As a follow-up to our recent post about targeting cybersecurity work in your contracting business, I sat down with TAPE’s cybersecurity program manager Stewart Wharton to give you a glimpse behind the scenes.
Stu, what does a typical day look like for the TAPE cybersecurity team? Is there any such thing?
It’s a very high visibility, fast-paced environment, working for one of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. The team is involved with all aspects of analyzing threats and vulnerabilities.
We do a daily assessment of risk to the systems; we do a lot of reporting using a variety of dashboards. We can suggest fixes, and make sure those fixes are acceptable. We also follow up to ensure that the systems people have implemented them.
It’s a lot of analysis work – analyzing data to see if it’s a threat, a vulnerability, or a mitigation, and also determining the likelihood of the impact of the vulnerability to a system, and the overall risk to the system.
We just wrote in this blog about how government contractors can find cybersecurity work by approaching their existing customers. How has TAPE used this strategy?
Our customer base has grown twice in the year and a half that we’ve been here. And we continue to look at other entities within the agency that could use our BPA (blanket purchase agreement) – an existing contracting vehicle that any federal customer can funnel money to, as long as the scope of the BPA is within cybersecurity.
What is the most common misconception you hear about cybersecurity?
That cybersecurity is all about tools and technology, when really a lot of breaches are socially engineered and simple, such as a user opening an email or attachment they shouldn’t have. Yes, breaches in security can be highly technical, but it can also be amazingly simple.
What do you wish everyone knew about cybersecurity in the workplace?
No matter what job you’re doing, whether you’re at work or at home, everyone should be more aware of how simple it is to give away the keys to the kingdom, just by doing the wrong thing with your email.
- Don’t open an email if you don’t recognize who it’s from or it’s not from an official account in your workplace.
- Don’t open attachments if you don’t recognize who it’s from. Attachments are the easiest way to get a bug or virus into your system.
- Don’t share your password or write it on a sticky note and keep it on your laptop. When working remotely in an airport, you’d be amazed how easy it is for someone to look over your shoulder. They can find out a lot about you, and then pretend to be you.
What do you see going on in the cybersecurity industry right now?
There is a huge demand signal for people doing this kind of work, but at the same time, the quality of people able to do this work is increasing. A lot of graduates are hitting the streets with certifications or degrees that used to take somebody five or ten years of experience to get.
These young workers have all the right credentials but not a whole lot of experience. While this means the cybersecurity market has been flooded with talented individuals, what used to be a high value work area has been somewhat watered down.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your work in cybersecurity?
That at the end of the day, our team and I have helped national security across the United States. Cybersecurity is officially recognized as a domain where the enemy can wage war against you, so we need to be prepared on that same kind of footing.
In The True Cost of Proposals, we talked about the effect of ambiguity on the capture and proposal process, and how contractors shouldn’t waste time or money writing proposals unless they can clearly answer three questions:
- Does this customer have money allocated to solve this problem?
- Can your company solve this problem?
- Do you have the capabilities to win this job?
I asked Bo Nak, a sales engineer at TAPE, to talk about how TAPE navigates through this process.
How do you see these three questions fit into the capture and proposal process?
At TAPE, our capture process really begins after we’ve identified an opportunity – through a government proposal site, third-party analyst, word of mouth, etc. Our first step is talking to the customer, learning what kind of problem they’re trying to solve, what they’re trying to do.
This really goes back to building a relationship with that customer. No one wants to do business with people they don’t know. You can win business [with strangers], but it’s a lot more difficult. Building that relationship is probably most important thing you can do.
That leads into TAPE’s bid/no bid, gate review process. Our own self-critique of our odds of winning that opportunity. Answering those three questions is going to increase our PWin (“probability of winning”) percentage. Whatever we can do to increase that, we should.
If you don’t have a good PWin percentage, you probably won’t or shouldn’t get to the proposal writing stage.
To answer Bill’s second key question, “Can your company solve this problem?” take an honest look at yourself and your company. Is the potential work within your company’s capabilities and will it take you in the direction you want to be going?
The third question follows along the same lines and asks us to take a hard look at our own company and team. Do we have the manpower? Do we have the time to put forth the proper effort into the proposal?
If you don’t have the people or the time, do you have or do you know of other companies you could bring on to form a team? Obviously you want to find strong partners for your team to build the strongest response and proposal.
Note from Bill: Also consider whether your company should act as the prime or sub.
