Episode #37: Tracking Trends While Looking Ahead: Federal Software Factories 

Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia, you are now listening to The Highlight Cast.

Ashley Nichols: Hello, and welcome back to Highlight Cast. I’m Ashley Nichols, Highlight VP for Corporate Strategy and Development, and I’m happy to be back hosting as we discuss the future of software development. We have Rise8’s Prodacity event. Uh, earlier this month, uh, and there was some amazing insights and conversations around development and procurement, um, how to push the envelope and development, the federal sector, and it inspired today’s conversation around current trends, development, software factories, and innovation, so welcome, and I am pleased. To be joined by Highlight VP of National Security Solutions, Kevin Long. Hello, Kevin. Hey, Ashley. It’s good to be here. I won’t beat around the bush. We’ll, we’ll get right to it. Let’s do it. What are some of the major takeaways from Prodacity ? Uh, that you’re most excited to apply to our work here at Highlight.

Kevin Long: I was actually really surprised with, uh, Prodacity with the way they, uh, put it together this year in the best possible way. Um, where they had it in all around geeky stuff, but they had, uh, culture, technology, procurement, sort of different tracks around, around that. And I went to some of each, um, but when I took away most of it was, uh, Two things data and culture and how they interact. And then also, I mean, ubiquitous AI everywhere. They talk about all that, but, you know, culture in terms of how you implement AI and what you want to do with it, how you can do it, do it intelligently, the data that drives good AI and things like that. But really, a lot of it. It was, you know, how, how, you know, you have the right, the right data, the right information, and how you have the right culture to encourage innovation and change, uh, where it’s necessary. And so those were the big things that I took away. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, I was, uh, I was busy at the booth for a lot of it, so I missed some of the keynotes that were, I felt like a lot around leadership and culture, um, in the environment. I really enjoyed the heavy participation of government personnel. And really getting their insights. I think a lot of these conferences, you don’t, you don’t always get that right. Yeah. A lot of times it’s echo 

Kevin Long: chamber from contractors for sure. 

Ashley Nichols: It is right. So really hear some of their needs and challenges. And what they’re trying to do. And I think what I found was a lot of it’s fairly universal, right? People are coming up against the same challenges and roadblocks and, and looking for similar solutions across those sets, which, you know, for someone like us is super valuable. Right. But I also really enjoyed that. They had a whole procurement track this time. Uh, yeah. And so I spent a lot of my session time there. So, yeah. Yeah, it was really well put on. It really was. Yeah. So, with that, what were some of the top challenges that the, that you heard the federal government were facing with regards to soft 

Kevin Long: result? I think about, uh, some of the top challenges that they’re facing, uh, around a lot of what it is. people chose to highlight as their successes, right? Because if it’s easy stuff, no one wants to talk about it and hear about it, right? Because it’s always been done. Uh, and you don’t have the wow factor. Um, and so the, the things that really stuck with me were data sharing, uh, stuff that VA was able to do that allowed them to have APIs being shared out to, uh, remove a whole bunch of siloed information. And they were able to implement that through, because it’s a RISE 8, uh, thing, continuous authority to operate, right, with CATO. They were the first, uh, FedSiv agency that, that got their, their CATO to be able to do that. And so, uh, really, you know, keeping your data secure, making it, making it visible where it needs to be, but only to where it needs to be, uh, and being able to see all of the data and information that agencies have, because they’re They’re collecting it at a phenomenal rate, but they’re, but if it’s not shared, if it’s not secured, and if it’s not accessible, then what does it matter? And so that’s really the, the, the challenge that I think that they were really focusing on. 

Ashley Nichols: I think that matches up with a lot of the procurements that we’re seeing coming up to write a lot of the DevSecOps, which you think about as. More systems, case management, you know, that kind of stuff. A lot of the DevSecOps procurements that are out there now are around data, around AI, right? And I think it’s really governance, right? And governance is the thing that really focuses on, um, it really tells you where we’re at, right? Uh, with, with the, with the upcoming needs within the federal government. This was largely, um, DoD. I would say there was a lot more DoD folks here than some other folks. Uh, so it was a bit more software factory focused. 

Kevin Long: So, so DOD and law enforcement, it’s like, if, if people that you serve probably need to carry a gun at some point, they were there. So we saw some law enforcement folks too, but yeah, yeah, 

Ashley Nichols: yeah. You know, it’s the criticality of information in the field really is what that really all comes down to. And that speaks with data, uh, and the AI, um, and the mission criticality of the systems that we’re talking about. Um, Some of the trends that I think that we saw focused on, uh, in the discussion were, I’ll start with procurement flexibility, and this is, you know, where I really kind of dug in. It was a big learning experience for me, you know, familiar with things like OTAs, right, other transactional authorities, um, and SIVRs, you know, uh, innovation, R& D. Request, but they’ve talked about, uh, broad broad agency announcements as well as CSOs. In terms of these different ways that they’re procuring what they mean, and a lot of times it’s not even on a large scale, you know, it’s the desire to prototype innovative solutions into their spaces before they go sort of whole hog in a direction, which I think is, you know, Really critical to the speed of fielding these systems. I think I actually saw, um, I can’t remember where it was, but it was, uh, you know, someone, I think I have an air force that was talking about when you’re preparing for the next challenges that we have from the military standpoint and He was referring specifically to China, you know, he says that we will be ready by 2036 when really we need to be ready in the next three to four years, right. For the kind of cyber challenges, right. That, that, that, that, uh, relationship brings up. Um, and so I think that these alternate procurement strategies are really focused on, you know, Being able to speed up that timeline, because we all know that the process procurement process right now is, it’s always been slow with the idea of getting the best value for the government, which is an excellent aim. Um, but in a, in a, in a time of protest, it is just really kind of ground to a halt in terms of being able to, you know, get technology to the warfighter. Um, which is the real focus 

Kevin Long: Yeah. Getting the right tools to the government in a timely fashion. Uh, yeah. It was, um, uh, the CTO at a, at the Bestin software factory, who was a procurement officer at Kessel Run, did a really great. Presentation on avoiding, uh, competition theater also, um, around procurement and, uh, the number of, uh, contracting officers that were in that room listening to, to ways to make sure that they’re asking the right questions, that they have the right, uh, the, the right requirements down, that they’re, they’re procuring it in the most effective way. I mean, because like contracting officers, I mean, they hear co challenges or they hear orals. Yeah. I mean, you know, they know the far and the D far, right? And so, uh, they’re listening to other folks to try to put it in the right place. And his, his talk around, uh, around that I, I thought was really informative from a, uh, uh, hearing it from, uh, Former Fed contractor point or Fed contracting officer.

Ashley Nichols: There were a number of former federal acquisition officials that were there that are now focused in the private sector, but very specifically on focusing their former. You know, on helping their former colleagues get what they want in terms of procurements. Um, a lot of, you know, consulting facilitation for both the government and industry too, because what was also interesting about Prodacity was that a lot of the industry participants were small businesses. I did not see many of my normal large, large business cohort of folks. I usually see, um, we’re large business. But, uh, we’re definitely on the emerging side of that. Uh, so it was, it was an interesting talk at the end. Dr. talks to a lot of folks who are skilled similarly to us and in sort of the same boat as we are and talk about how they are trying to service their customers, the agility they’re trying to achieve. Um, and I think that speaks a little bit to, uh, where the, the target. The target audience, but where a lot of the people providing these Agile solutions, these truly Agile solutions are on the smaller side, because they do offer that kind of procurement. It doesn’t take away maybe from the scale that you need for some. You know, a lot of large system support, especially established system support, but when it comes to, um, 

Kevin Long: But solving the new problems, you can’t, you can’t put it into a, you know, 75, 000 person machine and expect it to move quickly, right? 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, and, and some of those, uh, alternate procurement, Vehicles are open only to smalls, you know, right? Um, you know, trying to, you know, get a twofer. I also read that the small business engagement across BOD has declined considerably over the last 10 years. Um, Yeah, yeah, absolutely. This is a problem across federal government that they’ve been trying to reach, but I think that, uh, leaning into innovation is, is a way specifically that the development community, uh, is really trying to bring some of those, those skills back in, um, To the collective government. And interestingly, I think the club club, we have a software license management solution called Atlas that we, that we, you know, had there with us that got a lot of interest, but I will say that it’s because, you know, while we develop a firm, one customer specifically, um, it’s software license management, software asset management is continuing challenge throughout the development. I think that there are millions of dollars of assets and licenses that different agencies can’t account for. 

