Federal agencies are changing the way they structure IT contracts, asking for more proof-of-concept and capability up front instead of basing decisions on a portfolio of past work.

“We’re increasingly seeing requests for proposals, and what the RFP is asking for is, instead of a written response, show up with a team and deploy a product by the end of the day,” said Charles Onstott, senior vice president and chief technology officer at SAIC, in an interview with Federal Times. “What that challenge is demonstrating is your ability to do that, and then that would lead to follow-on work.”

To meet the new contracting requirements, SAIC in October 2018 created its Innovation Factory, a component of the company that relies on innovative and fast working teams of IT professionals to meet current contract requirements, prepare to bid on potential contracts and experiment with new products.

“We launched this really in response to some of the major trends that we’re seeing in the federal government, and one of them is to do app modernization, but to do it rapidly in an incremental delivery fashion,” said Onstott.

“The other is [the Department of Defense’s] push to do more agile across DoD, agile acquisition.”

The Innovation Factory relies on five components to ensure that teams can get products out within a matter of days or even hours:

  1. Automated tool sets that reduce the preparation time for a project
  2. Expert teams of developers that stay together across projects
  3. Cloud-based delivery so that any team, anywhere could provide the product
  4. Partnerships with other IT companies, such as Amazon Web Services, Red Hat and Microsoft
  5. Heavy emphasis on research and development

According to John Coble, solutions director for DevOps and open source at SAIC, the model enables developer teams to select the tools they need quickly, bring them into their work environment and almost immediately begin structuring their work to fit the project and data.

“Traditionally, if we didn’t have the Innovation Factory here, project teams would have to define all of this when they start up a new contract to work on. And typically it’d take two to three months to get all of this defined and operational,” said Coble.

“We can push this out to a project team in just under one hour, now.”

That speed is essential, as agencies and organizations — such as the Department of Homeland Security, the General Services Administration and 18F — have begun to put out coding challenges that bring in teams from the top offerors on a contract and ask them to build an application around a particular dataset within a few hours.

The Innovation Factory process has also enabled SAIC to quickly provide products while offering regular updates and improvements to reach the final product.

The company worked with the Air Force recently on Pilot Training Next, an experimental initiative to see if they could address their pilot shortage by getting pilots out of simulation and into real-life training more quickly.

“We went out and bought a bunch of parts using a credit card — like an augmented reality headset, a gaming computer and some other things we need to build a simulator using off-the-shelf products — we literally put this prototype simulator together in a matter of days,” said Onstott.

The team then had Air Force pilots use the simulator and provide constant feedback on what would be most helpful for them in training and how the interface could be improved.

“By the end of six months from the start of this project, they had a completely trained cohort of pilots,” said Onstott.

“In a traditional acquisition model, this probably would have been a three-year contract, it probably would have had a requirements phase, a design phase, a build phase. Three years later we probably would have had some sort of simulator and it probably would have been pretty expensive.”

The Innovation Factory currently occupies part of a floor of the SAIC offices in Reston, Virginia, that Onstott commandeered to house the working teams, but the company plans to renovate and expand the space so that they can take on more teams and contracts.

The dedicated space will give teams the ability to easily work with and around each other on their projects.

“We didn’t used to be collocated … and it was a nightmare trying to get any of us working together,” said Andy Henson, deputy director of solutions development for analytics at SAIC. “Already from just being around each other we’ve got a project that’s come out of three of the teams.”

Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.

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