In the FCW article “Sorry, DOD. Silicon Valley’s just not that into you“, columnist Sean Lyngaas cites comments from senior officials in the pentagon stating that the laggard and cumbersome processes within DoD acquisitions is what ultimately keeps the big boys of Silicon Valley at a steady arm’s reach from participating in Federal work. While the DoD does move slow through its procurements, both Mr. Lyngaas and the Pentagon have it wrong; the problem is not in the acquisition but in the execution. To be clear, I am separating the term acquisition into two phases: solicitation and execution. I am pretty confident that Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs can’t help but ignore the Billions (capital B) of dollars available for procurement, especially with the rise in cyber security problems for both public and private sectors. While a slow solicitation eats B&P dollars, companies can sometimes look past that if the ROI is decent. For example, look at the hundreds of angel investors grazing throughout Silicon Valley and New York City today; some of which will never see returns on their investments. For those that do, it can still take years before startups become profitable.
So why is execution such a problem for the Government? Simple, it comes down to two things: the closed nature of the Government, and its inability to fail fast (or even the ability to accept failure as success). Both these issues are wrapped in the mountains of regulations like the FAR, but at its core the Government is essentially bucking the trend of Silicon Valley directly. Being open and failing fast are paramount to any startup, and for the Federal Government to match that persona it has to start to do things differently.
For one, the Government needs to embrace Open Source development as foundational to all its solutions. Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs would be more adept to collaboration if there were more assurances that the software they develop wouldn’t be restricted from export. While some solutions have proprietary aspects to them, just leveraging open source frameworks and technologies consistently is a step in the right direction.
Secondly, Federal projects must embrace failure as a success. Not every idea conceived is plausible, scalable, and sustainable. Instead of spending time working solutions that will ultimately meet only 50% of the required solution, it is much better to cut, run and try a new idea/approach.
I believe these two principles are at the heart of many successful companies in Silicon Valley. Until the Government takes drastic steps to match these principles, the relationship between Silicon Valley will forever be as bad as the relationship between George Lucas and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (shame on you George…just shameful!).