Episode #39: Digital Continuum: Leveraging Technology like a Superpower

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

Ashley Nichols: All right. Hello, everybody, and welcome back to The Highlight Cast. I’m Ashley Nichols. I’m the VP for Corporate Strategy and Development here at Highlight. And today I have with me Highlight’s Director of Technology and Innovation, Jim Asselgroff, uh, to help discuss, um, how to leverage technology to expand our capabilities, uh, and how organizations and individuals can utilize technology. Uh, to be our superpower. Um, technology is a continually changing landscape that continues to mature and progress capabilities, uh, across the federal sector. Um, at a more granular level, there’s an ongoing conversation always around, uh, digital transformation, uh, within the federal sector and the technology sector at large. Um, and with the scale of that change. You know, is there a better way for us to define, uh, digital transformation? Uh, around here, Jim, uh, constantly uses a term, uh, digital continuum, um, as opposed to digital transformation. And so, Jim, can you tell us just a little bit, uh, the difference between how you view the continuum versus digital, digital transformation?

James Eselgroth: Absolutely. So for me, um, when I think about digital transformation, which is a critical approach to adopting any type of new technology, and when we mean when we mean new, it could be emerging like large language models or or quantum computing, but it could also just be new to you in an organization. So You know, you’ve never had a data visualization tool, and now you’re going to use a data visualization tool. Um, so it could be new to you or just new and emerging. And when you’re doing through that process, you, you often find yourself thinking about, um, uh, cause really digital transformation is about, um, change management at the end of the day. And when you’re going through that process of change management, you, you have to really think, step back and. We’ll try to go, we’re all the things I need to consider as a part of that transformation. And so you think about, you know, I need to consider the people, the policy, the process, the partners and the platforms, all the different elements that could be affected either upstream or downstream from that change. But one of the nuances of digital transformation versus digital continuum is that you often go through this process of like, all right, I’m going to, I’m going to prepare to freeze. I’m going to freeze. I’m going to unfreeze. Um, and, and then most people. Leave the word transformation to think like, well, when it’s done, we’ve, we’ve, we’ve bought the thing we’ve, we’ve installed it. We’ve made those changes on the five P’s. Um, then I’m good to go. I can just, I can flip the switch and I can walk away. Um, uh, but most of the time when you walk away, it’s really not finished. It’s actually a really, when you, when you finish the change. And you change the state from a, a build to a, um, to an O and M state. So you do an it help desk. You’re doing, you know, maybe you’re doing agile, iterative improvements for the, for the operative, for the, for the app or the application or the, whatever it is that you’ve built. Um, and that could go on for a long time, 10, 20, 30 years. It could, you know, shorter, longer. But the idea is, is that the, the mental use of the word continuum, um, I like that better Um, as a transition from transformation, because to evaluating those five P’s is a continuous effort. And so leaders and people in organizations, um, need to really think, should think about. All right. When we’ve gone through the change, it’s not just a flip of a switch. Um, there are other things that are going to come up down the road. Um, new people are going to be hired. People are going to move up in an organization. And so thinking about things from a digital continuum, um, puts into mindset, the real lift that’s necessary for when it comes to change is that, um, the care and feeding of that change takes place long after. The, uh, the, the change has been actually implemented.

Ashley Nichols: And so then how would you relate the digital continuum to the, to the federal sector? I know you and I discuss a lot about the difference between modernization and transformation. And then of course, the idea of, of the, the continuum, um, I’ve been around long enough that, that we’ve gone from waterfall to agile. To, to really support, I think this idea of being more on a continuum and less of a, I’m waiting five years for a system to come online and then boom, modern. Um, so, so how, how does the digital continuum relate to the federal sector today? 

James Eselgroth: So, um, it relate, I actually thought about it because of our, because of the federal sector. Um, uh, there’s a lot of, um, working in the federal space, um, being former air force, retired air force myself, um, uh, it’s a very complex monster, um, so to speak, and, um, trying to handle how you want to approach change in an organization is as complex as the air force or any really federal government. Um, uh, military or non military, you have a lot of competing priorities. You have a lot of different people at different levels in the organization. Um, and your ability to, um, where the idea generates from, where it actually spawns from within the organization, what the pallet ability is of the leadership to adopt that idea, and then be able to take the bold steps to actually go, we’re going to put money where our mouth is, and we’re actually going to spend money on this change. Um, but I’ve also seen where. Um, I’ve had, I’ve seen leaders where they’ve gone through and they’ve, they’ve spent that dollar. Um, uh, and it was on what they thought was the fix. Um, and they failed to do, um, one, they failed to address one of one or more of those five P’s. They also, um, didn’t do the care and feeding to ensure that after they leave their, their position. Their post and their prep, the person who’s taking that, taking their position, or that they’ve done the necessary work to, um, ensure that the, that the chain sticks. And so what ends up happening is, and I’ve lived this more times than I’d like to count, uh, where someone makes a huge investment. It seems like it’s going to be a great idea. It seems like it’s going to get off to the grounds, but then something doesn’t allow the change to stick. To stick. And so humans, if we don’t do what we need to do to be able to make that change and have it stick, we’ll optimally revert back to the way it was. And so, um, and so what does that do? That slows time and progress in terms of what the advancements or modernization for whatever the organization’s mission is. So, you know, the sub organizations missions are, um, it wastes a lot of time. And it also, uh, at the end of the day, because we’re talking about the federal government, it potentially wastes taxpayer dollars. And so when we think about. You know, when I was in the air force and I was in government, um, when we would spend time trying to invest in something, we worked diligently. Um, and it didn’t work all the time, but trying to address those five P’s. Um, and so the sustainment actually sticks, um, two times, too many times, you know, they don’t think about the sustainment or they fail to plan in the sustainment of that thing. So, you know, the O and M or like I was saying, the digital continuum aspect when it comes to technology.

Ashley Nichols: All right, Jim. So you started to get into this just a little bit in the answer to the last question. But primarily, what obstacles do we face when supporting our customers in the adoption of new tools and technologies? You talked a bit about the people and culture, but if you, you know, enumerate a couple of, of the primary ways that we get sort of held up, um, in bringing in emerging technologies. 

James Eselgroth: So in no particular order, um, because it really deals with people, right? Cause people are very complex. We’re very complex beings. And so each of us knows what we know, and we don’t know what we don’t know. And a lot of times. Um, it’ll be the, um, the soft skills or, or the organizational culture, like, like you talked about, but let me, let me, let me pull the onion a little bit and go a little bit deeper by, by talking about those things for a few seconds. So one of the things that I’ve noticed when it comes to, um, Uh, working with government and, and talking to them about an emerging idea or something that they want to do, or even an emerging idea that we have is being able to have them be able to sit down with them and understand what are their goals, what, where do they want to be able to go? Um, helping them understand that this black box is actually not that scary. Um, and be able to show them, um, how we can actually turn that black, black box into a white box or, or, uh, or put another way, um, uh, um, understanding what it is versus not understanding what it is, because a lot of it. And the reason I bring that up is that a lot of it is fear. Right. So, um, I don’t understand this thing and because I don’t understand it or how it’s used, um, I might be afraid of being able to use that. And so, um, I, I would rather say I would rather err on the side of caution and say no, then adopt it because I don’t know what it’s doing or not doing. And therefore I’m apprehensive to being able to adopt that technology. So that’s an area. The other thing is, is leadership. Leadership within organizations, um, I have found on both sides, both when I was in uniform and post uniform, um, is leadership actually plays a, quite a big factor if someone’s boss or someone’s boss’s boss, um, doesn’t. Hasn’t created a culture to allow people to take chances and be able to look at things then there, then people’s choice is going to be directly dictated by how much they think they will get the support they need from their boss or their boss’s boss. And so, um, there, there’s both the, the knowledge and know how of the technology, there’s the support from in the, within the organizational leadership to be able to provide the, um, uh, The, the, the latitude to be a little risky, um, uh, to be able to take those things and, and on, on, on this post side of being in uniform, um, I’ve enjoyed and have found that if we do our due diligence in the, in the, in, you know, in the professional services firms arena, um, of trying to be that trusted advisor back to the government, help understand what. Both what they don’t understand about the technology, what it can or cannot do as a critical aspect of, of adoption. And the other thing is knowing your customer, figuring out what, what, what’s not only what are they doing in their specific office, but what are the levers and stuff that are being done outside of them? So their leadership or other forcing factors that helps them out so we can help them be successful by understanding what are the levers or what are the things that are affecting them so we can help address those area. And. When you take the time to do that, the majority of times, um, I’ve seen it go very well until, uh, until it’s a money issue, but for the, for the most part, the technology, um, they, they have a far better understanding because they feel like you’ve helped them out. Um, As well as you understand their world and the things that they’re dealing with so that they can move forward, um, with their own leadership and what they’re doing. And if you take just those two, and there’s a handful of different ways to do this, right? Um, but I’ve seen those two act very, very well, um, to be able to do it. The, the final, uh, the, the one final. Point that I like to add to it is, um, uh, Claire, um, uh, the federal CIO. Um, I can never remember her last name. Um, she came out with a phrase called demos, not memos. And, uh, I heard that shortly after she took over and I’ve been using it ever since. And basically, you know, the best, um, opportunities I ever saw to help a client really understand what that black box is. Um, to the senior buyer is like, don’t take my word for it here. And there’s like a mouse across the screen, take a mouse and give them the mouse and say, why don’t you drive? Um, and, and, and why don’t you play around with it? Um, and then they’ll go, Oh, wow, that’s amazing. And then like all these light bulbs start going off versus death by PowerPoint. Um, or handing them a slick sheet. So, um, that would be the other added way I can help. I, I, there’s been very successful in helping leaders or buyers, clients and customers to be able to really adopt and understand that technology, really bringing down that fear and the unknownness of whatever that technology.

Ashley Nichols: Uh, and speaking of technology, I want to ask. Um, from a technology perspective, how critical is open source and open standards to live in the continuum versus just. Like an upgrade or a transformation. 

James Eselgroth: So open standard, I’ll start with that one. So open standards, um, what that really allows us to do is, um, years ago, one of my, one of my, um, mentors and I were talking about. You know, a plug and play tech stack. So an organizational, you know, you’ll, you’ll be in the cloud. You have a handful of different applications that are in there serving all kinds of different purposes. Um, and you’ve got all this different technology kind of in just, you know, take a step back, just metaphorically speaking, you have all these different technology in there and you want to be able to, you know, I don’t know. Chat GPT is the greatest, greatest raise. Once I figure out what it is, how do I plug that in? How do I plug that into my architecture? Um, and be able to be as vendor and technology neutral, basically trying to avoid some level of vendor lock in, but at the same time, be able to take advantage of these huge investments that I’ve done. And so when you have an open standard, what it does is it allows for everybody. Um, uh, both internally to the organization to help scope and then externally, it allows vendors and, uh, and startups to be able to build different technologies so that they’d be able to plug in, so to speak, like a plug and play, although I’m using that very loosely. In this description, but it allows us to be able to adopt those technologies in a faster way so that they know what the interface looks like, um, uh, so they can build to the, they can build their thing, but to be able to communicate with the other things. Right? So, um, one of the things, uh, my old boss used to say, it’s when you’re thinking about the entire ecosystem of all the different technologies that are, that are in that technology ecosystem for an organization, um, it’s more about integrating the data than it is trying to integrate the technologies. But the. But that’s the path to get into what is that open standard so that I can get to being able to, uh, to be able to plug and play and take advantage of new technologies. So that’s one of the huge advantages of, uh, of that. 

Ashley Nichols: Great. And sorry, I took us in a little technical detail, but, uh, getting back to, we talk a lot here about organizationally, how do we make sure our organization is prepared, uh, To sort of live in this ethos of the digital continuum. So how do we, as an organization evolve, um, with the digital continuum? 

James Eselgroth: One of the, one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I’ve heard several generals say this, both when I was in the service and ironically, two different points in service. So earlier in my career and towards the end, um, and really it boils down to at the pace that technology is changing, um, trying to. Say trying to, um, grab onto one thing and be really good at that. Seems like a really good idea and we need people to do that, but you also have to realize that at the pace that technology is changing, we have to become comfortable being uncomfortable. And so as you think about the digital continuum, which could be about a specific thing, it’s also about looking at going back to that, you know, metaphorically, all of the technology that’s in your ecosystem and that each of those different technologies that are in there, each has their own life cycle, and each of them could be disrupted by some technology that we none of us had thought about. And then we automatically have to pivot. And so you start to think about, well, dang, I, you know, I really loved my whatever, um, but now I got to go and learn this other thing. And this us as humans, we really are resistant to that change of being able to have to pivot. And so we all have to go through, um, our own mental state. Individually to go, I just have to be comfortable being uncomfortable knowing that at some point, I’m gonna have to pivot from this technology and move to the next. Culturally, the organizations can set up ways to be able to encourage that behavior to go. Hey, we, you know, one set the standard, right? So the leadership in the organization, they live that. Comfortable being uncomfortable state, um, uh, through, and they’ll do that through action, not just through words. Um, and then you can incentivize people by, um, to, uh, to reinforce the behavior that we need to be able to do that through different ways by promotions or bonuses, or, um, any number of ways to be able to handle how you want to be able to show that level of encouragement. Public accolades, those sorts of things. Um, and then, um, putting your money where your mouth is, um, being able as an organization, actually not being afraid to plug and play, not being afraid to be able to move to the next technology, um, and being able to get used to it. Cause the more you do it. The better you’ll get at it. And the, the, um, for lack of a better phrase, the more numb you’ll become to that actual disruption. Um, and in some cases you actually may look forward to it, um, when you go to do it and being able to do it quickly, um, or as quickly as you can, because it’s a very, the bigger the organization, the more complex the changes, because there’s just way more cogs in that machine than a smaller organization.

Ashley Nichols: So you talk a lot about using leveraging technology, like a superpower. Um, so how can individuals leverage new technology to be even more effective? 

James Eselgroth: Oh, thank you. Um, I do say that a lot. Um, um, one of my passions, um, for my time in the service that’s transcend, transcended all the way to these moments here and into the future is, um, I’ve always looked at technology as being. Being able to help me do stuff. There’s on the bookcase behind me, I think it’s over in this section. Um, there’s a great book I read years ago on Python and Python, the programming language, um, not the snake. Um, and, uh, the title of the book was automate the boring stuff. And so I started thinking, wow, if, if, if I start looking at technology in a very broad sense, and I come across something that I think is a task, um, that basically, as soon as I figure out what the process is, I can go, Oh man, I can probably get a technology to do that. Um, and so, um, by thinking about how I can leverage technology or learn, learn the technology that a company has invested it in. So, um, I’ll just use a super simple example. Um, uh, Microsoft Office. So I’ve seen a lot of people get very frustrated with Microsoft Office. Um, um, and a lot of that has to do with just the learning process of doing it. But if you really just, if you lean in like even 3%, Um, versus like all in, if you lean in 3 percent to just learn that tool, go online, take a few classes. Um, if you’re in the military, they have all these different free school, free training that’s available to you. Um, I did it. I went in, in the early two thousands, I had to, I, I was the Excel guy, the Excel guru, but I had to figure out Excel. So I took a bunch of training on how to be able to do it. And over the years I’ve learned all kinds of amazing things that you can do with Excel. I was doing. Data science before data science really had a name. Um, but I was doing it in Excel, um, because that’s the only tool that we had to be able to use in the air force at the time, um, we didn’t have Python. I didn’t have Tableau. I didn’t have all these really cool tools that are out there to be able to help either show the data or be able to do some really awesome stuff. So I was only tied with the tools that I have. So if you’re in that, or if you’re in that area. Um, learn the tools that you have. Take the due diligence of the, if you’re a part of an organization, private or public, take the time to learn your tools, figure out, lean in to be able to figure out how that tool operates and figure out how can it help you do your job? Cause if there’s a rote tool. Task. If there’s something that’s very, um, uh, process driven and you can actually start to offload that to the technology, then that frees you up to do the things that we can’t have technology do. And things like, I want to, I, I’m a program owner. Um, I want to improve my program. Well. Maybe that’s writing policy. Maybe that’s reviewing data. Maybe that’s, um, you know, writing stuff. Um, but if there are elements that I can take out of that and I can have a machine go and do that, then that frees me up to really start thinking about the future state. Where do we want to be able to take this organization? I’ve seen too many times, even to this day, where a lot of organizations It’s still very reactive and we hopefully someday we’ll be able to be proactive, but to go from reactive to proactive means I have to stop being able to react to everything. And we react because we don’t know what’s going on. Um, not that that’s a problem of us individually. It’s just stuff arises and you hadn’t thought through that. Um, and so now I got to stop this other thing and take care of this other thing. And so our ability to leverage technology gives us the opportunity to one, have machines. Automate or automate the boring stuff. And then we can have free our minds to be able to do the complex things that machines can’t do today. And so we can improve our programs. We can make the world a better place in a handful of different ways. And so I’ve always been a fan of thinking about technology in that way of, you know, if I see something, um, one of my old mentors, I adopted his, uh, um, his phrase was, uh, uh, an automation first. Mindset, and so I love that. I love that idea that when I’m, when a problem is faced with me, if I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a recurring problem or a recurring thing that I’m gonna have to deal with, I immediately start thinking about, well, how can I leverage machines to help me automate this? How do I leverage technology? What technologies? And the first thing I do is I look at what technologies has the organization paid for? What do I know about them or not know about them? And if I don’t know something, I reach out to a SME within the organization to learn very quickly, or go to our friend Google, um, or your favorite search engine and be able to go find more information on that. So I can figure those things out. And it’s been, it’s been very rewarding with that mindset. And it’s allowed me to be able to do some amazing things over the past 24 years. 

Ashley Nichols: So I think we’re at a time now where. You know, you say, tap into the suite of tools that your organization provides and make sure you can maximize it. Well, we are now at a time where within the last 12 months. There are tools available to us beyond just what our organization provides. Right. And of course, I’m talking about AI and how people are leveraging in their everyday lives. They plan trips with it. They set itineraries. They, you know, we all do all kinds of stuff for like, Whoa, can this help me, you know, gin up a letter I need to write or whatever. So we’ve seen a lot about large language models and AI, obviously like Chachi PT, Claude Bard, all of it. Um, Walk me through sort of what they are and how they can be leveraged. Especially within the federal sector, and then sort of what are the pitfalls and areas that we need to be aware of as we’re bringing these enablers into our everyday life?

James Eselgroth: Yeah, um, so large language models. So there’s still a lot, um, I am by no means an expert when it comes to large language models. Um, like most people, I know what I know and I don’t know what I don’t know. What I do know is, um, uh, uh, the, the transformers that they’re built on, um, and the corpus of knowledge that they’re trained on allows us to have this interactivity. To have an output when we prompt it appropriately, um, to have an output. So I can share much information with them. Um, um, a colleague of mine years ago, um, or maybe it was a book that I read. Um, basically the phrase is, um, if you’re using something and you’re not paying for it, um, if it’s free, then, then you, then you’re the product. Um, meaning that, that when you’re, when you’re going to use utilize a tool, they’re tracking the data. On how you’re using it. Um, so that’s a warning, right? So realize that if you’re not paying for something, then you’re the product. Um, uh, but just know that going in, that’s not to say not to do it. It’s just know it going in, know that when anything that you share could be used, um, in any way, form or fashion that, that, that organization wants to do it. Uh, or utilize that, that information. Um, uh, which actually is why the, the EU came out with the GDPR. Okay. Um, uh, the, the, the, the data rights out of the EU, California has something very familiar, similar, and we’ve been working at the federal level to be able to put something together. Um, they’ve been working diligently trying to figure out how to be able to have that things like the ethical AI, um, memo that came out of the president, um, in the past six months or so. Um, all talk to these, these aspects when it comes to the data. Now, when you’re dealing with this, um, this is what’s what I found really interesting, um, uh, questions are more important than answers. So when, and, and, and, and in no time in our, in our species, have we, where we are, have, can we really see what that means when it comes to just talking to these large language models? Um, so if you ask a very generic question, you might get a really deep, or you may get a confusing answer, but the more specific you can be, or even the. Tell it to act as something. I want you to be a proposal manager. Um, uh, with this much experience, I mean, you can, you can create personas by just uploading a resume, a job description and say, this is, I want you to be this. And it’ll go, okay, I’m, I’m that let’s talk. And now you’re, now it acts. Takes on, um, a good portion of what it’s like to talk to a proposal manager. And so I need your help writing this, or I need you to help to author this thing. And so you could be able to do it. And so you can start to interact with these different models to be able to. Um, get really cool answers. You can have it to write blog articles. Um, it seems that there’s no limit so far to what you can try to do with these things. People are coming up with apps and new AI’s daily. It seems like, um, with a new one that’s out for a very specific thing. And so it turns out also that the large language model may be general, right? So they call it an AGI, an artificial general intelligence, but it’s actually, it’s general in that the corpus of knowledge is just vast, but it actually really shines if you can have it focus, which is where the question and the persona and those other things, if I have it focus, it does really, really well in that very specific area. Um, uh, and the warnings are, um, some of the models. Um, we’ll take your data and then we’ll train the model continuously. So as you ask a questions and share information, it sees that as new information and it’ll go back and it’ll train the model. Um, not all the models do that, or some of them do it differently. It’s why it’s so important. You got to go read the terms and conditions when you’re signing up for any of these. Um, the paid models, um, uh, some of them ensure that when you go to pay, when you go to pay for the models, um, they will not use your data to train. Um, uh, Microsoft and its implementation of co pilot with, uh, that’s powered by ChatGPT. They don’t take your data and train the model on it. Your data is your data. Um, somebody else out there, Nick Chilean, um, created AskSage. Um, that, he, he’s done a phenomenal job of giving you access to all the different large language models. Um, and some of them you can actually work, you can actually, um, Um, uh, upload and talk with CUI data or controlled unclassified information data. Um, he’s in the process of being fed ramped. I believe part of it is fed ramped, um, for his tool, but you just have to know going in what models you want to work with, what they’ll do with your data, how much information you want to share. Um, uh, there was an incident recently. Um, I read, uh, prior to that three, four weeks ago, maybe a little longer than that. Um, there were some engineers at Samsung. That we’re talking with Lord of the large language models and they had accidentally shared a lot of the specs of their engineering and they loaded it into the large language model and someone else somewhere else on the planet was asking a very, it must’ve been asking a very similar question and output the Samsung data. And so they’re like, Whoa, but that’s, that goes to somebody didn’t do their due diligence to make sure that, that, Hey, these are the things that you have. This is how you can pass to it. This is what you not should pass to it and understand really what they’re doing with that data. Um, so that you can actually take advantage of these tools. Um, and so there’s been a lot of investment. Um, and all the major players on how they can leverage those things. What’s the, you know, what you should do with it, what you shouldn’t do with it, and ultimately making sure that your data doesn’t leave, um, whatever fence line, so to speak, in a metaphorical sense. Where do you not want it to go? 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. 

James Eselgroth: But it is by far one of those, um, uh, um, definitely a technology, like a superpower. Um, uh, that’s a great example of being able to do that. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, it is certainly one of the most significant needle movers of my 25 year career here, uh, that happened so, so, so rapidly.

I mean, it didn’t really, but it feels to us that, you know, recently get access to this, how rapid it is. 

James Eselgroth: Yeah. 

Ashley Nichols: Um, But with that, besides the buyer beware of what you’re doing with AI, uh, as we sort of round up the chat today, what, uh, can we do as like a first action step after this podcast to get started with making this shift from. Modernization transformation to the big, the bigger thinking around continuum, 

James Eselgroth: I’d say the first step would be, um, take the chance individually to learn any of the technologies that you have today, um, and then take the next step of trying something new, even if it’s small. Just try something new, um, to get used to what that could look like, because you may find that something new. It could be, I’ve never worked with Excel. I want to go learn how to do formulas in Excel. It could be, um, I want to use Copilot inside Word to help me write something in Word today. Um, the hardest part in any new journey is always taking the first step. Um, so don’t make that first step feel like it’s a mile step. Uh, it could be an inch. Um, uh, it’s just about consistency and just trying something new and trying to just learn the tools that you have today access to so you don’t have to pay for anything. Somebody’s already paid for it. Go try it out. Go check it out. Go try to learn more about the tools that you have, which will probably give you more ideas on either how that that tool is used or to give you ideas on maybe the next tool in your organization that may replace that one because it may not meet all your needs. But don’t throw it out. Without trying to fully understand it first 

Ashley Nichols: and organizationally, you know, being prepared to support. Your folks who are doing that, right? We’ve all been part of organizations where you’re like, Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea I want you to think about. And, you know, it gets shut down, which is more about, you know, but when folks are leaning in, like, Hey, I’m going to try this crazy thing, like, you know, like, all right, I’m going to. Give you a minute, go do it. 

James Eselgroth: Yeah. To that point, I would say to the leaders out there, and that’s any leader that if you’re overseeing a small team to the CEO or the commander of an organization, every leader in the organization should take the, should be able to, uh, encourage risk taking, um, allow people the opportunity to do something amazing, knowing that they will likely fail. Um, and reward them for the chance reward them for, Hey, you stepped out of the comfort zone and you did amazing. And when you give that accolade, do it in public, because if you tell somebody, if somebody tried something and it didn’t work and you publicly tell them publicly say within your. Community, um, uh, you know, the small unit, the large unit, the, the public or private organization, what you’re really doing is you’re not taught. You’re giving that person kudos, but what you’re really doing is you’re also talking to everybody else in the organization because what you’re telling them is, Oh my God, that leader is willing to take risk. And look, that person failed. And they still gave them accolades, which means maybe I’ll step outside my comfort zone because now maybe I feel like my leadership will have my back. If I bring a new idea, if I take a risk, the worst thing that you could do is berate that person. And hammer them because all you’ll do is close off any new ideas from anybody in the entire organization. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, it goes towards, uh, and this is a topic for another podcast, but you know how you create that problem solving mindset in an organization so that it really pervades the culture. Um, and that, that is a big part of it, right? Acknowledging the success. Of risk taking and failure, uh, as well as the successes that come from it. Um, well, Jim, we’re going to go ahead and wrap up. So I want to thank you very much for, for joining me today to talk about this. Uh, and thank you all for listening to the highlight cast. Uh, to keep up to date with our latest news and activities. Follow us on LinkedIn or visit, visit our website at highlight tech. com. Uh, tune into our next episode where we will be discussing emerging technology. Thanks again, Jim. Thanks. 

