Take a number and get in line
- By Judi Hasson
- May 06, 2002
Bruce Brody's dance card is full. His phone is ringing off the hook. His e-mail inbox is overflowing.
No surprise. As the cybersecurity chief at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brody is a popular guy. He's got money to spend. And vendors know it.
But forget about cold calls. Don't bother sending a salesman. And don't tell him how great your company is, because Brody seeks answers to serious technology problems, not a social call.
"One commodity I don't have is time," he said. "For someone to get a piece of my schedule, they have to tell me how well they understand my problem and what they uniquely bring to solve my problem."
He is not alone. Across government, vendors are swamping chief information officers, seeking their business. Under the Bush administration's proposed budget for fiscal 2003, federal agencies will spend $52 billion on information technology, and that is only expected to grow as the administration determines how to use technology to protect security at home and abroad. "Our door gets knocked on day and night by people who have the next great answer to all of our problems," Brody said.
It's gotten so intense that he's assigned an aide to handle the preliminary reviews. But the same pattern and problem are being repeated in other agencies as they try to cope with hungry vendors.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, there's a structured process and an entire office to introduce vendors to the agency.
At NASA, CIO Lee Holcomb likes to call it "triage." He quickly reads over the proposals that come in, handles the general ones and assigns the others to 20 or 30 IT experts for review. What determines whether Holcomb takes a chance on a new vendor? "Whether their product is innovative or not," he said.
Tony Trenkle, director of the electronic services staff at the Social Security Administration, has set up a review panel to handle all the requests. "We are getting inundated [by] vendors. It is causing a real crunch with us," Trenkle said. "It is a real problem in our agency."
Treasury's acting CIO, Mayi Canales, said vendors know their way around her massive department, which includes the Customs Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the comptroller of the currency and the U.S. Mint.
"Vendors on a daily basis will send [e-mail messages] asking for direction. I send them to the right place," said Canales, who has a small team dedicated to helping vendors.
The newfound popularity of IT executives who control the money is evident everywhere. When Federal Emergency Management Agency CIO Ron Miller speaks at an event, vendors line up quickly, sometimes in a thread of people that wraps around the room. They shake his hand, give a quick pitch and pass along their business cards.
During last fall's anthrax attacks, the Environmental Protection Agency fielded scores of calls from vendors eager to sell their detection and decontamination products.
"No one actually had a clearinghouse of technologies for that," said Thomas De Kay, manager of international outreach programs for the EPA's Technology Innovation Office. "As often happens, there was immediate reaction to say, 'Where is this?' "
The EPA has since centralized the vendor information into a database that went online in February. But the EPA is not alone. Federal, state and local agencies nationwide are building electronic databases and creating data-sharing initiatives to help them respond to disasters such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And myriad public/private conferences are popping up; rarely does a day go by without a breakfast, lunch or conference being held somewhere to help vendors and government officials find a good match. For example, the inaugural Fortune One Business conference — scheduled for June 18-19 in Falls Church, Va. (Federal Computer Week is a co-sponsor) — is intended to provide tips and strategies that companies need to get into the government marketplace.
Nevertheless, it won't be easy.
"It's difficult for a new vendor to get a toehold in the government market today," said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA International Inc.'s consulting and systems integration unit and a former government IT executive. "If they have an exciting technology solution that's done well in the commercial marketplace, that could be an entry for them."
DiPentima's advice to companies: Make strategic hires who know — and are known in — the federal marketplace, offer valuable solutions and use government contracting vehicles to win new work.
In some ways, the flurry is similar to the Year 2000 problem gold rush, when vendors sought business to help government prevent the computer glitches that could have occurred on Jan. 1, 2000. Although the Year 2000 problem involved a "drop-dead date," this time around the problem is constant, according to Ira Hobbs, the Agriculture Department's acting CIO.
Hobbs said he likes to talk to vendors because they provide a "level of education and awareness that is critical to doing business in this industry.... Conversations with vendors sharpen understanding and focus."
"It's a tough climate, even though there's lots of talk and budgets exist on paper. Lots of agencies are still waiting for dollars to trickle down for specific Internet security projects," said Dan Burton, senior vice president of government affairs at Entrust Inc., a leading provider of Internet security software that has customers in 40 federal agencies and a dozen states.
"In the meantime," he said, "we keep talking to our customers and to Congress."
Agencies earmarked for more anti-terrorism funding, such as the Office of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, are simply overwhelmed by vendors, said Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America.
"Industry has spent a lot of time and effort in developing thoughtful proposals, but we're all challenged in what to do," Grkavac said. "The response has been too overwhelming."
But ask any vendor how easy it is to get an appointment and most will tell you it is tough unless your name is Lockheed Martin Corp., EDS, IBM Corp. or any of the other big-name IT integrators with long histories and relationships inside government.
Agencies tend to turn to known commodities to help them out, according to Tony D'Agata, who runs the federal practice for Sprint, which provides voice, data and video services to more than 100 federal agencies.
After Sept. 11, D'Agata said some customers simply called Sprint seeking more help because they already had an existing task order in place. The requests included enhancing wireless communications and providing priority service for emergency calls.