Sometimes we have a relationship with the customer, but no bandwidth to be the prime contractor, or the size standard (NAICS code) is too small for us to be the prime. So we seek partners, also those with whom we have a long-term relationship. Knowing how they will allocate staffing afterwards is a critical issue for choosing a prime contractor.
How does TAPE manage their proposal writing costs?
It’s true what they said in the podcast, that capture and proposal writing starts long before the RFP or RFI comes out. That’s really where your costs start to accumulate. As in most companies, our CFO and company leadership form annual budgets, and its our job to match our spending to that.
Obviously that means we can’t chase after every opportunity out there, so we make sure to put our time and effort into the proposals we have the best shot at winning, ones that match our company’s capabilities and direction and that we have a realistic chance of winning.
What did you think of the podcast about how much proposals cost?
A lot of the messages in the podcast and Bill’s post were things that seem like common sense, but that some contracting officers never calculate or see. There are a lot of costs attached to what we do as part of writing proposals that aren’t necessary considered by the government.
Ambiguity leading to mediocrity was a huge point that needs to be reiterated. And this goes back to one of the podcast hosts saying that questions aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Industry wants to create a great proposal and put their best foot forward, that’s why we ask questions. Getting back answers in a timely manner and getting the answer sufficiently answered is highly important to us AND the government.
I can’t tell you how many times the same question was asked four, five or even six times in the Q&A section of an RFP, where the government gave a canned response, didn’t fully answer the question, or took forever to answer. This really puts a strain on our ability to write a good proposal.
Hopefully contracting officers in the future will be able to take that part of it more seriously and make more of an effort to help industry and contractors by giving them the answers that they need. It comes around full circle – the better answers you can give us, the better response we can give the government, saving taxpayers more money in the long run.
As they said in the podcast, putting an hour of effort in now can save many more hours on the backend. And that’s certainly something anyone would want to do.
Bo Nak is a sales engineer at Technical and Project Engineering, LLC (TAPE). A graduate from Virginia Tech with a BSE degree in industrial and systems engineering, he has worked as a sales engineer for over six years developing solutions and proposals for private, industry, and government customers. He focuses on developing credible solutions and proposals, building revenue, and driving organic growth opportunities.
In a small business like TAPE, our VPs need to be very hands-on in the day-to-day operations of the company. They’re responsible for business development, maintaining current customer relationships, building our repository of teammates and partners, and strengthening and maintaining those relationships, each for their specific line of business.
This “leaner, meaner” approach enables us to respond more quickly to opportunities and optimize our resources.
One of our VPs, Daria Gray, transitioned into this role from another leadership position in marketing and communications. I asked her to share her reflections on the challenges and opportunities of this type of change.
She says the internal transition happened quite naturally, “Once I’ve made up my mind to do something and am committed, I want to put in the time and energy to succeed.” Yet for some of the people around her, it took time to let go of Daria being in that former role, and to allocate her previous functions to others within the organization.
She says this is an example of a lesson that holds true in everything in life, and that is that you cannot change others. “They are going to continue to do what they have naturally done, but you can change your response or your reaction to their behaviors.”
Daria said that by being firm in her own mindset about the path she was on, she could gently remind others that she was no longer performing those capabilities.” For others in this same situation, she suggests you “stay focused on your new role and kindly redirect people to others who can provide guidance on matters for which they are seeking assistance.”
For Daria, this has been a really positive move, and she’s enjoying the responsibilities of her new role – managing not just the work, but the people and all the new endeavors that have come with it.
As many small businesses transition to a more lean/low-cost/low-overhead environment in the Federal sector, these kinds of transitions will become much more common.
It is much better to take a current, committed employee, who has demonstrated leadership, and train them in a few functions gaps, rather than go through the hiring process and then guess as to whether you were right or wrong on your choices.
As your existing customers are your greatest source of increasing growth and revenue, so too, your existing staff may be the best to fill new leadership roles. Reach out and see if someone wants to grow in a (sometimes surprising) new direction.
This is a guest post by Matthew T. Clarke, Vice President, Modeling, Simulation & Training (MS&T), Strong Point Research | Division of TAPE
Dr. Leonard Hobbs is a quiet professional. He seldom appears agitated and never raises his voice, but he easily stands out as someone of presence and authority. Within five minutes of meeting Leonard you conclude that he is competent, he is capable, and he is a leader. You understand you could follow him with confidence and that if you do, you will achieve something greater than selecting an alternate path.