Thanks everyone. 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 US government.

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.

Episode #36: Employee Ownership in Government Contracting 

Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia, you are now listening to the HighlightCast.

Aarish Gokaldas: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the latest edition of Highlight Cast. My name is Aarish Gokaldas. I am the Chief Executive Officer of Highlight Technologies, and I am thrilled to be speaking with you in what is National Employee Ownership Month. Today, we are excited to welcome our guest, Mr. Matt Pierce, who is the Senior Vice President at Venn Strategies. Venn Strategies has a long history of supporting employee owned companies, both commercial companies, as well as those that support the federal government. I look forward to asking Matt questions about the work that Venn Strategies has done to further the employee owned community, but also to talk about the work that Highlight Technologies is doing in partnership with Venn Strategies to advance employee ownership within the federal contract space. Matt, thanks for joining us today. I’m really excited to have you here. Absolutely. 

Matt Pearce: Absolutely. Thanks for having me as part of your podcast.

Aarish Gokaldas: Of course. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, how you came to be at Ben’s strategies. And what best strategies is focused on. 

Matt Pearce: Yeah, absolutely. So, um, I’m a senior vice president at, uh, vent strategies. We’re a multidisciplinary, um, government affairs firm here in Washington, DC. Uh, been with the firm for about, uh, 10 years. And, uh, then is really known for its work in the coalition space, specifically dealing with, uh, uh, employee ownership issues. And so. In my time at Venn, I’ve worked on a large coalition of S corporation ESOPs called ESCA, the Employee Owned S Corporations of America, which is the voice in DC for, uh, S corporation ESOPs to preserve, protect, and promote the, uh, great, uh, employee ownership structure that has been for around for about 25 years. Um, and then in the last, uh, five years, there’s this group that has started, uh, uh, focusing on employee ownership in the, uh, defense and government contracting space. Um, really great work. Um, Before I joined Venn, um, I worked on the Hill for Congressman Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, um, bounced back and forth doing, uh, political campaigns for a while, but, uh, really I found a home here at Venn and working, uh, with great employee owned companies.

Aarish Gokaldas: That’s great. And, and, uh, going to the latter organization that Venn Strategies helped form, uh, the ESOP Council Roundtable, can you tell us a little bit more about that and what their mission is? 

Matt Pearce: Yeah, so, um, the Employee Owned Contractors Roundtable, ECR, is a, uh, group of employee owned businesses that operate in, uh, the government contracting space, specifically in the, uh, defense space. Um, you know, so, employee ownership has been around since the 1970s. It’s really a creation of Congress, uh, dating back to Russell Long, the Senator from Louisiana, and more recently in the late 90s with the passage of the S Corporate ESOP, uh, law. And so, Congress has really incentivized ESOPs. Through tax provisions through tax policy as the employee ownership has grown, um, you know, to be more prevalent and more successful. Several of our kind of leading ESCA members. And, and companies in a space that, Hey, more can be done to leverage the employee ownership model, uh, for small business and government procurement. And so we launched, uh, ECR in 2018 as a way to identify, uh, policy opportunities, um, to incentivize federal government to work longer with employee owned businesses and really to look for ways that Congress can pass policy options that lead to more ESOP creation. And so. ECR really is the voice for employee owned defense and, you know, government contractors here in D. C. working to leverage the ESOP model as not only a growth bridge for small business growth from small to midsize, but also as a way to show that, you know, these employee owned businesses really do a great job for the federal government, whether it’s DOD, Commerce, DOE, and, you know, find ways that the federal government can partner for a longer time with employee owned businesses. Um, ECR is about 23 members right now. Very active on the Hill, very active in the regulatory agency space. Um, and you know, our main mission again is to educate members about the employee ownership in the government contracting arena and look for policies that are not only. Produce a better atmosphere for the government to work with 100 percent and, you know, employee owned businesses, but also as a way to leverage, um, policies to incentivize non ESOP to look at the employee ownership transition.

Aarish Gokaldas: And, and to that point, and for everyone’s awareness, highlight converted in 2021 to a partial ESOP. And in 2022, we became. 100 percent employee owned on just this year, 2023. We, um, with great enthusiasm joined, uh, ECR as a general member. So we’re, we’re, we’re proud to be a member of the organization as well. And the work that they’re doing, uh, that we’re doing, uh, with Congress and in support of our clients. So, and we love 

Matt Pearce: to have highlight as a member and we’re great to, uh, it’s great to have you on board. 

Aarish Gokaldas: So talking about the federal contracting space, uh, Matt, what’s the current footprint of employee owned companies that support ECR? exclusively the federal customer. 

Matt Pearce: Yeah. So ECR partnered with the National Centers for Employee Ownership, uh, last year to kind of look at this question, right? How many employee owned businesses are federal contractors overall? You know, we kind of believe that there’s about, uh, 7, 000 ESOPs nationally in all different sectors, about 3, 400, 3, 500 S corporation ESOPs, um, uh, nationally. But, uh, to answer your question, you know, in the contracting space, Um, there’s about kind of 1300 employee owned businesses. Partial 100 percent different type of ESOP plans and in the DOD space, there’s, you know, 200 plus. So it is a small universe, but it is one that we think that we can grow through, uh, you know, advocating for policy, uh, options on the hill that allow, you know, 100 percent employee owned businesses to continue to work with the federal government, but also look at ways for more companies that are looking for a transition method to become 100 percent ESOP. Because of, um, some of these, uh, advantages in the government contracting space. So small universe, but we’re hopeful that it’s growing. Absolutely. 

Aarish Gokaldas: And, and certainly Congress is starting to appreciate the value that federally focused ESOP spring. Uh, one of the examples is within the 2021 NDAA that was passed and signed by President Biden. Uh, can, can you first give, give an overview of what is the NDAA for those who might be unfamiliar? 

Matt Pearce: Yeah, absolutely. So the NDA stands for the National Defense Authorization Act. It is an annual authorization bill that Congress passes every year to authorize, you know, DOD programs, but the NDA also carries like a small business provision and carries other provisions as well. It is one of the few legislative and policy vehicles that has. Congress, um, every year, I think dating back to, it’s been 60 plus years now. And it’s usually something that’s passed along bipartisan lines, very strong support on the Republican side, on the Democratic side. And, you know, from our perspective, it’s a great way to engage with members of Congress, because this. comes out every single year and Congress has a great track record of passing it. And so, um, you know, we have focused on the NDA over the last, uh, you know, several years to, uh, advance pro ESOP, uh, contracting policies. Um, and this year as part, and well, let me back up to your question about the FY 21 NDA. ECR led the effort to establish a pilot program that allows 100 percent employee owned companies to be eligible for a sole source follow on provision with the Department of Defense. We think that this is a really good provision, not only because, one, the 100 percent employee owned company has to have the contract, has to hold the contract, Also has to perform it well. And so, you know, those are two really good criteria that are pretty good standard bearers for our company’s doing the work that meets DOD needs. In addition, this is not a, uh, automatic sole source authority. This is something that individual contracting officers can decide to use. Um, and so when the program was established in 21, it was really up to the department of defense to decide after they want, whether they wanted to move forward with it or not because of ECRs, um, engagement in large part, because our ECR member companies, we work closely with the department of defense and the office of defense pricing and contracting in 2022 to get this program, uh, up and running. And in November of last year, uh, DPC authorized the use of nine. Slots for what we call the section 874 authority is the sole source authority as of you know earlier this year April or May All nine slots were filled So it shows that DPC is very interested in finding ways to implement this program to allow their contracting officers and their customers to part partner with 100 percent ESOPs, but there’s also a desire from the DPC to ESOP, DOD and contractors community to do this type of work and to take advantage of this great policy that Congress passed.

Aarish Gokaldas: And clearly, uh, it’s been a success in that all nine were filled and we’ve talked about this, Matt. It’s one of the few areas ESOP, uh, advocacy that has strong bipartisan support, right? It’s one of the few issues. Absolutely. There’s consensus on both sides of the aisle that it is valuable. Uh, a to the government and be more importantly to the employees within the ESOP companies. Um, so what are some of the proposed changes to the 2023 NDA, uh, that are going to further strengthen, uh, the pilot that, that ECR has worked so hard and successfully passed? 

Matt Pearce: Yeah, absolutely. And I think your point about employee ownership being a bipartisan cause is spot on. I mean, this is something that Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Um, you know, largely Congress has looked to incentivize ESOPs in the tax space, like I mentioned, but those type of, you know, tax incentives have really gotten the support of Democrats and Republicans. Folks like Bernie Sanders. So you have very conservative Republicans and very liberal, you know, independents. And so, um, with ECR’s effort, we’ve brought it into the contracting space and, you know, Spending last year to really work and educate the Department of Defense on what a 100 percent employee owned company or what a privately held ESOP is and what it isn’t was really a test and, you know, a pretty big achievement on our end. Um, but, you know, Congress and DPC and DOD, I think, understand now what type of companies are eligible for the Section 874 authority. We worked this year to, um, engage congressional allies on the Hill, primarily the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, where the NDA originates, to, um, improve this program. I think, you know, the last two years have shown a good test case for this, that, that, that this works, there’s an appetite for it. And, you know, the goal of this year were, was to kind of build out the program to make it better, but also to create a stronger incentive for more companies to look at the ESOP transition. And so, um, you know, happy to report that, uh, ECR led the effort to get improvement language in both the House Armed Services NDA package and the Senate. arm services NDA package, which is now kind of being discussed, they’re about ready to be discussed at the conference level. And the main provisions that we are looking or the main improvement provisions that we’re, that we asked for is to allow 100 percent employee owned companies to use this authority one time per contract instead of one time per company, which we understand why Congress, you know, Did that in the first version because you know again, this is a pilot This is a little bit of a testing proving ground But the change from a one time per company limit to one time per contract limit Will really enable 100 employee owned companies to do that great work for the federal government And for the dod a longer period of time and again, it’s really up to the individual contracting officer to decide. Hey I want to move forward with this. Luckily, we have found that, uh, contracting officers and the DOD as a whole love working with a hundred percent ESOPs. Um, no shock there to you because of the great work that you all do. So that’s really the number one provision. We also, um, um, have, uh, identical language in the house and Senate versions to expand, expand, expand. Um, so that gives, you know, some more certainty for companies that are looking at the ESOP transaction because of this. Um, and so, um, that’s a, that’s a good move. Also, you know, the house and Senate versions encourage, uh, DOD to, um, promulgate rules and regulations and expand the usage of this from, you know, the nine times. Um, there’s also language on the Senate side that looks at. Increasing the subcontracting flexibility for, uh, under section 874 authority to allow, you know, 100 percent employee owned companies to subcontract out more than, you know, 50 percent to other 100 percent ESOPs and provide some additional flexibility, especially in the services side and the parts side, um, to bring in more small businesses, uh, as partners under a section 874, uh, contract. The main difference between the Senate and the House versions is this fix on the GSA, uh, uh, provision, what we call a GSA fix. As we went through implementation, We heard back from the General Services Administration, GSA, that these contracts were only for, uh, or Section 874 authority could only be used for GSA, or DOD contracts, not DOD contracts that are offered through GSA vehicles. And as GSA is a big supplier, um, of the Department of Defense and a lot of, you know, GSA vehicles are used for DOD contracts, um, we found that to be, um, hindering, you know, the success of this program. And so we worked with our house allies to get a provision in, um, the, uh, Section 874 improvements to allow 100%, uh, to you, to allow Section 874 authority to be used for GSA contracts. So, Taking all of this, um, together, we’re now working as part of, you know, the conference committee to Senate and House each passed their own version and now it goes to conference. And so we’re really, uh, working with our allies and really hopeful that a melding of the, uh, good work that the House, um, armed services did and the Senate armed services committee did. Yeah. together a good final package that hopefully will pass by the end of the year. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yeah. Fingers crossed. Right. And, and, uh, we were obviously cautiously optimistic for that as well. Uh, and you mentioned that, you know, uh, program leads and, and contracting officers love working with, with ESOPs. And that’s, that’s been our experience, certainly as highlights interaction with our contracting officers and cores. What impact and value, uh, do ESOPs bring to the market and to the federal government? 

Matt Pearce: I think it’s really, it all comes down to culture, right? Like the employee ownership model creates a great company culture. And what that company culture does is when a hundred percent or employee owned business works with, um, you know, uh, a federal latency, that federal agency knows that that a hundred percent employee owned company is going to deliver results because the employee owners have a vested interest in the success of their company. And so that. that, you know, employee ownership creates really produces a great partner for the federal agency. And then additionally, you know, um, The innovative nature of employee owned businesses because of the tax structure, but also because of again, the culture allows 100 percent ESOPs to really innovate, right? To, you know, reinvest in themselves, reinvest in their R and D capabilities. Um, reinvest. cutting edge technology that they can then supply to the Department of Defense. And we’ve seen this throughout, you know, uh, ECR history and working with, uh, different ECR members that employee owned companies really are at the cutting edge of innovation. And I think that’s a, um, understated value of the federal government working with a hundred percent ESOPs. Now on the employee ownership side, the great thing about this is that this builds more, more innovation. Employee owners, right? This creates more employee owners across the spectrum, not only in federal contracting, but, you know, more broadly. Um, and so we think that this is a win win not only for the federal government, but for the creation of more employee owned businesses. And, you know, it’s just great to hear stories from, you know, ECR member companies that talk to contracting officers and they say, Hey, we, we want to work with you, um, and we want to make it easy. Um, because we know your results, we know what you can do and really, you know, need this to happen now or this contract to be delivered now and we’re in safe hands if, uh, we contract out to 100 percent ESOP. So it’s really a win win both on the government side and the individual company side, but it’s really that culture of employee ownership that permeates everything and allows 100 percent ESOP companies to, uh, really deliver fast, effective, um, you know, results for, uh, the men and women in the services.

Aarish Gokaldas: Highlight is, is fairly new to employee ownership, right? Less than two years. But I’ve been attending conferences and meeting with other employee owned companies. Obviously I attended the ESCA policy planning conference. I attended a separate conference last week and I was talking to another a hundred percent employee owned company who had been employee owned for 20 years. And I was talking to their controller and she said that they work in the industrial sector. So all hands on. Labor. Yep. And she said that just this past year, she had retired six employees who retired as millionaires. And we’re not talking white collar sitting in front of a computer. We’re talking about truckers, warehouse employees, roofers. that are that are retiring as millionaires and have a retirement to rely on. Right. And so to your point about building out that, that working class and middle class layer of wealth. Absolutely. And on top of that, it drives, it drives retention. So you have employees back to the federal side who are staying in their spot longer. who are building up that legacy knowledge, who understand how to do the job, there’s lower turnover. So you’re not having vacancies and risk to mission impact. There’s higher productivity, higher knowledge. So you’re not having to worry about retraining individuals. Absolutely. So all of that, in addition to the technology piece, I think is extremely valuable. So let’s look at the converse. What are some of the things that we’re The biggest obstacles to increasing employee ownership in the federal sector. 

Matt Pearce: Yeah. So I think, um, you know, first and foremost, I think it’s just education and awareness, right? You know, um, the, the employee ownership model, you know, can be done in, in, in different ways. And when we talk in ECR about employee ownership, we’re really talking about privately held. Holy employee owned businesses. And so that is a company that’s likely an S corporation that has a hundred percent of their stock within the ESOP trust and is considered, you know, wholly owned or a hundred percent employee owned. And so the, the initial work that ECR did, because again, this had been more of a tax policy discussion for 20, 25 years was to educate members of Congress about. You know, what type of ESOP are we talking about? Right? We’re not talking about a company that maybe has like a employee stock, um, you know, ownership plan or employee stock purchase plan. We’re talking about a company where employee ownership is. Um, is there, you know, M O is, is, is who they are. And so that education and awareness on the member side was really critical for the first couple of years of this. And then I think in the business community, more and more business leaders are knowing about, um, employee ownership. There are more and more resources, you know, not only ESCA and ECR, but you have the national center for employee ownership. You have state centers now. And so getting that, you know, material out there to business owners as they look at, Hey, what is my transition plan? Like, you know, do I want to sell to a larger company? Do I want to sell, um, uh, to private equity? How am I getting out of this business? Do I want to keep it in the family? And the great thing about the employee ownership model is that these companies need to be headquartered in the United States. They need to be, uh, based in the United States, but by moving to the, you know, Employee ownership model. You really are keeping that institutional knowledge in your company, because as you said, retention is a great, great benefit of employee ownership. And the more that you can retain your employees, the better. And to your earlier question, why ESOPs are great partners with the federal government is that institutional knowledge, right? You know, that you’re going to have people that have worked on a contract for a long, long time, um, maintain. Stay at that company. You’re not going to have all this moving. And so, you know, really it was education and awareness, you know, defining what type of ESOPs we were talking about. And now we’ve kind of, you know, pivoted to, all right, how can we build out, you know, a data set that speaks to what we all know about, um, employee owned companies being great, uh, partners with the federal government, the benefits of the federal government working with employee owned businesses, um, the performance of a hundred percent ESOPs, especially in the DOD space. And so we’re working with some academics. to look at these questions and see if we can compare performance scores, if we can, uh, compare other data to really have a quantitative set of data that we can say, Hey, this points to what we all know, what we all talk about, but here it is in kind of black and white and, you know, uh, uh, numbers. And I think that will continue to build out this, uh, uh, message of, you know, needing more employee owned businesses in the government contracting space, needing more policy incentives to allow a hundred percent ESOPs to work with the federal government. And it will, uh, continue to, uh, create awareness for non ESOPs as, Hey, this is could be a viable path for my business. Um, as I look to maybe transition out or, you know, um, Look to grow and, you know, want to continue to, uh, have a really successful, um, wholly owned business. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yeah. And I can say for highlights perspective, we’re very eager to see the results of those study. Uh, and what, what it’ll show. Yeah. Um, certainly from, from our perspective, you know, we we’ve seen strong Uh, positive feedback from our clients with respect to performance and delivery. Uh, so, so we hope that that that’s what we’ll probably see across the board. Um, and then just bringing it out back to the federal sector. What are some of the key trends that you’re seeing in employee ownership in the federal sector? And where do you see the future of employee ownership in federal government going?

Matt Pearce: I think it’s all positive. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity there for employee owned businesses in the federal sector, especially as you look at small businesses that want to grow, right. You know, everybody talks about the consolidation of the defense industrial base, right? You have this kind of upside down curve where, you know, the larger you get, the harder it is to kind of understand what is your pathway forward, right. Especially as you move away from a set aside work. And so, you know, we approach, you know, the consolidation issue, um, from the, You know, not shockingly from the employee ownership, uh, mindset of saying, Hey, there’s this great structure here that you can leverage as a growth mechanism for small businesses that want to get into that kind of mid tier space or other than small space and provide them the opportunity to continue to grow, but not have to, you know, be completely unprotected, um, in status and, you know, then I have to compete against the large contractors. Right. And, you know, employee ownership can offer a solution for that because, you know, we have seen it again and again, that there’s a shrinking, uh, industrial base that not only is in the defense space, but in the federal contracting space. And that not only hurts our national security, it hurts, you know, competitiveness, it hurts the price of, you know, the, these contracts. And so. Growing that will make our country much more competitive and businesses much more competitive. And so, you know, things like section eight 74 provide that pathway for non ESOPs to become a hundred percent ESOP and continue to do the work. And for current a hundred percent ESOPs, it really provides a, uh, growth mechanism, right? Um, so you’re not having to, you know, move from, um, uh, a contract that you were, uh, protected status to now you can’t even compete for it. We did great work. We can continue to do great work and we can continue to look for the future. So this is all for looking growth, um, uh, policy ideas that we do think, um, the ESOP model and the ESOP conversation deserves to play a really good role in.

Aarish Gokaldas: Yeah. And Matt, that was so incredibly well said. I couldn’t agree more. Um, and, and I couldn’t, I couldn’t have said it better, right? I mean, in terms of providing an alternative, certainly getting acquired by a strategic firm is always an option once you grow out of that small business path. Uh, but in terms of providing a greater competitive landscape. For the federal government only serves them well in that regard from the capabilities perspective, from the cost perspective, absolutely. And offering that to those, those midsize companies and offering them those incentives, right. We’ll be a section eight 74 of the NDA for them to continue to. Support the customer, uh, in those environments. 

Matt Pearce: Yeah, Absolutely. And the thing that we hate to see is like when a hundred percent employee owned business gets too large to, you know, compete for a contract that they’ve really done well and maybe have done it for a long, long time, their employee owners are kind of put in a choice, right? Like, all right, do we move to a new company that has this contract? We’re experts in this, but I would lose. The benefit of the ESOP, right? And nobody wants to see that the employee owned company doesn’t want to see that those employee owners don’t want to see that. And so providing more of a, uh, you know, growth mechanism, a runway for a hundred percent employee owned companies to continue to do that work benefits everybody. And you don’t put these employee owners in a really tough position of having to decide, all right, my ESOP, or do I continue to work on this contract at a non ESOP? And so, you know, We, you know, not the employee ownership model doesn’t work for every single company. Um, you know, it won’t make a, you know, bad company good. It does make a good company great, but there’s a lot of fundamental, um, you know, elements that, you know, companies. Have to have as they decide the employee ownership, uh, uh, their employee ownership pathway. And we think that the more policy incentives, um, for business owners to say, Hey, this could be an idea for me, or this could be something that makes sense for my company benefits everybody. And, you know, you don’t have those situations where, uh, employee owners are really put in, uh, uh, this. tough, uh, between a rock.

Aarish Gokaldas: And Matt you were very diplomatic in not naming any examples of the shrinking industrial base, defense industrial base. So I will, uh, equally take the high road and not, and not listen to the examples either. So if, if people want to learn more about ECR, where can they find you? 

Matt Pearce: Yeah. So, um, you can go to ecrcoalition. com. It is ECR’s, uh, website. a lot of good information on there, um, including my contact information. If you want to reach out to me directly, it’s Matt. Pierce at ECR coalition. com. Um, or you can. Talk to you and you know how to get in touch with me. But you know, this is a coalition of companies that really I think has a pathway forward to engaging members of Congress and continuing to push for proactive, you know good SE SOP or employee owned policies, but also I think you know, and maybe you can speak to this is the benefit of bringing, you know CEOs and you know, C suite executives of you know, 100 percent ESOP, DOD, ESOP, uh, you know, federal contract companies and the mindshare, uh, the mindshare, you know, the, the conversations that are happening in this group, um, not only from a business to business standpoint, but just from a strategic, like, Hey, how, how can I make my company better? How can I operate the ESOP? How can I, um, you know, communicate the value of the ESOP to my employee owners? I think that is a underrated value of joining coalitions like this because we work with, you know, leaders in these businesses and. Getting them all in one room, having that, uh, information shared, that, uh, relationship building, I think is critical.

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. And I’ll, I’ll co sign that Matt. Uh, obviously I’m, I’m less than three months into my role as CEO and highlight, uh, and, and already I’ve had, uh, several, uh, substantive conversations with CEOs, with, um, CHROs, uh, about. Uh, the tactics and techniques that they use to get their employees excited about ESOP, how they’re using it as a retention tool, as a recruiting tool, uh, things that we’re doing today within Highlight and things that we are definitely looking to add in. Uh, so it’s been, it’s been a great, um, uh, perspective to be able to collaborate with those individuals. And if there are companies out there that are either already partial or full ESOP or looking to go ESOP, uh, how, how can they get involved with the coalition’s work? 

Matt Pearce: Yeah. So we’re a member based coalition. The easiest way is to go to the website, ECR coalition. com. Um, there’s a contact form. There’s my email on there is to simply reach out and, you know, everybody, you know, all ESOPs have a different journey, right? You know, you’re, you’re, you’re two years into it. Um, we have companies that are, you know, 20 years into it. And so that, that kind of. Information share of a company that’s already a mature ESOP that has been in this business for 20, 25 years has been an employee owned company. Um, being able to share, all right, this is what we did. Cause you know, you still have growth challenges. You have, um, you know, business challenges, but the employee ownership model, I think really, uh, uh, Provides a framework for this knowledge share. And so getting involved, um, through ECR coalition. com, we are a member based organization. There are two different levels. There’s a, uh, ECR executive, uh, council, which is our de facto board helps drive our agenda, helps drive our mission. And then general members that, you know, are, uh, wanting to, uh, help the effort are wanting to be part of it for one reason or another. Maybe you’re not in that in the point of the USAP journey to fully, fully commit. But like having a general membership really enables ECR to continue to expand our, uh, reach, um, uh, geographically. And what that does for us is to, uh, allow us to go into more member offices, um, on the Hill and say, Hey, there’s a great a hundred percent employee owned defense contractor in your district, um, that, you know, supports these policy asks, um, and members of Congress That resonates with them, right? Because those are voters, that’s an economic driver in their district. And, you know, first and foremost, they want to deliver for their constituents. And so, getting involved, um, you know, can check a lot of boxes. Whether you just want to learn more about, uh, uh, how other, you know, ESOP DoD contractors operate. If you want to, you know, get into the, uh, to advocate for, uh, specific policies, if you want to just, you know, kind of get Intel and, you know, hear what is happening in this space, there’s, uh, I think a lot of different, uh, uh, value ads for companies that want to get involved in this. And so going to ecr coalition. com, uh, Matt dot Pierce, P E A R C E, I have a little bit different spelling at, uh, ecr coalition. com is a great way to learn more about it. And I’ve even heard that at some of, you know, kind of the. You know, DoD industry type of meetings. There’s, you know, even folks, you know, on the defense side that are saying, Hey, do we know about section eight 74? Like this is a tool that our contracting officers can use. And so it’s great to see that knowledge here, but we’re always looking for more companies that are committed to this cause that want the ESOP model to continue to grow and to expand in the DoD space. Um, and more broadly in federal procurement as that’s probably our next step there, um, is to go to ecr coalition. com and, uh, uh, get in touch that way. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yep. And I can vouch that it’s a worthy mission that benefits. The federal government benefits the members companies and benefits the employees. It’s a win, win, win. Uh, so Matt, thank you very much for taking the time to join us here today. Uh, really appreciate it. Very informative. Really appreciate it. 

