credit card order online.

But in August 1994, just as Lee prepared to roll out the system, Government Technology Services Inc. bought Falcon. And after the management reorganization, Lee's project was combined with GTSI's electronic commerce offering in March 1995.

Despite initial problems involving security and the integration of electronic data interchange back-office standards, the response from government agencies was positive, Lee said.

"When [customers] started seeing this, a tremendous amount of traffic started coming to us," Lee said. "This was really the first time that a database was driving the Web site. In other words, pages were being built dynamically. Nobody was doing that at that time."

It was, as Young had predicted, a system that changed Lee's life, laying the foundation for his move to business line partner at Electric Press in Reston, Va. Lee helped develop eFed, which is the company's government electronic commerce application whose search, ordering, tracking and payment functions are being used by NASA, the Army and GSA as their Web-based procurement systems.

Start of Federal IT Career

Lee has come a long way in his 16-year career. He began his federal IT career in 1982, when he took a job building and testing a combat-ready computer for the Army as an employee of Electronic Data Systems Corp. right out of high school. "Wherever there was a fire, they threw me in," Lee said.

He later worked at CACI International Inc. as a logistics engineer, working on weapons systems readiness. By the time GTSI bought Falcon, Lee already had recognized the need for an independent third party that could facilitate the growth of electronic commerce between vendors and agencies.

Lee said vendors are unwilling to make it easy for government buyers to comparison shop. But vendors cannot stand in the way if government agencies themselves deploy systems that provide that function, he said.

Electric Press, one of the outside IT shops that Lee relied on for support in building Falcon On Line, was doing Web design and development before anyone knew what that was, he said. The company's government projects include the Internal Revenue Service's Web site, which gives taxpayers the ability to download tax forms.

"It was like a crusade," he said of his decision to join Electric Press. "I had a vision of a piece of software that we could develop and then [use] to help government agencies and resellers and OEMs with their need for electronic commerce."

In the development phase of eFed, which was launched late last year, Electric Press formed a partnership with NASA, helping to set up electronic purchasing on the agency's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II contract. The company also worked with the Army, which eventually bought the eFed package for its Army Small Computer Program.

Other customers include GSA's Federal Technology Service, which is using eFed internally as a product and services database tool, and the Office of the Secretary of the Army for Research, Development and Acquisition.

Ongoing Refinement

Lee's focus now is to continue tailoring eFed to the government's needs. Like many federal procurement specialists, Lee believes electronic commerce will play a key role in improving the buying process, and his career is aimed down that path. He said he is now looking at ways to draw other products, such as office furniture, into the package and make it possible to charge all the purchases on a credit card. "We're trying to figure out the best way of doing that," he said.

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