There are thousands of books that explore leadership and attempt to produce the specific characteristics and practices of exceptional leaders. You could read them all, but at the end of the day, there is no cookie cutter solution. Leadership is an art and people are unique. You must find your own formula for success. Most never do.
Individually, Leonard’s leadership traits are subtle. However, he uses them with poise and élan that bring about a very strong cumulative effect.
- He is a compelling speaker. He is energetic, enthusiastic, and always well-prepared.
- He knows how to use humor and audience involvement to gain and hold people’s attention.
- He is an exceptional listener.
- He is a strong supporter and champion of people’s innovative ideas and works to secure the resources needed to achieve outstanding results.
- He is passionate about follow through and meeting commitments to ensure customer satisfaction, and expects others to be the same.
- He sets achievable but challenging goals.
- He is self-aware, with a clear understanding of what is expected.
- He is dependable. You can count on him to meet deadlines.
- He projects an enthusiasm that motivates others.
In October 2014, Leonard was named as a 2014 Leaders Portfolio Award winner, recognized in the category of Rising Business Leader of the Year – National. He also recently had his first book published at Xulon Press – Inviting Jesus Into Our Families Will Bring Healing and Restoration in our African-American Families.
He says that many of the skills he uses at TAPE – his interpersonal skills, and his management of personnel, skills and processes – can be linked to that part of his life. “In the book,” he explains, “I identify a bible-based foundation that has worked for thousands of years. Once you set a foundation from the Word of God you can do almost anything.
A company like TAPE needs and has unity, vision and purpose. If there’s no vision you won’t have success. How can people walk together unless they agree?
If you have a vision, you have to be able to share and articulate it to others so they can buy into it. When another person can understand your vision, they can comprehend their purpose in their company and how they can help you turn your vision into a reality.
We all have our individual goals, but they still tie in with leadership and the objectives of the company. There can only be one leader. When TAPE bought Strong Point Research, I had to understand Bill and Louisa’s vision and where they were headed. Ultimately I came to see that they truly did have our interests at heart.”
Leonard is capable, compelling, passionate and trustworthy. But even more so, Leonard understands that leadership is not the same as the authoritative use of power. He has that unique ability to get people to follow him even when they have the freedom not to do so.
Veterans make great entrepreneurs, and supporting veteran-owned small business is a smart way to address the high unemployment rates facing today’s veterans.
In a hearing last spring, veteran business owners stepped forward to share their experiences and highlight the contributions of groups like the International Franchise Association, the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
You can read their quotes in this press release or watch the entire hearing below.
I bring this up almost one year later because this year’s Women As Veteran Entrepreneurs (WAVE) 5th annual Women Veterans Small Business Seminar is coming up on March 19, 2015 (8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) at The Women in Military Service Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA.
My wife Louisa Jaffe, President/CEO of TAPE, LLC is one of the event’s many prominent and inspirational speakers. In 2014, Louisa was selected as the first Women Vetrepreneur of the Year for the National Association of Veteran Business Owners.
She tells me that the WAVE event is a focused time for veterans who are women entrepreneurs to come together with each other and with government. Veterans, particularly women veterans, are finding more and more opportunities as entrepreneurs.
Their wonderful problem solving, leadership and “get the job done” military skills are perfect preparation for the challenges of running a business. We both highly recommend the WAVE event!
The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) is the world’s largest modeling, simulation and training conference.
TAPE exhibited again at this year’s event. It took a lot of work, but it was a fun and wonderful experience. I/ITSEC is always an interesting show and we got to see a lot of new stuff that’s going on.
Overall attendance was down, not unexpected given government travel restrictions and budgetary constraints. (The federal budget itself wasn’t approved until a couple of weeks after this event.)
It all came down to 45 minutes
For all the preparation, our results at I/ITSEC all came down to about 45 minutes, spent visiting with a very important person for the work we’re doing, and work we’re going after in the future. If we hadn’t been at the event, if we hadn’t been at the booth, that conversation would never have happened. Frankly, while not really “revenue-bearing,” it definitely made the whole exhibit and show worthwhile. It’s this kind of interaction that doesn’t really happen even in an office call – the atmosphere is much more relaxed and open to conversation.
We made other important contacts with different folks as well, and a lot of business-to-business connections.
To get the most benefit from a trade show booth, you always have to be sensitive to what is your goal. For us it was to meet a couple of VIPs in a more private setting, and we were able to do that. We invested a lot of money for those visits, but they could easily pay dividends down the road.