Matt Pearce: Well, I appreciate you having me on. I appreciate the highlights, uh, involvement in, uh, ECR and, um, you know, a couple of years in on your ESOP journey, but you’re a great company and, uh, look forward to continuing to work with you. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Thanks a lot. Hey, happy National Employee Ownership Month. Absolutely. Go ESOPs. Thank you again to Matt Pierce for joining us to talk about Venn strategies as well as the employee owned contractor roundtable. And thank you for listening to HighlightCast. 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. Uh, thank you again and happy national employee ownership month. 

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 #35 Recruiting in Government Contracting 

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

Victoria Kruemmer: Okay. Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Highlight Cast. My name is Victoria Kruemmer . I am the marketing manager here at Highlight. And today I welcome our recruiting lead, Matt Dotson, and our director of people and culture, Fiona Sityar . So welcome to the show, both of you. Hi. 

Matt Dotson: Hi, Victoria. Hi, Fiona.

Fiona Sityar: Hey team, happy to be on. As recruiting for any industry becomes more and more important and, you know, has more and more challenges, we, uh, wanted to have both of you on just to discuss the current landscape within GovCon and Some of the opportunities that people have to engage with our teams. So diving right in what sets GovCon apart from all the other subsets in the tech industry. And what are some of the benefits of working for a GovCon versus. You know, some traditional tech organizations. I think government contracting in the tech industry has obviously some unique opportunities as well as challenges. Um, one, I think the ability to collaborate is a lot more prevalent when you’re working on programs and trying to find teaming partners. And uh, in the back office as well. So there’s a huge people aspect to it, but obviously there are also intricacies around government procurement regulations and things around all of these rules that we need to follow. So in a sense, there’s also a higher level. Barrier to entry if you will. 

Matt Dotson: Yeah, it’s not like It’s not like exclusivity in any way, right? But like it’s also a lot smaller than it looks from the outside and When I’m talking to folks who are maybe coming from the, um, you know, the, the public side, the civilian side into a government contract, um, I, I just like to tell them, like, once you’re in, like you’re in, uh, the more government orgs that you’re trying to work with down the line in your career, they’re going to be looking for experience, you know, supporting other Gov, uh, agencies, uh, wherever, whatever side of, you know, a company’s portfolio you might be on. Um, once you’re in like the contracting network, the GovCon network, like Everyone kind of knows each other or at least knows the space that you’re working in. So even if I’m meeting someone for the first time, I’m familiar with the agency that they’re supporting, or even just like one of the big companies in that area. And, um, it’s already like, we’re, we’re, we’re already, we’ve got a cadence where we’re already on like almost a first name basis of, okay, I know what you do. You know what my company does. So. Let’s figure out how we can work together from here. Um, I feel like that’s, that’s where like the smaller network comes into play.

Victoria Kruemmer: Yeah, for sure. I think on my side, what really resonates with me of what differentiates GovCons from other industry within technology is the mission focus of all of our agencies and all of our customers. When you’re, you know, addressing a GovCon most of the time, ours are directly You know, benefiting citizens at the end of the day, um, in one way or another, and ultimately, all of those government agencies are going to feed back into, you know, all of our livelihoods and all of our day to day operations in one way or another, whether it be, you know, protecting stateside or, you know, helping promote health or insert mission here kind of thing. Um, So Matt, this one’s specifically for you. So how do recruits find a role and what are you guys looking for?

Matt Dotson: So, I mean, there’s, it’s as simple as, well, the simple answer is short. Just go on a website, look at job postings, engage, engage LinkedIn, go to career fairs. Um, but really it’s, it’s direct interaction with people that are working on the staffing side is going to be the most helpful way to, to break into things. Like we’re going to a career fair at George Mason university. Um, the week of September 28th, uh, and a lot of the questions that we get from graduating students are, yeah, I want to get into government contracting, but how, or I, you know, I want to work in software development for, for USCIS. I want to work at, you know, U. S. Agency for International Development. How can I break into that space? And, and when you’re talking to someone that works in staffing in that world, they know All of the pieces of the puzzle, you know, they’re going to be able to share with you. It’s, it’s a recommend that if you want to work in the tech space in this area of the government, um, that you have this type of certification because a lot of them, they require, you know, CompTIA security plus or something like that. Um, and I’m not saying that everyone who wants to work in GovCon needs that. But talking to individuals, um, that know the ins and outs of all these requirements is, um, you know, the, the best way to fully round out your resume and your experience going into something, cause it could be as simple as, you know, earning a certification on a summer break so that as you’re a fresh graduate, You’ve got one leg up on all the other applicants to an entry level job, um, with a government customer, or if you’ve been working for some time and you want to break into, you know, the field a little later in your career, um, you can sit down with someone like myself or another recruiter at highlight, um, and we can take a look at your resume and match exactly, you know, we can find a path for you and show you exactly how you can get to where you want to be. A lot of times it might even be. Like suggesting a particular title to be looking for. Someone says, I want to be a developer working in this field, or I want this kind of title in my career. They might be calling for additional experience, but here’s a title that you can be looking for to get you to that space. Um, just opening up, uh, you know, the eyes in, in, in the job search world. Um, that’s, that’s the, the easiest way to do it. But then obviously, you know, keeping an ear to the ground, attending these events. There are plenty of GovCon related job fairs in the area. There are, you know, tech specific ones. There are, um, like diversity specific ones. There are networking groups for women, for minorities, uh, for veterans, for recent graduates, for people with this type of certification, for people with clearances. Um, so really doing research, you know, figuring out. What your background is and then finding a job fair that that suits that background and you’ll meet gov con employers through that as well.

Victoria Kruemmer: Yeah. And to that point, do you have any tips on what to look for when you’re kind of trying to narrow the field of what role you really think you’re well suited for? 

Matt Dotson: I mean, look at job postings that that are desirable. Um, and then try and match your resume to that job posting because most of the time, you know, if you if you’re starting out in a particular field, even if it’s just a certain technology or a certain space, maybe you’re working in like global development, humanitarian aid, and you want to want to go into State Department looking at job postings within these organizations. Seeing how your resume speaks to those and then, and then tailoring them to, uh, to best fit. I mean, we’ve held plenty of, um, of resume workshops at highlight. Um, and, and oftentimes, you know, myself and other recruiters are on calls with people helping them format their resume for For the appropriate job that they’re looking for. Um, you know, it’s really comparing like the industry norms in, in that particular field. Um, and, and then also that helps you recognize what you might need to get to add to your resume to make you, you know, the best candidate for the job. 

Victoria Kruemmer: Yeah. You touched on it a little bit earlier. Um, when you were talking about qualifications and certifications, what are some of the ones that people should really be researching and honing in on for these types of roles?

Matt Dotson: So a lot of times in like the software dev world or in, you know, like information security, um, they’re looking for like D I D O D I A T, um, certifications. And it’s as simple as a running a Google search and seeing the chart that’s on their website to see, you know, which ones match to what level. Um, so oftentimes, you know, we’re asked to find people that have. network plus or security plus or C. I. S. A. C. I. S. S. P. Um, in the information security world, those are, those are the top ones. And I mean, right now, as of September, uh, of this year, we’re looking for folks with those exact certifications. Um, you know, I think everyone kind of has their eye on P. M. P. Like just starting out their career. But there are places that you can start before having to go through like the rigorous program of earning your PMP to kind of set you up for other opportunities that will then make that easier for you, uh, in the long run. Um, and then, you know, if you’re currently employed. Looking to get involved in groups like act. I act walking away from, you know, graduating their associates program. Um, not only is that, uh, you know, assert or a, um, an accomplishment on your resume on your profile, but it’s also an in, you know, in a new network of people. That’s a pretty tight knit group. That will then be able to kind of usher you into other spaces of, yeah, earning different certs or getting experience in this one particular area, whether it might be like a fellowship or like a part time opportunity whilst you’re supporting another org.

Fiona Sityar: Yeah, I think Matt touched on this earlier as well, but to the surprise of nobody, I think we’ve seen, obviously, a similar thing. Super huge increase in, um, a focus on digital transformation. So obviously technology skills driving demand for those with expertise in the tech. World and obviously emerging technologies. So as new things come out, I’m learning as much as you can on those new things. And then obviously pairing these skill sets with clearance requirements that really further increases the complexity when, when job hunting, especially in Gulfcon, but clearances are, and will continue to be crucial and obviously obtaining a clearance from scratch can be time consuming. So those candidates with active clearances are going to. Continue to remain in high demand.

Matt Dotson: Also, uh, one, one more piece of experience that really just came to mind is, you know, a lot of people don’t know what types of internships to, to look for. Um, and you know, there are plenty of internships out there where you’re just kind of a general intern. Um, you know, you might be doing office support one day, you might be helping HR with something the next day, but, but searching for specialized internships, like ones that we have at highlight can be really helpful to grow, you know, your resume, um, and, and, and build your, your career in the industry, like looking to work in business development, working in a contracts office, something that is like government customer facing, um, to give you that, uh, That experience of working with those groups and then, you know, you can hit the ground running when you find your first opportunity, or even just familiarity with, uh, with, with a particular customer, um, and then going to work for them on the contract side can be, can be really helpful.

Victoria Kruemmer: I want to circle back really quickly, just for folks that. Maybe new to the industry. Um, could you give some more insight into the clearance process or really what the different levels mean when they are doing that research?

Matt Dotson: Sure. I think the biggest, um, uh, difference in, in cleared work, a lot of people have questions about is, you know, like a sponsored department of defense. Clearance versus a suitability clearance with Homeland Security or a public trust with, you know, a civilian organization. So, um, most of the time, if you’re taking a job that requires a public trust level clearance, um, if you don’t have that, that doesn’t disqualify you. Uh, and that can be tricky about some job postings, but when you’re applying to work with the public trust, um, that, that public trust is held through the organization that you’re going to be working at. It’s not. Assigned to you and you will carry with it. You’ll, you’ll carry it with you, you know, to, to any other company, any other org, um, it’s just specific to that org. So if you’re interested in working at small business administration and the requirements include a public trust, um, you’re potentially eligible for that. There is a screening process. You know, there’s a background check. They’ll check things like criminal background, um, potentially like a credit check, financial backgrounds. They might need to verify us citizenship. Yeah. It varies for every government org as well. So it could be different at NIH versus small business administration, which is why I encourage people to apply to any type of job that calls for that. And when you speak to a hiring manager or recruiter, they can tell you exactly what the background check is going to cover, um, compared to, you know, a department of defense secret clearance, uh, or a top secret clearance, or even a, a top secret SCI clearance. Um, that’s something that, that requires sponsorship. Through your company, um, and will be active as long as you’re using it in a job that requires it. Um, so a lot of people don’t understand, uh, that once they are separating from a position that requires their active clearance, they have 24 months to go somewhere and keep that clearance active, otherwise it goes away and you would have to start that whole process over again. Um. But also, once again, encouraging folks to apply to opportunities, um, and see if it’s, you know, an active requirement or if it’s something that they’re willing to submit you for. Um, and a lot of times you can look for jobs specifically that, that state, they’re going to sponsor you for a clearance, which is a really valuable opportunity because once you’re a cleared candidate, it opens up doors that were closed previously. Um, it becomes, you know, even more, an even smaller group. Of, of candidates that can be considered for a role, um, because of the sensitive nature of whatever it is they may be working on. Um, so it can be a little tricky to get your foot in the door. Um, a lot of times if you’re working somewhere and you know that your company sponsors clearances, um, I encourage people to, to go to their manager, um, or, or go to someone in leadership and say, I’d like to break into the cleared space. How can you help me get there? And the answer might be placing you somewhere else so that they can process you for a clearance or keeping you billing on one program while they process you for another. And then you have the opportunity to be mobile to other programs from there.

Victoria Kruemmer: Yeah. So, um, building on that qualification piece and certifications, how often do you all see, um, the need for platform specific, You know, knowledge and expertise, and we’re talking like AWS service now on the tech side, and then obviously on more of our mission sides, you know, more of those Microsoft office skills and so on. Can you speak to that? 

Fiona Sityar: I think government contracting encompasses so, so many different skill sets. I know at highlight alone, there’s such a variety. So I would say one. It depends on the agency that the work is supporting and what their needs are at the moment. Um, two, it depends on what’s happening in the world, right? Um, with supporting the U. S. Government and Victoria, you hit the nail on the head earlier with The impact to national security and citizen services. Um, it’s, it’s going to depend. Uh, there are obviously specific things like you had mentioned with AWS, um, and the other. But Matt, do you have any thoughts? I mean, you 

Matt Dotson: hit the nail on the head. Obviously it’s, it’s customer specific. It’s based on the needs of the contract. Um, it kind of goes back to, if you’re, you have your eye on a particular side of the government that you want to work for, or even just a particular technology that you want to take to any government agency, um, doing research into what are the companies that are really spearheading efforts in this area. Um, if I want to work at. You know, you want to work for the Department of Defense somewhere or Department of Homeland Security. Maybe you want to work at USCIS, um, finding the companies that are present in those areas, um, you know, who’s got the big contracts, uh, who’s got the specialized contracts in a field that I’m particularly interested in. Um, and, and then figuring out. Yeah, exactly. What platform to be learned on from there? Um, because it can vary, you know, anywhere you go and sure. Yeah, it’s, it could be ServiceNow, Salesforce, AWS, um, Oracle database administration, uh, there’s, it’s different every time, you know, when you’re looking at job postings, you know, we have such a diverse, um, portfolio of work on our website with our job postings. Um, so, but, but it’s all out there. I mean, you can find it through LinkedIn. Um, maybe you’re interested in a particular company. You go through the company, you look at their postings, you see that all of the work that you’re interested is kind of focused around this one government org. Um, and then there’s your, uh, and there’s your literature to study if you will. Um, and then you can seek out, you know, maybe obtaining that, um, being certified in that platform or taking a course or just an entry level position where you can be taught the ropes of that technology, uh, to then take it and run with it. 

Victoria Kruemmer: Um, I know for me, I am always scouring LinkedIn for press releases and so on about new work that people are a great trigger for our team also to see what other jobs are, you know, out there. Um, so. With that being said, what are some of the best ways for recruits to engage and connect with Highlight?

Matt Dotson: Well, for starters, we’re actually hosting a bring a friend event, um, happy hour at, uh, Banditos in University Mall in Fairfax, which is right around the corner from our headquarters. That’s on Thursday. September 28th from 4 to 6 p. m. It’s following a George Mason career fair that we’re going to be a part of. Um, that is just an immediate way to, uh, get involved, get FaceTime with, uh, members that highlight, um, myself, Fiona, uh, other members of headquarters, as well as the opportunity to meet some of our like contract employees, even project managers that are on the ground, they’re doing the hiring. For their programs. Um, we’re always trying to host, you know, open houses at headquarters or elsewhere, um, to connect with folks, uh, engaging with us on linkedin, figure out where highlights going, you see that we’re attending women in technology in november, um, make plans to meet us at the booth. You’d be surprised how often, um, people come up to us at events like that. And they say, Hey, you know, I’ve been following highlight and I came here for you. Cool. Or I saw you were on the list. Once I registered for this fair, I did a lot of research. And now I want to talk to you all and, and learn more about what it’s like to be an employee owner in the government contracting world. Um, so any, any company that you’re interested in, but specifically with highlight, follow us, figure out, you know, where we’re involved. And then, um, don’t be afraid to, to engage in any of those points.

Fiona Sityar: Yeah. And I think not to toot our own horn, but we’re all very friendly people. So highly encourage you to reach out on LinkedIn as well. We’re happy to engage. I know we have an open door policy internally, but. I accept that externally as well. 

Victoria Kruemmer: Yeah, I’m sure we would gladly invite anyone to engage with any of us on this line. But also, you know, any of our leadership on LinkedIn just be like, Hey, I’ve been looking at your company. Yeah, I know you have this role available. Can you give me some more information regarding it? Or, you know, point me in the right direction of something that might better suit my skills and so on. Yeah, absolutely.

Matt Dotson: And if you’re unable to attend, you know, uh, an event in person or one of our virtual events, even just submitting your information through our portal is, um, is really beneficial. We’ve got an AI Job matching portal where you can submit your resume on our website, and it will match that resume to open jobs that we have and encourage you to apply directly through there. And then once your, your resume and your information is in our talent system, um, it’s accessible by anyone working on the recruiting team and anyone, you know, in leadership as well. Um, so when we’re running searches, uh, we’re finding your qualifications and we’re reaching out to you. The first place that we go when we have openings is our. Our internal talent portal. Um, so continuing to revisit the page, see what opportunities are out there. Um, update your resume as needed to, um, or even, uh, change your resume in the system because you’ll be given a login and you’re able to do that. Um, you know, that’s a more indirect way of. Of engaging with us, but it’s putting your information in front of the people who are doing the hiring at the company. 

Victoria Kruemmer: Awesome. So my last, you know, serious question in here. So what are some of the current roles that we’re looking for and people should engage with?

Matt Dotson: So I think I mentioned earlier, we have a pretty diverse portfolio of work, um, which is why it’s so fun to recruit for highlight. Um, you know, we’ve got, uh, like digital transformation work. We’re, we’re seeking individuals that are database administrators. They might, might need experience working in Oracle or, uh, post gray or something like that. Um, and then we also look for, you know, program based, um, Analysts, policy analysts, program analysts supporting state department. We also hire fully remote DevSecOps software engineers and developers, um, who are supporting USCIS on a program that is. Ensuring that people get their passports on time, um, managing, you know, a, a giant software program, um, and, and the maintenance of that program. So, uh, that’s just, you know, a couple examples of the work that we have at highlight that, you know, we’re constantly looking for those qualified individuals. And we incur encourage current employees to make referrals, but also people who might be on the fence, looking for a new opportunity. Asking them to make that jump and give highlight a call and talk to myself or one of our recruiters who can help them help get them to the door.

Fiona Sityar: What I’ll also add to that is just due to the very nature of the work we do, that list of open roles changes almost daily. So an opportunity that may not be available today may pop up for you in the next week, month, or year. Six months, whatever it may be. So I always encourage people to keep looking, keep us, keep us on your one of your as one of your open tabs. And who knows the opportunity may be available to you.

Matt Dotson: Yeah, we have a general application on our website, aside from all of our current postings, which, you know, just tells us you just want to come work for highlight, or you want, you’d like to be considered for something down the road. Um, once it meets what, what you were looking for. Um, that’s something that I always like to make sure people know is, is sure our jobs as recruiters is we have to find someone that fits this position, but on the other side of that is. We’re working with candidates who we want to, you know, have joined the company and become employee owners alongside us. We want to find the best job for them. Um, so it’s a lot of working with candidates directly to find their best fit that meets their needs. They want to work in this location. They want to work with this particular technology. They have a goal of achieving this title in five years. So this is where we’re going to have them start.

Victoria Kruemmer: So I have two final questions for you all kind of rounding out the whole episode. I know we talked a lot about all of the different ways to get into GupCon, all of the research. So for both of you. What makes Highlight different from the other GovCon employers? 

Fiona Sityar: So I know for me being intimately familiar with the process, the concept of being an employee owned company in government contracting or in general, um, is such a unique opportunity for our employee owners to, to be a part of. There is this shared success that they, um, are contributing to where. Your accomplishments are my accomplishments and it’s all rising tides lift all boats, right? So I think we’re all in it to win it and want each other to succeed and that’s a huge game changer for me.

Matt Dotson: Collaboration is the first word that comes to mind.

Um, we’re, we’re very collaborative. organization. And what I mean by that is all of the teams are constantly, you know, they’re taking different points of views. They’re taking different skill sets, different preferred tools and, and kind of melding it all together. Um, it’s, it’s really nice to be working in a place where you can bring an idea to the table and not only are you, um, That you’re not just listened to you, you’re really heard and understood. And then action is being taken. Um, I, I love that, you know, amongst my team members, um, we have recruiters who have been doing this for over 20 years and they’ve been doing it at big companies, small companies, big companies. And they have tools that they think are useful tools that they would, you know, rather not use. And they can take that and, you know, bring ideas and strategies into our department. Um, and then we have someone who might just be starting out and they want to take a, you know, they want to take a course or be certified in a certain area of recruiting, learning something from that and bringing that to the table as well. And all of us hearing each other, combining these strategies, um, and allowing for, you know, For room to work and grow and try new things. A lot of times it can be kind of difficult if you’ve been working at a place long enough or just, you know, this team has existed long enough that process is in place and this is how we do things because that’s just how it is because this seems to make sense on paper. Having the opportunity to speak up and present new ideas and try and act on them from there to improve the team or, or, you know, make the process more efficient, comfortable, whatever it may be is, is really valuable. And I see that not just in my recruiting team, but in every team at the company.

Victoria Kruemmer: Awesome. So my final question, I know both of you have worked to highlight five years. Why do you like working at Highlight? What’s kept you, you know, a part of the team? 

Matt Dotson: You’ve worked here longer, Fiona, so you can go first. 

Fiona Sityar: Okay, sounds good. Uh, so for me, I think what’s really kept me here has been the people and the relationships I’ve been able to form, not just from a managerial perspective and the opportunity for that has been presented to me, but also the day to day interactions that I’ve had, not just within my team, but to Matt’s earlier point with people across the organization and other teams, it’s just been a comfortable place to work. I get along with the people I work with. I enjoy coming to work with these people. Um, and I don’t know how rare that is, but I think that it’s A unique working environment here at highlight. 

Matt Dotson: Yeah. Comfort’s a huge word for me as well. And I think that the biggest source of my comfort working at highlight is like the trust. Um, there’s trust amongst everyone at the company. Um, and it kind of goes back to that collaborative mindset that I mentioned. But, um, you know, if you’re working with someone, two different departments are working on the same exercise. There’s, there’s a trust of, I know, you know how to do what you’re doing. And I know how to do what I’m doing. And we both believe in each other and that we know that we’re going to find the solution on this. Um, you know, and, and it’s, that’s, I think that’s a really big deal. Um, when you are maybe working with someone in senior leadership. And there is an immediate task or just something urgent, or it could even be, you know, inconsequential, but, but the knowing that you’re trusted to get the job done, um, and not being micromanaged, um, not being doubted, uh, that really. That takes you way farther and it’s, it’s, you know, it’s a better motivator. Um, and you’re just, you’re happier at work and I think you’re more successful. Um, because if, if people around you, maybe they’re, they’re your senior and there’s your senior by quite a bit. They, they are showing you that they trust you and your ability. You know, that gives you the confidence to execute whatever it is you’re trying to get done.

Victoria Kruemmer: Thank you both. So that’s all I have for today. So thank you both Fiona and Matt for joining us. Um, thank you everyone for listening to the highlight cast to keep up to date with everything highlight news and activities. Follow us on LinkedIn, uh, visit our website, check out the careers page. Um, I hope you all tune in for the next episode. We hope to see you at Bandito’s next week on the 28th. Our next episode will be in celebration of Employee Ownership Month and we’ll be discussing employee ownership in the federal landscape. So thanks and see you on the 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.

Episode #34: Meet our New CEO Aarish Gokaldas

Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia. You are now listening to the highlight cast.

Ashley Nichols: Hello, and welcome back to the highlight cast. Uh, my name is Ashley Nichols. I’m the VP for corporate strategy and development here at highlight. And today I’m excited to sit down with our newest CEO, Arish Gokaldas, he’s succeeding. Highlight founder, Rebecca and Dino, to begin another exciting chapter at Highlight, or as I like to call it, Highlight 2. 0. So welcome Arish. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Thank you, Ashley. I’m excited to be here and I’m excited to be speaking with you on this podcast.

Ashley Nichols: Great. So we’ll start with some basics. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to this point in your career as CEO of Highlight. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. I’m happy to. So, uh, just, I started off within the intelligence community as an intel officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency. My background from an education perspective was international affairs. So obviously they threw me in the most technical intelligence possible, measurement and signature intelligence. And it was essentially a firehose of getting up to speed on very technical capabilities. Uh, which I was then required to go out and teach, uh, to the title nine and title 10 schoolhouses. Did that for a few years, then switched over to SAIC doing that as a contractor, and then moving over to the DNI, director of national intelligence, uh, to be a policy analyst, evaluating new capabilities and upgrades and doing cost benefit analyses for them. It was at that point in 2008 that I went over to a small business, OG systems as employee number eight. And immediately took over their business development team, building out and leading their business development team. And over the course of 10 years, uh, grew that team, uh, grew that company from eight individuals to 400, uh, first as their chief growth officer, and then as their chief executive officer. In 2019, we were acquired by Parsons Corporation, and I remained there and agreed to stand up Parsons Space and Geospatial Solutions Business Unit. And that was a great experience that pulled together a lot of strong capabilities in Parsons around our space work with organizations like U. S. Space Force, SMDC, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Uh, as well as our geospatial work with NGA, NRO, Special Operations Command, SOCOM, uh, as well as Army Geospatial Center and Army PEO. Uh, so, did that until 2020, at which point I moved on to a, a mid sized company, Applied Information Sciences, as their Chief Growth Officer. Uh, working on both federal and commercial vehicles around cloud professional services, specifically focused around the Microsoft ecosystem. So. Uh, and it was there that I decided to go on and sort of start my own boutique firm, consulting with small and midsize companies on their growth roadmap. And it was incredibly rewarding work, but part of the desire was to go back to doing it full time in a CEO capacity for a company that I really, uh, believed in and had a strong connection to. And that’s where Highlight entered the picture. And, and it’s been great. 

