Long before he ever became CTO of Nortel Government Solutions, Alan Harbitter started his own company, PEC Solutions, with two other partners. When it went public in 2000, Harbitter wound up running a publicly traded company for the next five years. Then, in 2005, another milestone occurred: The company reached 1,700 employees and a $250M year run rate. That’s when it merged with Nortel Federal to form Nortel Government Solutions. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, as CTO, Harbitter has gone back to the things he loves most: more direct work in the areas he started out in — computer science and information technology.
Briefly tell us your background and how you got to where you are today.
Alan Harbitter: From an academic perspective, my training is in computer science and I received my PhD from George Mason. I’ve been interested in the university presence in this community for a while, so I’ve taught on and off at Mason. From a career perspective, I started out at Computer Sciences Corporation where I met my [former] partners, Dave Karlgaard and Paul Rice. Dave, Paul, and I started a company, PEC Solutions, in 1985. We went public in 2000. So I wound up running a publicly traded company for five years with Dave and Paul. In 2005 we reached 1,700 employees and a $250M year run rate. At that point, we merged with Nortel Federal to form Nortel Government Solutions. Back in the PEC days my time was monopolized with the responsibilities of running a publicly traded company. And I really missed more direct work in areas I started out in — computer science and information technology. So, with the Nortel acquisition in 2005, I got to return to what I loved the most. All of my duties now are CTO duties, and fewer dealings with accountants, lawyers, and stock analysts.
Tell us your basic day-to-day responsibilities, now as CTO.
Alan Harbitter: I think the CTO position, in general, is becoming more clearly defined in our industry. It started out where you could pick your own focus as a CTO. That’s what I liked about the title when I took on the position at PEC. Now I think there are three components to being a CTO. First is to guide and influence the technology direction of the company where you are employed. At Nortel Government Solutions we get a lot of our technologies direction from our parent Nortel. But still there is focus within the federal marketplace and I can have an influence on that. That is the biggest strategic part of being at CTO. Second is to be the outward voice of the company on the matter of technology. Nortel Government Solutions’ product is technology. I’m the senior technology executive and I represent the company in public forums, in speaking engagements, meeting clients, and in government working groups. I try to maintain a strong a presence outside the walls of Nortel. The third I think is the most important to any business, and that is getting new business. CTOs should always have a role in new business development, continuing to talk to current clients and keeping them excited about working with Nortel Government Solutions by showing them what the future holds for technology and giving them the benefits of that.
You have a unique company, in terms of the government solutions and the parent company — what is your approach in the marketplace, as you see it?
Alan Harbitter: I think we do have a unique offering. By revenue, we are two-thirds information technology services and one-third Nortel products, sales engineering, and support engineering. With that combination and our reach-back to parent Nortel, we are very unique in our industry and our sector. We have reach-back into a very substantial research and development organization at Nortel. We are one of the only organizations that can bring clients this close to the source of new technology. We can take our clients to meet the developers in their labs and they can share what they see as their future needs. That can influence development of future products. That’s a win-win situation — the company gets a better understanding of client needs, and our clients have an unusual opportunity to influence product evolution. We can also line up very directly the production schedules and the delivery requirements of our clients. That kind of direct connection to the source of networking technology is very unusual in our market. There are a lot of good systems integrators that offer IT services around the beltway, but none offer those unique features, which I think it is a real value for our clients.
What are some of the hot trends you are seeing that will impact your customers over the next 12 to 18 months?
Alan Harbitter: We’re seeing a lot of movement in the area of unified and converged network, the idea that everything runs over IP — data, voice and multimedia. We’re getting people who are geographically distributed to collaborate, to work more closely by using tools that take advantage of converging networks. Nortel is very active in that space. We have a partnership with Microsoft to tightly integrate converged networks and the desktop, and I think that is really going to change the way the federal workforce accomplishes its missions. Nortel Government Solutions is the leader in that area.
What is your biggest challenge in business today?
Alan Harbitter: I think the market has become much more competitive. Everything we do as a company, we continue to have to figure out ways to do it less expensively and better than our competition. So, as a result, we are leaning heavily on some of the more rigorous engineering methodologies, like ITIL and CMMI, and that allows us to do what we do more efficiently. As a company, as a corporation, we are also looking at the six sigma business process improvement techniques. As you know, in the government market, the spending on IT is going to be close to flat this year, next year, and probably for several years in the future in response to the other burdens on the budget. So, in order to keep our market share and grow, we have to be better, quicker, and less expensive. We’re looking at a lot of ways of making that happen. Leveraging the rigor of our engineering skills and discipline is one of them. Leveraging to the resources of our parent company Nortel is another.
What are your top goals this year?
Alan Harbitter: This year I hope we will see acceleration in business as a result of the groundwork we have done to build Nortel Government Solutions’ identity in the market. We just started working on what will be the largest government enterprise voice-over-IP network for the Social Security Administration. I am very happy with the model we have set up for working on government solutions. We are trying to get our story out to let people know that we have what I believe is a very unique offering for them. So, I think this year we are going to try to keep that model working and grow in a flat market.
What is your approach to working with small businesses that have products or solutions to offer Nortel?
Alan Harbitter: We have been very aggressive in working with small businesses. We’ve gotten recognition from the Department of Homeland Security for our participation in the mentor-protégé program. And we have a small business program, an organization within Nortel Government Solutions that spends all its time establishing and leveraging those relationships. I think it is definitely a two-way street. When I started PEC Solutions in 1985, there were three of us. And so I’ve been through every size company between three and thousands and I know a little about the challenges of small business. I know that relationships with mentors are important. But I also know it is important for small businesses to keep their feet on the ground and to be self-sufficient. So I think we are a great mentor for that reason. We’ve been there, we know what their challenges and needs are. I’m happy, if I can, to push a few small businesses along and help them meet their goals.
You recently won an award for the Fed 100. What did that award mean to you and Nortel?
Alan Harbitter: I’m really happy about that because I’ve been in the Federal IT services business for almost 30 years and all during that time my focus has been to help the government to do what it does better. So, it’s very gratifying to be in the Fed 100 and be recognized for the work I’ve done with the Department of Justice and with state and local law enforcement organizations. I’m honored to be among all the other Fed 100 winners who had that same perspective. They work everyday to pay their mortgages and put their kids through school, but their mission — which is to help secure our country and make it a better place to live — is a dominant reason for showing up to work. And I’m very happy to be recognized for that.
You are very active in a number of groups like CTO. Why are you active in those groups and what groups are you involved in?
Alan Harbitter: I started the Washington Area CTO Roundtable as a grassroots organization about seven or eight years ago. I originally started it with the CTOs from what were then AMS and PRC. And since the founding, we have grown to about 200 members. It is a very low overhead organization, which consists almost entirely of CTOs. We meet every other month. I think it has been a good way to meet peers, without all of the administrative burdens. Through the CTO Roundtable, I have made a lot of good relationships that have turned into good business associations.
What is something most people don’t know about you personally?
Alan Harbitter: Let’s see. I’ve been trying, now that I don’t have a public company to run, to focus a little bit more on my private life. So I recently got my pilot’s license and I love to fly around this area, although it can be a little challenging — being so close to the nation’s capital. I moved to Clarendon, which I really enjoy. It is a great neighborhood. I still have very strong interests in the academic community. And I’m trying to stay active with both Mason and the University of Maryland, which is one of my Alma Maters. This year is my 30th reunion at Cornell, and I can’t believe it has been that many years. And I’ve been active for many years with the Arc of Northern Virginia, a terrific organization that advocates for children and adults in our community with special needs. I’m starting to make up for 20 years of having my head down, while running PEC.