The Corporate Art of being Voluntold

I was pretty fortunate when I was at cisco Systems (yes, I still habitually spell it with the lower-case ‘c’!) to get to work with the Federal Sales team my last 5-6 years there. It was a great group of people who really cared a lot about their customer and supporting their customer’s mission. We were supporting some really interesting networks like the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet, shipboard data centers, and the US Army Signal Corps for most/all of Europe and the Middle East. Having a little bit of experience on the other side of those connections as a ground pounder I could relate to the importance of good comms and speedy networks!

Sidebar – the Federal Sales team at cisco Systems, along with the NY Sales team and the Data Center overlay sales team were probably the three most culturally significant groups I worked with in my time there. I learned a lot from all of them – great teams, people, and a relentless focus on customer success and outcomes. For all that I worked with them for about eleven years and competed with them for six, there was always the utmost respect for how they built their teams and supported their customers.

When I joined Arista in 2009 I remember this one day the CEO, Jayshree Ullal, looked around her staff meeting and said something to the effect of, “Does anyone here have any experience working in Fed or have a clearance?” (Well, silly me forgot the first rule of the Infantry – be inconspicuously occupied anyone ever asks for a volunteer without looking inconspicuously occupied – sort of a reverse ‘Spotlight Ranger’ I guess!). Jayshree then asked (ordered) me to lead our Federal Sales team and build out that vertical market. Now one thing you should know before I go any further into this memoir is that Jayshree is an amazing leader with incredibly high standards and somedays has a Steve Jobs-ian reality distortion field in full effect. The second thing worth noting is that I recently watched Deadpool 2 and I understand what ‘breaking the fourth wall’ means and I will do that liberally throughout this post in an homage to Ryan Reynold’s acting talent.


Uphill In Both Directions


I figured I would do a little research on how to build out a Federal business, make a plan, and present my findings back to my boss. I probably rushed the job a little bit but pinged a few buddies who had done this sort of thing before, folks like Dan Brigati who seemed to have been at every tech company ever, Jay who ran Fed sales at Foundry and knew everyone in the TIC, and 3-4 others – all with 10-15 years selling switches and routers to Government. Net-net of these discussions was me realizing I was in a relatively bad situation:

See, we had a great product. It worked well, and in this timeframe, financial customers like hedge funds liked us a lot, but we weren’t too well known outside of the Supercomputing and financial trading worlds. But hey, the Department of Energy builds some of the most amazing supercomputers in the world, so it can’t be that hard, right?

But we were missing a lot of paperwork and certifications. Okay, we were missing, well, everything. We had no authorization to operate, no waivers, no STIGs, no FIPS, no anything. We didn’t have any SEs with a clearance. We didn’t have a sales rep to cover Fed. We didn’t have any resellers that were on any contracts. Our product was manufactured and assembled outside of the US – even though all of our software at the time was written in California. And while I have a relatively indomitable spirit about most things, the scope of work required to get to where we could even execute our first transaction with the government was pretty long and arduous.

So, probably two weeks after that initial ‘go build Fed’ chat I sat back down with Jayshree and went through my list of things we needed to do before we could sell to the Government and, I felt, rationally explained why I needed SEs with clearances, program managers to handle all of the paperwork, a bunch of budget for legal fees, budget for testing shops to get products certified and on all the right lists, technical marketing folks to work with the TIC, and so on. I presented my case and basically said, “This is a two-year journey if we put a lot of resources on it and start now, and we can hope to get some sales in 2011-2012 if we do all of this stuff and are quite lucky to boot.”

This is where the reality-distortion field comes into play, Jayshree looks at me and says something like, “Doug, I didn’t ask you to give me a list of every reason you can’t sell to the Government. I asked you to sell to the Government. Go figure it out.” Now, this is with a 9-year hindsight, I am sure at the moment it was a bit wordier and probably involved a chai and a few chocolates we pilfered from Katie. But you get the general vibe – take the hill, figure it out, get the job done – Yes ma’am!


Dear or No Deal


A few things we did right that worked out well for us and are worth repeating:

  • We got a CBP ruling that because our final significant transformation of hardware into product happened when the software was loaded domestically we could consider our product compliant with the Trade Agreement Act and the Buy America Act. This set us up to be capable of even being ordered.


  • We didn’t focus on big defense first. We spent a lot of time with the intelligence community and with a handful of Department of Energy labs – they had a simpler procurement process and didn’t seem as hidebound to only purchasing off of a specific approved vendor list.