Ashley Nichols: Good. Well, we are certainly happy to have you. So what attracted you to join the highlight team? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Great question. Great question, Ashley. So I’ll say it was three things really. One was the diversified portfolio highlight is a strong company, both on the federal civilian market, as well as the department of defense and Intel community. So the organization is providing support to, for example, the U S agency for international development around. Uh, gender equality and inclusive development, right? Having significant impact on, on, on really, uh, getting that internationally recognized and, and, and helping to ensure that, that everyone is making an impact in their, in their country. Uh, but then you look over on the, the DOD side where we’re supporting, uh, Army and providing them with an application on ServiceNow to help consolidate and, And shorten the timelines for software asset management, uh, which is having real mission critical impact. So that, that’s the first area is the diversified portfolio. The second one is the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Uh, I was born in apartheid, South Africa, so that absolutely colors. A lot of my background, uh, in, in a society where individuals were by law excluded. So coming to Highlight, uh, part of that decision factor was the organization’s commitment and respect for, for diversity. Uh, that was a, a non starter for any company if they did not have that for me. So I generally embrace that and that’s something that I choose to commit to and expand with my time here. And then the last one is the company culture. I mentioned my employment with OG Systems, right? Started as a small company. Growing into a large, one of the big areas of focus was despite how fast and how much we grew, uh, we were going to commit equally from a time perspective, but also from a funding perspective to maintain our culture. Uh, and I believe that is very much the same. that highlight has, uh, and Rebecca, who you mentioned as the founder, made a commitment to that. Uh, the leadership team, yourself included, actually have made a commitment to that, uh, to ensure that our growth is not going to be at the expense of employee welfare, but rather our growth will advance employee welfare and employee morale. And it really, at the end of the day, it was an easy decision looking at those three factors.

Ashley Nichols: So all that being said, you’re here now, what are the first few weeks been like or, you know, what are some of your biggest takeaways here at the beginning? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I would say that it’s certainly been a fire hose. So getting up to speed and meeting the leadership team. And now I’m going through and meeting with each of the individual teams. And really the biggest impression that I’ve felt, and it’s a simple thing, but I think it’s an important thing, is that the employees. Respect each other and and they genuinely like each other. Uh, the company is not treated as, the relationships are not treated as transactional. They’re pure and I believe that that serves the employees well from a happiness perspective and a satisfaction perspective. But more importantly, it serves the customer well. Employees that like each other. And respect each other, work well together, and they work well together to advance the client’s mission. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do here at Highlight as a 100 percent federally focused contractor. So that’s really the, you know, I’m on my, in my fourth week now, and that’s, that’s what I’ve seen. It’s really proved out both, uh, at headquarters with our back office staff who are incredibly mature in what they do. But also with our teams on the ground and speaking with them in person, virtually, uh, it’s clear that there’s a genuine appreciation and respect for each other when everybody brings not just from their professional backgrounds, but also from their personal.

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. We definitely try and try and foster that with our internal programs for sure. Want to pivot a little bit. You know, you talked about how OG systems went through. Kind of similar trajectory going from small to large. We are a recently, uh, graduated into the midsize, the business pool, the large business pool. Um, so as a growth focused professional, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing federal contractors and more specifically, um, So the challenges facing contractors in this size range that we now find ourselves. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Sure. So one of the partners that we used to work with was similar size as highlight and they used to refer to themselves as a micro large. And I appreciate that because we are genuinely in a category where we’re no longer small. But we’re, we’re, we’re essentially existing in a plane where there are organizations that are 10, 15, 20 percent, 20 times larger than us, right? Uh, so, so certainly from the contractual standpoint, there’s, there’s always going to be challenges in terms of how we’re measured by the government in terms of what they’re looking for from a past performance perspective, if they’re putting certain, Size thresholds in place if they’re putting certain contract thresholds in place for points or for Uh color scoring we’re going to be at a disadvantage But those are things that that we can overcome both from the perspective of messaging to the government and really showing the value of a What I’ll call a micro large, who is a large business, but still is able to demonstrate agility in the contract space. I think that that’s, that’s a way to overcome that. The bigger challenge that I, that I like to focus on is, is really the cultural one. Especially for those who have been with an organization like Highlight for five to 10 years. These are, you know, individuals who have grown up as a small business. So used to going up against small businesses. I Eight A’s, women owned small business and used to competing against them. And now that we’re in a full and open space, it’s very much, you know, a different, a different animal altogether. So there’s, there’s still, I will say, muscle memory around competing against companies of a certain size. And what’s more is competing for opportunities of a certain size. So part of the cultural challenge is starting to. understand that the past performance that highlight possesses truly is impressive and, and truly rivals that of the largest SIs out there. Just take, for example, our work with SBA and, uh, the PPP work that we led, Uh, during the pandemic, the ability to staff the, the, the, the team that we did, we’re talking about hundreds of employees brought onto a contract in a week, over a thousand in two months, uh, that, that type of surge staffing is unparalleled. And having the realization that our past performance, our quals, our technical prowess can rival that of the largest multi billion dollar companies. Uh, take some time to sort of get into that mindset. But really, it’s a mindset of understanding and appreciating that and developing that confidence and dare I say, you know, that swagger around our ability to sort of go toe to toe with the largest of companies.

Ashley Nichols: Right. Yeah, the notion that we, we deserve to be in that room as much as anybody else does. And absolutely. That’s right. I’m here for it. For sure. Yeah, so it’s kind of a two part question. You can answer one or the other. You know, one is, you know, what are some of the biggest surprises that you saw in the industry over the last year? Or what are you most excited for, you know, in terms of trends that you see in the future? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yeah, so, so the 1st 1, um, the, the biggest surprise, I’ll say is kind of. Candidly, it’s been the evolution of the government’s focus on, on, on GWACs and BICs, best in class contracts. I think I certainly understand the drive to, to move toward a consolidated set of best in class contracts. I think the theory being that it will limit the workload that we placed on agency and service contracting shops. What I’m seeing, and I’d say the surprise, is in practice, I think it’s placing a lot more stress on them 

Ashley Nichols: because 

Aarish Gokaldas: whereas previously when agencies would release their own blanket purchase agreement or indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity vehicle, you’d see, you know, a dozen to 15 to 20 bidders for four to five awardees. And typically we’d see that awarded and moving forward. What you’re seeing now is that contractors. Contractors understand that in a lot of cases, our futures are tied to successfully getting a spot on the best in class contracts. So you’re now starting to see a scenario where hundreds, if not thousands of contractors are bidding on these vehicles and post award, you’re seeing hundreds. Dozens if not hundreds of protests that are slowing it down. So the surprise is that i’m starting to see a lot more stress being placed on these contracting shops to uh, Either work through those protests and identify alternatives 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely that I think that’s definitely something they’ll have to look at hard going forward. Not just from a standpoint of The viability of the vehicles through all the protests, but then often their sort of role in sort of making or breaking of some companies, especially the very small, or even the smaller, large is where we are. That is a topic for another podcast. Um, yeah, 

Aarish Gokaldas: I do want to answer your 2nd question as well, but to the exciting opportunities and the trends. And again, I think this is this is going to be specific to highlight, but it’s certainly something that we’re seeing across the federal government that I think is an opportunity for all industry partners. And that’s obviously the continuing drive and push. Opportunity for automation, right? Uh, one of the things that brought me or attracted me to highlight was, was our highway methodology, our ability to take underserved markets, like asset management, grant management, identify ways Uh, using commercial best practices, using, uh, commercially available ISV tools like UiPath, and lower paperwork burdens, lower, uh, multiple approval channels and reduced timeline, uh, from weeks to days, if not hours. And when you think of that in real terms, We’re talking about, let’s say a soldier down range who needs to spin up a Databricks license to process mission critical data. Getting timely access to that license and that finished product has real world implications. So the ability to, to shorten that timeline from request to approval to use of that license, uh, is, is an incredible opportunity for. For companies like highlight to come in and improve the process. Provide efficiencies, but also have real world mission impact, which at the end of the day is what we’re all trying to do. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. I would be remiss in not mentioning here that we are a hundred percent employee owned, uh, we are an ESOP company. And so with that, I think there’s some exciting trends around ESOP owned companies and GovCon. Uh, can you talk a little bit about that? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yeah, I absolutely. I I’ll say one of the biggest trends. Uh, that really excites me is a growing appreciation for employee owned companies, both within the federal government as well as in Congress. Uh, there’s been plenty of, plenty of attention paid to small business designations, and rightly so. Um, but when you look at an ESOP, it’s a case where the rising tide is lifting all the proverbial boats in the company, right? When, when a, when an ESOP company grows, when its stock price. grows, that’s not to the benefit of a small fraction of shareholders or a small fraction of the equity firm stakeholders. That is to the benefit of every employee who is ESOP eligible, right? And we are a hundred percent ESOP company. Uh, so that is every employee. Um, and I think Congress is starting to realize this and they’re starting to recognize this and we’re starting to see it. Encoded in the NDA language, which is incredibly exciting and regardless of your political persuasion. One of the things that I think you’ll find is that support for ESOPs. crosses both sides of the aisle. It’s something that both Republicans and Democrats have found a common cause to support, right? Which in this day and age is few and far between, unfortunately, but that’s one of the areas. Uh, and as a result, I think we’re going to see more legislation in support of not only encouraging. A conversion of additional federal companies into ESOP, but also an increase in opportunities for ESOP to grow within the federal government. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. I want to turn a little bit towards what we’ll call the question of sort of mentorship or growth within the within this organization and generally within our industry. So with that, we’ll start with what do you consider the most important lesson that you’ve learned in your career so far? If you had to pick just one, 

Aarish Gokaldas: so it’ll be a cop out because it’s one, but I think it’s multi multi multiple elements to it and that is there are different types of leadership and each of them can be successful in their own way. But for me, and for what I preach and what I evangelize, servant leadership is critical to the success of a company. Leaders are hired to grow a for profit organization, right? There’s no arguing that. We’re hired to increase both the top and the bottom line. But how we do that is important. And when I say servant leadership, what I mean is a servant leader does it by listening to their employees, not by speaking at them, uh, by displaying empathy, empathy, not by dismissing concerns or dismissing feedback by being self aware of not only his or her own weaknesses, but also that of. His or her teams, right? And working to a, address that, but ensure that the team as a whole can cover each other’s weaknesses with their respective strengths, um, a commitment, not just to a growth of the company, but also growth of the employees. And then the last one, which I’m a big believer in, and I believe highlight is as well, which is why I came here is a belief in building a community, not building a bureaucracy. Or a, a group of employees based on transactions. So I think that is. The most important lesson that I’ve learned over my time as an industry executive is the value of servant leadership. 

Ashley Nichols: What would you, what is something that you would suggest everyone in GovCon start doing? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Engage really. It’s, it’s, it’s really a small community. And once you start getting out there, you’re going to start seeing some familiar faces, but get out of your, if you’re, if you’re on a specific contract, get out of that contract, get engaged with your company. The people in your company get engaged with the community. If you’re focused on, uh, let’s say AWS sales, get out to the AWS reinvent, right? Get out to the cloud specific conferences. Start to engage with those other thought leaders. If you’re on the management side, start heading out to those industry specific conferences, like, you know, the geo conference, uh, like, you know, space and missile conference, uh, get out there and meet the individuals. You’ll start seeing them again at other events, other dentists, other forum, but really start to. Engage outside of your specific bubble. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. So what is one big piece of advice that you have for early career professionals in our space? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I would say, don’t be shy and engage with your leadership early and often. And more importantly, don’t assume that you’re going to be noticed or recognized just based on your good work. And oftentimes, you know, the, the good leaders will do that. The good leaders will recognize and identify those who are providing the greatest benefit, the greatest ROI, but you cannot be afraid to advocate for yourself because at the end of the day, you are responsible for your career. So you have to be vocal. You have to be a strong self advocate for yourself and at times for your team.

Ashley Nichols: That’s certainly something I wish someone had told me. Uh, 15, 20 years ago, for sure. Um, and what would you say is the biggest myth about government contracting? 

Aarish Gokaldas: That’s a great question. And what I’ll say is that it didn’t used to be a myth, but I think we’re starting to see this become one, which I, I, um, love. Uh, and, and that is the myth that government contracting is a good old boys network. Right. The fact that contracts are awarded based on who, you know, uh, based on back room drinks and cigars with the federal government and company executives. I think we’re starting to see that go by the wayside what you are starting to see. Is a shift in demographics across the federal government, both in terms of the leadership profiles, but also the employee makeup. And so you’re starting to see a lot more focus on, uh, hiring for diversity, diversity of, of individuals and also diversity of thought. And I think as a result, you’re starting to see companies evolve as well into introducing diversity as a key. requirement for success. And frankly, Highlight is leading the way in that regard. Look, we are over 60 percent female. We are minority, minority, majority, uh, meaning that over 51 percent of our company identifies as minorities. And I believe that that diversity Uh, is a tremendous benefit, uh, to the federal government when it, when it comes to the type of work that we support, the, the diversity of the ideas, the diversity of the engagement that we put forward, both on the civilian market, as well as on the, the Department of Defense and the Intel community. And so, uh, I think that’s only going to, uh, become a stronger, uh, asset to the government as we, as we move forward. And I think you’re, you’re definitely seeing the, the, the death knell of that, that good old boy network that used to be there in the, you know, 34 years ago. Yeah, 

Ashley Nichols: absolutely. All right. Now it’s time for rapid fire questions. Are you ready? Yes. All right. Phone calls or email? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Text messages. 

Ashley Nichols: All right. Favorite video meeting platform? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Uh, I’m gonna go with Teams. Teams is still my favorite. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, okay. Uh, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I wanted to be a lawyer. Yeah, that was, that was my goal. 

Ashley Nichols: Okay, this is gonna be hard for you. Favorite movie? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Oh, that’s not hard at all. That’s, that’s, okay. It’s, uh, Princess Bride. 

Ashley Nichols: Princess Bride, okay, I know you are a movie buff, movie fan. Yes. Favorite music genre? 

Aarish Gokaldas: You know, it evolves over time, but right now I would say American folk bluegrass. 

Ashley Nichols: Ah, yes, I’m right there with you. I’m right there with you right now. Lots of trade notes. Favorite meal? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Uh, I’m a simple man, so when I moved to the U. S., I learned about pizza and it never stopped. a good, uh, cheese pizza, which in some ways heartbreaking because both of my kids do not like pizza. Uh, so I don’t know where I went wrong.

Ashley Nichols: All right. Final question. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yes. 

Ashley Nichols: Best piece of advice, best piece of professional advice that you have gotten.

Joy and highlight. No, just kidding.

Aarish Gokaldas: Best piece of professional advice I got is don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is not what defines you. It’s the not trying that could define you. And I’ll just say, Ashley, and you recognize this, as a performer, as a former proposals guy, the fear of failure is strong, right? So overcoming that. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, um, I’ll say that, but the times you go most down the edge are generally bringing the most success. You just have to remember that when the fear creeps up. Right. Alright, well that wraps up all of our questions for today. Thanks everybody for listening to HighlightCast. To keep up to date with our news and activities, follow us on LinkedIn or visit our website at highlighttech. com and tune in for our next episode. Thanks for listening. Uh, thank you so much, Arish, and we’ll see you, uh, on the next episode. Thanks, 

Aarish Gokaldas: Ackley. This was a blast. 

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 #32: Software Asset Management in the Federal Sector

Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia, you are now listening to the Highlight Cast. Hello and welcome back to the 

Ashley Nichols: Highlight Cast. I’m Ashley Nichols, highlight’s Vice President for Corporate Strategy and Development, and I’m a longtime listener, first time host of the Highlight Cast, so excited to be here. As always, our team is very excited to discuss Different trends within the landscape of the GovCon work that we all do. Today, we’re going to chat about Federal Software Asset Management. For the uninitiated, software asset management is the business practice that involves managing and optimizing the purchase, deployment, and delivery. Maintenance utilization and disposal of software applications within an organization. So why are we talking about software asset management? Which I’m going to shorten to Sam. So if you hear me say Sam throughout, that’s. Software asset management. Well, recent, uh, OMB guidelines and legislation like Fatara and megabyte have prompted a hard look at cost savings in it agencies in the, in the organizations. So Sam is routinely identified as one of the largest areas of unrealized savings and a robust software asset management process can really help organizations in how they forecast, procure, install, maintain, monitor, track. Reuse software licenses and other assets to realize those savings. So, we’ll take an in depth look at the current state of software asset management inside the federal government and more specifically within and some software factory environments. We’ll talk about some common solutions and best practices, as well as some challenges and some of the security impacts and implications of SAM. So, joining me today are Sarah Dreyer, uh, one of our procurement managers on one of our government programs. I’ll, I’ll leave it unnamed as such. And the program manager and cybersecurity engineer, Kevin Milner and Emily Scancilberry, director of corporate portfolio development. Welcome, Sarah, Kevin, Emily. How are you doing 

Kevin Milner: doing? Great. Thanks. 

Sarah Dryer: Pretty good. All right. Well, we’ll jump right into it. Um, let’s talk about the importance of software asset management in the federal government writ large. Wouldn’t be touched on some of it being regulation driven in the intro, but then more specifically in D. O. D. And software factories where I know a lot of your experience is so. What are some of the major impacts, you would say, of just poor software asset management practices? 

Kevin Milner: So one of the, one of the impacts that we see of poor software asset management is you get people buying software that isn’t really required for what they’re trying to do, or they may get the wrong version. In the DoD, one of the things we really need to watch out for is security concerns. We got to make sure that the software is not developed by an adversarial nation or other harmful entities. We want to make sure that the software we purchase is secure and the easiest way to do that is to follow the DoD guidelines about only purchasing U. S. operated software and that sort of thing. So that’s, that’s one of the big concerns. Absolutely. 

Sarah Dryer: Yeah, Sarah, you have a deep procurement background. Really, you know, Kevin comes from more of the technical background of building the system to support this process. But Sarah, like, you live and breathe procurement of these sort of products. So what would you say I would say cost cost association of it? Um, the lack of understanding exactly what they need to buy when they need to buy it, how critical it is for them to complete any mission. Kevin. Also to the lack of ability to have proper data like at your fingertips. What is going on? Who’s buying it? Where is it being deployed to? Which also comes up to a risk for security as Kevin stated, but then also to I think one of the big things is the lack of centralized repository. There’s not a place where the government can go and see a transparency what’s happening throughout the whole entire enterprise. And without having a proper process of procuring and purchasing and then deploying of the licenses that are purchased, it opens it up to a big risk. And then also too, in the auditing purposes of that, when people, when a auditor comes through, they want to know what’s the Background like where did you buy a farm? Who do you buy it from the cost associated with it? Because if you think about it, if it’s not within a certain cost and it’s too cheap, then why did you purchase that? And if you did purchase it and you deployed it, there’s a risk there because high value and high maintain licenses costs, unfortunately. Yeah, absolutely. So I think you’ve touched on some of the, you know, obviously some of the benefits are going to be the upside to some of the impacts of poor SAM practices. So maybe let’s talk about, you know, in implementing this for your customer, what were some of the biggest challenges of putting together a robust SAM process? And then also the tooling, but specifically what were some of your biggest challenges that you’ve experienced? I think the biggest challenge was defining what the processes were. Like there was not a set process that defines the each stage, the asset management life cycle from procurement to retirement. There is not a stage where you can say, okay, when signature happens, what do they do next? And then the process and the documentation of all that. So that it was one of the major things that we had to first address and then define and then see what the solution for was for the gaps that we found. 

Kevin Milner: Great. Kevin? And yeah, like I would say, especially for government organizations, there is a clear distinction between the money people and the technology people, you know. It just, you can tell by the way Sarah and I are talking, she’s focused more on money and I’m focused more on the technology aspect, so they’re not always understanding exactly what it is that they need to do, so one of the biggest challenges is to, to, um, sort of Sort of help the customer get out of their own way so that you can, you can come in and get them the software tools they need and establish a process that that doesn’t exist otherwise. So that’s, you know, that’s one of the major efforts that we’ve seen coming in is that first we have to identify the process. Uh, we have to figure out what it is the customer wants, you know, where they want to see their, their asset management, uh, how they want to see it, it function and stuff like that.

Sarah Dryer: Kevin brought up a good point about the association of different resources. Tech right now, cyber doesn’t speak to. The money people. The money people don’t speak to cyber and cyber doesn’t speak to the customers. So in the process, you get them all together, basically in one room, and they find out exactly what the project is going on. Who’s doing what? So then they can then look at the overall what’s in the pipeline to be able to predict and then build a budget. So the lack of communication is also a problem there, too, which then results in And how do you bring in the process and build a stronger foundation to then benefit the overall Sam as a whole. So it’s not just software asset management. It’s communication of what is needed through the software asset management. So that brings up an interesting question. Um, and. It really goes to the multiple stakeholders that were involved in this process. Right? You said cyber doesn’t talk to money and they’re just two of the players in this process. How did you approach bringing these disparate groups of people together as well as helping to achieve some buy in from them as part of this process? I think the first thing that we did was get them comfortable with having the experience of interviews like we went to each and every one of our stakeholders and we said, what is it that you need? I need to be able to do X, Y, and Z. Well, then how do you do X, Y, and Z? Well, then you have to talk to another stakeholder. So then in the line of all the interviews and all of the, uh, Kind of identifying what each stakeholder does. We then combined that whole entire, all the gaps and the interviews and the conversations and the basically the money and then put it all together to where when they, when a POC, which is the head of an environment comes in and the POCs are basically the advocate of the customer customer comes in, they asked the POC, they said, Hey, I The P O C needs to have a proper process and strategy on how to obtain those licenses. And who’s going to allocate the funds? Who’s going to manage those licenses? None of that was determined, nor was it even defined. So by bringing them all together and saying, Hey, we know that this is a sticking point and a pain point for you. What we’re going to do is we’re going to have weekly meetings about what you need, what your projects are, and then we’re going to communicate that through every single solitary stakeholder. So we did, we have bi weekly meetings, we have weekly meetings, we have then monthly meetings and brings. Everybody into the process. So everybody understands exactly what their role is, what they need to do and then how they need to execute that. And we did that and we not bought them in. But we build a foundation of trust with them because we had solutions and we executed everything that we said. We had a basically a foundation of you can trust us. This is what we provide. You have seen it over and over and over again. Now that you have seen that we can procure and help you manage all these licenses, we are now going to establish communication to bring everybody in. Wow. That sounds very complex. I know there was some really detailed customer mapping or sorry, journey mapping that went on with that that we’ll talk a little bit later when we talk about the tooling. So, Kevin, like, In terms of customer buy in, did you, do you think about it in terms of what’s most effective, like a prototype or just having them involved in the whole process increases the buy in or both?

Kevin Milner: Yeah, it’s, it’s sort of a holistic thing. You, you have to, you have to do both at the same time. When I first came on to, to our current contracts, they weren’t particularly happy to see me. I don’t, I don’t know if, uh, You know, my, my style wasn’t, wasn’t exactly embraced. So what we had to do is we had to show them the results. We had to show them the workflows that we designed and we had to make sure that they, they saw the value we were bringing to them. And if they didn’t, you know, that was on us. So we, we had to go back and communicate and, and reiterate and go through several different reiterations of, of showing them the plan, getting their buy in, showing them demos. Um, and, and that’s really helped them come to embrace us as, as people that actually know what we’re talking about. And we are able to deliver the changes that they themselves know they desperately need. A lot of it is, is just winning them over and showing them that they can trust you to, uh, to do what you say you’re doing. Because there’s, there’s, you know, there’s a lot of operatives in, in this industry that, That are just looking for a paycheck. So it’s, it’s really good when the civilian employees of the government are able to look and say, Hey, you’re not a, you’re not a typical contractor. You’re doing things the highlight way. And we like that. 

Sarah Dryer: Speaking of the Highlight Way, we have some specific best practices that, that we have in place here at Highlight. We call it Highway, and it’s a combination of our certifications and best practices, but we’ve got one special certification around stakeholder engagement, which really just speaks to our focus on that. I think you can hear it in the way Kevin and Sarah talked about the deep level of stakeholder engagement, That has supported the successful implementation of, you know, their robust Sam process and tool. But Emily, can you talk a little bit about this? That’s ISO 44, 000 for customer relationship management, but that really drives our commitment and structure around a lot of our stakeholder engagement activity. So I’m like, can you talk a little bit about. The criticality of that both certification and those practices and how it’s integrated into really all the programs we do here at highlight. 

Emilie Scantlebury: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. I think this is one great example or use case of that certification and really business slash management practice that we embed in each and every one of our programs across our portfolios. But, as you mentioned, I, so 44, 000, that’s for collaborative business relationship management. Really? It’s centered around ensuring that. All stakeholders are effectively engaged. They can effectively communicate in a shared space and thus collaborate on it on solutions. And what I find through learning programs and how we’re embedding that management style, what I find really is the result is intentional innovation, which is something that we talk about a lot internally here at Highlight. So what I mean by that, uh, Intentional innovation, right? It’s not just innovation to be flashy innovation to be, uh, you know, just saying that we got this new cool tool, right? It’s innovation in spaces where you, where our customers can have the highest amount of impact with the lowest risk. And so, when you think about ISO, 44, 000, the way that’s achieved, um, at least the way I visualize it in my mind is kind of like a wheel, right? Or a circle. Right. And in the middle, you have the certification, uh, so that in the middle, just imagine like ISO 44, 000, and it’s around again, collaborative relationship management. And then around the wheel, you have spokes. And so it’s a, it’s helping, uh, our programs kind of lay out those spokes. So on 1 side, you have our, of course, our direct customer. So their direct office that they’re supporting, but as with all programs, as we know, they’re interrelated, no customer, no office sits on its own island, or at least they shouldn’t. Yeah. Um, and so we help them map out their internal collaborators, um, their external, uh, departments or collaborators. So inside their own agency, you know, what, how does that system relate to itself? Vice like, how does that relate to the citizen as an external collaborative collaborator? And then on the bottom here, you have your suppliers. So for this example, we would be talking about the actual vendor suppliers. No wheel can rotate. Unless it has that strong center spoke. And so that’s how we really deploy ISO 44, 000. It’s that strength that spoke that understanding of the interrelated nature of deploying solutions like what we’re talking about here in software asset management. 