Kevin Long: Underused or paying overages because they can’t predict what’s going to happen. Uh, what’s going to happen? Don’t have the ability to predictively model. Uh, what if scenarios around if things scale up or scale down aren’t able to negotiate better rates because they don’t know how many they’re going to buy of any particular license at a time. Yeah, it’s, it is a, It’s sort of like a meta problem for like software factories and large software software groups. It’s when I talk about, I mean, I have a talk on on the foundations on building software factories, but the foundation of it, it’s having a tool like Atlas that again, it’s, It’s about the data, right? Uh, so people, so people know what they have, who’s using it, when it was last used, do they need to have more? When did the terms and all of these, all of this information so that, I mean, a software factory or a branch in the military or, or any other federal government is like a business. They have a budget. They have to run it. And if they don’t know what they’re spending and nobody wants to pay attention to Gmail licenses. Jira licenses, right? That’s yeah, it 

Ashley Nichols: is not the sexy. 

Kevin Long: No, it’s 

Ashley Nichols: work, right? But it is a critical. 

Kevin Long: It is the foundation upon which all the other it happened. You can’t deliver the software if you don’t have the tools and having sort of just Top notch, easy to use, uh, data forward, uh, visibility into the tools and the assets that you have at your, at your disposal is, is critical. And it is, uh, it’s, yeah, we saw a lot of great interest In hearing about it, because while it’s not the, Hey, we’re reprogramming how to refuel, uh, uh, uh, bombers, it is those guys can’t program how to refuel bombers without the tool that we provide. Right? And so, yeah, so I’ll claim credit for that. 

Ashley Nichols: Also, as we see some consolidation in software factories, as well as, software factories are established as a concept throughout the DoD, right, and, uh, depending on who you talk to, varying degrees of success depending on, um, a lot of things. So some encouragement is like, do we have too many, do we need to pull them back in? And as you start to consolidate these things, do you have sort of a multi tenancy situation, right? Or multiple customer situation. A hundred percent. 

Kevin Long: You just got to where I was about to go. I love it. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah . Which is where you really also the visibility into those things. Um, from a financial, from a FinOps standpoint, uh, you know, becomes critical and the capability to do that. So that is, uh, you know, certainly I need the FinOps software license management is inextricably linked to the FinOps of these organizations. Right. So. Um, we’re seeing that need pop up. And again, you see procurements around that, or they’re embedded in a lot of those needs are embedded in a lot of the procurements, like Air Force One and the different CFP. Um, 

Kevin Long: yeah, well, I mean, any, any, any organization that has multiple teams with different missions, Or is, uh, like you said, it’s like literally multi tenancy where it’s fee for service or things like that, right? Or any, any horizontal, uh, that’s doing that, that has to support multiple different missions. There’s the Venn diagrams of, of IT overlap are. Get really complicated in terms of who can use what for, for what tool. And, you know, what tools do we already have good licensing deals with that do the same thing as this other thing that people are looking for. And so knowing what, what you have in, in your quiver and, and can roll out and do it affordably and, and manage it all together is. It is, I, I don’t want to say this is, it’s like a lot of these groups become like innovation silos because they sort of had to cordon themselves off a little bit to be able to operate on, on, yeah, on a finite set of this is what we’re going to work on and then we’re going to get it out. Um, and so with that, the more you do that, then. You know, you have a hundred different things all doing that, but then you’re siloed again. And, you know, so as you were saying is, you know, there’s some consolidation or even, you know, up a level at like a CIO that they can then provide down to all of that across all of the multi tenants is, you know, Absolutely. The next step, both in cost savings, understanding, and, uh, the ability to provide the right tools for, for the software. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, that’s a good point. It certainly applies to any CEO organization who’s responsible for supporting the multiple tenants of their agency. Right. Absolutely. Um, and you know, all CEO organizations are not necessarily created equal, some are more guidance and some are more, we actually control the tax, uh, but for those. Folks for each office, you know, they they constitute a different tenant with a different budget um And they need the same accessibility uh consistency of stacks and visibility for Finances. Absolutely. Um, one other interesting thing is and I won’t go into it here because I don’t think anybody’s really felt it yet Was a lot of it cross agency interest in being able to procure from other services meaning Coast Guard, buy from Army. Cloud. Air Force, buy from Army. You know, uh, in different areas. And, and I heard tell of somebody who, Made one of those things happen. But that is, that is a real challenge that takes, I think the political will of both leaders and those two services to be able to come together and make that happen. But, uh, that kind of, uh, certainly collapses this whole notion that every service needs their own. Right. Yeah. Dang. Right. And then, and then there’s just that in the middle of all that too. Right. So 

Kevin Long: outside of Intel, where. There’s like the monolith cloud for that. It’s it is incredibly difficult to do that. And it really does take a bunch of political will and the willingness to. I’m sure it feels like tilting at windmills sometimes to get it done. But yeah, there’s. There’s so much, while it’s not 100 percent overlap, there’s so much commonality around, around some of that, that there really truly is, uh, efficiencies of scale that have yet to be recognized. 

Ashley Nichols: Um, let’s talk a little bit about, uh, the concept of, of full stack development, right? And this has been for the last several years, you know, full stack, full stack, full stack. Is that still the trend? Is there are you seeing a bit of movement away from that back towards specialization? You know, what I read is a little bit of both. And I think it depends on the maturity of your organization, right? If you’ve been in the full stack model for a while, uh, in terms of developers. I think they’re noticing now that there’s a need again for some specialization, but you want to talk a little bit to that?

Kevin Long: Sure. So I smirk every time people say full stack because a full stack developer is not eye shaped, right? It is not, they are not equally deep across the full breadth of their experience. They’re going to be T shaped, right? They can do a lot of stuff. They’re very good at a couple. Um. Uh, and so I think that the, the stated, uh, full stack, I think successful organizations that even while they’re looking for full stack are, uh, hiring people that know how to do a lot of different things, but that they are, have always been paying attention to the specializations within each full stack developer. Um, the really successful ones do make a distinction between like full stack developers and like Product owners and like UI, UX and things like that, uh, where they are truly different things. But the goal of agile is anybody can pick up any ticket and execute it. And so you need to have familiarity across the board of it. But, um, I’m still seeing, I guess, to really answer your question, I’m still seeing people asking for full stack. Um, but, uh, the successful teams that are delivering full stack are paying attention to not, uh, not just that they have experience with, you know, uh, infrastructures code and automated testing and, uh, insert your object oriented program language of choice here and JavaScript and, and things like that. Um, it is. That they look at what folks, um, uh, are, are. 

Ashley Nichols: You’re still looking for a balance of the skill sets across your stack, right? Across it, yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, yeah, it’s like a lot, I always think it’s a lot of things. You know, the pendulum swings one way for a long time and then it swings back the other way.

Um, yeah. 

