By Steve Kelman

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Oddball and Fearless take on the federal marketplace

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If I told you that two of the charter members of a small support group for non-traditional IT contractors in the federal marketplace are named Oddball and Fearless, what would your reaction be? If you are like me, your reaction is: This isn't your father's IT market. These contractors are non-traditional in more ways than one.

Travis Sorensen founded Oddball after graduating from business school in 2014, and entered the federal market in 2017 on the suggestion of someone at 18F whom he met at a startup event for veterans and who said the government needed companies that did great agile work. The 18Fer told Sorenson he could get veteran-owned small business status; Oddball recently got their first prime contract with VA.

Sorensen told me, "We chose the name Oddball because we felt it helped us stand out from the crowd and because we do things differently -- we take the time to understand the business case for the applications we're building. We think this is a little odd in the federal market. "

Delali Dzirasa, the founder of Fearless, and whose background was with small but traditional government contractors, told me, "When I jumped out full time I saw a lot of acronym soup in the fed contracting space. ABC Corp or DEF, LLC, etc. I wanted something that would stand out and compel people to take notice and want to learn more."

"Fearless did just that," he continued. "Also, I had prepped and dreamed forever of running a company [but] when it came time to do it I was terrified to jump. Figured I couldn't see the name Fearless every day and be afraid to be different, to make an impact."

Oddball and Fearless are both charter members of the Digital Services Coalition, about which I wrote a blog in early 2018, and which I revisited two weeks ago in a post about a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services BPA award for Medicare systems modernization awarded to six non-traditional IT contractors -- five of whom, I noted, are in the Coalition. (Fearless is one of those six winners.)

Perhaps it should not be surprising that an organization with members named Oddball and Fearless have created a non-traditional industry association.

For starters, their guiding principles don't track those of traditional industry associations in the IT marketplace. These are listed as:

  • Purpose over Profit
  • Users over Stakeholders
  • Outcomes over Activities
  • Community over Credit
  • Innovation over Risk Management
  • Delivery over Deliberation

Second, they aren't out to recruit as many members as possible. The Digital Services Coalition was started around 18 months ago by Robert Rasmussen, a Navy veteran who had founded a small firm called Agile 6. About eight companies, people Rasmussen knew and then some people those people knew, originally joined, and then eight more "kind of showed up when the idea started spreading," Rasmussen said. When the group reached 16 companies, they closed it to new members. These 16 remain the charter members – "it really was those 16 who were the ones who really showed a commitment to the community," he said. The group saw itself as a support group that would "have each other's back' in the federal marketplace, cooperating to share information about navigating an unfamiliar space and helping the non-traditional segment grow. "If we grow the pie bigger for all of us, that not only benefits us as companies, but also taxpayers and users."

Just recently the Coalition announced some changes. They have elected a new board of directors with five firms. And they are opening up the organization to new members, but very cautiously. Each of the existing 16 members will be allowed to nominate one new member for the next year. The membership application must provide two examples of digital projects the company has worked on and government customer references, as well as their Github repository, though the organization makes exceptions for special circumstances such as companies doing classified work. Sharing code signifies the openness and transparency the civic tech community embraces.

What struck me most about reading the just-published membership application materials for the Coalition was just how much the organization wants to guard itself against being taken over by companies that don't share the founding firms' ideals. This observation is going to strike readers as much more negative than I intend It – I don't intend it as negative at all, but simply reflecting a culture/mindset I see in the Coalition – but in some way they remind me of ideological organizations on the far left or right of the political spectrum that want to defend their purity against being diluted or compromised by those who are less pure than they.

"At the beginning we sat down and talked about what was important and why it should exist, and some members did say we see this as a marketing tool," Rasmussen said. "But the majority came right back and said this can't be about our own self-interest. So I think we came to sort of an alignment before the inception that values come first, before growth. If there's a marketing benefit to this, it has to be totally unintentional, you know, a byproduct. And I think we all aligned on that early."