Sarah Dryer: So that was a little off topic, but it’s so related to the success that that this team has achieved. In their customer space that it seemed worth delving into a little bit because everyone talks about customer experience and stakeholder engagement. Um, but when it comes to how it’s really implemented, sometimes it’s more talk than action. And, uh, you know, so we really spent a lot of time trying to, um, operationalize. These practices and fully integrate them so that they’re more second nature than a special thing that we apply, but let’s get back to Sam, Sarah, because you have a procurement background that extends beyond just this particular program. What are some of the ways that you have experienced the government? What’s my options? Have they been using for implementing Sam? And I know it ranges. You guys were using a spreadsheet, I think, right? When you first started this program. So what are some of the. Ways that you’ve seen customers dealing with this, both effectively and ineffectively, so you’re correct. We did start out with a spreadsheet. We call and then when we start out with several spreadsheets, and then we had to consolidate into one spreadsheet, which we call the mother of all spreadsheets that has every possible data point. You could possibly think of that has to do with the products that you obtain, and it’s in your inventory and things of that nature. So in the other procurement aspects, I have seen to where people literally just write everything down, and then hopefully it all pans out. I have seen where they actually use SAM, but it’s not used in a manner that’s efficient for them. I have seen them to where they use SAM, but it wasn’t for, Software asset management. It was more for hardware and then they tried to customize it and it just wasn’t working out for like wall to wall inventories. Things of energy. You can’t do that with with. Sam, I have seen organizations use it for strictly just for warehousing, but not for distribution, which Sam is great for usage and allocations of exactly where these licenses are going. And they can do for A primary or secondary inventories. So, um, I’ve seen probably everything you possibly think of from writing down to spreadsheets to Excel to we actually have, we’re using what’s called Microsoft, uh, power apps right now that we’re using that as a. Kind of a temporary solution until this, our SAM is up and running in service now. So we’ve seen that to where they can come in and see where the inventory is at, the costs and things of that nature. So bottom line, we, I have seen it from beginning to end, just anything you could possibly think of. I mean, it’s, it’s amazing how far asset management has come. Yeah, absolutely. I always just think of asset management to your point, much more in terms of like an ITSM. It was really hardware based, right? And less about the, the software, although the cost savings are only realized, especially when you can dig into actual usage, right? Where are the, where are the licenses deployed and how much is being used? So you can redeploy them as opposed to buying new. So you can, you know, draw down on subscription time or whatever. And I will point out that. You can do effective Sam without having like a super robust tool. I know that you improved the process and the visibility just with your spreadsheet and then with the power apps within the organization, but we are working in that space to develop a module and service now that handles Sam for this customer, Kevin, can you talk a little bit about this service now? A tool that we’re building and what we expected to achieve for the customer in terms of outcomes and benefits.

Kevin Milner: Sure. Yeah. Um, so the tool we’re building is essentially a way to automate the entire procurement process. Typically, a procurement. In, you know, any procurement in any organization would start off with somebody identifying a need. I need an IDE for my code, or I need, you know, some sort of mind mapping software to draw a flow chart. So then they would have to go to whoever’s in charge of the tools, make a request, that person would have to go and make sure it’s approved and budgeted for, there’s licenses available, if not, they’ll have to buy them, that sort of thing. And, and then. Once they finally get through all the negotiation of purchasing and there’s documents that get generated, purchase orders, all that stuff, so it’s kind of a big, long process. And what we’ve really set out to do with with the application that we’re making is to automate that process so that it exists as, you know, a form that somebody fills out. And everything’s handled behind the scenes. And we also want to automate the process, uh, for the, the approvers and for the procurement manager. So what we’ve, what we’ve done with this application is we’ve built an entire request process that, that follows this fairly regimental list of requirements that have to be met before each step continues. Thank you very much. And so what we’re, what we did is, is we developed an automation process for that in service now. So forms in service now, the PDFs get generated in service now via a, a special third party module that we purchased. All the approvals are handled and stored inside the database, so there’s no chance of, you know, a document getting lost or getting signed, not in the proper order. So generally, this, this tool that we’ve made, um, is, would work well in any environment that has a wide diversity of people. Tools required and a strict governance of how the tools are purchased and utilized. 

Sarah Dryer: Uh, yeah, I think that I don’t want to sometimes when you say we automated it and it’s a form or whatever. I don’t want to undersell the impact. of this capability, not within this organization, but as could be applied to sort of any organization that deals with both either a large software development environment, so a large DevSecOps environment, or in this case, I think you’ve also got, you know, this is a multi tenant environment ultimately too, right? So there’s gonna be multiple customers and the, and the essential, um, nature of sort of automating this. To the point where it works for each customer, right? You know, the, you know, the workflow and the, the approval process and the authorizations it’s in line with all the seed drills. So it’s really, you know, more complex than when you say a workflow, right? It’s, it’s, it’s really pretty impressive, frankly. And, uh, you know, I think the way that you have. Developed it, it can be really applicable to a lot of other, especially DoD organizations, because while the specific seed rules and things are different, there’s a lot of commonality in the acquisition process across the DoD because it’s regulated by the same, you know, centralized regulations.

Kevin Milner: Yeah. And, and that’s, yeah, that’s one of the, you know, this tool that we’re developing as a sort of a service now implementation of a tool that we initially developed at another. Customers site using Google Cloud and email and things like that. This is this is sort of a more advanced version that we’ve we’ve had the opportunity to use a bunch of, you know, modern tools, low code, low code applications, that that kind of thing to really be able to to put all the bells and whistles on it. So so we’re pretty proud of it. And we’re definitely, definitely trying to also make it so that it could be applicable to other people, if possible, 

Sarah Dryer: based on the amount of governance and the new rules that every agency has to comply with now and an admitted sort of lack of maturity in this process, you know, across the federal government, um, you know, some are more advanced than others. I, you know, I think there’s certainly broad applicability. You mentioned earlier, you know, security protecting against malicious third party software, but let’s talk about security with regard to SAM and specifically how good SAM processes can help, like, guard against cyberattacks, um, And you touched on some of our work with securing the software supply chain. So I’m familiar with, you know, sort of SCRM, right? The supply chain risk management within the federal government, and your work there. But also how critical having up to date information about your software infrastructure is to guard against cyber attacks, which I hadn’t really thought of, but obviously makes perfect sense if you’ve got a lot of outdated, unknown software or, or, or, Account can’t account for exactly where it is. That obviously leaves you open and pretty vulnerable. 

Kevin Milner: Oh yeah, for sure. One of the examples I like to use is is when we were at the previous customers place they were using. They were using. What were they using as a tool? And our top notch cyber security guy at the time, Lloyd Evans, uh, who’s gone on to do other things now, but he, uh, he identified the, that, The tool was like, uh, the company was owned and ran like the CEO, I guess, was, was a, uh, graduate of the, of the GRU school in Russia and the espionage school. And it’s like, well, maybe we shouldn’t be using, you know, putting a, a software as a service application. Putting our data into that unless we can actually be sure who is running the organization because, you know, there’s there’s a chance. Oh, we had a data and I’m not saying that this. App would happen there, but, you know, it’s conceivable. Somebody could say, yeah, we had a data leak and some of our users data’s got exposed. And now, all of a sudden, we’ve got our, our, you know, sensitive, who we are for information floating out there in the world. And so, you know, As a cyber security engineer, you want to be kind of paranoid and just assume everyone’s out to get you. But, yeah, so, so one of the ways, uh, you know, that people could, could insert stuff, they could mess with the tools. You, we, we buy an unsecured tool. Uh, SAS applications are very dangerous because you don’t know where the, unless you ask, you don’t know where the instance physically is located. You know, then there’s the whole issue of using. Third party modules in your software as you’re developing a lot of developers, you know, we’ll use libraries that other people have published open source libraries like log for J or things like that. And then you have to really look at how those tools are managed and make sure that there’s no way for insidious code to be injected into their process so that you download it and use it in your program. So it’s, it’s just sort of a, a big. Pile of layers that you have to, you have to work through to make sure, you know, everything’s copacetic.

Sarah Dryer: And also with every single solitary purchase that we make with our CDROS, we also have what’s called security artifacts. And each, each one of those security artifacts, there’s a line that represents exactly what the security needs to sign off on. Prime example, the SLA, Service License Agreement. We give them a link, they go into the link, they look to make sure that the Service License Agreement follows exactly what the cyber policy is. Then there’s also what’s called a BEX. Best practice document when there’s an update for security, the vendor will then put out what’s called the best, uh, the best practice document that is looked over by security security with sign off on it. And then they document when and when the software is going to be updated. They have a documentation of that. They look over it. They then go and when the document when the update is happening in the environment, they go back in and they make sure that it was updated correctly, that it was exactly what the update stated and exactly what the vendor needed to do. And so once that signed off on, then the. The procurement process is enabled to then go to the next step, but in that whole entire procurement process, security is there from the very beginning from start to when the person comes in. They said, this is exactly what’s going to be deployed. They know exactly where it’s going to be employed, who’s deploying it, what it looks like, what environment things of that nature and then all the security documents and the artifacts. Are in there, too. So then a stick is built and everything in the palm of things of any turn the background for the government and the D. O. D. to then be able to if an audit happens, they have security documents. They have the backup and they made sure that every single solitary vendor. Does what they said that we’re going to do in the software in the license agreement. Yeah, it sounds like it’s fully integrated and then. Also creates the necessary visibility and documentation, so it helps on multiple levels throughout the process. That’s why communication of bringing in all the stakeholders was critical because we understood that security, and especially now in the DoD environment, that security is number one. Have to make sure that security is taken care of, cybersecurity, and so that there is no, um, breach at all. Absolutely. So I want to throw back a little bit to what Emily was talking about when she was talking about, you know, not only the stakeholder engagement practices that we have, but the intentional innovation practices and your team and program actually. Has been participating in a relatively new program for us here at Highlight, which is our innovation management, uh, system implementation, which is really operationalizing our ISO 56, 000 innovation management certification into the daily operations of our program and Emily, can you talk a little bit more about that? Program and how we’ve ruled it out and some of the benefits that the programs have seen, including this particular team. 

Emilie Scantlebury: Absolutely. Yeah, I would love that. So innovation as a topic, it’s transformative. And as part of that transformation, it can be explosive. And I think explosive. The term itself when we think about it, think about like a firework or, you know, big boom, whatever it might be. And in organizations when they’re deploying innovation, the last thing you want is a firework pointed at something critical. They can’t get, you know. Can’t go down, right? And so intentional innovation is all about finding ways to point the fireworks. So it’s going up in the sky and we can all look and say how beautiful it is rather than internally inside your agency. Um, so that you can really again, reap the value to to its most and Deepest nature and so I think what that really looks like and what this team has successfully done is kind of being able to look at the agency with that holistic view again, and then charting a very clear and intentional path process. Of how we’re going to probe. First of all, I guess, what is the project rate? Where is the space for innovation? Smaller large. Once that’s identified, what is what’s the actual process of how we’re going to get there? What are our smaller milestones? And it’s very similar from my experience of how we approach other development projects. Can we break it down into small sprints possible, put it on a board and discuss the status of them, bring that status to the client, make sure that they’re understanding the iterations that we’re taking on this innovation. And so again, it’s not just deploying something new, flashy that we do in a silo. It’s, it’s collaborating and creating those communication pathways with all of your, all of your stakeholders that have been mapped out using ISO 44, 000. So one other thing I wanted to touch on too, like innovation can be very large. It can be, for example, um, You know, bringing a whole new service now instance to the environment that hasn’t had service now, um, or it can even be smaller, like consolidating data that is being manipulated in siloed processes to kind of like a singular communication or singular platform, um, even in like Excel, as an example, just even that, right? Our customers are saving time. Their personnel are able to kind of stay Release the brain load of I got to do X, Y and Z all separately into just like, no, I just got to do a, does that make sense that that did I explain that correctly, Ashley? 

Sarah Dryer: Yeah, absolutely. I think 1 of the most fun things I have gotten to do this year is work with this team on our regular innovation sessions. We get to set a time. We set aside about an hour every 3 weeks. Where we talk about what’s going on in the program, um, and, and possible innovations. And it, and I’m not saying this group would’ve come up with what they came up with probably anyway, but it certainly deepened my understanding of. What they were trying to accomplish and how they were accomplishing it gave us great ideas about how to apply some of the things that they were doing across the other programs. And if nothing else, they had such an enthusiasm about the whole process. I like to think that it, uh, it helps, uh, help them along their, their way as well. But, but Kevin and Sarah have been really committed to the process and it’s been just great. 

Emilie Scantlebury: Actually, I wanted to hammer on 1 thing you said there that I thought was interesting, which is, um, you know, applying lessons learned across our programs, at least at highlight. And I think this is really unique. Um, no 1 program sits on its island. We don’t just, you know, get transition on and then say, go. Good luck and talk to you in a quarter, right? We’re creating these spaces for intentional innovation, which then by nature, we’re able to bring the lessons learned that our individuals from all sides of our portfolio are bringing to folks like Sarah and Kevin. So, you know, if we’ve heard or learned something over on the left side here again, we’re able to bring that to that discussion, which then only again lowers that risk. I think it speeds up. The deployment of these innovations and it helps the technical training of our technical folks as well. So a lot of value in just creating that shared community. Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Dryer: All right, guys. Final question. What advice would you give to customers looking to improve their software asset management posture? I think the very first thing that you need to do is get excited about the process. I know that sounds very generic and very cliche, but it’s completely and totally Exactly where you need to do. You need to be the champion for your customer because they will get fatigue and they will just be like, okay, whatever you want, but it’s not whatever we want. It’s whatever the cut it’s the customers need. You have to be excited about it. Have to be able to learn. You have to be able to find alternatives and get really, really excited about the process and the learning of it. And then. The innovation of what’s coming down in the pipeline. Like you have to be that motivator every single solitary day. And we see it all the time. Like it’s, it’s fatigue. It’s, it’s challenging. It’s frustrating. It’s, you have to keep that vision for your customer. And you have to keep that impact of at the end. It will all pay off. And I think that that’s the the motivation that everybody needs is when you have A a picture of where you see them going you have to be able to paint it and then champion that yeah that and that’s a lot but it’s It’s, I mean, I think really critical, right? To be like the champion and the cheerleader and, you know, sometimes the, the, the folks who get them over the hump, but also to approach it with what I’m hearing is a real. What I’ll call problems solving mindset or learners mindset, right? Like, you’re 1 direction that that you’re open and you are excited about solving the challenges as opposed to being sort of. Right. Overcome by them. And also too, you can’t be afraid to change. Like when we first started out with ServiceNow, not one person on our team understood it, but then we started doing training around it. We started adapting the very verbiage of it. We started like really, honestly, they call it the ServiceNow. Bullied. You start drinking it and you’re just like, everything’s great. We love service. Now, you know, we go to the conferences and it’s just like, Oh my gosh, the innovation of it, you can see your customer, what you can see the future for them. And they’re just sitting there like, okay, great. That’s great. But you have to be the one that comes in. It’s all like, we sell this new theme. We’re going to demo it for you and get like all excited. You basically have to like, you have to be the cheerleader because at the end of the day, it is a struggle, but yeah, you have to, you have to, Basically, you have to be integrated it from the beginning to the end, because at the end of the day, most of the users of the system could care less than it’s on service now or what it’s on, right? It’s just all about. Does it make their job easier? Is it intuitive to use? How helpful is it? Right? It’s all about the outcome and the output of the process. How, you know, how we make the sausage. They don’t care. It doesn’t it doesn’t work and to make their job easier. Exactly. Their whole thing is, well, what about how is this going to benefit me? I’m going to tell you how it’s going to benefit you. And then when you answer that, they get like, okay, I’m I can’t wait. I can’t wait. That’s their favorite line. Well, you keep saying this and I can’t wait, but then you demo it. And they’re like, I really can’t wait. So just it’s excited. Like they are excited about it. Absolutely. All right, mr. Milner. First, 

Kevin Milner: I wanted to. Give a shout out to Emily, because she, she was the one that got us our, uh, internal ServiceNow instances long before our customer had actually had their, their instance. So we were able to develop most of our application before we could have realistically gotten started. So thanks, Emily. That was awesome. She got us two so that, well, she got us three. We used two so that we could even practice, uh, our CICD. Pushes and stuff. Okay. So to answer the question at hand, I think one of the ways you can really help. Is to like, identify what their actual pain points are. And when I say pain points, I mean, the part that makes them hate going to work, you know, Oh God, I got a whole day of just signing requests. You know, you want to, you want to show them, Hey, I can fix that. So you don’t have to do that. And you can do things you want to do at your job. And when you present it like that, when it’s like not, we’re coming in and we’re taking over your whole, your whole. Procurement process. No, we’re coming in and we are going to make it so that you don’t hate. Um, and, and, you know, as somebody who’s been at a job that, that I just dreaded going to before, not Highlight, of course, but previous employers that I’ll leave nameless, um, you know, that’s, that’s really big. You spend, you spend so much of your life, like doing work tasks, if we can make it so that the work task itself doesn’t suck, then, then. You know, we’ve enabled somebody to be able to actually enjoy their, their, their job a little bit more and it puts them in a better mood. And then they’re there in a, they deal with other people in a better way. And it just spreads, you know, I don’t want to sound too, too silly, but. You know, it’s just putting some good vibes out into the universe, I guess, by helping somebody do their job in a less frustrating way.

Sarah Dryer: Yeah, I highlight technologies. We make your life easier. You know, like that’s a brand new tagline. 

Kevin Milner: We make your job not suck. 

Sarah Dryer: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Well, um, And I definitely, I think that actually translates to your team. I I’ve never worked with a team that has so much respect for each other, like love for each other and just enthusiasm about, um, solving these challenges in the customer environment. So of course, I’m not going to name the program cause we don’t want to ever give away too much secret sauce, but rest assured this is an a plus team for sure. 

Kevin Milner: Thank you. Yeah, we have a great team. 

Sarah Dryer: All right. Well, guys, I want to thank you so much. Thanks, Sarah, Kevin, and Emily for, for jumping on today. And thank you for listening to our highlight cast to keep up with highlights, news and activities. Follow us on our LinkedIn or visit us at our website, which is highlight tech. com. Thanks. And we will see you next time. 

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 #31: Best Practices in Federal Communications

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

Emilie Scantlebury: I am Emilie Scantlebury, the Director of Corporate Portfolio Development at Highlight. Communication is core to providing constituents with key resources. Information and initiatives. Each agency is faced with variety of obstacles to overcome to reach its target audiences. Our team helps government teams with these challenges. Today, we will chat through federal focus, targeting diverse audiences, accessibility, and structuring procurement of these opportunities. We welcome Barry Lawrence, communications program manager and our mission solutions, BD portfolio director, Tom Perkins. Welcome Barry. Welcome Tom. Thank you, Emily. 

Tom Perkins: Hello.

Emilie Scantlebury: All right, let’s dive right in. So, when we say federal strategic communications, help me understand, what falls under that umbrella? What type of services are we providing our customers? Any kind of context you can give our audience? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, thank you. You know, this is really the age of communications. If you think about it, almost everything that happens within the federal government touches communications and services.

Some way, so, you know, in the most simplistic way, of course, we think of communications in terms of reaching audiences and reaching the media and talking to our constituents and stakeholders. But it’s also internal communications that we have to worry about often, because if the internal message is wrong, the external message is wrong. So things like the I. T. departments. That we sometimes work with, they need to communicate what they’re rolling out, how they’re rolling it out and how it’s useful. So communications is really enveloping all kinds of areas these days, including the important customer service one. 

Emilie Scantlebury: That’s interesting. I think you covered an important topic. I want to expound upon. You highlighted the importance of internal comms matching external comms. Can you help our audience? Understand? What are some of the things that might fall under internal communications and some of the things that fall under external communications? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, so I’ll use the example over at the National Institute. So, health, where we work today, lots of things change in terms of grants and funding policy and procedures. So, we certainly have to communicate those things to stakeholders and the audience. And also, though, we have to make sure internally that people are also up on those changes and, in essence, no. Exactly what it is that has changed and how they can guide the audience through the process. So those things have to work hand in hand or, you know, end up with a big mess. Right? So we really want that internal communication solid and it matches what we’re saying externally. 

Emilie Scantlebury: Okay, 

Barry Lawrence: thanks, Gary. Go ahead, 

Emilie Scantlebury: Tom.

Tom Perkins: I would add with respect to external communications. So we are very often talking to the range of federal departments and agencies and our customers across those organizations. And it’s always helpful to kind of put ourselves in shoes as a former federal employee. It’s very helpful. And what are the areas that they’re looking for support for information, um, to have those trusted, meaningful discussions. It’s, um, it’s always a good practice to kind of do your homework. What are the things that they’re looking for and. And have, you know, those. The latest ideas and innovations that they’re very interested in and learning about, um, those, I think, are critical to paving the way to a good, not just 1 time discussion, but ongoing dialogue with them and, you know, improved information sharing between both parties.

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, that’s a great comment, Tom. I mean, it’s not a one way or one time deal. You know, a lot of times we can start with internal and learn some things internally that affects the external communications and vice versa. We can learn lots of things from our external communications that we can bring back to change our policies, procedures, and even the way we talk to our customers. So that’s a great point. Tom. It’s not a one and done. It’s a continuous evolution.

Emilie Scantlebury: That’s helpful. Thanks to you both on that. And Barry, you started a question for me. Um, firstly, can we talk about some of the unique differences between commercial and private comms and federal and public communications and anything that you can share on how those two markets are learning from each other? So how federal comms are looking at commercial and vice versa? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I actually came from a private sector world and gravitated Happily towards the federal sector. And so the funnel that we look at for communications, they’re a little bit different in both areas. So, in the, in the private world, we’re looking to draw people into a funnel, um, you know, make them aware that we are selling something typically, and we’re driving them through that funnel to all the way to a purchase. Right? Well, in the federal government, if you think about it. We’re not really asking in most cases for people to buy anything. We’re trying to get them through a funnel of information or what to do or they need to accomplish something. So it’s more about I’m aware that I have to do something and this is where I go. Take me through that funnel. So I understand what it is I need to do to get my grants and funding approved or to get my driver’s license or what have you all the way through the end where we hopefully can even turn some of those people into advocates of the program that can help other customers get through the process. So that’s the major difference. If I was going to say anything else, it would be that, um. In all honesty, I feel like the private sector is a little bit ahead of the government sector in terms of some of those tools and technologies to get people through the tunnel. But we’re trying to quickly catch up because we live today in an Amazon world where people, it’s, you know, go into a system of Amazon. Amazon already knows what you want before you even do it. Tell them what you want, where they go to the government and those systems are not as developed yet. We’ve got to start matching that or we’re going to find that our customer service won’t be held in the same steam as it, as it is over at Amazon. And people expect that today.

Emilie Scantlebury: Barry, let’s zero in on the strategic element of strategic communications. You’ve highlighted some needs for some new tools and technologies, but are there any particular parts of that strategic side that kind of map into that need? 

Barry Lawrence: Correct, so we’re talking again about that funnel and that information funnel for government. So 2 things come to mind. 1 is. Targeting and that’s your basic demographics. You know, what, what’s your job title? What do you do at work? What do you need? And I think what’s what we’re missing is the second part of that funnel is where are you in the journey? The journey map we call it. So am I just now? Understanding that I need to get my driver’s license or i’m I didn’t even know there was a grants and funding opportunity And so i’m at the very top of that funnel, right? And that’s a much different Way that we need to communicate with that person and someone who’s already in it and needs a little push to go forward or or is unsure about process or a technique. So I think you can see there’s sort of 2 types of targeting there and we need to get much better at personalizing. Those communications to those different people. And we’ll probably end up talking about this later, Tom, I’m sure, which, you know, AI is, is also kind of helping us. And we’re seeing that big time in the private sector, drive some of those capabilities.

Tom Perkins: Yes, certainly 1 ad is I’ve heard from a longtime federal CIO is that as they look at how to maximize the always limited resources they’ve got, you know, they’ll say every every federal budget dollar that they have is is obligated or it’s it’s spoken for. Until the next best idea comes along, so they are a sponge. They are looking for what are those next best ideas there in the business of analysis of alternatives. What are better alternatives? They’re looking for what’s the latest and greatest that we’ve seen that’s being implemented successfully in the private sector at other of our customer agencies. So, they are looking for other solutions and in terms of external communications, we always need to provide, you know, these are some other use cases, alternatives that are worth looking at, taking a closer look at versus what their current plan might be. And that is very much coming into play. As emerging technologies are taking hold, especially in the federal space, whether it’s, it’s a, I, or, or the range of other emerging technologies that enable them to. To better achieve their mission.