  • We won a good bit of a business from a small-to-midsize government contractor who was working on a CPFF contract that got us into the defense side of the Government. Let me elaborate a bit…

When you are a small vendor, competing with a big guy who has a large and very successful Federal sales team and are on every contract, every AVL, and have every certification and such – you basically have about zero chance of winning in the Department of Defense without proven past-performance and, if you are new, well, you don’t have a lot of that. The STIGs and FIPS and ATO all can be worked around, but it just makes it incredibly easy for the customer to go with the incumbent and justify a ‘by name request’ for the specific product they want.

Where we got lucky and got our first break was with a company doing acoustic modeling and simulations. It was a pretty random sales call, I think initiated by a reseller who said, “Hey, you guys should talk to this defense contractor out on Long Island…”. They had just been awarded a relatively sizable contract to develop an acoustic sonar simulator and if I remember right it was a Cost-Plus-Fixed-Fee contract.

We came in with a good product at an attractive price point and helped the contractor deliver their capability and operate it more profitably. From there we had a little bit of the ‘in’ we needed – because this program was in support of the Navy we could navigate (is this a bad pun, it is intentional…) to another contract the same prime was on and expand to some of the more creative commands within DoN like NRL. From there similar FFRLs and more mainstream DoN work could be engaged.

A key point I learned from this is that the type of business you do with the Government is based largely on your own organizational maturity, it will directly influence what certifications and authorizations you focus on, and that it is really hard to get a waiver unless you go in at the right time with the right offer and align to the business outcome of the actual buyer.

In our case, the actual buyer was a sub-contractor, under a large defense industrial base prime, who had broad authority to do whatever was needed to support the mission program. They also, as it was an FFP contract, had a compelling event to balance mission-performance with operational/fiscal efficiency. As one large prime contractor had painted on the walls of their BD office, “Bid to win, operate for profit!”

From this experience, I summarized our Federal engagement strategy into three buckets, each representing a different type of ‘deal’:

  • The Deal Before the Deal. This is basically what we found with the sonar simulator. Nowhere in the program description or documents did it say. “We need a high performance and low-latency Ethernet switch at an attractive price point.” Anyone trolling through FBO would never find this opportunity by keyword, or by NAICS code. It is an invisible opportunity that only surfaces if you can identify that there is a strong correlation between sonar modeling with compute density and that high compute density drives large storage systems and that you need Ethernet switches that are pretty high performance when connecting large numbers of distributed compute nodes back to storage systems.


  • The Hidden Deal. I’ve done my fair share of FBO trawling. We sometimes call it ‘Capture by Carpal Tunnel’ – take an afternoon every month and just go item by item through FBO looking for something interesting. The problem with this is that we are often limited to reading the Title, Scope, and Description and make our initial bid/no-bid decision just based on a very limited amount of data. For example, how many times have you seen some opportunity that has a very descriptive title like, “Program Services for the PEO” and a description that says, “Services for the Program Executive”. Umm, wow, sign me up now, I’ll bid that! – said almost no one ever. The Hidden Deal is when the opportunity for your product is clearly listed, in one of the fifteen to twenty 100+ page attachments to the procurement opportunity. It could very well say in the SOW, “deploy and administer a four Petabyte network attached storage system for geospatial data in support of the program office and acquire, deploy, and maintain 100 analyst workstations spec’d as follows…”


  • Churn the Base. This type of deal works well when your product is a direct replacement for either a) your previous product or b) another vendor who you believe you are well positioned to replace. Here you’d want to identify all of the opportunities your competition participated in that are up for recompete soon or where the product is clearly obsoleted and coming up on some end-of-life event.

Once you’ve landed and start the journey into Government sales these types of data-driven plays become quite repeatable for identifying your new opportunities and working to expand your base and replace your competition. Having insight into who is likely to bid on a given recompete with a 12+ month runway gives product vendor sales organizations the runway necessary to ensure that the likely participants in a given procurement have been identified and that you are well positioned with each of them to ensure your products are spec’d into the technical volume.

Thanks for taking the time to read this far, if anyone ever did get this far in this blog. We’ve been working on building and automating reports that can identify the different deal types enumerated above for a variety of technology vendors. If you think it could help your business to have a similar amount of G2 about upcoming procurement opportunities to help target your resource allocation let me know by commenting below.  I would love to show you what we are up to and see what you think as we continue refining our offering!

Thank you and Happy Hunting,