Kevin Long: Everything old is 

Ashley Nichols: new again. I’m, 

Kevin Long: I’m seeing more differentiation on the, not the full stack developer, but on the dev ops side where it’s not, where it was just dev ops engineer, where it’s everything to now you have Kubernetes specialists and things like that, where, where they’re, where they just took, you know, full stack infrastructures code, like people that worked in the server room back in the day. Dating myself now, we’re lumped together, right? You know, say, Hey, I know how to administer Unix and windows, right? Um, but now it’s, uh, I can do the infrastructures code. I can set up the pipelines. I can run that stuff. Or, uh, I’m good at day two ops. I’m good at, you know, the Kubernetes, uh, virtualization control plane stuff and all that. You know? So I’m seeing that actually get more granular than on the day. On the straight development side these days. Yeah, 

Ashley Nichols: absolutely. Um, and we’re going to host another discussion around AI more fully, but, uh, what’d you hear about AI at ProductSpin? 

Kevin Long: Oh, it’s that it’s everywhere, that it needs to be done smart. I’m going to summarize. This is the, the. The Kevin summary of it, uh, AI is only as good or as dangerous as the data and rules that are put around it. And so you have to be incredibly careful with it because it is, it’s ability to operate at speed and scale is such that if it is not thought out carefully and appropriately in the beginning, you will get something that you truly do not want on the end. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, I think overall I’m hearing. Excitement than, oh, huge excitement, peer awareness. Uh, but, uh, but yeah, like, you know, what is the governance? What is the governance, um, look like? You know, I heard, uh, at, at a, at a different conference at at ELC, I heard some folks talk about, um. You know, the State folks, the State Department folks and some other folks talk about, um, bots, right, and how they’re going to use those, and, uh, somebody, I will not name them, was immediately sort of like, ultimately, like, we want unattended bots, and then everybody else on the panel went like, ugh, I don’t know, unattended bots? Like, we’re a long way from that, right? Um, but the idea is to, um, take away a lot of the, uh, Human oriented tasks that are like tedious and rote and over and over again. Human checking. Sure. Attended. Yep. Versus just like letting it go. Yeah. Um. 

Kevin Long: it is a supercharger. I 

Ashley Nichols: mean it really is. Yeah. I mean I think we’ve all found that even in like the, in the simplest ways. Right? Being able to use things like chat QPP and whatever to like short circuit, you know, Yeah. Summarizing things that would normally take us, you know, a lot longer and, yeah. I 

Kevin Long: mean, I, I trusted, but verified, I mean, it planned one of the best vacations I’ve ever had. 

Ashley Nichols: There you go. Helpful tip. Use AI to plan your vacation. 

Kevin Long: Absolutely. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. It was great. All right. Uh. Well, we’re shifting gears here as we come up towards the end a little bit. Um, what’s the future look like for software factories? We talked a little bit about it before, whether now there, you know, are a few years into software factories and some little searching is going on around the model, um, What’s the future of Software Factories?

Kevin Long: Boy, I wish I knew that answer for sure. Because then I could go, go solve all their problems up front. Um, so it’s interesting. I, I think that they’re still figuring out the way they want to do it. We’re seeing the different services and different agencies approach Software Factories. in a lot of different ways. You know, like Air Force, uh, spins up a software factory around a unique problem set and then they solve it. The Army stands up, uh, like the one ring of software factories that pulls in problem sets from everywhere and operates like a horizontal. Um, you get folks at, at, at DHS that are doing it by Uh, by wide product line, right? And so, um, I think that the future of software factories is going to be more and more around them, figuring out the best way to organize themselves to solve the problems that they’ve been created, to solve the, the power of the software factories and the mentality and the ethos that drives things forward, really? Mm-Hmm. , right? Because otherwise, in my opinion, it’s just. It’s just an agile software team, which is great. You get a lot of things done. Uh, it’s the, the, the scientific method in the questioning and the, the, that they, uh, that software factories apply to their culture and change management that I think really make them. the, the super powerful, uh, change agents for good that they, that they have been. And I think that they’re still looking around and trying to figure out what is the best way, not just necessarily writ large, but for within their agency, for within their problem set, for within that. And I think that we’re going to see them reorganizing and trying to figure out the best way to do that as they, as they, continue to push forward while trying to, I mean, put the plane together while it’s taking off. Right. Cause there’s still, it’s still very early on with that. And so, um, yeah, that’s, that’s what I think is going to be happening with them in the future. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. I think we’re going to help them 

Kevin Long: do it. 

Ashley Nichols: I think we’re going to see a lot more, um, focus in the development of the soldier developer. Right. Uh, we, we’ve seen some of that, right? There’s pressure coming from a lot of places, right? There’s too many contractors in the space, you know, what are, what is the future for, uh, our service folks, right? And, and getting into new, you know, areas of expertise, you know, on a lot of the services have the, um, the boot camps and the training to create soldier led software factory. Uh, there’s just criticism about can you effectively spin all those people up from zero to be effective by themselves, right? And have them be 

Kevin Long: effective before they PCS to their next, to their next, uh, uh, posting. Yeah, 

Ashley Nichols: yeah. So I think we’re going to see, I think that there’s a lot of love with that program, obviously, and for good reason. Um. But I think we’re going to see a lot more work on that going forward on how to make that the most effective. What is the best balance between the soldier developer and the, um, the contractor balance, right? Some of the more commercial based expertise bring into the space. So I think we’ll see. I think the more emphasis. On that, uh, more effective training and support for those, you know, those are developers, um, To make the software factories, you know as as optimize them as effective as they can be. 

Speaker 3: Yep 

Ashley Nichols: All right Final question for Rod, as it was, what are your hopes for federal software development in 2024? What are you, what are you looking to see in 2024, hoping to see?

Kevin Long: I’m hoping to see the, so I love the ethos of Software Factories. So, I would like to, I would like to see, Uh, the ethos of Soccer Factories move more writ large, the way that it is, um, the culture of, you know, being able to, to go anywhere that would have, you know, ideas over rank, right? Where you have, if it, if it doesn’t work now, let’s try it and see how it works and move on, accept the good things out of it, throw away the bad things, take the lessons learned and push forward, right? I would like to see that. Implemented at some of the larger. agencies and the at the writ large. And just, I mean, it’s, so it’s, it’s easier to, to shift a smaller culture than it is a larger one. Right. And so I’d like to see, I’d like to see that more and more of, of that experimentation, more and more of that, that, uh, uh, the, the. Ethos and culture, uh, out that I see out of places like Army Software Factory and Kessel Run and Bein and Section 31, and just like, there’s a huge list of them, like, like the, the folks that get there and get excited. I, I, I, I, I, I see physical changes in the people that do that. I’d like to see that all over. I think it’s great. That’s what I, yeah, 

Ashley Nichols: there’s certainly a level of. Sort of enthusiasm, excitement, fun, dare I say, uh, that, that comes with a lot of those environments, uh, 

Kevin Long: paired with incredible delivery. Yeah, 

Ashley Nichols: it is. And I think that there’s a lot to learn from that model, especially in the, um, fail fast and move on. You know, I think what, you know, rightly or wrongly, there’s this, uh, Perception that the US government is sometimes deeply invested in the sunk cost fallacy, which is I have spent this much money, so I better just keep spending until it’s done. There’s stories of systems and, and aircraft, maybe even that never came to fruition that we spent millions and billions on, uh, because we were afraid to walk away and take the lessons that we learned and apply to something new. And, you know, I don’t think that really serves, I don’t think that serves anybody in the end, certainly, you know, not the government folks working on it. The taxpayers, like, like any of it, um, and it’s certainly, and it’s certainly not the model that any successful commercial organization uses. Right. Um, they don’t continue to take money into failing product lines. Not if they’re going to survive, 

Kevin Long: exist for long. Yeah. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. But anyway, all right. Well, with that, I will go ahead and wrap it up. Thanks, Kevin, for for joining us. Love it. Um, everyone, thanks for listening to Highlight Cast. Uh, to keep up with Highlight news and activities, follow us on LinkedIn or visit our website at HighlightTech. com. Uh, tune in for our next episode, which will be 2023 in review. All right. Thanks, Kevin. 