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, there’s a blogger this week who said. This is the age of that blogger’s name happened to be Bill Gates and I take his stuff pretty seriously. You know, he’s been pretty good at defining trends these days. And communication fits really well into AI. AI doesn’t mean we can automate everything, but we can automate some things. And I think what we’re seeing is, for example, Adobe just rolled out something called Firefly. So by simply typing words about a graphic that you want and describing the graphic, With words, mind you, you get a, you get a graphic, you know, so it’s like, I want a tent in a desert because I’m selling this tent in the desert. And the next thing you know, you’ve got a tent in the desert. Nice and wonderfully wrapped up for you. We’re seeing this in a. AI in this sort of productivity way, where it doesn’t replace what we do as communicators, but it becomes sort of like our co pilot that helps us, right? So we can sort of have AI write even some of our content, at least the first draft. And then we can, as humans, jump on top of that and say, okay, this is not right. We need to fix this and we need to target this here and there, but you can sort of see some of those productivity advantages that are. Right on the break and it’s stuff. I think that the fed government loves productivity. So we really have to start thinking about some of those issues.

Emilie Scantlebury: Thanks, Barry. So just to repeat back, I’m hearing a lot about the advantages of using AI to increase productivity, but it could also be taken to think about increasing effectiveness and helping us build metrics or to what you were sharing earlier about understanding our users and where they are in their user journey, or, you know, perhaps how they move through that, that tunnel that you were 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, Emily, I think in the old days we used to call that Big data, if you think about it, what we have out there is people chatting and talking and all sorts of channels. You know, they are on different social media channels. They’re responding to your web content. They might be responding to a chat bot, which we have developed over at the NIH program. What we’re getting out there was just a lot of noise, right? Until you get a little help and I can come into play to sort of start reading. Those messages that are happening all around us, pull them in and give us some highlights on, hey, this is what customers are worried about or frustrated with or need more help with what have you. And so I can definitely help us in those targeting and and that journey mapping that I talked about previously. So, yes, I is also playing a role in that function. 

Emilie Scantlebury: Fantastic. I think a question from my side, are there any challenges that AI or any other technology is helping address? And if so, what are, what are some of those challenges? Can you help us understand those?

Barry Lawrence: I think it’s a is money. You know, we, we’ve got to, we’ve got to say, do we want to invest as a government agency in this process? Right. And so that’s not going to come free. But yet we think we can make that back on the productivity side. So, yes, it’s an investment in money, but we think, I think at least that over time, that’ll, that’ll make us a better group of federal agencies. It’ll reduce the amount of time it takes to produce all this content. Let me just give you another example, you know, and I hate to, you know, I won’t name a name, but but there are platforms out there today. So when you go and and put something in different social media channels, and even advertisements and social different channels, right? They’re all different sizes and shapes. And today we’ve been making those changes 1 at a time, right? Well, this is not even AI. This is just a really good. piece of application where we can now make that change one time and have it go across all our different channels. So these types of technologies, again, are not coming free, but they have a huge impact on productivity. And we’ve got to sort of teach the federal government that it’s worth the investment, just like it was back in the, uh, You know, early days that we were investing in information technology and websites and, and the Internet, right? I mean, this is just another huge inflection point, a new era of communications.

Tom Perkins: I would add, you know, we’ve passed the point at many of the agencies, whether to consider incorporating it as as part of their solution. And it’s, it’s more to what extent and which particular solutions do they want to. Try to add it and there are numerous examples that we’re seeing now across federal departments agencies where they’re going through the exercise of how best to incorporate AI in the end. In some cases. They may not fully utilize the AI solution, but as part of the exercise, they’ve found how to better streamline the workflow, how to make it more efficient. So, that alone is, is, um, produced a huge benefit in terms of cost savings, speeding up the process, making the agency more responsive to the, to the mission. There are Accompanying challenges requirements that pop up. Many of us are familiar with. All right. If there’s a. A workflow that was previously provided by federal staff, and now we’ve got an AI solution. Uh, what happens to that to that staff? And that’s where going back to the communication. The agency, the drivers of incorporating AI always have to. Be in communication with the team and part of the strategy is to repurpose or utilize those who are working at some of the processes now done by AI to other, you know, badly needed. Parts of the workflow of accomplishing the mission for the agency. So a big part of incorporating AI is that communication with the team. And here are the other critical mission activities that we want to have you doing instead of what the AI solution can now do. 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought that up because it’s not all technology. It’s not even all about spending money. A lot of times. This is about solid process and even just solid project management, even I, you know, a lot of times it’s about just making sure that everybody has. A good solid strategy going into their communications initiative that they have a plan that they’re executing on the plan. We see that a lot of times where we’re coming in and and we’re not just focused on. On the job of communications, but we’re also focused on, did we plan this out? Right? Did we give ourselves enough time for review? Did we, did we ask all the right questions? Those things. Are very human behaviors and things we can improve on all the time. We don’t have to wait for technology for that. We can improve those right away.

Emilie Scantlebury: Here’s a question for you, would you contest that good, solid project management and process requires good, solid internal communications practices inherently itself.

Barry Lawrence: Absolutely, I think they go hand in hand. You know, Emily, I often joke that communicators are some of the worst project managers in the world and vice versa. Some of the project managers are the worst communicators in the world. Well, there seems to be a marriage that can happen there. Right? So we really would like to see something we. We kid around with we call it compound sometimes, but we really think that communications, for example, can be very successful, but the project piece was the project manager piece was not very good. Is that a win? Well, yeah, we did well with the communications, but we tied up a lot of resources and strain the system here. So we’d like to see both of those things. You know, parallel in their importance, and that is a real win if we can get the project management piece of communications up to a level that’s more efficient.

Emilie Scantlebury: Thanks, Barry. I want to pivot us a little bit here. So what we’re talking about throughout this podcast has been about targeting your audience to deliver personal messages in the space that they’re at and building trust with those audiences. But what we’re seeing across our federal agencies is a push to ensuring that that audience is wide. It covers all demographics. All of us need a driver’s license. All of us maybe have a need for a grant moving forward. So how are we building campaigns? How do you look at campaigns for diversity, whether it’s cultural diversity, age, disability, Section 508, anything of that nature?

Barry Lawrence: Yeah. We have to do the research 1st of all, some of that research is just contextually where you’re trying to understand your audiences, maybe even using the Internet to get a general flavor of what’s going on. It’s, it’s identifying, you know, specific influencers and what they’re saying. So not only do you have different demographics we’ve seen in the last. Decade or so, you know, people don’t even believe things that we’re saying sometimes, even if they’re actually true. So, we have to find the right influencers that will persuade that audience this way or that, right? I mean, it’s very complicated. So a lot of that is doing the background work, the SWOT analysis, right? And it’s also heavily, you know. functional with things like focus groups and surveys and wearing out shoe leather in those communities of interest so that we really understand them. There’s no short answer to that, Emily. It’s, it’s really where the hard work comes in. And again, AI can help, but it’s a very human process too.

Tom Perkins: I would add to Barry’s point to do the homework long ago. 1 of my, my mentors when I worked in the U. S. trade representatives office, our U. S. trade rep, Charlene Barshefsky would always say when you’re going into a trade negotiation. No more than any of the other negotiators are going to know. Going into that room, do your homework. There’s no way around it. Track and find out all of the information. Be best prepared. So having that in hand will serve well for many of those discussions 

Barry Lawrence: and let me try to bring it, make it a little more clear for our audience with an example, when I was at the FCC, working with the I. T. department, trying to communicate to the internal audience of, you know, FCC staffers, right? Well, guess what? They’re all different. There are staffers who are very tech savvy. There are staffers who aren’t very tech savvy, right? There are people heading each of the divisions within the FCC that have IT experience. So we very quickly learned that the way we could best communicate to each of those audiences was different. And in fact, we could even use. Some of the groups within those departments as influencers to help push things down or the leader of that group. Right? That division. So each 1 of those channels within the channel were very important. And by the way, Emily, we didn’t know that. When we went in, so adjusting your communication on the go is super important, super important. So have a plan. And as we all know, as soon as you start executing your plan, it’s like probably no good anymore, right? So you have to keep moving that plan into a different space or a different strategy so that, so that it works more effectively. You know, it’s not, again, one and done. It’s constant evolution. And again, with tools that can Reach out and bring back even more information. We not only have to adjust within a day or a week, but often even in real time. 

Emilie Scantlebury: So. Let’s talk about post COVID in a post COVID world, reaching our audiences, whether that be government stakeholders, or even federal workers in a BD and capture space has changed. So, Barry, can you talk a little bit about those changes? You know, what new types of needs have we seen any increases or changes to how we’re reaching those audiences? And then Tom, can you do the same on the BD capture side? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, what we saw with COVID during that period is tremendous growth, first of all, in a couple things. One was our ability to use virtual spaces. It grew really fast. In that three year period, we moved ahead 10 years and in technology, in my opinion, what happened was, you know, we also had better bandwidth. Right? So we all remember the old days of Skype and it’s like, you know, right? All that stuff. Right? So we have a much smoother platform today with things like zoom and other capabilities, you know, including Microsoft teams, but, you know, You know, that gave us tremendous ability to, like, reach bigger audiences. To give you an example, we were doing conferences for people in real space, and we would get about 900 people in a real space somewhere. You know, it was a nice, nice event to learn about how to make their grants and funding program work better. So they can improve their science, improve their medicine, improve their medical equipment. COVID came, blew all that up, and it forced us to take on a virtual conference setting. Well, lo and behold, we were suddenly getting 15, 000 people. Sometimes, look, this past year we had 32, 000 registrations. It’s incredible. So, we were reaching people from all the states and even internationally. We were At this point, the NIH is so happy with the virtual platform that we may not immediately go back to the in person setting that we once were in.

Tom Perkins: Yeah, I would add from the, the business development and capture world, you know, the ideas we’re always trying to find out as much as possible about upcoming requirements challenges that an agency or department may face. As well as want to share how best we might be able to possibly support those challenges requirements when cobit hit. Oh, no, everything shut down. Everyone’s stuck in their Corona caves and can’t communicate as as much and and perception much frustration about being able to reach out and have those those discussions. Um, I’m a cup is half full type of person. And now that we’ve. Come out of it largely, although there’s some, you know, hybrid as well as still a lot of remote activity. My thinking and what I’ve seen is that we’ve gained an additional capability, another mechanism, another way to improve our communication back and forth between a lot of what industry does and can share. And what are the challenges and new requirements that a department or agency may face in person is great. And we’re getting back to that in many cases, but we do have this other capability. Now, we can get online and chat with folks where previously that may not have thought of it or may not have been as a medium that we’re as accustomed to. Today, I think a great many of us were, we can kind of seamlessly. Okay, we’ll do a zoom or teams call versus, hey, let’s meet in person pre cobit. That additional. Communication channel is certainly not as readily accepted or utilized. So, again, cup half full. We do have an additional means or mechanism to share that info. In person is great is best, but we do have this additional mechanism. Like I said, to deepen dialogue. 

Barry Lawrence: That makes me think to Tom, we’ve also learned that there’s some snags with these virtual communication channels. So, for example, you know, in the old days when I was. On site with a federal client, you know, I could. Walk around and hey, how’s it going? You know, meet somebody at the water cooler and get an update. On a project that I didn’t know something was Either delayed or maybe it was moving faster than I thought it was We don’t have that ability as much anymore. And what I noticed sometimes is people won’t call someone or Even email them to get a clarification, so we have to almost over communicate even more in the virtual world. And sometimes that gets lost. I think. And so that’s something we’ve been working with our clients on a lot is to make sure we are understanding what they’re saying and even repeat it back a couple of ways, either orally and in writing so that we make sure we’re hitting the marks because so many things can get lost. You know, in the virtual communication setting, so it has major benefits. Absolutely. But we have to overcompensate for some of those communications lags. I think as well.

Emilie Scantlebury: A lot of information and take in here, and I want to, as we start to wrap up here, I want to take us back very, if you could give 1 piece of advice to a stakeholder looking to implement a strategic communications. What would that be? What would that look like? Barry, if you want to start us off. 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, well, first of all, find a partner that has experience, because if they don’t have experience in your sector, that’s a negative, right? So have an experienced partner, have one that’s flexible. And what I mean by that is, you know, you know what you need, right, going into a communications execution, but you don’t always know what you don’t know. And so you’ve got to not only depend on the people that are core staff, a lot of times in the communications world, but you got to build on a bench of people that you’re sometimes pulling in just for a moment in time. And, you know, to complete that execution and then they get then they leave again. So that’s something we try really hard to do and highlight is to have a deep bench of people so that we can, you know, oh, we need a infographic. We didn’t think of that. Okay, so we pull in a graphics person or video because we have such great bandwidth today. We’re seeing more and more video executions. You probably don’t need video full time, but often you need somebody who can step in or a technical writer who can step in on something. That’s my big advice is, you know, plan ahead, but know that you’re going to need a flexible organization to work with to make your communications work the best. 

Tom Perkins: And looking at it, you know, particularly from the business development capture standpoint, um, a lot of folks in that field are what I would term, you know, relentless communicators, uh, COVID, no COVID, they’ll figure out a way to communicate and get that info shared. Uh, but, uh, harking back to some of the themes we’ve been talking about earlier, it does pay to do your homework. What’s the best way that. The particular audience and who you want to dialogue with likes to communicate. Maybe some like to do a teams call versus some I’d like to meet in person. Try to find that out beforehand. And as well, you know, what are some of the key concerns they may have the better prepared, the more productive, not just 1 time conversation, but ongoing dialogue you can have with them.

Barry Lawrence: Thanks, Tom. So in addition, I think it’s really important that we tie communications. Into the CX or the customer experience piece because those two things should be married together. We are not just communicating to communicate. We have a presidential order that we must improve. Federal government service, and what I hope is that the communicators within the federal world and the customer service people are getting together because those 2 things need to work in unison. We need to learn from each other. And I think we’ll find some really nice benefits from that.

Emilie Scantlebury: Well, thank you, Barry. And thank you, Tom. And thanks to our audience for listening to the Highlight Cast. To keep up to date with Highlight’s news and activities, follow us on LinkedIn and visit our website, HighlightTech. com. Tune in for our next episode and see you all there. 

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 #30: Development Series Production

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

Roman Zhelenko: Hello and welcome back to our development lifecycle series. My name is Roman Zhelenko. I’m one of the directors here at Highlight. And our team is excited to be back with a deep dive into the federal development process through three stages. Pre production, development, and post development and maintenance. Alongside with our team members today, we have Thomas Burford, a tech lead for one of our development contracts. And we have Diljit Singh, who is a DevOps SME for another contract. So today, guys, we’re going to talk about what happens after the team gets on the ground. What are some things that we’re looking for, how we’re adjusting to environments, how we’re dealing with change, how we’re getting to know our clients, et cetera. So the first thing is, I guess I’ll start with Tom. How do you start with a new environment? What are some things that you’re looking for? What are some things that you want to learn as soon as you get in there? So as soon as 

Tom Burford: I get in there, I really like to, so I want to, Depends really on what you’re walking into. If you’re looking at, you know, if you’re walking in and you’re trying to look at an existing product or something like that, like an existing solution that you’re innovating on. I think it really comes down to meeting with the user base. First and foremost, right? Your users are going to tell you more than anything else. Right? So even before you get into like, all right, what am I infrastructure changes? What am I? What does my development environment look like? I want to know. Cool. What do my customers think of the existing product, right? Because that’s going to tell me more than anyone else will in the backend. Um, I find that to be the most important part of picking up a new project. 

Roman Zhelenko: Do you prioritize documentation? Do you like look through the Confluence docs? Do you go through, you know, Jira tickets, et cetera? Or do you just go straight to the user group? 

Tom Burford: I like to go straight to the user group. You know, I’ve had experiences in my past where you pick up and you look at, say, you know, documentation or a Jira board or something like that. And what you see. A lot of times, and what I think a lot of people deal with is a disconnect, you know, between what might have been an old development team, you know, or old management or something like that, and the user base itself. So I really like to, you know, start the groundwork right, you know, we work for the user base. So I like to get up front with them and say, all right, what are you seeing today? And then once I have that perspective, that’s when you start to go back and you say, all right, now I’ve seen the front end, what they’re using, what is that? Let me peel that layer back, right? Let me look behind the curtain now. And that’s when you start looking at, all right, What are, like, are any of these problems correct? And it has been zero board, right? What’s my documentation look like? Can I, you know, they’ve talked about some workflows with me. You know, they click this button. They click that button. They do this. They do that. Can I find documentation that references that? And then from there, right, it’s, it’s looking at the actual code. You know what I mean? So how is this code written? And, you know, what, what languages are out there and then from there, it’s really just expanding into, you know, what’s your pipeline look like? Right? Is there an existing pipeline? Because those aren’t always out there. I’ve had ones in the past where it was all manual builds, manual deployments, right? I find that those are kind of secondary to really getting to know your user base.

Roman Zhelenko: That’s actually a very good perspective. I like that. Because I’ve run into the same situation. A lot of the times the documentation is that last afterthought. It’s kind of just a check. We’ve done it. We’ve put something there to say that we’ve, you know, put something there. How about, how about you, DJ? How was your experience with learning a new environment before we get into learning the pipeline?

Diljeet Singh: Oh, yeah, learning a new environment usually always fun. Like, you know, when, when you’re going into the new environment, you know, sometimes there’s different technology stacks that are used and depending on, you know, how. Um, you know, you’ve probably seen like a couple of different architectural decisions that have been designed and, uh, when you really go into it, you knowing what the like what problems you’re trying to solve and seeing what environment you’re being exposed to it, you kind of see, okay, this is how, These problems are being solved with the current environment that you’re working with. Um, I think, you know, working in a new environment is always gives you like a fresh perspective. And, uh, you know, it’s very easy to say looking at something like, Oh, why was this done this way? But a lot of the times that context about why It was done this way or the decisions that were made, uh, whether or not cost is involved or the architecture that was approved at the time, um, or the technologies that are even approved at the time. They can have a big influence on the environment that you kind of. Do get exposed to. So I think in that regard, it does. It’s kind of cool to see, you know, what people work with and how far they came with what they had kind of thing. 

Roman Zhelenko: So do you like to do you like to start with the incumbent team or another group of developers to set up your space? Or do you prefer to do it on your own and figure out? All right, let me do it this way and then adjust when necessary. 

Diljeet Singh: Oh yeah, if you have, uh, if you if you are able to talk to the incumbent team. I do think that they can usually provide a lot of value as to why decisions were made on, and like certain technologies were adopted. And there are a couple of examples I can even just think of off the top of my head without getting too, too specific where, you know, you join the incumbent team is handing off, you know, their, what they’ve built and what they’ve worked on. And, you know, you ask them questions about, Hey, you know, did you guys consider using this particular use case or did you consider using this? And, you know, sometimes it’s about simply adoption, right? They had tried to go a particular direction and, you know, these are the challenges that they face it face. It’s really good to have that kind of warm handoff because you end up preventing yourself from stepping on the same mistakes that they made or, you know, that knowledge transfer that happens. During that handoff is key because you’re able to basically discern these are the challenges that we are also going to face that aren’t really necessarily outlined as we’re onboarding the project. 

Roman Zhelenko: So, do you ask questions directly to the incumbent team say, hey, why was it done this way? Versus that way? Or why? Why are we choosing this technology over say this newer technology? Or do you kind of wait until you have time to analyze the. The systems that are involved, environments, the technology available, cost, et cetera. 

Diljeet Singh: I think you kind of do have to make some assumptions as soon as you join a new environment, right? So hypothetically, if I’m enjoying joining team A, team A, they have a particular problem that they’re there for that they’ve tried to solve. And when they’re giving us their documentation or just doing some handoff, you kind of do formulate in your head a way of that you would typically approach this particular problem and you kind of to try to come to terms with, okay, this is the decision that they made. And they’re doing it because of this and, you know, it might be different than the way you’re thinking of it. And when you do have that difference, those are good opportunities to ask why they did it in a particular direction. Because maybe the particular problem that you’re trying to solve is actually a lot bigger than you realize. And the incumbents is able to provide that. Context as to why this particular environment exists in the way that it does, or it might be something that the incumbent team didn’t even think of to begin with, or it could be the incumbent team didn’t have the resources to be able to accomplish this particular task in the way that you’re kind of approaching it. So it’s really, it’s always really interesting when you’re going into a new environment, but it’s always good to have an open mind because you’re going to be adopting something that somebody else has built. And I think it’s really good to always look at it from their perspective as to why they built it.

Roman Zhelenko: That’s a good point. You don’t want to jump into something before you have a chance to figure it out. I guess, uh, Tom, do you have the same kind of opinion on it? Do you like to, you know, process it first and then come up with suggestions down the line? 

Tom Burford: You’re telling me I have to keep an open mind now? No, it’s my way or the highway. No, I’m totally kidding. I mean, that’s it. 

Roman Zhelenko: That’s another method. If it works, it works, right? 

Tom Burford: No, I, I totally agree with DJ. Um, I think I think it’s very important. So, as you mentioned, you know, going back to the development team, why? So this decision may not necessarily make sense to me, but. I think it’s safe to say there was a logical reason to make it at the time, right? Time constraints, money, something like that. There’s always a factor. So I think going back to the incumbent team and saying, Hey, you know, I want to make this change. Did you consider this previously? It’s always a good idea, especially if you’re new to an environment, right? I think you got to kind of play with training wheels at first a little bit. So you’re not trying to, you’re not breaking things that might have already been fixed at one point or another, right? 

Roman Zhelenko: I definitely like going to the incumbent team first. I’ve seen situations where, you know, people are ready to go to the client, say, hey, we can do it better, we can do it this way, we can do it that way, when it’s already been explored and, you know, failed in certain situations. So I believe building that client’s trust to show like, alright, I can maintain the system, I can make sure everything is still running before even proposing new solutions. What do you guys think about that? Is that a good approach? We’ll start with DJ on that one. I know you might have had some experience in, you know, maintaining systems.

Diljeet Singh: Yeah, I think that’s very key. Especially when you’re talking to the client, right? Like, there is going to be that time, especially when you’re joining that new environment, where you have the incumbents, or if you’re lucky enough to be in this environment, I would say, where you have your incumbents and you have the client. And as you’re learning more and more things from the incumbents about what they’ve built, how things are working and why it’s working that way, it’ll help formulate what the long term goal that your client wants and help you articulate that correctly. Because if you don’t have that background knowledge, a lot of the times you will end up making the same mistakes that the incumbents made, and it will make it a little bit trickier for you to formulate what that long term plan for your client will be.

Roman Zhelenko: I mean, I kind of love that approach as well. What about benchmarking? I guess this one, this one for Tom. So let’s say you get into a new environment, do you benchmark what, what everything is at now, you know, your code coverage, your runtimes, et cetera, to show like, Hey, here’s some things that we can improve and here’s what we’re proposing. Yeah. 

Tom Burford: I mean, I think it. I think, again, it goes back to what state you’re coming into the project, right? So, I find that if you have a stable system, then yeah, I think that’s a great start, right? I mean, if you’ve got a stable system that doesn’t have a lot of issues, and your user base is pretty happy at that point, and you’re just looking to say, alright, we’re here to make it, then yeah, creating that initial benchmark is fantastic, right? That’s your scientific process in a nutshell. Yeah. I find a lot of value in it. 

Roman Zhelenko: First off, that’s a dream project. Stable. Everything’s running. No issues, right? 

Tom Burford: It’s all about your priorities here. I absolutely 

Roman Zhelenko: love that contract, but let’s say it’s a situation where, you know, you’re coming in there and you can see that there’s some things you can improve and now, now it’s determining how to prioritize those things. What are some things or some. You know, aspects of the system that are like the top of the list. You know, you came, you come in there. You’re like, all right, these are the issues. Here’s what I want to prioritize. Here’s what I’m bringing to the client. 

Tom Burford: I think it always, again, I think it always comes back to user satisfaction. Right. So, um, we, if I’m looking at like, you know, uh, yeah, I think it, it comes back to user satisfaction. If a user is, if, if a product’s being used and they’re unhappy at that point, then I think it really comes down to that’s your highest priority, right? Now. That also goes to say your user base doesn’t include people that directly use it. It’s also going to be your security team. If you have any security requirements, so you’re going to want to make sure those that would be that would fall pretty high on my priority list, right? Are we meeting our security goals in general? You know, and then do we have any outside requirements? Do we have any, you know, KPAs that other people are tracking? You know, are we meeting those right? Any external requirements? It’s so varied based on the customer, right? That I think that’s, that’s why I struggle with this question. Cause I’d really handle it differently depending on what the needs are at the time. I 

Roman Zhelenko: agree. I think security should always be, you know, a top priority just because of the type of organizations we support, the systems that are involved. It’s always nice to make sure that things are secure. How about you, DJ? Do you have the same kind of opinion? 

Diljeet Singh: Oh yeah, definitely. When it comes to, like, benchmarking, Benchmarking is so important. It’s good to know the limits of your system and, you know, how it’s going to be tested. Typically, I mean, typically depending on, like, Whether or not you’re on like the public sector or the private sector, you know, you might have a third party that’ll come in occasionally and stress test your applications. It definitely like enlightens whether or not the technology stack that you’ve used to solve your particular problems is the correct one. And I think in living in the world that we do, it’s so powerful to have the different technologies like Kafka, SQS, You know, MSK provides their, their flavor of, um, Kafka. I think Confluent has their own offering of it as well. Um, there’s these different technologies that allow you to do many different things and have different use cases for the problems that they do solve. And I think those particular, like that is a really important indicator of, Hey, how, what is the capacity of that I can handle? If I needed to double my capacity, You know, my next iteration or, you know, over the several next iterations, does this align with like what the mission that our org is really trying to push for? A lot of the times, uh, you know, different technologies can be beneficial to multiple teams too. So that adoption is really important. And I think that being very vocal about what you’re trying to solve and what your problems are is really beneficial across your org because multiple teams can benefit from that same, same design. 

Roman Zhelenko: So those are some big changes. We’re going to talk. 

