Chris Aherne of BMC Software on finding opportunities

Chris Aherne of BMCBMC Software, Inc., takes its commitment to serving the US government seriously – and it shows. The average tenure of its sales people working in an account is over 4 years. A big part of that success comes down to Chris Aherne, and his leadership skills. As the managing director, federal government of BMC Software, Chris and his team help customers implement effective business service management — all part of a broader category of enterprise systems management. In the following Q&A, Chris shares his secrets to success, and offers insights on how professional opportunity can knock when you least expect it — so long as you stay flexible.

Briefly tell us your background and how you got to where you are today.

Chris Aherne:
I am the son of a foreign service officer, so consequently I grew up around the world, mostly in Europe. But we came back to the DC area frequently. I went to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and then after that I had a couple different areas I’ve chased career wise. I started out in the commercial real estate industry here in the DC area. Actually, I was one of the first few employees in a company called CoStar Group.

What does BMC do within the federal space?

Chris Aherne: BMC has a substantial customer base across all government agencies, including civilian, military and state and local organizations. We help our customers implement effective business service management, which fits into a broader category of enterprise systems management. BSM really boils down to ensuring that information technology supports the business side of our customers’ operations. This is the trend in government agencies and businesses today – organizations are really looking to achieve their business and mission goals better using IT. We call that business service management. Or, more appropriately for our government customers, we’re really talking about mission service management.

What’s your biggest challenge in business today?

Chris Aherne: Our biggest challenge really mirrors the challenges of all our customers. One of the things I think is great about working with the federal government is you are really doing something worthwhile by helping them implement positive change. Their work is so significant and has a direct effect on every one of us. And our goal is to help the government handle their challenges more effectively. Like how to do more with less, you hear that a lot, but the constraints are real and government organizations are always looking to become more efficient in how they operate. But they are also looking to service citizens better and there are a lot of challenges around doing that as well. I think what’s fulfilling about this business for us is helping our government customers identify their top priority challenges, helping them meet those challenges, and by helping them succeed, contributing to making a real difference in peoples’ lives.

Are you doing anything in the Web 2.0 space by any chance?

Chris Aherne: We’re looking at it in some of our R&D incubator programs, but there’s not anything really active in the commercial world that we productize.

Who are some of your key partners in the federal space?

Chris Aherne: In the government space, BMC relies on several key partners. We deal with the big systems integrators like Lockheed Martin, CSC, EDS and BearingPoint, and then we have a tier of what we call regional partners that fit into the category of companies like Merlin, RightStar Systems, QMX, Rigid — some you may have heard of, some you may not have.

What is your approach to the federal space and how do you differentiate the company?

Chris Aherne: A key part of our approach in the federal space was establishing a presence here in Washington 12 years ago. Our federal office was actually the first BMC office outside of Houston. I think that focus is one of our greatest strengths in how we cover the federal government — we are here and we’ve been here, in the DC area, where many of the federal government agencies are located. We’ve also committed to building strong relationships with our customers. The average tenure of our sales people working in an account is about 4 ½ years. That’s a tremendous strength that we bring — our staff have really spent time with the customers and have gotten to know them over time, which differentiates us I think. We’re also unique in terms of supporting a lot of government-specific technology requirements, like NIAP, FIPs and Section 508. We’re keenly focused in those areas.

How big is your office in terms of employees and revenues?

Chris Aherne: From our McLean, Virginia base we have about 80 people supporting our public sector business, which generates about $140 million a year or roughly 9 percent of BMC’s revenue on an annual basis.

What do you hope to develop in your business within the next three years?

Chris Aherne: In three years, I anticipate that we will be closer to the $250-300 million range, in terms of revenue. I think the real growth here for us is in the state and local market. There are 80,000 distinct state and local government customers out there combined and we have a lot of opportunity to grow our business in this area. I think within the federal government there will be more of what I call vertical growth, leveraging and expanding our current solid base to sell up the BSM value chain.

What are some things most people don’t realize about BMC’s public sector business?

Chris Aherne: BMC takes its commitment to serving the US government very seriously – we understand that with certain customers, the efforts we support are not only mission-critical; they’re life-critical, and support our nation’s citizens as well as servicemembers. We strive to help each and every government customer achieve excellence in the area of business service management, to provide our citizens and servicemembers a more efficient and cost effective government.

How do you describe your leadership style?