Nevertheless, there are opportunities for other players to get involved. CIOs are interested in new ideas, and even an unknown firm has a chance to get an audience.
James Buckner, CIO at the Army Materiel Command, said he's been seeking new approaches in knowledge management — "new" being the key word.
"I give the same advice to any vendor who comes to see me: Bring me something unique," Buckner said. "There are many companies who work hard and do similar things in similar veins. As we go toward a changing environment in Army, I'm looking for the innovator [that] can bring something unique and different than anything we have."
The government leaves it up to the private sector to come up with innovative solutions, making it doubly hard to grab business without really knowing what a CIO is thinking.
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, CIO Jim Seligman said he's not willing to "bet the house" on an untried technology, but the agency has more than 500 specialists who evaluate potential technology tools.
Take for example Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry handheld computer, he said. It wasn't a household word two years ago, but now it's in demand in many government agencies, including CDC, because it is the established leader in the wireless e-mail market, he said.
Another relative newcomer is Akamai Technologies Inc.'s EdgeSuite service, which provides off-site servers to back up CDC's information. When Seligman started talking to the company more than a year ago, he had not seen a lot of technology like EdgeSuite. He liked what he saw and bought the technology.
"Connecting with me or being able to reach me is not difficult at all," Seligman said. "Getting past a threshold of engagement is difficult."
But sometimes taking a chance on a new business actually works, according to Anne Reed, former CIO at USDA and now head of EDS' State and Local Government Solutions.
"Every once in a while it works," she said, recalling a new business that knocked on her door and had a perfect solution for the Year 2000 problem. In another case, a snazzy brochure from a small company caught her eye, and she went on to do business with it.
Newcomers will find that agencies are not interested in talking about products, CIOs say. From the White House on down, feds are asking vendors to offer complete solutions that may even require collaboration with other companies. Experienced contractors say that's not just talk.
Some vendors think they can walk in the door and say, "I've got the greatest product since sliced bread," said Faye Shepherd, director of strategic sales for Sun Microsystems Inc. But, she said, "The government is looking for complete solutions."
Even large, well-established firms find it useful to team up. Earlier this year, Sun teamed with EDS, Oracle Corp. and PricewaterhouseCoopers to develop solutions for improving aviation security.
"We're responding as a team," said Dick Brown, EDS' chairman and chief executive officer.
The group, which includes two integrators and two manufacturers, will look at aviation security from a number of angles, including identification, baggage, cargo and the people who work at airports.
"It is a problem that no one organization [has] the ability to address," said Scott Hartz, global managing partner at PWC. "What we've tried to do [is] have resources that can come together and target these issues."
Some industry observers have speculated that such heavyweight teams could squeeze out smaller players, but Brown and other company executives who spoke at a Council for Excellence in Government forum April 29 said that's not the case.
Still, small businesses will have a tough time because large contractors can be picky.
Steve Carrier, vice president for business development and strategic planning for Northrop Grumman Information Technology, welcomes small companies to partner with his firm to get business from the federal government.
"If it's a guy who has a unique technology, if he's got something that has not been brought to bear, I think he's got a chance. But if it's a grunt who says, 'me too,' forget it," Carrier said.
No Quick Sell
There's also a Catch-22, according to the USDA's Hobbs. "You've got to develop a track record," he said. But "you can't develop a track record without doing some work." So what is a company to do?
Keep pushing, recommended Al Pesachowitz, the former EPA CIO who runs the civilian practice at Grant Thornton LLP, an IT consulting firm.
"A lot of companies have tried to come into the government space," he said. "They don't understand the systems, the procurement time frames."
New companies can expect to spend 18 to 36 months working the system before getting even a small contract, he said. And that means they need money to sustain themselves until they hit the jackpot.
"The government continues to try to be open to partnerships," Pesachowitz said. "And there's always the possibility that the newer company sometimes looks to partner with a company already doing business and ride [its] coattails."
Pesachowitz said that some companies make a stab at it and then give up. And others find they need the aid of consultants who promise to help vendors get federal business.
But the best way to start is to develop a relationship with an integrator — a company that provides a complete range of solutions for a customer, according to Lorrie Scardino, a research director at Gartner Inc.
"For companies without government experience, find your focus area, find the value you can deliver to the government. Be very specific and focused. Then look for experienced integrators you can partner with," Scardino said.
Absent the integrator route, she warned, "the road is long and hard."
At the VA, Brody offers this nugget of advice to potential suitors: He is more likely to offer business to integrators because, as service providers, they are "product-independent" and choose the best technology to meet the agency's needs.
"We do not have permission to fail," Brody said. "When you are doing security, you can't afford to do it halfway. You have to do it the right way the first time."
Megan Lisagor contributed to this article.
Getting in the door
* Know what the agency does and what it's looking for.
* Bring specific ideas, not a panoply of promises.
* Show examples of products that have worked in similar situations, not just in a 30-seat office.
* Send a senior management executive who can connect with the federal information technology professional.
* Network, network and do more networking.
* Partner with the big vendors.
* Make strategic hires — those who know government from the inside.
* Use government contract vehicles such as governmentwide acquisition contracts.