Tom Burford: I just wanted to highlight. So, you know, you mentioned something I wish I had mentioned in mind. So, you said testing right at the back. What kind of testing is the, you know, if you have an incumbent team, what kind of testing of the incumbents, right? You know, testing place, such a big factor, right? So, as a part of that 1st list of things that you’re looking at. What kind of testing is available? That’s an immediate improvement to any system, right? Can I make any existing changes to their testing? Do they even have testing right now? Right? So that’s an immediate value add regardless. You know, that’s something that I find very important. So I’m glad you mentioned that one. 

Roman Zhelenko: And it’s a, it’s a quick thing to kind of put in there. You don’t have to make a radical change. You can do, you know, these small incremental ones, start building the trust on the client and showing that measurable improvement. So I love that. With the big radical changes, you know, coming back to that. I know it takes time. You guys are both tech leads on your teams. You have to anticipate, you have to prepare for that workload. How long does it take, in your opinion, for you to gauge how much work your team can do, how much they can complete and say a sprint cycle, et cetera, right? You know, I know in the initial bit, even setting up the environment varies from person to person.

So I’ll start with Tom on this one. How long does it take to get up and running? I guess to gauge the work, you know, everybody runs differently. Your time to do this task could be a day versus somebody else could be three days. So estimating it, you know, story point of assignment, like, all of that takes time before you can accurately estimate, say, a large scale migration. Where systems have to go down, et cetera. 

Tom Burford: So, obviously, it’s going to depend on the project, right? But to get into a maybe to get into a steady flow, right? To understand how long it takes us to do the process of it, right? I think that takes, you know, you’re ever improving. I think in that case, right? So, my estimates for tasks are always improving. I still have trouble where sometimes, you know, if we’re talking like points, I’ll point at a 5. It took me 3 days. You know, maybe that’s right. Maybe it wasn’t at a team perspective. I think, um, if you’re coming in fresh with a bunch of new people, I think it takes, you know, a good one to two months, I would say just to get into a flow with the new team. If a new team, right, these are all people that haven’t worked together before. It takes a good amount of time to figure out your flow with. All right, this is how everyone points tickets differently. That’s how everyone estimates, right? This is everyone’s ability is, you know, that takes a lot of time. And even after that point, it wasn’t too much. You’re still looking at constant improvements, right?

Roman Zhelenko: And I think that’s a sign of a good question. That’s a, that’s a sign of good leadership though. It’s that constant improvement, knowing that everybody’s different, knowing that you have to adjust to everybody’s different, is it, is it flavor of development? And I don’t know if there’s got to be a better term than that, but you know, figuring out, all right, this resource does it like this, this resources like this, they’re much slower at setting up pipelines. They’re much slower, you know, this type of development, et cetera. How about you, DJ, do you have the same experience from like the backend side of things or

Diljeet Singh: Yeah, definitely. I think, uh, uh, so the question was more like, how long does it take? Was it more towards like, how long does it take to get teams like, um, completely set up?

Roman Zhelenko: Or I guess to, to know your team and the other questions more about like, at what point do you feel comfortable that you can estimate the time to do a large scale project? You know, if you’re doing something small, you’re adding You know, test coverage, et cetera. That’s not as complex as say a migration or something where everybody’s involved and you, your systems are going to have to go down at what point. In your opinion, would you feel like the team is ready? You know, one month after the project start, two months, et cetera.

Diljeet Singh: Oh yeah, definitely. I think to better answer those questions, I think it’s important to understand like some risks that your team might be facing. So for example, sometimes there’s particular risks where to be able to accomplish something, it’s specifically confined to a particular person because not everybody has access to the same tools or the same permissions that everybody needs to be able to complete that task, right? So that would be like a risk on its own where God forbid somebody is not available. Now you’re completely blocked and are not, not able to move forward. I think it’s important to mitigate those risks early on. I think once you’re able to mitigate those risks, you have, your estimation is definitely going to be a lot more accurate.

Roman Zhelenko: I agree. And speaking of risks, actually going back to Tom, with the transition process, I know in certain situations you’ll have an incumbent team. Sometimes you won’t. At what point would you consider it a good time to hand off? Like let’s say optimal situation, you know, you’re on the ground, you’re working with the incumbent team, they’re passing along the support of the system. At what point would you feel? Comfortably be like, all right, my team is ready to take full ownership of this process system, microservice, et cetera. 

Tom Burford: And I think you battle Royale of knowledge transfer. You put the incumbent team versus the new team and you say, all right, who knows who can explain it to me and what are the differences? And then at the end, you say, all right, now, you know, I think, um, I mean, it’s a gradual change, right? So I think like we talked about, you know, adding testing is one great example, how you can really start to understand does my does my new team understand the existing product, right? So are we writing tests that make sense that test valid business logic? You know, because if we are, if we can start predicting those ourselves, if we can start piecing those out, then I’d say we’re in a pretty comfortable position at that point to say, all right, we can, you know, we can start to take this over more so now. 

Roman Zhelenko: Until a prod issue happens, of course. Right. Right, exactly.

Tom Burford: There you go. I mean, prod issue comes up, right? And then, you know, if you’ve already written tests for a product though, then I think it’s, it’s fair to say that you have a pretty good understanding of what to look for. You know, if you’ve had to test the solution, then when a production issue comes up, you should have a better understanding of where to look first. You know, so you can start to narrow down. All right. You’d like the incumbent team, right? The only difference between incumbent and new team, they know where to look first. You know, we’re all looking at the same place, but they know where to look first. And if you’ve done that, kind of that testing behavior first off, again, that kind of check, I think that you, you’d have a better understanding. You’d feel more comfortable figuring out, all right, where do I look for that production, right? 

Roman Zhelenko: And it’s being patient. I mean, you’re never going to be as quick initially as the incumbent team that’s been supporting it for years. The expectations shouldn’t be that. It’s going to take time to find the issue, understand it. Production is always a panic. Production issues are always a panic, so. It’s nice to take a breath, figure it out and roll through it. If we’re lucky to have the incumbent team still available, it’s awesome. Otherwise the hunt begins. How about you, DJ, have you had experience with, you know, running into a production issue right at the beginning of a contract and then just how, how would you have solved that or how have you solved that?

Diljeet Singh: So, yes, I definitely have experience of being, uh, you know, joining a contract and then having a production issue or several production issues as soon as you’re joining. And, you know, some, some, you know, it’s not uncommon for, especially when things are really obscure to have, you know, many teams on the calls and, you know, for these calls to become 25 plus. people on one call trying to figure out what’s going on. When that typically happens, I think it’s important to look at the isolation, right? So, you know, the reason that all you have multiple environments is so that you can try to replicate, you know, what your application is deployment’s going to look like in a more testable scenario or to have it deployed. So you are able to do something. That’s not impactful to your customers. So first things I would typically start with asking is, you know, is this something that’s existing in the lower environments? Is this something that’s newly introduced? Or is this something that happens frequently? So in our particular example, like I can think of a scenario where this was something that happened once every six months. Or so, and, um, you know, then, then we can basically narrow down the scope. If it happens once every six months, it might not be related to what you’re deploying. It might be related to some other tasks that might be running on some type of interval. Those kinds of little data points can provide huge insights as to what you’re actually looking at, because especially joining a contract, going into production issue, it’s kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack. So you have to. Do your best to try to isolate where the issue is. 

Roman Zhelenko: And just narrow down asking the right questions and being like, all right, it’s not this, it’s not this, it’s not this, et cetera, until you find it. But staying calm is a big one. What about those calls where you do have, you know, those 30, 40 different people on the call? Do you find that beneficial or do you prefer to narrow it down and be like, all right, this team’s not needed, this team’s not needed, we only need these four or five people? 

Diljeet Singh: I think a lot of the times it’s better, more beneficial to have Some, uh, you know, if you need to pull in teams cause you have questions, then that’s, I think appropriate. But I think a lot of the times when you have too many people, sometimes tackling the same problem, you do lose. It’s like one of those examples of like too many chefs in the kitchen. It’s like hard to go down a particular direction if you don’t have like one person driving, you know, and trying to eliminate the possibilities.


Roman Zhelenko: Yeah. You might have had multiple people trying to eliminate the same possibility. So yeah. Running that before. But no, I like that approach. Tom, any, anything, anything different from your side or 

Tom Burford: we’re talking about big calls. I’m always a fan of small calls to anyone that’s been on a meeting with me. I’m always eager. You know, if it’s a, if we’re starting out, say, like a DSU, right? And you’ve got a bunch of people on the call. They’re all getting reports. And at the end, you know, everyone’s going to start saying, all right, we have this 1 issue we want to talk about, right? I’m always the 1st 1 to be like, all right. Who, who actually knows what we’re talking about here? Who needs to be on the call? All right. Everyone else at out, you know, you’re good to go. I don’t need you to sit in there if you don’t need to be here. Right. I think there’s value as DJ pointed out. Right. So, you know, when you’re trying to troubleshoot a complex issue, there’s going to be a lot of different ways that you can look at the problem. Right. And sometimes having, you know, more people is better, but I think the more people you have, the better understanding of ownership you really need. So if you’ve got 30 to 40 people on a call, you need to understand who owns the problem. Because the worst thing is getting off a call, 30 to 40 people, and then no one doing anything because they thought the other, you know, 29, 39 people had it. Right. So I think the more people you have, the more organization you need with how you’re solving. Um, both have, both have their ups and 

Roman Zhelenko: downs. That’s a very good point. How do you leave, how do you make sure to leave the call to guarantee that, all right, or not even guarantee to make sure that somebody is going to own this problem, somebody who’s got the next steps, you know, et cetera, be like, Are you assigning it or are you waiting for a volunteer or was that a, was that a question or just, uh, for your, your personal kind of, if, if you’re leading the team and it’s your issue, are you assigning who owns it or are you the one that owns it yourself?

Tom Burford: So I think it, if there’s. I think it’s always important at the very end of the call. Right. So whenever we hop on, say that there’s an immediate production, if you’re right and you’re, you’re notified at a given time, I think one, it’s important to understand beforehand, right? This is something again, going back to your, what you should set up if you’re coming onto a contact, um, is understanding, right? Who is the first responder for you? Who is the first responder? They might not be able to solve everything, right? You’re never going to have anyone that can answer all the questions. Um, but who’s my first responder that can take control? Right. They can say, all right, that maybe that’s me. In some cases, maybe that’s someone else, but you have to have that understanding for this system. This person’s the first call that person says, all right, we need to bring on more people. Right. And then that person, whoever that whoever you’ve designated at that point, right? He’s in charge of saying at the end of the meeting. All right. What are our next steps? You know, what are our follow ups? All right. Who’s accomplishing those problems? So, in, in my day to day, you know, that is typically me, right? I’m hopping on a call with my team and I’m saying, all right, the very end, I always ask the question or try to always ask the question. Everyone makes mistakes, but what do we need to follow up on? Have we answered all the questions that we asked as a part of this troubleshooting call? You know, all right, do we have a ticket defined for it? You know, who’s, who’s, who’s assigned to that ticket? Who’s owning this problem now? Right? So then we can know everyone’s very clear on who to follow up with. And then most importantly is sharing that information, right? So you might’ve said it on the call, write it down. You know, writing things down is so important because so easy to misinterpret things, especially when everyone’s virtual. Now, you know, can’t see everyone’s faces in general. So you’re already a little mixed up. So writing it down, putting it in the chat at the end of a call. 100 percent will improve your outcome.

Roman Zhelenko: That’s a very good point because, yeah, sometimes you’re not sure what, what the end of the meeting did or what, what the to do list even looks like at the end of the call. So setting it in the chat just makes it so much easier. All right, so tech stack changes. I don’t know if any of you have been in a situation where you get on a team and suddenly the tech stack shifts from, you know, C sharp to Java. How do you adjust? You know, you guys are both technical leads, and you have a development team, and suddenly the Program you’re supporting shifts languages or shifts pipelines. What are some things that you do to mitigate the risk there? I’ll start with Tom on this one. 

Tom Burford: Let’s see, mitigate the risk. I think, you know, at the end of the day, you’re working off of, hopefully you’re working off a requirement, right? So I’d say if you, if you know that that’s incoming, right? You’ve got, say you’re switching from C sharp to Java or any other language, right? I think it’s important to make sure that you have your requirements defined for that. Because, you know, the language matters up until a certain point transferring between the two. If you have your requirements defined, though, then the transition really should be seamless, right? I have did X in this product. I’m going to do Y in this one. Um, I think second to that, they’re looking at a more technical perspective. I think it’s important to remember that languages have different ways of doing right? So, you know, C sharp has its own has its own way of managing all sorts of things. Right? Java does it differently. And I think it’s going back to like a clean code basis, right? You should write in a way that, you should write in a way that isn’t language specific. You know what I mean? You should take advantage of, you know, language peculiarities as well. But, you should write in a way that doesn’t have to be forced into work. Language, and I think that’s important to consider too, if you’re making that transition, right? Maybe they didn’t have that in mind in the original solution. Maybe in the new solution, that’s something that you can start taking advantage of. Um, that’s a pretty high level overview, I guess, of what I would look at. But it makes sense. 

Roman Zhelenko: I use C and Java as an example because they’re similar enough that the transition for developers isn’t as bad. I know if you’re. So the reason I picked Java and C Sharp was because they’re both object oriented, so the transition from a developer, if they have to, is a little bit easier than say, you know, you’re going from Ruby to Java, you know, completely different, or Python, etc. So, so do you work with the team to help them learn the new technology, or do you just, well, how would you address it with your team if they’re, you know, they’re all C Sharp developers and suddenly they have to, you know, adjust to a Java workspace? How would you address it?

Tom Burford: Tough question. I think obviously you’ve got to get your team trained in a given language. And that’s something that’s something you consider as a risk when you’re making the decision to write. So when you’re if you’re talking about making that decision, you have to build in to the time a lot of saying, all right, I’m gonna have to get all of my developers trained up. And what what does that look like? Right? Maybe you. You know, you can start training or maybe it’s just all right. So me personally, I learned better by doing things, right? You know, if I, if I see a course online, that’s all theoretical. It’s not for me. I gotta, I gotta type on the keyboard, right? I gotta put something out there. So I like having, you know, maybe there’s some small problems that we can tackle first again, going back to, you know, testing is a great example of a way of getting up to speed in a language. You know, we go back to testing again, right? I can write. Tests before I necessarily have all my code written out. So that’s a great way of learning a language as well. Yeah, I Go for it. 

Roman Zhelenko: I was gonna say at the end you’re most programmers They know how to think about the problem the language you can adjust to the language. So, you know How about you, DJ? What’s new? I know, I know, you know, quite a, quite a few different languages. How do you adjust to a new one? 

Diljeet Singh: I think a technology stack across the team, it’s always, it’s definitely always a challenge, right? I would typically, for preferences, when it comes to picking a technology stack, one thing that really, I think, appeals to me is whether or not it’s specific to a particular, uh, Type of operating system, for example, with like some older versions of like. net, it might be where it’s only able to run on a windows machine, but you know, with like, I think more, I think newer versions of. net there, I believe they’re actually able to be run on Ubuntu and you know, that would allow you to use different languages like C sharp. And when it comes to like the adoption of the technologies, I think one thing that really helps is frequent brown bags. Right? So when you know if your team is transitioning to this new technology, right? Like if you have a bunch of Java developers and you’re moving to C sharp, for example. You know, having like a frequent amount of brown bags will help your team pick up the technology a little bit faster and also encourage your team to find, you know, more little nuances that people might not have typically found.

Roman Zhelenko: Agreed. Just making sure that they have the support they need if you have to transition. So, 

Diljeet Singh: yeah, definitely. It 

Roman Zhelenko: goes a long way. Learning best practices is always good. Because, you know, anybody can write code. It’s writing good code that takes the time. So, all right. So our last question today is more on, you know, the management of the team. I know in a lot of situations, when you start a contract, it’s multiple other vendors are also On the team. So, Tom, I’m going to start with you. How do you make sure that, you know, your team is vendor agnostic when it comes to supporting the client, you know, making sure that it’s just one team. And then that’s not, you know, company, a company, B company, C, et cetera,

Tom Burford: man. I mean, it, you know, it’s how much time you spend with a person, right? So, obviously, you know, you have every day you have. Yes, use that. That’s how your team structure. So, I mean, it’s about spending time with everyone and making sure that they understand that you’re working against a common goal, right? So, that, that’s really the big thing, right? So, it’s, it’s defining your goal, defining your vision specifically, right? Um, how you want to accomplish the goal, etc. So long as that you come to a, you want to come to an agreement on that. And so long as you have that in the back of your mind, everyone’s working for this common goal. So contractor doesn’t matter. Everyone’s working for this thing. So that’s the best way. I think to really get everyone on the same page. What’s our problem that we’re looking to solve? Right? And then let’s all focus on that.

Roman Zhelenko: I agree. It’s because it’s the client’s mission success, you know, at the end, it doesn’t matter what vendors supporting it. We’re all just working to the same common goals. DJ, same, same opinion or? 

Diljeet Singh: Yeah, I definitely agree with Tom 100%. 

Roman Zhelenko: It takes time. I mean, you got to build the trust on your team. So even if everybody’s from the same company, that, that takes time. They have to make sure everybody has to know what everybody’s capable of. Everybody knows they can rely on each other. So that’s. That’s part of the process, 

Tom Burford: and it goes back to your what we’re talking about earlier to write, um, you know, about getting how do you how long does it take to get a team set up? Right? How long does it take to feel comfortable? You know, pointing out tasks for estimating tasks. I think it’s important, like, early on, if you’re working with a bunch of different contractors, you level, right? You’re like, what’s everyone’s skill set from the forefront. So then it’s not a question when you start to go into the implementation, right? You understand that going into it. You know, someone’s better at Java than C sharp. Someone’s got a more DevOps focus or something like that, right? You can really, I think having that clarification in the very beginning is really important. Definitely. 

Roman Zhelenko: And you just get to know your team well. You know, the easy thing when everybody’s remote, 

Tom Burford: I think, uh, highlights, you know, we should have a barbecue and bring them.

Roman Zhelenko: All right. So for our last question, that’s more of a wrap up question. This is an opinion. This is just something that you guys have experienced. We’ll go back to your earlier development days when you were, you know, starting out. The question is what’s a valuable tip or an example that a tech lead has done or shown you that motivated you or that improved the way you’re thinking. Or that, you know, the reason you’re doing your tech lead job now, I’ll start with DJ on this one. 

Diljeet Singh: I think, uh, one thing that’s helped me is when somebody runs into a particular problem on my team, I think it’s trying to emphasize the importance of going back to like the fundamentals, right? It’s like, okay, how does this fundamentally work? I understand what you’re trying to do with it, but let’s just go back and let’s say it allows you to like holistically take a step back. And really think about, all right, like, you know, starting from ground zero, let’s go and figure out what the problem is. I think sometimes people will get too caught up with what they’re trying to solve that they end up, you know, they end up getting stuck and, you know, being able to have that. That direction to just take a step back and let’s start from somewhere else and, you know, build our way towards a solution. I think it’s found a lot in terms of like, you know, helping your team overcome like blockers and help you like, you know, just figure out solutions to problems and stuff like that. That’s one approach that me personally has helped a lot is like, you know, let’s, let’s take it back to fundamentals. A lot of the times, especially from work from home, people tend not to do the rubber ducky method because they’re not talking to somebody, right? They’ll just, you know, solo and try to solve a particular problem when sometimes the solution is just, you know, talking it through to somebody and, you know, the solution comes in apparent all of a sudden and it’s readily available.

Roman Zhelenko: Oh, I love the rubber ducky method. Whoever I’m working with at home, you know, I’ll call my wife out as like, Hey, can you ignore me for the next 15 minutes while I talk through this helps all the time. I, uh, 

Diljeet Singh: like two years ago, I went to an arcade and I won a hundred something rubber duckies. I have endless rubber duckies, and they’re all different themes too, so they’re like, I have a Christmas one. I got all those. If anybody needs a rubber ducky, you know who to reach out to. 

Roman Zhelenko: I, I love that he alternates them, you know, just doesn’t wanna commit to one . There’s someone on my 

Tom Burford: currency who actually talked about their, their past loss, but given them actually a rubber duck. You give everyone on the team a rubber duck for that exact reason. Like this is what you talk to when you’re looking through a problem. 

Roman Zhelenko: I think that could be our next swag thing, you know, put a little highlight rubber duck somewhere and we’ll ship them out if it works. And I guess, Tom, same question for you, a tech lead that has done something that was motivational or impactful.

Tom Burford: Let’s see, motivational or impactful, let’s see. Something that you just liked, 

Roman Zhelenko: you know, it was like, man, I like the way they’re doing that. That’s really cool. 

Tom Burford: Definitely. So I have a different, my experience has been a little bit different in software development in general. All right. So I actually haven’t been from a background where I’ve had a lot of like tech leads specifically. But what I did have in the past were, You know, people in my career that I could look to that I saw how they managed the given team and that was, and it was eyeopening for me. So a rep, someone from the past, the previous job, he’d always come into the room, like he was, he’s where I got my meeting influence from, he would go in and he’d be like, look, I don’t like meetings, you know, he’s like, I don’t like them, I don’t think they’re necessary. I don’t think you get anything done in meetings. We’re going to have as little meetings as possible, but when we need them, they’re going to be quick. We’re going to have a problem to solve. We’re going to get done. And I absolutely love that. Yeah. Because I never got to a meeting and said, oh, man, I don’t need to be here, right? I, this isn’t, you know, I’m not a part of this. It’s not worth my time. It was always something we had a problem to solve, you know what I mean? And that was always great. Or, you know, it was, it was team bonding, right? We were just, I’m sure it’s team bonding or something like that. I really appreciated that fact. He also was the one that he showed me the importance of really, again, going back to that ownership. So he’d get on a call and it’d be like, all right, who’s in charge of this? You know what I mean? End of the call. Alright, who’s got, who do I talk to afterwards? You know, it’s in a tech lead role, right? It’s all, you know, a part of its, you know, delegation, right? In any leadership role, delegation. And he, like, emphasized that to a T. It was, you know, he would, it was funny because he’d hop on a call sometimes and he’d like, he’d be like, oh man, I could solve this, and he’d like start clicking around, you know. And sometimes he’d actually get to a solution, but a lot of times he’d be like, Yeah, I don’t know. I got to pass, you know, pass this off to the, to the senior, right? Someone that works with it directly and you get a lot of joy out of that. And he’s like, you know, go back and forth with a senior on a team or something. And it would be like, you know, he’s been in those shoes before. So he knows what the job is. Man, I’d have worked on it recently, right? But he’s done it before. So he can really go down to that level and relate really well. So, uh. Yeah. If we’re just talking about people in the past, I think about him a lot. 

Roman Zhelenko: Sounds like it was impactful. I mean, all of those are signs that somebody that should be in a leadership role, no reason to have a meeting. If you’re not getting anything done, there’s no reason to, you know, extend the time there, et cetera. My experience falls in the same category. You know, I, I came from a development background. My biggest impact was having a tech lead that was always calm, no matter what was on fire. It was more like. All right, let’s process it. Let’s figure it out instead of just panicking and trying everything. It’s more taking a breath, figuring out our, here’s who we’re going to get engaged. Here’s who we’re going to talk to. Here’s the steps we’re going to do to figure it out. So that level of calm was, you know, something I aspired to, because, you know, occasionally we’ll run into something that goes down and you’ll get a weekend call or this error is happening, you know, 

Tom Burford: taking a breath as a fundamental DJ was talking about, right. So it goes back to like, all right, let’s, let’s get back to the fundamental. Let’s take it and think about this from the base level and work our way up. Cause yeah, it’s, it’s really easy on a call, especially in a production call, right, to sit there and start getting scatterbrained because there’s a thousand things going on, but again, it’s returning back to, all right. You know, what’s, what are my roots? What are, what are the things I can look at first? 

Roman Zhelenko: And it’s usually the simplest thing. Hopefully. All right. That’s it for us. Thank you for listening to the Highlight Cast. To keep up to date with Highlight’s news and activities, follow us on LinkedIn and visit our website, HighlightTech. com. Tune in for our next episode. Thank you. And see you on the next one. 

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 US government.

Episode #29: Development Series Pre-Production

Kevin Milner: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia. You are now listening to The Highlight Cast.

Roman Zhelenko: Hello and welcome back to The Highlight Cast. My name is Roman Zhelenko , Director of Digital Government here at Highlight, and our team is excited to be back with a deep dive into the federal development process through three stages. Pre production, development, and post development and maintenance alongside various team members, both from management and the technical side. Today, we’re starting with the pre production part of the show, alongside Kevin Long, who is the VP here at Highlight, and Kevin Milner, who is the program director. Welcome, guys. Thank you. How’s it going, Roman? So as we know from experience that setting up a new development program takes time and ensuring you lay out that initial foundation. This initial episode will focus more on that post award scenario. This is after it’s been awarded. This is after our team has been given the win and we’re starting. We’re going to go through a couple different scenarios that we’ve all run into and just kind of discuss them. So the first one we’re going to talk about tech stack change. You know, a lot of the time when we’re starting the program, we’re proactively staffing a lot of different technical resources. We’re working through business analysts. We’re trying to anticipate what we see coming down the pipeline. So let’s talk about what happened or what they specifically list in the RFP. Also true. So if let’s say a scenario where we got, you know, we got a Java program, we’re proactively already sourcing Java people, we’re sourcing Java developers, we’re sourcing people that know this technology. What happens if we get in there and we notice that everything’s C sharp? What happens if we get in there and we see a tech stack that we just don’t anticipate?

Kevin Long: You know, sure That that’s a trickier one, cause I’ll tell you the best C sharp developers I’ve ever found have actually been Java developers, but I 

Roman Zhelenko: agree with you on that one 

Kevin Long: beside that, at least from a transition in point of view. And then I’ll let Kevin talk about how it happens and feels on the ground. First thing you do is you re scrub all of the resumes for the people that you’ve got, and you see who are the switch hitters that fit both. Right? And then you pick up the phone and you call all of them and make sure that since an audible has been called by the customer. that it’s still a job that they’re interested in doing. The customer isn’t changed, the mission isn’t changed, but what IDE you’re using probably has. And so that’s the first thing that I do in concert with notifying recruiting.

