By Carmine Cicalese
“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear nothing. . . unless it is the acquisition valley of death; then I shall gouge out my own heart with a dull wooden spoon.”
– Anonymous Psalmist Consultant
Ever been to Death Valley?
I love it. I really do. There’s something about the vast starkness of Death Valley that I find enchanting. Even though you can see for miles and even though there are no great surprises just around the corner, there’s just something about it. I like admiring the fauna as I walk across the desert and then walking another fifty feet to see a similar plant slightly different from the previous one. I’m amazed at the possibility of standing below sea level in 100-plus-degree heat and gazing downhill to see a lake seventeen miles away. I guess the Dead Sea truly might impress me.
The first time I visited back in 2016, I drove my family crazy as I stopped at every opportunity to admire the sand dunes and rocks.
“Really,” my wife would say, “it’s just a scraggly bush.”
“Yeah,” I retorted, “but it’s a different bush from the last one.”
On that trip, the sun set before we could finish the east half of the park. A few years later, I had to teach a class in China Lake in the Californian Mojave Desert, so I flew into Las Vegas and drove into Death Valley from its east side. By the time I exited on the west side, the sun was setting rapidly, I had lost cell service between the towering mountains, and my only companions on the remote, bumpy road were some coyotes. For good measure, I wasn’t too far from Charlie Manson’s old compound.
But I digress a bit.
As a consultant, I frequently help clients connect to the federal government, especially the Department of Defense (DoD). If you read current news coming from the federal government, you’ll see a lot of comments about how the federal government is trying to do more and more to involve small businesses and their technology. Tech startups have the cutting-edge, innovative solutions the feds want, but the techs must overcome what federal officials themselves have called the acquisition Valley of Death.[i]
Ever been to the DoD acquisition Valley of Death?
I don’t like it. Lousy place. This valley of death is where small business (SB) opportunities mire in the zone where the federal government doesn’t have a contractual process in place to make deals fast enough for SBs to maintain momentum and solvency. In other words, government agencies can’t buy really cool stuff fast.
In one instance, I was helping a client access a potential customer. I found the right points of contact (POCs) for the command and communicated a few times with them. I wanted to set up a discussion on the command’s requirements and possibly a demo. I had increased the frequency and kind of communication to find a way ahead, but the lack of response frustrated me.
I lamented to the client’s lead sales rep, Chris, “I’m banging on the right door, but they won’t answer one way or another.”
“I appreciate the effort,” Chris quickly responded. “While yes is preferred, no is fine too.”
BINGO! Chris nailed it.
So, my first comment to my former DoD colleagues is that while yes is preferred, no is fine, too. No is a better response than no response. I won’t go away until the client tells me to go away. Frankly, I rather would move on to a possibility of success elsewhere, but the client has a say. I’ll mention an exception later.
My second comment to the DoD is to have a process for screening new solutions and services. If you can share the process and requirements publicly, better. If not, that is okay. But have a process to follow and inform potential vendors of where they are in the process. More on this later, too.
Before I proceed, I’ll explain to the DoD side my expectations of my clients. These expectations may seem to be a blinding flash of the obvious, but I’ve seen some clients stumble one way or another.
Now let’s return to the government’s role in this and talk about the process.
Heard of the Gartner Magic Quadrants? Here are the Carm Quadrants based on my consulting in the cyber, information technology, and information operations space. Unless the organization is in the upper right box, every other agency is anonymous. I haven’t evaluated every agency, so please don’t be defensive if you don’t see your organization. This is an unofficial, unscientific survey to stimulate discussion and introspection.
I evaluated commands and placed them in one of four categories.
I did this to give federal agencies an opportunity to think about whether they have a process and, if they do, how they execute it. If your agency doesn’t have a process or doesn’t respond to submissions, don’t lament over your organization’s lack of progress or technological advancement.
If you’re the designated person for facilitating the process, please answer the mail. Here are some sample acknowledgements that can buy time:
I’ve spoken to many a chief technology officer who is overwhelmed with requests. Fair enough. Otherwise, if the shoe fits, wear it.
Meanwhile, consider those great Americans who are trying to develop solutions to make your job easier. And remember, yes is preferred. No is fine, too.
So says my super-genius coyote pal.
A coyote, no cell phone coverage, and me
[i] James M. Landreth, P.E., “Through DoD’s Valley of Death,” Defense Acquisition Magazine blog, Defense Acquisition University, 1 February 2022, https://www.dau.edu/library/defense-atl/blog/Valley-of-Death#:~:text=The%20often%20discussed%20%E2%80%9CValley%20of%20Death%E2%80%9D%20is%20a,or%20commercially%20available%20product%20to%20a%20DoD%20contract.
[ii] Pete Modigliani, “The Program Side of the Valley of Death,” Disrupting Acquisition Blog, AiDA-MITRE Corporation, 17 March 2022, https://aida.mitre.org/blog/2022/03/17/program-valley-of-death/.