If ever there were a time to get the long view on federal contracting, this is it. From competitive insourcing to fixed price contracts, these are days of change for the community. And few have the perspective on how to navigate them like Renny DiPentima, whose 40-year career spans both commercial and federal markets. Before retiring in April 2007, DiPentima served as president and CEO of SRA, which he helped grow from $135 million to over $1 billion. (“It was by no means directly attributable to me,” says DiPentima, “I was part of a team”). So, what does it take to maintain that kind of longevity — and growth — in the industry? Here, in his own words, are five questions that DiPentima says government contractors, particularly systems integrators and professional services firms, should be asking themselves now.
DiPentima’s Five Must-Ask Questions
1.) Are my services inherently governmental? “I’m not as concerned about insourcing as other people might be,” says DiPentima. “I see how much the government everywhere relies on contractors to support what they’re doing. That said, if there is going to be insourcing, two areas most affected will be front-end policy, planning, and program management, and some infrastructure outsourcing. To the extent a company is providing services at the higher end of the pyramid (i.e., complex software systems, databases, cybersecurity solutions, etc.), they are going to be less affected than if they are providing more commoditized type work such as maintaining help desks.”
2.) Am I reading between the lines? “Within the federal government, the customers tell you what they want to buy; it’s in their budgets, it’s reflected in their RFIs and RFPs. At the same time, sometimes an agency states a solution in search of a problem. So, when you take a look at an RFP, it’s important to ask yourself: ‘What is the true problem or need that has resulted in this customer putting out an RFP?’ If, for example, the government says, ‘We would like to implement an HR system wrapped around something like PeopleSoft, the real question should be, ‘What is the real problem that this agency is facing that they believe this RFP is going to solve?’ You have to do more than just repeat back to them the words in their RFP.”
3.) Have I done due diligence? “You get insight [into RFPs] by doing your homework. That allows you to put the RFP into perspective. If I were going in to see a customer, I would read any GAO reports about that customer’s agency, as well as any published IG [U.S. Inspector General] reports. I would certainly read industry and news reports. I would do my homework so I knew that when I dealt with that customer, I could pretty much guess and describe the two or three things most on their mind.”
4.) Have I nailed down the requirements? “The biggest challenge, when you are working with a customer, is nailing down the requirements. If you look at most programs that get into difficulty, it’s almost always around the requirements part of the program. This issue becomes even more challenging in this environment of fixed price contracting; you can’t do fixed price contracting well without really understanding your customer’s requirements. So, it’s important to ask yourself: ‘Do I have a set of skilled facilitators who know how to talk, deal, and pose questions for the customer to find out their true needs?’ It’s around those requirements that you really start solidifying (or jeopardizing) your relationship with your customer.”
5.) Have I made my employees feel like they’re part of an exciting environment? “If you’re a systems integrator or professional services company, your people are your business. And in this business, they go home every night. You want to make sure they come back the next morning. The only way do that is to emphasize that, along with customer care and service, you have true care for your people. SRA calls it ‘Honesty in Service.’ Letting them know that you care about them as individuals is not something you can do on a calendar or schedule. You do it every single day, in every day exchanges, that demonstrate what you stand for: integrity, customer care, and employee care. Also, it’s important to remember: People want to belong to something larger than themselves; they want to feel as if they’re contributing to the success of their company and the government as a whole. Boy, if you can’t build morale around that, then there’s something wrong.”
How else can systems integrators and professional services firms stay relevant? Share your comments here.