Roman Zhelenko: I guess sometimes we do get lucky. We, you know, it doesn’t change that much. It stays, it still stays object oriented development. So you have that developer that’s able to adjust.

Kevin Long: Yeah, I mean, it’s easier with more senior folks. Programming being a mindset and the rest being syntax. If you’ve done it long enough, you probably have the syntax for several languages somewhere locked up there. So how about you, Kevin? I’m sure you’ve come in and had things thrown sideways at you like that.

Kevin Milner: Oh yeah. Very much so. In that sort of situation, there’s more concern than just switching from Java to C Sharp. They’re basically the same language, but the environment that surrounds it is so much different. One is more Windows focused, and the other is more generally in a Linux environment. But, what you want to do is make sure, as you said, when you go in and are hiring for this position, you want to make sure that You have somebody that has a firm understanding of the concepts of programming. Anybody can write any language in any language. I mean, they’re all equivalent under the hood. And if you understand that, it’s not that hard to move from one language to another. There may be some translation delays, but in general, if they’re strong enough on the fundamentals, they should be able to adapt easily. One of the instances I can think of that we had, we came in to a project and the tech stack wasn’t quite defined. We recruited assuming we were going to be doing Java development. Then they came to us and said, Hey. We need Drupal. And 

Kevin Long: that’s pretty deep shift. 

Kevin Milner: Yeah. Fortunately, the guy that we were talking to, to be our tech lead, anyway, we put on a requirement, Hey, do you know Drupal? And it turns out he did. So fortunately we were able to bring him on. And then the hilarious thing was immediately after we said, Hey, we got you a Drupal guy. They said, yeah, we don’t want to do Drupal. And we actually ended up doing everything on service now. So. You know, the plan that you have when you get awarded is often not the plan that you end up hitting the ground with.

Roman Zhelenko: And that’s, that’s actually a very good point. Let’s say, what is the type of candidate that you’re looking for? What is the optimal candidate? Are you looking for somebody that has 10 years experience in one language? Or are you looking for somebody that’s, you know, did two years of this one, two years of this one, and you can tell they’ve adjusted. Because from my experience, you know, coming from development, sometimes Java is not the best language for it. Being able to realize that your favorite language doesn’t fit all problems, it takes time. So, you know, I’ll throw this one to Kevin. Well, Kevin Long first. 

Kevin Long: Sure. That is very program specific. There are contracts out there. Their tech stack isn’t going to shift because it’s technology that’s 12 years old, the cost and the work and the risk to just suddenly up and shift it to a different. More modern stack isn’t going to happen, right? And so at that point you truly are hiring I don’t want to call him a tool jockey per se but you are hiring cold fusion developer, right? For example or or something like that something that isn’t super popular in industry anymore And so at that point you’re looking for deep and specific experience Now where we’re doing our more dev sec ops You Sort of leaning stuff where we are contracted to provide n number of developers that can do modern software development through modern in quotes with You know using agile dev sec ops and things like that Then yeah, I would say I look for I tend to like t shaped experience, which is shallow wide Yeah in a lot of stuff, but then deep in a very specific thing, right? And you want To be able to have the vertical on the t in several different things full stack developers Nobody handles every part of the stack as well as others, you know So you have a full stack that is really good at back end database sequel things like that really good at Ui ux front end development really good at at the middle tier and business logic stuff, right? So It really depends a lot on the program, like is the technology that they have not going to change for business price or political reasons, then you got to go look, then you’re looking for an eye shaped experience where it’s, you have the person that knows what the customer is using and that’s it, right? Not that’s it, but that’s their primary focus. And then you have the more generalized software development where, heck, we might. Jump to mobile development or things like that, where you look for people that have done a little bit of a lot, but has an expertise in a specific thing. 

Roman Zhelenko: So tossing it to Kevin Milner, from a tech perspective, when you bring on people to your program, how do you judge if somebody is willing to learn that wants to learn that wants to change their skill set? You know, I’ve run into people that Just want to do one language for their entire career. I’ve run into people that really want to shift to the DevOps side that want to learn this new skill set. What are some of the things that you look for on your program specifically that kind of goes that shows a developer that’s willing to adjust?

Kevin Milner: Yeah, one of the things I like to do is when I’m asking someone and talking to someone, I like to sort of focus on the soft skills a little bit to get an idea of the direction that they take their hard skills. So if I ask somebody, you know, what do you like to do for fun? What’s your idea of relaxing? If their idea of relaxing is studying pipelines, right? Yeah, building pipelines, then 

Kevin Long: we know these people. 

Kevin Milner: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I try to get a feel for the person, there’s a few technical questions I can ask from a computer science background that you can assess how able someone would be, or how non specific to a language they are, you know, and things like that. So I just generally try to get to know the person and see if that’s, Going to be the way that they operate mentally. 

Roman Zhelenko: Naturally curious. 

Kevin Milner: Yeah. 

Roman Zhelenko: Asking a lot of questions, figuring out exactly what they’re working on, and then suggesting like, hey, why aren’t we using, you know, Kubernetes instead of OpenShift? Or asking those questions that we want them bringing up in conversation when they see the environment. Isn’t 

Kevin Long: OpenShift a Kubernetes platform? 

Roman Zhelenko: No, it’s a Red 

Kevin Milner: Hat platform. Oh, my 

Kevin Long: bad. 

Kevin Milner: It’s like a wrapper around. Some of the cloud aspects of Kubernetes. Okay, slight, slight variance. Again, 

Kevin Long: no, I mean, we’ve learned I’m not technical anymore, just technical enough to be dangerous, 

Roman Zhelenko: right?

It happens, it depends on how quickly it does change though, so. 

Kevin Long: Well, speaking of that, that’s the other thing that you look for, right? It’s people that are always looking for the next thing, right? You know, my next thing became, you know, Business focused stuff a while ago and stick with that. But when we’re looking at the technical folk, right, really, it’s the people that are excited to find out, you know, what’s next on the automation and DevOps front 

Roman Zhelenko: on it. And it really comes down to us as being the leadership on the program to determine what resources are. Ready for that next step or figuring out what they want out of that. It’s figuring out, you know, this developer really wants to shift to a leadership role. We’ve had so much luck finding, you know, senior developers that really want to take that lead role in training them from within. So it’s been a big success on some of our programs shifting over a little bit. So let’s say. Backups. How do we prepare? How do we open? Do we overstaff? Do we keep options open before we even start the program? At what point do we stop backup candidates? Yes, backup candidates. So let’s say we have our initial 10 resources for the program. Do we close out the openings, the recs, or do we keep them open and continue having? All right. Let’s say this is a scenario if we need more DevOps resources, or we need to shift this resource off and move them to different programs, what are some options we have there? 

Kevin Long: Sure. I’ll take this. Yeah, you’re essentially always looking to have a pipeline of. Smart talented candidates coming into the company. So for job openings that are not just Specific to one program or even with the one program honestly because they can be harder to find We tend to keep job openings open So that we can keep finding people so that there’s a backlog of folks that might want to come in So that when we win new business We we’ve got people or if someone wins the lottery You And then they’re like, Hey, we love working with you highlight, but I have 325 million in the bank. So I’m going to go buy an Island instead. We’re, we’re not hung up. Right. And so I have to have a very good reason to close a good general. Uh, hiring category

Roman Zhelenko: that works and Kevin Milner. Sorry, I got to figure out another way to address both of you. That’s a big thing. Maybe for the next session, anything that you’d like to add for that one?

Kevin Milner: You know, I mean, I had a lot of traumatic experience with job hunting. So I tend to be more on. The job hunters, you know, try to see things from their, their viewpoint a little bit more. So I try not to like just have people hoping that we’ll call them back, you know, with an offer as much, you know, I mean, I’m not really in a position where that. Ever actually happens. But having said that, I try to focus with my teams on having in technology, you have what’s called the bus metric, which is if you have a team and a member of the team gets hit by a bus, how many days? down are you before you can be back up to speed in terms of knowledge that’s lost from your poor dead developer.

Kevin Long: That’s why I use the lottery example. It’s so much, so much less gruesome. 

Kevin Milner: Yeah, well, we’re different people. But, but the way I try to address That is, I try to make sure that we cross train as much as we can on our team, so that it’s not quite so imperative that if we lose a member of the team, we can, you know, we can’t function until we get our DevOps guy in. You know, I try to make sure that, that everybody at least has, An idea of how to fake the other guy’s job until we can get a replacement. 

Roman Zhelenko: A cross, cross trained team is always a good option. So, that actually leads us very well into our second scenario for the podcast. The second scenario is more focused on balanced teams. I’ve seen a lot of situations where tech, all tech, all developers are prioritized rather than having a handful of developers, business analysts, testers, you know, scrum masters, etc. So, What are some of the benefits of having a balance team over in all developer focus team send this over to KL first? 

Kevin Long: Okay, so benefits of a balance team. Sure balance team allows you to tackle more than one type of problem, right? I mean a lot of the hardest parts of the types of programs that we do Aren’t just the technical pieces of it. It’s Understanding the the full scope of what needs to be built who the stakeholders are Understanding where there’s a difference in what the definition of done is from from customer to customer as well as what needs to be documented at the end of it and and the work that that’s That’s going to be documented to come after and how things are organized and executed. It’s always good to have a people person, not just a machine person on, on a team. I think now, now some customers will say, you know, only tech people on this team. And then the question that I will ask is awesome. No problem. Who from another contract or the government is going to be providing your scrum mastership or your business analysis or the things like that. So that That if we’re, if we are only being the tech part of a team, then I want to know where the rest of the team is that has those soft skills, uh, wrapped around is going to come into it. 

Roman Zhelenko: I get, I mean, coming from development, I know going and asking clients questions throws you off for the rest of the day when it comes to your process, you could be in the middle of your algorithm. And as soon as you’re disturbed from an email. There goes that train of thought. So having that dedicated resource, you know, that business analyst who is sometimes cross trained to do other functionality allows your developers to develop, to focus on their train of thought, to just focus on solving that problem and you just get a better product quicker. Kevin Milner, what are you thinking? 

Kevin Milner: Yeah, so like if you, if you have your testers, your QA people, if they are also the developers, there’s going to be an inherent bias in them. And when they’re doing something, they’re like, Oh, I’m not going to go ahead and click on it this way because I know that the Windows messaging system can get delayed. 

Roman Zhelenko: Are you saying Developers shouldn’t do their own testing? 

Kevin Milner: No, no, I’m not talking about that. Yes, yes. 

Roman Zhelenko: I’m not talking about that. Developers shouldn’t do their own testing. I mean, obviously I want to break the thing I was working on for the past several weeks and I’ll do everything I can to, you know, show that, right?

Kevin Milner: Yeah, I’m not talking about just regular testing. I’m talking about QA, you know, before we ship it out, making sure it doesn’t embarrass us testing. And what you need is somebody that doesn’t know how the sausage was made. To, to go in and, you know, I guess to continue that metaphor, taste it and make sure there’s no horse parts in it, uh, you know, so, um, so what, what you want to do is, uh, you know, you want to, you want to have somebody that is knowledgeable in the domain that you’re working in, test it to make sure that it meets their needs because, you know, You know, as a programmer, I’m an expert on programming. I’m not an expert on government procurement. So, you know, what we want to do is make sure that for the testing purposes, we include non technical people that are going to test it and hopefully break the code. The application, because it’s much better to break it in a test than to have, you know, you can ask Bill Gates when he’s out there demoing a windows thing. It was 98 and it just blue screened of death on him. You know, that’s 1 of those things you don’t want to have happen. 

Roman Zhelenko: So not a bug. That’s a feature that was something we experienced multiple times. Yeah, but I completely agree with you. I think a lot of the time asking the right questions is a is a skill set being able to work with the clients, being able to approach them and show them we really understand this and working with them to figure out what they want. You need a dedicated resource for that. A lot of developers I worked with, they really just want to focus on the development side. They want to make sure they’re building it. They’re not as into asking the questions, figuring out the requirements. They just want to do what they’re. Specializing in yeah, mr. Long any experience in that again. I’m changing the names. I’m giving you guys. So we’re going for macro I’m going from Initials to last names. I’ll figure it out. 

Kevin Long: Yeah, ask me one more time. 

Roman Zhelenko: So we’re talking more on specializing and asking the right questions, so A lot of the times the developer is not going to be the one to work with the stakeholders to get those requirements to figure out what they want. Sometimes you need somebody that specializes in building and asking and documenting, putting it, breaking it out in the stories, et cetera. 

Kevin Long: Oh, sure. 

Roman Zhelenko:

Kevin Long: mean, I mean, absolutely. I mean, and that’s why when you don’t have a balanced team that has people that are focused on that, the first question I ask to our customer is who do we have that we get that from? Right. I mean, that’s, it is absolutely a different, a different skill set for that. You know, I would not ask a capture manager to write software. 

Roman Zhelenko: Well, not good software. You’ll write something. So hello world. So if that, I mean, it will be nice. Well, one thing I know we’ve experienced is we’ve cross trained some people, and I think the best combination of cross training actually comes with a business analyst who also can do five way testing, for example. That’s somebody that understands what the client wants, knows enough about the technology to be able to dive in a little bit, and in case there’s downtime, you know, adjust, shift, and support other parts of the business. You need the people person from office space. 

Kevin Milner: There’s a 

Roman Zhelenko: people 

Kevin Milner: person at 

Kevin Long: office? There is. He takes the plans from the tech people to the managers. Yeah, absolutely. 

Kevin Milner: Does he physically take them? Yeah. No, his secretary does it, but he’s part of the process. What is the matter with you?

Kevin Long: Yeah, that’s okay. He can have his joke to conclusions, Matt. 

Roman Zhelenko: Uh, Sorry, next podcast will be a movie discussion about tech focused movies.

Kevin Milner: This 

Roman Zhelenko: happens when Kevin and I 

Kevin Milner: get in a conversation together 

Roman Zhelenko: It’s kind of 

Kevin Long: unavoidable. 

Roman Zhelenko: Yeah, it’s expected. Frank’s going to have a blast with that. So the next question is more focused on experience and certifications for some of these resources. Are there any certifications that really stand out or is it more on. Contract specific, for example, so, you know, a trusted tester for supporting a DHS client or, you know, an AWS certification. You know, there’s tons of them out there. How do we tell people focus on this one or? Sure. I mean, 

Kevin Long: security plus is an easy one to pull out there. I mean, anywhere in DoD, if you want to be an admin on any system, security plus is the, is the fastest certification that meets the DoD calls for that. PMP, absolutely, is all over the place, uh, for that, for, uh, So I actually just reading today an RFP where, uh, PMI’s Agile Certified Project Management CERT was accepted as a replacement or an addendum to a, to the PMP CERT. So there’s definitely that I’ve seen not with his requirements, but nice to have a safe Agilest and CSMs. The certified scrum master. 

Roman Zhelenko: So I always end up looking for the certification and then application of that cert. So if you have a safe agile, making sure that, you know, all right, what’s the benefit of agile? Is there, is this the right fit or is there a better fit? You know, not just, you know, Mr. Milner, any, any certs from your side that just really, you see them and you’re like, this is it.

Kevin Milner: I, I’m not as big a fan of certs, I don’t always hold them as, as, I mean, it shows that somebody can pass the certification test and that’s, you know, that, that is a skill in and of itself. I’m not sure how much it always has a direct relevance to some projects, but that’s just my personal opinion. You know, studying for the PMP. A lot of it was like, this doesn’t have any reflection on the real world. This is just, can you study to pass this test? And so I’m not as in odd of certificates as probably, you know, I, I once was. But I mean, they are kind of a shortcut for being able to say, well, this, this person has at least been exposed in depth to this technology stack or that sort of thing.

Roman Zhelenko: And that’s a, that’s a good point. I can’t say that having a cert versus not having a cert will show that this resource is any better or any worse. I’ve had situations or both situations have happened. 

Kevin Long: Oh yeah. I mean, certificates are great or certifications are great for. The you must be this tall to ride. Yeah. Right. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s on paper, but it, but then it’s, it is absolutely. I mean, it’s, it, it does not obviate the necessity to evaluate the person in the work that they’re doing with that. But, yeah, I mean, we’re seeing more, but there are some tests that I’ve seen that are difficult enough that unless you actually use. the work or use the tool, you won’t be able to pass it. The, the AWS certified architect professional level, not an associate level, right? That is, that’s, that’s a no joke exam, right? Where you’re going to have to know AWS to be able to do that. Yeah, to get that certification. And so I put some weight in that similar to, well, I guess a little contrary to what Milner was saying with the PMP. It says that, you know, a broad scope of different project management capabilities. The PMP is for building space shuttle software and skyscrapers. Right. And so any certification that allows you to manage such wide and varying types of projects is going to have very different things that aren’t going to fit for your particular type of expertise. And so you can pick and choose those once you’ve done that. But it does show that you have an exposure to and an understanding of the principles that would drive that type of work. 

Kevin Milner: Yeah. And for transparency, Mr. Long has his PMP and I have not yet taken my test, so that probably does. 

Kevin Long: Hardest multiple choice test I’ve ever taken.

Roman Zhelenko: I’m in the same boat with you, Mr. Milner. Yes. You know, some people just don’t enjoy tests. Mr. Long has that skill set, he’s able to do it, so. Do you think I enjoy tests? Yes. Yeah, I think 

Kevin Long: so, yeah. We’re going on the record. There’s a difference between enjoying and excelling at them. 

Roman Zhelenko: Yeah, alright, fair. Oh, that’s fair. No, I’m still practicing. It’s just occasionally you get sidetracked. Again, I’m with Milner. Some of the questions are not the way you would do it in the environment. Some you have to adjust quickly. Every client’s going to be different. It’s never exactly like it states, so. But I do agree with Mr long with the AWS cert. I have seen that I’ve seen some of the developers in the DevOps resources that have studied for it. It is tough. We recently just had one of our architects on a different program past the architect exam from AWS. It took him weeks of studying. So that is that was no joke. 

Kevin Long: And he uses AWS every day. 

Roman Zhelenko: Yeah. So that one really demonstrates like, Hey, you know, your stuff shifting over a little bit, are there any future technologies? And I guess this one’s going to Mr. Milner, are there any future technologies that you’re, you see coming in? Do you see any shift into say GCP or Azure or, you know, what’s the next thing that, well, your prediction and we’ll note it down now and come back in a few months and see if you got it. No, 

Kevin Milner: no pressure. Sure. My prediction, the DoD, or at least the Army side, seems to be going all in on service now. So, low code solutions, I think, are, are sort of, are sort of where a lot of these are going. You know, I’m a classically trained developer, so the idea that sort of, like, who? You don’t write your own memory management routines? Ha, ha, ha. But, you know, I also, for instance, on my project, we’ve, we in a year have produced an MVP ready for its initial deployment that, that does pretty much everything they wanted for an initial MVP. And we were able to do that with a, a team of four developers. A UX designer and, and me hindering the whole operation. So, you know, that was, that was pretty incredible. So I think, I think platforms like that ServiceNow, Salesforce, those sorts of things are a pretty good. Indication of what’s to come in this particular space. I mean, obviously, you’re not going to use it to write a video game, but, you know, for for managing, for instance, D. O. D. Workflows approval workflows. It’s it’s a great tool. Very flexible. 

Roman Zhelenko: So with with the no code solution, are you saying that there’s going to be less dependence on Um, Low code with the low code solution. Are you saying there’s going to be less of dependence on, you know, full stack engineers, you know, trained DevOps resources, and it’s going to shift to less technical people or for this domain.

Kevin Milner: And I mean, they still they still are doing coding. There’s still some JavaScript that our guys have written, they write tests for the automated testing framework. A lot of the underlying stuff is taken care of for you. So for this domain, Government contracting, I, I think that that is a really good. Taking off point in the, that, you know, you don’t have to worry about things like developing for mobile app and web app. And, you know, how are we going to put it in in nipper net and stuff like that? It’s already handled by this. multi billion dollar corporation, uh, service now. So all we have to do is customize it for what we need. Uh, so, I mean, it’s still going to require technical people. You’re not going to have as many of the needs for like the, the high power technical, you know, the, the AWS architects and stuff. They will, they will probably migrate AWS or, or, you know, some of the middleware companies that, Provide stuff to service now. So what we’ll see is maybe a little bit of the more elite people becoming more elite and the less elite people being able to fill in some of those those spaces. So I think it’ll actually end up being more opportunities for more. Diversified people instead of just rock stars. 

Roman Zhelenko: Don’t get me wrong. That’s actually a good thing. It makes it easier for us to find people too. 

Kevin Milner: Yeah. I mean, I love rock stars, but you know, It’s harder to find them. We can get people jobs. That’s, that’s what I’m happy with. So. 

Roman Zhelenko: And before I send it to Mr. Long, I think the future is going to be more on the modernization side. As people start shifting things to cloud, it’s not just the lift and shift, which is a cringe term. It’s more of determining how you, how you modernize it. What are you going to redevelop? What do you actually need to move from this large application? Oh, yeah. A lot of the times, it’s not the whole app. You only need like a couple sections. And instead of moving the whole thing, you shift over parts. And that’s where a good business analyst that asks the right questions comes in.

Kevin Milner: Oh, yeah. And there’s definitely places for modernization. I think that, like, for instance, the FAA is still using, you know, vacuum tubed computers with punch cards. And what you’re seeing now is That’s not adequate. There’s a nearly every day now. There’s there’s news stories of near misses or in Boston Logan last week. They had planes backing into each other at the gate. So, you know, definitely modernization is extremely important because. Old stuff can’t keep up with the new stuff. It’s just not designed to process the volumes or, you know, whatever the particular issue is. 

Roman Zhelenko: Yeah, I mean, and it takes a unique skill set to be able to read, you know, Fortran or Pascal and modernize that into another language or move it to the cloud. Or ColdFusion, for example. Yeah, all those poor ColdFusion developers. Ah, maybe one day we’ll do a podcast just for them. Ha ha ha! You know, all four of them, uh, and, uh, and Mr. Long, what do you think is the future of, you know, what, what’s the next thing that we’re going to be looking for? Wow. Certification wise or technology wise?

Kevin Long: Honestly, I think it’s going to be ways to, uh, visualize and integrate more disparate types of data as more and more comes through that, whether it be through AI or through what have you with that, that that’s

Roman Zhelenko: there you go. Right. That’s a different approach too. I like it. Mm hmm. So now that we’re coming up The big, big takeaways is being able to constantly be aware of the program. If you’re starting a new program, just looking at everything, figuring out, all right, this, this we’re foreseeing this to change. We are expecting this language to come in and being prepared for any of those shifts. And again, you can be prepared for all of them and having a backup position open or always sourcing is another way to approach it. And now I’ll bring it back to, you know, your earlier developer days. What is one thing that you remember that a stakeholder PM scrum master did that was, you know, impactful, beneficial for you? You know, well, what’s something that in your earlier times when you were just starting out, what’s something that you saw that, you know, stuck with you? And I’m going to start with Mr Milner because I see you’re ready. It’s more what 

Kevin Milner: my first development job that I had that I liked wasn’t my first development job. It was the first one I actually liked. It was a two person team. We wrote medical device drivers for an emergency room software thing, but. You know, I was, I was young and stupid and like we get these issues with the driver and I’d want to go and refactor the whole thing and rewrite it because the person who wrote it before didn’t know what they were doing. Obviously, they weren’t me. And my mentor said, you know what? Do the least amount of change possible to fix the problem. And, and that’s actually, you know, really good advice. And that, that one has always stuck with me. So, so, like, try to have the minimum amount of, uh, of changes, you know, for, for a thing in order to solve the problem. 

Roman Zhelenko: That’s a very good point. I like it. And Mr. Kevin Long? 

Kevin Long: Sure. Uh, what I remember wasn’t, wasn’t actually from a business analyst or anything like that. It was actually from a nurse that I was working with at a startup where we were writing disability claim management software. I was a junior developer, right? And I started to ask questions about the software. And she stopped me and said, hold on. I think our time would better be spent if you understood the work that we do and what outcomes we’re trying to have. So that you understand from my point of view, what is, what it’s trying to do. Cause I’m not going to understand the software, but I think that if you understand our end goals, you can make the software do what we needed to do. And. As someone who was not a comp sci major did not take business analysis classes, having a customer be willing to take the time and sort of work through that, I mean, at the end of it, you know, she was like, you understand our processes and what we do better than, you know, 90 percent of the people that work for me, if you would like to come have this job. Just let me know. The answer was no, I did not. I did not want, want to be a disability claim manager, but to this day, I can articulate a lot of their processes and what they, what they do with that. And that was 2001 when, when I did that and it, it made a real impact on me. 

Roman Zhelenko: That’s good. That’s actually something that our, our USAS team that they did a site visit and they were able to see what their changes are actually doing how they were helping the case processing go. So it was definitely impactful when developer sees that they’re making a direct impact on the mission. So for me, my biggest impact had to be when I first started. I, you know, I do, I actually started in DoD contracting, so back in college, and I had a PM that backed you up. So usually you get that hard deadline and you will burn yourself out to try to hit it and get it wrong. Having somebody that came from a technical background and, you know, push back and say, hey, this is not going to happen. And having that support is the reason I wanted to do management afterwards. You know, being able to support developers from a perspective of being a developer. So. It was always nice to see that, Hey, this will get done, but we want to do it right rather than burning out our resources. Yep. So with that one, thank you for listening to the Highlightcast. To keep up to date with Highlight’s news and activities, follow us on LinkedIn and visit our website, highlighttech. com. Tune in to our next episode and thank you. And we’ll see you on session two for the software development lifecycle. 

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.