Chris Aherne: My leadership style really involves — and this may sound a little bit corny — but really empowering people. I think the key to leadership is surrounding yourself with the right people; some call it getting the right people on the bus. Once you do that, you let them do great things in an environment that’s collaborative, creative and based on integrity so people know where they stand. So I think my management style is to bring people together that have the skills and talents that allow them to succeed and then let them do it, not a complex formula. Again, I think collaboration is a really important piece of the puzzle. Strong, successful people tend to thrive on new ideas and they often appreciate a sounding board. Sometimes they need direction, or even just to brainstorm with others who might have similar challenges. I think those are important elements.

What has been your biggest setback in your career and what have you learned from that?

Chris Aherne: We talked earlier about the industry I was in prior to this — on the commercial real estate side — seeing the commercial real estate market sour in the late ’80s and then starting to look at career alternatives. I think what I learned from that experience is that there a lot of different opportunities that you can apply yourself to, it’s just a matter of figuring out what the right one is and moving on. At the time I thought maybe that was something I would do forever, maybe I was change averse then, so I think my demeanor now is that I know change is coming. Things are going to change a half an hour from now, they’re going to change tomorrow, next week, next year, and I really thrive on that change now – that’s what I probably took out of that experience.

What is the best part of your job now?

Chris Aherne: What is the best part? Definitely the people that I work with! That really is tops on my list — surrounding yourself with people who are very positive, very creative, very intelligent, and who have the drive to get things done. We were having a discussion this morning about talent within my organization and the best part about the discussion was talking about people that we’ve seen evolve and change and grow. I think that’s the most satisfying part of my job, when you have somebody that appears set in their ways with some strengths and shortcomings. Through coaching and development they get to a better place where they are really producing at a higher level. It’s great to see.

You mentioned an earlier acquisition. What’s your company’s approach to acquisition?

Chris Aherne: BMC’s acquisition strategy really focuses on the solution set, and is driven by the goal of complimenting our business service management solutions. As of right now, BSM is recognized by the analysts as an industry leading strategy. One of the ways we’ve been successful at staying in that position is through acquisitions. So generally, the acquisitions we’re looking to do further our vision and really fit in with that strategy, as that’s ultimately what’s going to deliver value to our customers.

What’s something most people don’t know about you personally?

Chris Aherne: I’ll tell you a story about the first year I played little league baseball. I’d lived overseas for a long time before that, so I didn’t have as much time playing baseball as a lot of the kids who I played with. I really wanted to succeed, but I couldn’t hit, so I bunted every single time I got up that season. I think I finished 2nd on the team in hitting and hit about 500 for the year. I also lead the team in stolen bases. My baseball career probably only lasted a few years after that, but it allowed me to kind of get in the game and enjoy myself and I still love baseball now. So maybe there’s a lesson there early on about innovation or creative approaches. It’s a story I don’t tell people very often.

I’m surprised that after a while the teams didn’t catch on to what you were doing …

Chris Aherne: They did catch on, but if you’ve ever been to a little kid’s baseball game, there’s not much they can really do about it.

Anything else we didn’t cover that you can add?

Chris Aherne: I think one of the things we’re seeing in the marketplace right now is our customers are becoming a lot more service-centric. It seems like every group in the government now has another group that they are serving. They’re looking at ways to optimize that level of service. There’s a set of best practices called ITIL — Information Technology Infrastructure Library — that was developed in the UK about 10 years ago. Right now, it’s near the top of the Gartner Hype Curve, which means that everybody is interested in it and really that’s been a good thing for BMC. It drives a lot of interest in our solutions because we are very closely aligned with ITIL. It’s really driving our customer’s businesses — and it truly works, helping organizations more effectively align their IT with their business practices.

Information Technology Infrastructure Library?

Chris Aherne: Yes, Information Technology Infrastructure Library or ITIL. DoD organizations in particular are really adopting this best practices approach. The Air Force and the Army are looking to standardize on ITIL, which helps them improve service to the war fighter, so it’s that level of criticality. IT has become a critical edge for them and they want to make sure that service is continuous because there are people who are relying on it very heavily. If you look across the civilian agencies at organizations like the US Postal Service or FAA, they’re also adopting ITIL, and service is very key there as well. State and local organizations are another group of customers that are really interested in this approach. They are looking at: How do we do business better? How do we do business more efficiently?

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