Four years ago, this month, Planning Systems Incorporated (PSI) was acquired by QinetiQ North America. It is now ready for the next stage in its growth as part of QinetiQ North America's Technology Solutions Group (TSG). On the heels of this new chapter, ExecutiveBiz recently spoke with Alan Friedman, former PSI President and now Senior Vice President of Stragetic Development for TSG. Here, Friedman discusses his group's key areas of innovation: unmanned systems and robotics, lightweight armor for air and surface vehicles, and products that relate to sensors and survivability “” all part of the effort to keep the company at the forefront of innovative technologies for government and military customers.
ExecutiveBiz: In a recent weekly radio address, Obama gave a nod to long-term investments in innovation. How does TSG innovate a product from beginning to end?
Alan Friedman: Since we're delivering products mainly to government and military customers, we innovate through a combination of means. Sometimes it's through responding to The Office of Naval Research's Broad Agency Annoucements [BAAs]. Other times, we may develop our own ideas, with inputs from discussions with a wide range of contacts in academia, industry, and military/government.
ExecutiveBiz: As you innovate, what's your biggest challenge?
Alan Friedman: The big challenge is to recognize that it's going to take more time and resources than you think. It's also important to recognize that, just as in the commercial world, having the technology or the killer app is not necessarily the key to success; it's having the whole package. Having a good product, having some willing early customers, having the sales and marketing focus and resources, having the cash to invest in some of the things that you really want to do, such as getting units out into the hands of users early even if that must be subsidized by internal investment “” the process is very different from a great deal from the sort of normal government engineering/IT services business.
ExecutiveBiz: Tell us about one of your products: the sniper detection system. How is it helping U.S. soldiers based in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Alan Friedman: One of our new products in TSG is the soldier worn sniper detection system called Ears. This is a little less than 10-ounce unit. It attaches to the user's shoulder with a strap to the body armor, and, if the soldier is shot at, the Ears unitinstantly tells the soldier where the shooter is both in range and direction. If the soldier takes evasive action Ears updates the solution so that when the soldier is in a position to return fire or to take counter action the solution is then correct for his current position. Over the last four years Ears has been intensely developed. Now, the first couple of thousand units are being worn in Iraq and Afghanistan “” and getting good results. It has a real good upside for the business, not only from the normal business metrics but the employees get a tremendous sense of accomplishment when they develop something that is actually in the hands of people who are in harm's way and is helping to bring them home.
ExecutiveBiz: What will TSG look like in two years?
Alan Friedman: We will continue to be strong in the robotics and survivability products. We will have expanded our portfolio of “disruptive technologies“ through a combination of government funded R&D and internal investment, and we will be finding new ways to give our customer a competitive advantage. We are also expanding the sales of our current portfolio into overseas markets. In addition, TSG has a variety of value added engineering service business that we hope to expand on as well, particularly in areas such as training and security.
ExecutiveBiz: Before QinetiQ or TSG, there was just PSI. What lessons have you learned since those early days?
Alan Friedman: I joined PSI [in 1973] when there were half a dozen people. Since then, we've been through a lot of changes in the world. Changes in technology, changes in the military, changes in a whole bunch of things. And I believe we've been adaptable.
ExecutiveBiz: What's the secret to your adaption as a business?
Alan Friedman: Number one, as Jim Collins says in Good to Great, it takes focus. From the start, we kept focus on our core business model. Number two, don't look at the short term. When I became president in 1997, we shifted our business model from high tech engineering services to a combination of engineering services, technology, and products. We recognized that was not going to be an instant transition. We've grown the products component of our revenue substantially over the last five or six years as this model has taken effect. Number three, be true to what you believe about the business and the business model. My mantra has always been, “Decisions are easy, it's facts that are hard.“ I've tried to use that as our mantra all along to make sure we get our facts right. Business decisions then flow from that in a pretty straightforward way.
ExecutiveBiz: What's something most people don't know about you personally?
Alan Friedman: As one of my business associates says, I'm probably among a dwindling percentage of people who've been at one place their whole career. I would certainly attribute some of this to having the samebeautiful wonderful wife for that entire period!. With our children grown, we have found a new love in the mountains and hiking. I also do some sportscar racing. I've found it to be an interesting hobby over the years. Being in business requires total focus, as you know, and, of course, racing also has that element of “If you're not focused, it can be dangerous.“ The ability to shift my total focus to something else “” I find relaxing and refreshing.
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