A surprising amount of my conversation with Rasmusson dealt with steps the Coalition had set up to protect the organization from what we might want to call traditional contracting wolves in non-traditional clothing. The membership vetting process is quite rigorous. All applications must be vetted by an onboarding committee that will check applicant references, look at Github repositories to judge if the work is in support of the public good and to vet code quality. ("We see ourselves as a bit similar to an organic product certification, and want to make sure the certification has some value.") The onboarding committee also interviews the company's chief executive. One big purpose is to prevent existing members from getting new members into the Coalition through quid-pro-quos such as a larger traditional contractor getting an applicant into the organization by promising them work on one of their contracts.

In addition, the Coalition requires an unusual level of effort among their members. Almost no traditional industry associations require anything of members other than paying dues, though of course some members choose to attend meetings and events, or become association leaders. As for the Coalition, each applicant is required to choose two ways they will support Coalition priorities in outward-facing activities over the next year, including metrics they will use to measure the success of those efforts. They also require each member firm to be represented at the Coalition's quarterly membership meetings – if a member firm misses two in a row, they can be kicked out.

Of the current members, Rasmusson said, "people really did need to earn their spot in the Coalition by being involved from the beginning. A few companies were in the room at the beginning but didn't hang around, and they're now not in the group. They'll have to go the hard way to get back in."

I asked Rasmusson if there was any push from within the organization to grow faster and/or to put fewer demands on members. Not really, he said: "No one wants to turn us into pay to play or to grow too fast."

The Coalition currently allows only small and mid-tier businesses, but in 2020 will consider allowing up to three large ones (annual revenues over $55 million) to join. But another sign of their purity is that they worry allowing bigger firms in too fast or allowing them to take over. "We don't want to let them in right away," he said. "We have to find our voice. If you introduce them too early, the money and the size they bring in can overwhelm us before we've got our foundation set." The requirement to submit code will turn off many traditional contractors, but that is a strong sign for the Coalition that such firms shouldn't be members.

"There is an undercurrent of power dynamic shift here because we have all unfortunately been pushed around by the bigs," Rasmusson said. "And so I think this is, in a way, a chance to push back and say we have something to teach you. We are all open to large businesses coming in if they want to embrace our values and delivery tools. It's not about the size of the animal, it's about the way they work. If they're willing to learn and be coachable, we don't have much of a problem with that. In fact, that would be progress because we want change. The success for us will be when the bigs feel like they have no other choice but starting to act more like non-traditionals."

Rasmusson stressed that it is important to "focus very intentionally on principles and values, and not on frameworks and delivery method. Anybody can emulate agile scrum and come back with the frameworks that don't embrace the intent. What we're trying to work through is how can we really change the hearts of these companies."

I asked Rasmussen whether he might be overemphasizing the group's cachet, and the kinds of adjustments the Coalition could demand from potential members. He noted that he is seeing more and more RFPs that require bidders to submit past code. "The tides are turning quickly," he said. "Civic tech is accelerating – we are seeing some longtime government officials changing. At some point, we become the norm. Sure, there's some risk in our approach, but it's a risk we're willing to take."

I also spoke with Jessica Bull of Nava Public Benefit Corporation, one of the members of the new Digital Services Coalition board. I noted to her that when I wrote my original blog on the Coalition, I emphasized how members would be teaching each other how to navigate the federal marketplace. The members have matured a great deal over the last 18 months, and don't need that help so much anymore. Bull still feels that an important purpose of the group is to share ideas and best practices -- partly among each other, but more importantly with the government. She said perhaps the most important role of the Coalition as being an advocacy group for digital modernization.

At the time of my earlier blog, Rasmusson repeatedly stressed that the Coalition members sought to have one another's backs and share information an individual company might have that would help the collective. The CMS Medicare systems modernization BPA, most of whose awardees are Coalition members, will produce a situation where Coalition members will be in head-to-head competition with each other for task orders much more than before. It will be interesting to see how the Coalition navigates that change.

What is Rasmusson's biggest worry for the future? It's that USDS fails or is abandoned. "If USDS fails, in the following ensuing sort of collapse of the whole ecosystem of people outside USDS we could lose people that have committed their whole careers to moving forward," he said. "There are a lot of people in the civilian agencies that aren't in the media every day and are quietly understanding it and getting it. So if the USDS fails, there would be a knock on effect. I actually have friends delivering inside government that are little islands, and I would hate to see their careers suffer."

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 30, 2019 at 6:44 AM


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