Kevin Long: Thanks, Ashley. Have a great day, y’all. 

The views and opinions expressed in this episode are those of the hosts and do not necessarily reflect highlight technologies and or any agency of the U. S. government.

Episode #38: 2023 for Highlight: This Year in Review

 Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia. You are now listening to the Highlight Cast.

Aarish Gokaldas: Hello, everyone. I am Aarish Gokaldas. I am the Chief Executive Officer here at Highlight Technologies. And I am excited to be joined by our Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Growth, Ashley Nichols. So we have had a very exciting Today we’re going to take the time to dive into the past year, uh, some of the work that Highlight has done, uh, the work that we’ve won, the strides that we’ve made for our federal customers, uh, as well as some of the internal developments and frankly, internal wins, uh, that we’ve had as well. And Ashley is here to join me to talk through those, cause who better to talk through some of those wins and accomplishments than our head of business development. Uh, so actually, let’s jump right into it. What are walk me through some of the biggest achievements that you’ve witnessed across the organization, both within respect of contract wins, but also, more importantly, highlighting how we’ve been supporting our customers missions.

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, uh, you know, I’ll get, I’ll start with the, you know, some of our contract wins, that is sort of the bread and butter and how we get to keep providing that stellar support. Um, you know, we had some critical re competes come up this year, our SBA contract, both the BPA and the task, uh, prominent of our primary task orders to continue, uh, supporting, uh, The critical work of, uh, the maintenance of all the loans that the, the SBA gave out during COVID, uh, that kept so many small businesses afloat. So we’re really psyched to keep, uh, continuing to support that contract for another five years. Um, as well as, uh, a recompete of our Coast Guard program, um, uh, which was a, one of our Great sort of cloud and data stories. So we’re really pleased to continue supporting that customer. Um, also for another five years in new wins, uh, we’ve, you know, expanded our footprint at SBA into the CIO office with our support of their ITSC contracts. They’re in either it support center contracts, um, which is an expansion of both the type of work and the customers in SBA for us, uh, as well as in USAID, uh, PMSS, which. Supports the office of administration, which is another new USAID customer for us, but some more of the institutional support contract types of work that we do already at DDI and PPO. So, um, you know, a good story about really kind of pivoting into some new areas with some existing customers. Uh, and also a new footprint, uh, in the Air Force on the Platform 1 contract. Uh, we’ve got now a few developers there in their Agile shop, which was a, a good target for us this year, and so we’re really excited to, to look and expand that work. We’ve also expanded some of our existing programs. We’ve got a bridge for our USAID PPL contract, which is a testament to the continued, uh, critical and high quality support that that team, uh, has provided. Provides, uh, to USAID. So we’ve just, I think we’ve had a good year of, of mix of maintaining old and adding some new. So it’s been, it’s been pretty exciting. 

Aarish Gokaldas: That’s all absolutely exciting and worthy of applause. And I’ll, I’ll add some color to some of what you talked about. So let’s start with. Uh, SBA, the Small Business Administration, uh, so Highlight grew as a woman owned small business, a, uh, small disadvantaged business, and, uh, SBA has been one of our, I’ll say, anchor clients as Highlight has grown and matured. And for those who, who know or don’t know, Highlight is no longer qualifies as a small business. So for all intents and purposes, our, our time at SBA as a prime contractor with highlight is more or less over, but just a testament to what I’ll say is what makes highlight unique is that SBA going forward continues to be a critical customer for us. Uh, it continues to be a customer that we have significant focus that we have significant investment and resources in to ensure their success because, uh, as our, uh, Vice President of Health and Citizen Solutions says, Leah Malakou, Uh, we were making a difference. We are making an actual difference with the work that we’re doing within SBA. Uh, we are helping small business owners stay on their feet. We’re helping individuals stay in business after either an economic or a climate disaster. And these are things that are having real world, uh, implications. Uh, and so there’s a great deal of pride within Highlight. Highlight. And it has nothing to do with whether we are the prior contractor or the subcontractor. So these wins are significant beyond just the revenue that they bring in. And Ashley, you referenced the ITSC contract, which is another program where we get to expand our services to SBA. So we just continue to, you know, be really proud with, with the work that we deliver there. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. Those in the USAID contracts, I think really just speak to, The mission alignment we have with our customers, right. With, you know, we obviously have our, our areas of capability and expertise that we’re trying to grow, but I think, you know, the focus on enabling the citizen, right. Is true across so many of our contracts and really. You know, court, our mission values here. So it’s great to see us continue to expand those footprints.

Aarish Gokaldas: Exactly. And jumping over to the platform, one work that you spoke of within the air force. We talk about the work that we’re doing with SBA around financial management, the work we’re doing with USAID around procurement support, as well as policy support. There’s obviously a core capability within highlight that’s focused around software development, application services. And DevSecOps. And while we didn’t get into it, one of the key contracts there is within our National Security Solutions Group. And that’s with the U. S. Center for Immigration Services and their SPEED contract and the work that we’re doing there around DevSecOps with these Agile teams. Just huge credit to DHS and USCIS for the model that they operate. It truly is an agile development model where teams spin up to address an application, a portal, a website, and then spin down. And it is a model that I believe other customers could benefit from implementing. And frankly, it’s one that Platform. One, I believe, also utilizes. To great benefit. Uh, so it’s an analogous capability that I think we’re able to come in and hit the ground running without too much, uh, too much of a learning curve. So it’s an exciting, exciting one to, to grow into looking ahead. 

Ashley Nichols: It’s definitely a model that we’re seeing in a lot of other customers and being in that space now, right. As you know, one of the great examples of how that works effectively in the federal government, um, definitely gives us an understanding in helping it. Other customers stand up those kinds of programs. And, you know, there’s a, some directives, if not official, unofficial in other large, especially national security agencies to get away from these behemoth enterprise programs with the vendor lock in to, especially around systems development to absorb more of this model where they have multiple contractors, um, providing these critical services, um, But gives them the flexibility to flex up and down based on the needs of what’s in their portfolio at that time. So it’s definitely a sort of a, the lessons learned that we’re taking into help other customers for sure. 