Trade shows are training grounds
One key thing we did at I/ITSEC, and then a week later at National Veterans Small Business Engagement, was to bring some new employees. They got to hear more experienced staff talk about what we’re trying to “sell” and to what audience, and who we think we are at our company.
It’s important for everyone in a trade show booth to hone that message, focus it, get it down on paper, and then deliver it. In a trade show environment, when somebody shows up at your booth you have no idea who they are, what they’re interested in, or even their specific function at their agency.
That means you not only have to have these core messages down, you must be able to adjust and adapt quickly them as you get into the conversation. Sometimes you have literally 20 seconds – a true elevator speech – so you just start talking and hope that you find something that clicks, because that person would just as soon move on and get someone else’s free samples.
Learn more about finding customers at trade shows.
Finding customers at a conference takes time, effort and preparation. There’s a lot of thought that needs to go in before you’re actually standing at your booth in the exhibit hall, ready to meet your prospective customers.
I asked Daria Gray, Director of Corporate Marketing and Communications at TAPE, about the best practices she uses to make our TAPE trade show booths a success.
“Ideally, one would work with their business development team to outline which shows or events are in alignment with their business goals, and then map out a schedule of these must-do events for the upcoming 12-18 months. This is a living document that may change, but creating this list in advance of your planning makes it far easier to manage all of the logistics, resources and people – all of the important elements that go into trade show planning. That list is the catalyst of a successful trade show program; like a compass that shows where you’re headed.
Once you’ve secured your booth space or exhibit floor space, you can begin to contact the various organizations that support these types of endeavors. For example, here at TAPE we work with an exhibit house. The role of an exhibit house is to coordinate all aspects of the exhibiting process, and pull together the various pieces of your exhibit.
The exhibit house will store your booth’s property, where it will be maintained and serviced by exhibit professionals. They will ship your booth to a particular venue, and you can even have exhibit house staff accompany your booth to the venue to oversee setup. The other option is to arrange setup and labor through the trade show organization.”
A note from Bill: We may have an exhibit house now, but it didn’t start out that way. We started with banners, and then graduated to a felt board with Velcro stick-ons. From there we stepped up to new level in look and feel, with a “spider board” (so-called because the backing looks kind of spider) that we got through eBay on sale. That one came with a case, but before that, we built our own box to hold everything we needed. It helped that my granddad owned a corrugated box factory, so I knew a little about boxes and so forth. Okay Daria, back to you:
“Whether or not you will be hiring specialists to design your trade show booth, here are some basic principles to keep in mind:
- Be consistent and concise – Be sure that your company’s marketing and brand strategy is reflected in your trade show materials; whether that is a table-top banner stand, a presentation that people can preview at your booth, handouts or anything else. Keep your message short, simple and memorable.
- Let your message speak for itself – While everyone loves getting free stuff, there is no need to go overboard by cluttering your booth with ” tchotchkes” (also known as swag or branded promotional materials). If you have the right message, the right staff and the right materials to support that message, you don’t have to give things away – the right people will be drawn to you. This was definitely reflected in our very successful experience at the recent National Veteran Small Business Conference.
- Think quality versus quantity – If you’ve done your strategic planning and you’re clear about who you’re trying to engage at the event, it’s not a matter of trying to collect as many leads of possible. No one wants to be left with a bunch of names that you don’t know what to do with. Instead, spend your time reaching out the specific people or types of people you’ve targeted; quality people you hope to build a long-term relationship with. In some cases, these will be the decision makers who will hire you; in other cases, at the minimum, they can put you in touch with those people.”
Thanks, Daria, for this great information!
Regardless of how many leads you come away with after a conference, you must annotate and cut the leads down from a bunch of names to your real potential customers. And whatever you do, follow up immediately and often. Even if you don’t get a response, be persistent. Use phone calls, email and social media. See if the lead is on LinkedIn and if there are any mutual contacts who can introduce you; follow them on Twitter or Google+ and join (“Like”) their business’s Facebook fan page.
If all else fails, hire a social media consultant to help you use social media to track down leads. This can be a tremendous help in getting started.
Speaking of social media, use your social media accounts to announce your presence at the conference. This will help you connect with the people who are there and encourage them to come and see you. It also shows your broader network that you’re out there and keeping up with industry trends and events.
I have one last tip for a successful trade show booth: Bring lots of business cards. It’s better to lug them back home than it is to run out of cards.