Software consortium offers helping hand on thorny technical problems

The Systems and Software Consortium also helps members with training programs

When government contractors and some federal agencies seek advice on tricky technical problems or program training, they often turn to the nonprofit Systems and Software Consortium Inc.

Founded in 1982, the consortium offers a neutral ground where almost 20 members, including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin Corp., NASA and the Transportation Security Agency, can confer and consult with the consortium’s nearly 50 systems analysts, software engineers, process management experts and training professionals.

“About 90 percent of the members are the large Tier 1 organizations,” said Michael Brandischok, director of account management at the consortium. “They are looking to us for very specialized input. For instance, when they experience [technical] challenges on ongoing government programs, they call on us for assistance.”

Training Support Offered

SSCI specializes in security, engineering and model-based development training and Capability Maturity Model Integration, or CMMI, an instructional program that provides organizations with the essentials of effective processes to ultimately improve their performance.

Brad Antle, president and chief executive officer of Salient Solutions LLC, was SSCI board chairman in 2006. He first became familiar with the consortium while working at Lockheed Martin in the early 1990s and then again as CEO at SI International Inc.

“At SI, we used them to help us get to CMMI level 3,” he said.

Antle added that SI International joined SSCI specifically to help it attain CMMI levels 2 and 3, a process that took about five years to complete.

“Every year, we measured our value in terms of training and resources that we got for our dollar,” he said. “We found that as long as you are diligent and you use the tools that they provide, it’s a good return on your investment.”

Brandischok said SSCI’s training is one of the consortium’s core strengths because it aligns closely with members’ situations.

“Before we even go out to a member company to provide that training, we generally have a conversation with them to ensure that the specific samples and case studies to be used throughout the training are [similar to] the member organization’s real-life scenarios,” he said.

Brandischok also cited the organization’s popular model-based development training, a concept SSCI introduced about 12 years ago. “Model-based [training] is somewhat similar to simulation really, but it gets a little bit more into the development phase than simulation does,” he explained.

“Instead of just building to a spec, you model it first and get an appreciation of what you are really trying to build,” added Mark Schuler, chief financial officer at SSCI.

By first building a model and altering it as needed, companies can get a better indication of what the outcome will be, Schuler said.

Building the Right Model

Computer Sciences Corp. turned to SSCI when it faced a complex technology project that involved extensive older systems.

Wendy Irion Talbot, vice president of CSC's Business Process Management Office, said the big challenge was to estimate the effort CSC would need to expend to complete some of the development work and then integrate the leading-edge technology with the existing systems.

“No one had done this before. It was very complex, and we struggled with it for a bit,” she said.

CSC and SSCI worked together to create better estimates of what the complex work would entail and how to implement it.

“Now, two years later, that mechanism is in place, and [it] has resulted in much more accurate estimating, which of course enables you to then have more accurate plans, and it has stabilized our ability to manage that program,” said Talbot, who is this year’s SSCI board vice chairwoman.

John Gilligan, founder of government consulting firm Gilligan Group in Fairfax, Va., was a senior vice president at SRA International Inc. when the company joined SSCI for CMMI assistance about four years ago.

He said that in addition to strengthening SRA’s CMMI training, the consortium gave the company valuable insight into how it stacked up against other government contractors doing similar work.

“We found, for example, as we brought in the [SSCI] experts, that in some areas we were struggling, but so was the rest of the industry,” Gilligan said.

SRA also could take advantage of some of the best practices available in other parts of the industry, he added. “That was a very helpful type of insight.”

Gilligan, who served as SSCI board chairman in 2008, said specific contract issues or proprietary information were never divulged despite the close interaction among SSCI members.

“We have certain guidelines in place that build a firewall that ensure that each member company’s information is secure,” Brandischok said.

“They do a fairly good job of taking things that companies develop specifically and report them in a way that doesn’t really disclose any intellectual property that might be competitively important,” Antle said.

Member organizations pay annual dues based on their size, anywhere from $5,000 for a small business to several hundred thousand dollars for the large, Tier 1 corporations.

Government agencies, however, pay a flat rate of $5,000 annually regardless of size.

Anything else would be complicated and could potentially create procurement issues for them, Brandischok said.

Expanded Services

A portion of the annual dues is set aside to pay for specific services that members might need throughout the year. Another portion is invested in new technology and training methods. And some of the money goes to fund common programs.

“We agree on certain topics that [members] want us to do ‘deep-dive’ research into. We escrow some of the funds for that purpose,” Schuler said.

SSCI also will take on special projects for members under a contract for services arrangement, he added.

“Toward the last quarter or so, we get together with the member organizations and identify the key challenges or key topics of either training or technologies that they would like to have addressed,” Brandischok said.

Approved topics are included in the next calendar year’s working plans.

Despite the weak economy throughout 2009, membership in SSCI has remained strong. “We have some things that you just can’t get anywhere else,” Schuler said.

“For an organization that is trying to develop maturity, [SSCI] is certainly of importance,” Antle said. “But once a company has hit a certain level of maturity, you wonder how important the consortium is.”

Perhaps by way of answering that question, SSCI created a for-profit spin-off company in July 2009 called SSCI Services, which gives the consortium an opportunity to expand its government work and also attract new members.

Consortium members and others can work with SSCI Services and earn small-business credit, which they could not do through the nonprofit organization under Small Business Administration rules, Schuler explained.

“We have already seen very significant successes,” Brandischok added.

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