Aarish Gokaldas: For sure. And, and to that point, you know, even as we grow into a large business and start competing against some of those larger organizations who tend to benefit from some of the vendor lock in, we continue to, uh, I’ll say, uh, evangelize and proselytize the benefits of. You know, some of these agile development teams, paired programming, uh, and software factories where we’re bringing in, uh, developers, not just from other industry partners, but also from the government and getting them trained up to, to not only develop a stronger sales cut, but also to eventually manage their own applications. So as we, as we look further in 2023, there’s obviously the contract awards. What about some of the industry recognitions and the industry accolades, uh, that, that you’ve seen come through for highlight? 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, we’ve, you know, we did, uh, well with the best places to work, uh, coming in, you know, they, they close them out the every year. So these are for 22, but, um, we were made the list for best places for millennials to work, uh, best places for technology for small and medium sized companies. Uh, one of the best places for women and then just overall one of the best medium sized workplaces. You know, that is something that we really consciously focused on, right? As we talk about changes that we have made to make Highlight the kind of place that people want to work, that your work is valued both from the standpoint on the contract, but just as a contributor to, you know, the overall organization. Um, And in addition to sort of corporate recognition, we also have, uh, had a number of individuals that were recognized this year. Um, Fiona, who is our head of HR, was recognized by her professional association for a rising star award. And we had For folks nominated for pinnacle awards this year, which was more than I think almost anybody else at that pinnacle awards that I saw and really sort of highlights first foray there. So we were all really pleased to be nominated there and, you know, look forward to. Making an entry again in the next year or so. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. Yeah. And, and, uh, regarding the pinnacle award. So that was sponsored by one of our industry partners, Washington executive, uh, and we were obviously honored to be nominated and, uh, appreciative of that recognition that four of our leaders were, uh, were nominated as finalists and going back to your, uh, Your point about the the industry recognitions that were for best places to work for Millennials for women, best medium sized workplace for for technology. I think a lot of this gets into what matters, right? The core values within highlight technologies earlier this year. I had the pleasure of attending an employee ownership conference. Along with a couple of other individuals. And one of the keynote speakers was an individual by the name of Smiley Pazlowski. Uh, inspire smiley is a recognized leader around, uh, multi generational workforce engagement, uh, specifically around Gen Z. And one of the things that he talked about is companies need to start looking past diversity, equity inclusion. That’s that’s no longer enough. Obviously, D. E. And D. E. I. Has been a huge point of emphasis over the past five years. Uh, for, for companies, especially companies within the federal defense industrial base, uh, and I’m proud to say that that highlight has always been, I will say, a pioneer in that, in that sense, with respect to our diverse workforce and our statistics absolutely back that up. But what Smiley said, and rightly so, I believe, is that. You also have to go be along inclusion to add belonging your employees need to belong and and he stated a quote that I’ll paraphrase here. Diversity is having a seat at the table inclusion. Is being able to offer your voice and belonging is ensuring that your voice is being heard and everything that he talked about with respect to how to transform a company to get from inclusion to belonging. I’m thrilled to say, and with a little bit of, you know, maybe bragging is that Highlight takes the time to do a lot of the things there, right. To ensure that our employees are being listened to. get into some of the changes that have happened internally, I hope everyone will recognize that. That those are a direct result of our employees being comfortable enough to tell us these areas can be better. And we took that to heart. Um, and to ensure that, that as an employee on company, right. Belonging is everyone’s job. It’s not just HR’s job. It’s not just the CEO’s job. Uh, and that there’s no such thing as culture fit. Uh, the culture is constantly evolving. We’re not hiring for somebody to come in to the culture that is static within highlight, we’re looking at them to come in and inform and evolve it. And this is a long winded way to say that. I think that the time and effort that we put in to caring for our employees, ensuring and ensuring that they feel comfortable voicing their opinion and knowing that they’re going to be heard. I believe translates into some of the recognition that we’ve seen within, for example, best places to work. That is entirely an employee driven survey. There’s nothing that I can say to make that happen. It is all of our employees that are responding to a survey that determines whether we make it on that list or not. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. And. I’m going to use that as a gentle segue into another thing that, you know, we spent a lot of time on in 23 was the ESOP itself and rolling it out. You know, we became a hundred percent employee owned just at the beginning of 23, right? So this is our, our first year in figuring out what that means for us, not just as a business entity, but as like a corporate citizen entity and create, creating that sense of belonging and. Making sure that our employees and prospective employees understand the value of that program. Um, for them, you know, while they’re here, the benefits in terms of, you know, additional retirement benefits and what it means to be an employee owner, and then really living by that, right. With the engagement and the levels of which we are drawing folks in across the board. I mean, I think this year has also seen us expand engagement with our Employee focus groups with, um, our social committees, you know, it, you know, in all the ways that we. Gather people together, um, drawing more people into even the business development process, right? And, you know, just really reaching across the entire spectrum of our employee group and not just depending on, you know, the same small groups that we go to, I think really, I hope adds to that, you know, sense of belonging and employee ownership.

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. And on the topic of employee ownership, I’ve been with companies that have been partially employee owned. And highlight is the first one that I’ve joined. That’s 100 percent employee owned. And as you stated, that was a change that was made last year, much to the credit of the founder, Rebecca Andino, to go that route. And certainly, 100 percent employee owned company is a rare breed within the federal contracting space. There aren’t Many of us there we’re, we’re, we’re growing in number because I think both industry executives are starting to see the benefit of converting to employee owned versus going through a standard acquisition by a PE or a strategic. Um, but also there’s a greater tangible benefit to the employees, as you mentioned, with an additional retirement benefit and to our clients, there’s a higher rate of retention. Um, so there’s a better level of productivity. Uh, and so in the end, uh, it’s, it’s really a win, win, win. But one of the things that I think has truly been eye opening for me is really how it is this additional layer of benefit on top of, you know, compensation, bonus. Benefits and 401k. This is an additional leg on that stool. Um, and so it’s really exciting when you look at 2023, I can say that we have 61 highlight employees who have now become employee owners and in 2024, hopefully that number will grow and double in size. Uh, and, and Ashley, while we’re on this topic, I think it’s a great opportunity to talk about some of the. Internal changes that have been made, uh, that I’m really proud of. Scoop my question. And, and so, uh, certainly the ESOP was an introduction, uh, introduced last year. Um, but we’re starting to see it go up with respect, not just to the number of employees growing within the employee ownership stable, but also with respect to the stock price going up this year. Um, was obviously a benefit to all of the, of the shareholders. Um, but in addition, you know, we talked about that, uh, that element of belonging and knowing that employees are listened to. So we’ve got what I believe is an above industry average 401k plan. With employee match our employees provided that feedback that while the 401k is good the Vesting schedule frankly sucks And so we took that under consideration. We looked at options And we updated the plan effective next year where our 401k will now vest 100 on day one So there is no longer a three year period vesting period. It is in fact immediate So that’s one concern that we’ve been able to address Um, a second one was, was around parental leave and we, we’ve had a parental leave policy for several years and a handful of employees or several employees, I don’t know the total number, uh, came forward and said the parental leave policy is good, um, but we think it could be better. And we think it could be above industry average. And so what we did was we increased our parental leave policy, uh, up to four weeks. And that is on top of whatever the state that the employee resides in also offers. And we have employees in 32 states, 32 states around the country. So each, each, each state has a different set of regulations. But for an employee, it’s a minimum of four weeks if their state offers nothing else. Uh, and then that goes to that element of, uh, are we listening to our employees? Yes. Uh, and, and frankly, are our employees comfortable enough to come out and voice their concerns? And I believe the answer is yes. Yep. And I’ll say on top of that, there’s a lot of exciting changes coming in 2024, uh, that I can’t speak to yet. Uh, but certainly you can, you can definitely expect that our, our ESOP program will improve. Yep. Our benefits program will improve and our professional development guidance and roadmap for our employees will also be improving in the next year. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Uh, so we are a company who’s always of the belief that we can do better. And we’re constantly evolving and, and hopefully our, our current employees and our clients on the outside see that. 

Ashley Nichols: All right, folks, just to hear that everyone stay tuned in 2024 for new and exciting announcements, right? It’s on the record. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yes. Absolutely. 

Ashley Nichols: And I want to add one more thing because I’m about to ask you some questions about 24. Um, uh, but before we do that, I also, you know, can’t, uh, understate the how well we, we continue. We got a recent barrage of new CPARs all at exceptional. I think our average CPAR rate is now well above four across all of our programs. And, um, I just, I don’t want 23 to pass without, you know, acknowledging that. Just the high, high level of performance we’re getting across our programs. And that is really down to a T to every person on that program, right? That’s not a management only situation. That’s that only comes from everybody just bringing, you know. Everything they’ve got to the programs. And, you know, we’re just so, so, so grateful for that. Um, and also before we switch to 24, we’ve had some organizational changes this year, one obvious one with, you know, the, you know, the addition of yourself at, uh, CEO, uh, we added our new, uh, Director of Technology and Innovation, Jim Eselgroth . Two new capture managers. Um, and we have realigned, uh, from being completely, like, capabilities focused. We were previously mission, uh, services and digital government services. And now we have pivoted to be a bit more customer aligned for our national security solutions. Um, and, uh, our health and citizen, uh, Solutions as well. Do you want to talk a little bit about that realignment and why you thought it was important to go that way? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. And actually, in order to talk about that, I’m going to back it up and talk, talk first about my joining highlight as you reference. So I’m actually highlight in July of this year. So I’m six months in now, actually. So it’s, it’s been, it’s been half a year. Uh, and it’s been, uh, it’s been awesome, right? Um, but coming in, one of the things that I looked at was the organization. And in talking with the board and talking with Rebecca, one of the things that I was struck by was the level of maturity with the infrastructure that Highlight had. Uh, a full back office, right? Complete with the finance, recruiting, accounting, marketing, HR, HR. And business development, it had a, a, a back office infrastructure that was already built to scale. And for someone looking to come in and see, you know, like I could not be handed a better gift. Um, but in talking with Rebecca and the board, I said, well, the one thing that I’m not seeing here is a, a tech and innovation office, a commitment to IRAD. And again, to the credit of the team in place. Uh, she said, we actually already have a plan to go out and identify and hire a director and this was something that was actually put forward by, you know, Ashley, our head of, our head of BD, as well as Kevin Long, our head of, uh, Digital government at the time. So this was something that that you guys were already on top of. And it was again, it was comforting for me to know that I was coming into a leadership team that was already thinking about the same things that I was thinking about. And so Rebecca to acquit allowed me to come in and have a voice in terms of who we brought in to serve as that director of technology innovation. And as you mentioned, we brought in Jim Eselgroth , who’s been in for about four months now and has moved at lightning speed to stand up this office, this office, as well as Edgeworks, which is our innovation lab. But now that we have this lab in place and this tech and innovation office, this is ideally where our technical capabilities should align. And what it does is it frees up our previously mission solutions and digital government folks. To focus exclusively on their clients, knowing that they have the support from tech innovation and Edward Edgeworks to bring all the highlight capabilities to bear. So for health and citizen solutions, it allows them to focus on those health and civilian agencies. And then on the national security solutions, it frees Kevin long up the head of, uh, NSS to explore and focus around the department of defense, our key customers like army, uh, as well as. Air Force, Homeland Security and finally the Intel community. And so it allows them greater capacity and frankly, a greater cross collaboration capability.

Ashley Nichols: Absolutely. Um, so before we move to 24, any personal, uh, highlights stand out for you for 23? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Oh man. So there, there’s, there’s, there’s definitely a few, right? You’ve BDUNs and, and those are near and dear to my heart, given my growth background. But frankly, you know, it’s been just the opportunity to, um, get involved in all of the various community give back programs, right? Uh, and that’s one of the things that highlight, you know, not only Walks to Walk, but Talks to Talk. Um, and I’ll just give a recent example, because there are numerous to talk through, but, uh, there’s an organization called Echo. Uh, which employs individuals with disabilities to, uh, uh, uh, essentially, uh, they, they have several lines, right? One is a bakery, which they call the Echo Barkery, where they produce handcrafted dog treats, dog biscuits. Uh, but we actually engage them to build out our holiday gift boxes for all of our remote, remote employees. And these were beautiful, uh, boxes with, you know, uh, custom made, echo made candles, as well as other, you know, really nice touches. Uh, they were all beautifully boxed up and, and sent out. Um, and so that was, that was a great experience to work with them on that. But the other element to this is that, uh, highlight was we had the privilege to actually go and volunteer at their holiday party. And going out and I wouldn’t even say volunteer because we ended up partying with them Uh to the point that my sister was in town. I was able to rick her She was on the dance floor the entire time dancing Um with with the attendees doing the cuban shuffle with them Uh, I was at the ping pong table, uh playing table tennis with with them With a bunch of the individuals and then we had a chance to, you know, serve lunch to them and, and, and, and staff, the cookie decoration, but, uh, everyone was in such high spirits. It was, it was absolutely one of the, the, the key, key highlights for me. Um, I’ll, I’ll ask you the same question, actually, for, for 2023. 

Ashley Nichols: Um, yeah, so being the old timer, uh, highlight old timer in this, uh, conversation, uh, you know, this. Uh, was basically my sixth year at Highlight and obviously marked, uh, a big year of change. And you know, having, you know, been here going from like, uh, 25 million company, you know, to a large business, um, I think the most exciting thing for me is probably been this pivot. I always call it highlight 2. 0, right? Which is, you know, just the, the next in our evolution, um, in our space and everything that that brought, you know, from our new leadership, from our new team members, you know, the renewed. Kind of energy, you know, around, you know, not just where we’ve been, but where we want to go, uh, I think has been the most exciting part for me, you know, the increase in our philanthropic, you know, engagement. That now extends beyond just sort of, you know, philanthropic activities, but to partnering with the Tommy Nobis Center in actually both business and social, you know, uh, social causes, right, to sort of, you know, You know, like live what we espouse, right? Which is that, you know, you know, yes, we’re a business and we’re here to make money and to succeed as a business, but, but also to be a good corporate citizen. And the 2 do not at all, you know, they’re not mutually exclusive. And in fact, can be fundamentally enhanced. By those engagements. So, uh, you know Highlight 2. 0 kind of across the board is what i’m going to take away as my my personal highlight for the year Um, yeah, and for for what what it brings for 24 

Aarish Gokaldas: and and that’s a perfect segue And I think what I like to say is right do do good as you do. Well, um, and they’re not actually exclusive We can we can make money while also people, right? And having positive impacts. Um, so with that, actually, when you talked about things like the Tommy Novus Center and our, our, our engages with them going into next year, what are, what are the things that you’re looking forward to most in 2020? 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. 2024, a lot going on, a lot happening. Uh, you know, obviously we’ve got some new partnerships. Um, one Novus Center and that one is, you know, signed and sealed. So I can talk about that. We have some new, um, burgeoning partnership relationships with that. I will talk more about in 24 as well. That’s my teaser. Uh, as soon as we get, uh, the, the, the, the ink dried on some of those agreements, um, But I think there’s going to be a lot of continued, uh, GWAC activity in 2024, right? NASA Soup, um, Army I TES 4 should come out at the end of that year that, um, are not only, you know, critical to a company, but they also offer, I think, access into some new customer spaces, um, and, uh, just, you know, being able to bring the highlights. Branding capabilities into some new spaces through these new GWACs, and so I’m excited about that. Um, and diving into, uh, the alternative procurement world, and when I say that, I mean like CBRS and OTAs. Um, You know, BAA is Broad Agency Announcements, things where we’re really going to be able to leverage what Jim and the team do with Edgeworks, right? Um, and bring some innovative thinking, some R& D type engagements, uh, into our existing and new customer spaces. And just to see what the lab does, what they decide to focus on, we obviously have some, some initial projects that we’ve been focusing on, uh, that, you know, are sort of legacy that brought into, uh, you know, that we were already working on before Jim came on board. But, uh, you know, his engagement across the organization to bubble up important innovation from across the workforce. Uh, I’m really excited to see what kind of ideas, uh, our teams are bringing for both their customers or just, you know, speculative, uh, for new customers. Um, and one of those projects that was already underway was a, you know, something we developed for an army customer that we, you know, evolved out into a broader offering called Atlas, which is really around software, uh, and asset management, which Is a continued challenge, especially across the D. O. D. You hear about it, you know, from the D. O. D. C. I. O. Down to army C. I. O. S. to our individual customers and, you know, we have. Solved it to a degree for 1 customer. We really want to roll it out and meet those needs across the customer. So really getting Atlas some traction and and helping D. O. D. solve, you know, really big known challenges is some of the things that I’m looking forward to in 24. So now I’m going to flip it to you. 

Aarish Gokaldas: I’m gonna, I’m gonna run with the offerings and I’ll add one more, but I’ll talk through the offerings. You talked about Atlas. I’m going to talk about a second one called mission at scale. And that’s one that, that when I came on day one, uh, that was one that I was immediately in love with. And, uh, folks who either follow me on LinkedIn or see me in my LinkedIn posts know that I put this, Mysterious hashtag at the end of most of my posts, uh, which is five 50 and seven. And, and for anybody that’s listening, you now get to listen to. The, the story behind that hashtag, uh, in 2020, uh, I mentioned our commitment to small business administration, um, today, but in 2020, uh, highlight was selected to manage the oversight of the paycheck protection program, PPP. Uh, we received a call from the contracting officer on a Friday. And they asked us how long we could get them, how long it would take us to get 500 resumes. To them for this program, and we said 30 days, which was an aggressive timeline. We thought they responded back saying, okay, you have seven days. And so over the course of the next seven days, we worked, we toiled. And I say we in a very loose sense because I was not on the timeline at this time. So I take zero credit for this, Ashley was, um, but in seven days, we handed over 550 viable resumes. To the customer, uh, for the PPP program. And how can I say that it was viable? Because in 30 days, we had 500 employees on contract seated, supporting the government. So this type of staffing excellence does not happen. By chance that happens through a very, um, very mature and very established process that encompasses not just recruiting, um, not just program management, but it encompasses all aspects of, I’ll say, the PMBOK. It covers all aspects of human centered design in terms of how we operate and how we do it, and it gets into the broader methodology that highlight has coined highway and so taking this, this capability that we did for. SBA, which resulted in us bringing in 3, 000 loan officers in three months to support the PPP program and applying that to other large scale staff augmentation projects is how Mission Net Scale, uh, originated. And we have that in place, uh, and, and it’s one that I believe is, is absolutely not just a game changer for, for us, but absolutely is a potential game changer for our clients. Who are looking to not just scale large programs, but to scale quickly and effectively. Uh, so just an extension along the offerings there. 

Ashley Nichols: Uh, and did you want to talk a little bit about ESOP happening? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I do. I do. That’s the, thank you. Absolutely. That’s the next thing that I’m excited about is we talked about ESOP, uh, and the, the lack of the dearth of a hundred percent. ESOP companies that are federally focused, entirely federally focused. Um, I think if you’re to look at across the entire contractor landscape, probably less than 10 percent of those companies are ESOP in some form or fashion. Fewer are 100%. Um, but that said, the government is starting to recognize the value of ESOPs supporting them. And I already talked about some of the benefits, the intangible benefits that come with ESOPs that have been statistically demonstrated. Through higher retention, um, uh, greater level of productivity because of the years of experience in a role, uh, and, uh, a reduced need to have a reduced turnaround time of vacancies, uh, as well as, um, a reduced. Uh, tied to scale, uh, um, uh, to speed because of the fact that we’ve got custom, uh, employees on, on site in place already, um, the government has started to recognize the value, uh, in 2021, they initiated a pilot within the NDAA, uh, language that allows DOD clients to award any sole source capacity. Follow on contracts to a hundred percent employee owned companies. Again, a hundred percent employee owned, not partial employee owned. Uh, and this year, uh, the NDA language was just released. They have continued that pilot. They’ve expanded the pilot in 2021. It was nine. Proofs of concept, it’s now been expanded to 18 projects and it’s been extended from a five year test phase, pilot phase, to eight years. So I think it’s clear to say that the first pilot was a success such that it’s now being expanded. Still focused around the DOD, although now it’s been modified that they can use GSA vehicles. And, and I think it’s, it’s a huge win for, uh, ESOP companies. It’s a great signal to the value that, um, the government is starting to see in what ESOPs can bring and the benefit that it brings to their employees, right? Uh, both the, the financial as well as the non financial and going forward in 2024, we’re going to see that program grow and. Over time, it’s my hope that that will expand beyond DoD into not just other elements of the Intel community, uh, homeland security, but also out into FedSiv, uh, as well as, uh, health.

Ashley Nichols: Absolutely. All right. Well, we’re coming up on the end here. So I think we talked a good amount about what we’re looking forward to in 24. Um, so since this is the highlight cast, I have to ask you, what was your favorite highlight cast episode from the past year? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Good question. Uh, so you talked about Atlas and I, I am a huge fan of, of the, the tool that the army enterprise cloud team built the highlight enterprise cloud team built as well as what, what, what has now become Atlas. And I believe that, um, uh, it is an, it is a challenge. Asset management is a challenge. That is starting to come into the forefront, uh, for all agencies in the federal government because of the expansion of, uh, uh, technology, right? Across the board, cloud AI, DevSecOps, to be able to provide a hundred percent visibility and to also start to automate the acquisition of software is, is I think a challenge, uh, that, that has not been addressed up till now. And I believe Atlas. Has the potential to do that, uh, both within the D O D as well as across the board to D H, uh, Homeland Security, uh, Intel community, as well as the Fed Civ markets. Uh, so a long winded way to say that the asset management podcast, uh, hosted by one Ashley Nichols, uh, and with guests. Speaker Sarah Dreyer was my favorite. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, I actually, actually really liked that one too. Not just cause I was in it, but just because the perspective, you know, we, you know, got to really talk to the people in the programs doing the work there. So I, I enjoyed hosting that one and having that team, um, on there. I also, uh, enjoyed the ESOP podcast, you know, where, you know, you were talking to, I can’t remember your guest name, but you know, just, you know, You’re talking more about what it means to be in ESOP and, you know, the, the community of ESOPs that are out there, the benefits. Um, uh, so I thought that was just a good one because there’s, you know, a lot of folks don’t really know what it means to be one or be part of one. And so I’m going to go with, you know, since I can’t choose my own, uh, I’m going to go with the ESOP, uh, the ESOP one. 

Aarish Gokaldas: I love it. I think it was a great one too. And then look for me personally, it’s been, it’s been wonderful to actually meet other Uh, federal, federally focused ESOPs and see how they’re seeing the same benefits of ESOP, but also understanding the, some of the challenges that they’re facing, um, that, that are in line with ours. Um, but, but Ashley, this has been a wonderful 2023. It’s been a pleasure to, to, to go through it, uh, go through the mud with you for the last six months. Uh, I am very excited for, uh, Uh, the, the next year and what it will bring for highlight for our clients. Uh, and for our employee owners, if, if I, I wish I thought to bring champagne, we could have raised a glass to the 2023, but this is a podcast. I could have also lied and said that I have one, but, uh, thank you for joining me. 

Ashley Nichols: Yep. Thanks for having me. And, uh, happy 2024. I’m not sure when this is posted, but how about happy new year? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yes. Yeah. Happy, happy new year. I hope everybody has a wonderful December. Happy new year. And. Uh, happy new year and we look forward to speaking with you in 2024. Thank you for listening to highlight cast to keep up to date with highlights, news and activities. Uh, please follow us on LinkedIn and visit us at www. highlighttech. com. And be sure to tune in to our next episode, 

 The Views and opinions expressed in this episode are those of the hosts and do not necessarily reflect highlight technologies and, or any agency of the U S government.

The Roadmap to Resilient Tech: Modular Open Systems Approach and Digital Engineering

Have you ever sat down with a SME and asked them if a technology or technique was the right one, and their response was “it depends” and then follow it up with, “what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” SMEs make these statements and ask these questions because their experience has taught them that the context and specifics of the problem you are trying to solve will illuminate whether the technology or technique is appropriate. Over the past six months, I’ve seen a rise in conversations regarding Digital Engineering (DE)* and Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA)* across different applications from a weapon system, aircraft, facility, business, capability, or others. Considering these conversations, I wondered if the “Plug-and-Play (PnP)” mindset is still the right approach? Well, “it depends”. Couple these conversations with the ever-churning gears of technological advancement, which are continuously evolving, and—in my opinion—the PnP mindset approach is too broad and non-specific. To thrive in this dynamic landscape, organizations should consider other mature approaches in addition to the PnP mindset and embrace the DE and MOSA paradigms.

What are the advantages of the PnP mindset for specific use cases:

  • Rapid Deployment Situations: When organizations need immediate out-of-the-box functionality without extensive setup, PnP enables users to swap components quickly.
  • Limited Integration Needs: For standalone systems not needing larger ecosystem integration, PnP provides straightforward solutions.
  • Systems Requiring Infrequent Upgrades: Where technology refresh cycles are longer, PnP’s simplicity can be more suitable than MOSA’s continual flexibility.

However, there are some pitfalls within the PnP mindset. While seemingly convenient, PnP poses distinct challenges:

  • Vendor Lock: Proprietary integrations and data silos bind businesses to specific vendors, stifling flexibility and innovation.
  • Innovation Bottlenecks: Reliance on specific vendors restricts access to cutting-edge solutions and hinders internal development.
  • Fragmented Systems: Lack of interoperability creates data silos and hampers collaboration across and within organizations.

Of course, PnP helped us get to where we are today. However, to move to the next level, leveraging an open approach with standards will help us improve our ability to morph and adopt new technologies. Coupled with the ability to visualize and experiment with digital twins under the umbrella of DE, it enhances our ability to increase our understanding and explore alternative courses of action through what-if scenario analysis. Extending our ability to strategize and model out different scenarios in a digital environment increases our ability to innovate and identify gaps in our current capabilities, people, policies, process, partners, and platforms. To address what might be possible, let’s look at MOSA and DE:

Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA): MOSA liberates organizations from these constraints by advocating for:

  • Open Standards and Interfaces: These enable seamless integration of best-of-breed solutions from diverse vendors, fostering a dynamic technology ecosystem.
  • Modular Architecture: Systems are built with independent, interchangeable modules, empowering businesses to adapt and innovate without major overhauls.
  • Innovation as a Core Principle: Openness fosters collaboration and experimentation, allowing businesses to readily leverage the latest advancements.
Real World Examples of Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA):
F35: The F35, also known as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, applies the MOSA throughout the aircraft and across its lifecycle, setting the standard for openness and flexibility to adapt the weapon system to meet evolving operational mission needs1.
Virginia Class Submarines: The Virginia Class Submarines use a Modular Isolated Deck Structure (MIDS) and open-system architecture, resulting in a significantly lower cost, yet more effective command and control structure for fire control, navigation, electronic warfare, and communications connectivity2.
JADC2 (Joint All-Domain Command and Control): JADC2 demands a modular open-system approach (MOSA) that keeps up with evolving threats. Modular approaches and flexible, open-system architectures allow system components to evolve in response to changing technologies, threats, and interoperability needs3.

Digital Engineering (DE): DE complements MOSA’s foundation by introducing a data-driven and integrated approach to:

  • Early Integration and Modeling: Digital twins and virtual simulations allow for early testing and optimization of systems before physical implementation, reducing risks and improving efficiency.
  • Continuous Integration and Delivery (CI/CD): Automated testing and deployment pipelines accelerate development cycles and ensure rapid delivery of high-quality software.
  • Data-Driven Insights and Decision-making: Real-time data analysis from sensors and systems fuels informed decision-making and continuous improvement.
  • Improved Lifecycle Management: Data-driven insights allow for predictive maintenance, which helps maximize each taxpayer dollar spent across the design-build-sustain lifecycle phases of platforms.
Real World Examples of Digital Engineering (DE):
Boeing 787: The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the world’s first e-enabled commercial airplane, combines the power of integrated information and communications systems to drive operational efficiency, enhance revenue, and streamline airplane maintenance4Also, Boeing used crowdsourcing in designing the 787, which is a form of digital engineering5.
Ford Mustang Mach-E: The creation of Ford Model e was informed by the success of small, mission-driven Ford teams that developed the Ford GT, Mustang Mach-E SUV and F-150 Lightning pickup as well as Ford’s dedicated EV division in China6The Mustang Mach-E runs the software through a vertically mounted 15.5-inch touchscreen that allows for easy access to the system’s array of apps and features7.
NASA’s Artemis Program: The Orion spacecraft, a part of NASA’s Artemis missions, uses a model-based system engineering (MBSE) SysML modeling approach which provides a greatly enhanced access to information in addition to simulation / digital twin capabilities for real-time flight operations support8.

The MOSA & DE Powerhouse:

What might a combined MOSA & DE approach look like? Imagine MOSA and DE working in tandem to revolutionize your technology stack:

  • SaaS and Cloud: MOSA enables a hybrid cloud approach with seamless data exchange, while DE’s CI/CD pipelines streamline cloud deployments and updates.
  • Cybersecurity: MOSA’s open APIs facilitate integration of diverse security tools, while DE’s proactive modeling and simulation enables predictive threat detection and mitigation.
  • Data & Analytics: MOSA’s open platforms integrate diverse data sources and analytics tools, while DE’s data-driven approach ensures insights guide efficient decision-making.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): MOSA’s standardized interfaces ensure smooth data flow between sensors, devices, and applications, while DE’s digital twins optimize performance and maintenance of interconnected systems.
  • Human-Centered Design: MOSA’s flexibility enables user-centric interfaces, while DE’s iterative design process incorporates user feedback throughout development, ensuring technology serves human needs.

Embracing MOSA and DE isn’t just about technology; it’s about a holistic transformation fueled by people, policies, processes, partners, and platforms. Here’s how to ignite this change:

  • People: Foster an innovation culture with cross-functional teams empowered by openness and data-driven decisions.
  • Policies: Develop agile rules incentivizing experimentation and early integration to pave the way for MOSA and DE.
  • Processes: Implement CI/CD pipelines and agile workflows embracing iterative development for continuous delivery of value.
  • Partners: Strategically partner with MOSA and DE leaders to accelerate expertise-building and adoption.
  • Platforms: Invest in open and adaptable platforms that future-proof systems by seamlessly integrating new solutions.

When problem solving, finding the right approach is often responded with “it depends.” Considering the possibilities of MOSA and/or DE provides more options to solve complex problems. These potent paradigms unlock a future-proof technology landscape, one that bends to change with adaptive ease, scales effortlessly to meet new demands, and constantly thrives on innovation. Through open standards, modularity, and data-driven insights, collaboration and experimentation become the engines of progress. And most importantly, humans remain at the heart of it all, empowered by technology designed to serve, not dictate. This is not just a future of technological prowess, but a future of human-centric possibility, where organizations and people flourish together. So, step beyond the PnP mindset and unleash the boundless potential that awaits by embracing MOSA and Digital Engineering.


Digital Engineering Definition: An integrated digital approach that uses authoritative sources of systems’ data and models as a continuum across disciplines to support lifecycle activities from concept through disposal.
Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) Definition: An integrated business and technical strategy to achieve competitive and affordable acquisition and sustainment over the system life cycle. In DoD systems, MOSA is an acquisition and design strategy, consisting of technical architectures, that adopt open standards and support a modular, loosely coupled, and highly cohesive system structure.