Catch the wave
Qwest’s Gowen prepares for more Networx opportunities in 2009
Diana Gowen, senior vice president and general manager of Qwest Government Services, seems unable to pull her punches. A savvy and successful executive — when Qwest won one of three spots on the General Services Administration’s multibillion-dollar Networx contract, media reports often described Qwest as an upstart company — Gowen also has earned a reputation for being outspoken.
She spoke recently with Washington Technology contributing editor Sami Lais about the progress of the Networx contract and where it is headed.
Q: In light of the presidential transition and economic crisis, in addition to an uncertain future for agency budgets, are some strategic communication decisions being placed on the back burner?
Gowen: What I have observed over time is that agencies don’t do transformational things at times like this. And that’s what I’m observing today. I’m seeing a lot of agencies doing like-for-like transitions.
What I’ve been saying is: "Let’s get through this and then see what we can do to make life better for everybody."
Q: Last spring, you said things would speed up as more agencies got their requests into the pipeline. Is reality matching expectations?
Gowen: We had a mini-tsunami in the fall because of the Sept. 30 deadline and agencies rushing to try to get awards made. But then awards were not made.
Now that we have clarification on [Trusted Internet Connections requirements and other issues], we see another tsunami building. We expected to see a final round, but there are still Cabinet-level agencies that have not put out their fair opportunity statements of work. In the first and second quarters of this year, we are finally going to see all those Cabinet-level agencies that haven’t yet put out their [statements of work] do exactly that. And I hope that for those agencies that did put out [statements] in ’08, we’ll finally see those wrapped and get some awards made.
Q: Any surprises in how Networx has been proceeding?
Gowen: What has been surprising to me is that once the acquisition rules changed in the authorization bill of last January, and awards became protestable, there have been four awards protested and then the awards were canceled. I would have thought that agencies would have shown a little more diligence in assuring themselves that their awards were not protestable and were good awards. Although it wasn’t a surprise to me that the General Services Administration gave agencies a little leeway as far as the Sept. 30 deadline, what did surprise me — and continues to surprise me — is that agencies are taking forever to get these awards done.
Q: Only 15 percent of agencies made the Sept. 30, 2008, deadline. You’ve said that you’ve seen agencies trying to model their statements of work on those of other agencies, but the differences are too great, and they spend a lot of time trying to adapt them. Is there something agencies can do to streamline the process?
Gowen: I don’t think that’s the issue. Agencies have advisers, consulting companies they’ve hired. What I really think is happening — for large and small agencies — [goes back to how] Networx was originally presented. It was touted as this portfolio of services that would let you craft transformational networks, which is good.
But some agencies, while they’re not actually transforming their applications, are using the Lego blocks, the components of Networx, in configurations that were not expected. And that causes all of us responding to these do special, unique things. And agencies have special, unique service-level agreements and special and unique billing requirements over and above all that was special and unique in Networx to begin with. It sometimes takes almost as much time to respond to the smaller [statements of work] as it does to some of the large ones, because they are using all of the Lego blocks to build their solution.
Q: Because there’s no off-the-shelf sort of solution?
Gowen: Well, that’s what’s interesting. There are things that they could do off the shelf, but they opt not to. It’s more about the power of Networx: You can do something completely off the shelf, or you can craft something unique. And more often than not, agencies are crafting something unique. So, with National Archives, it’s a little tweak here. With [the Homeland Security Department], it’s the huge tweaks that you would expect with an agency of that huge size and complexity.
Q: What about the Veterans Affairs Department?
Gowen: Part of the reason VA was able to get things out the door and awarded quickly is that they did pretty much standard off the shelf, and they had a limited configuration that you had to bid to.
It was a good example of what you were going to experience over the long term, but nevertheless, you didn’t have incredible pricing exercise or 6,000 locations. [VA’s approach] made life a little simpler for all of us. It probably made life easier for them as well, from the evaluation perspective.
Therefore, they were able to get an award out the door faster than anybody else.
Q: That probably saved VA some money, too. Right?
Gowen: Absolutely. Because they all have trusted advisers, companies they’ve hired to help them write these [statements of work] and evaluate responses.
Q: Data center services are part of Networx. Then in May 2008, John Johnson, assistant commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service Office of Integrated Technology Services, talked about expanding them to make Networx a broader avenue to data center optimization. Have you seen much interest from agencies?
Gowen: An interesting thing [about data center services on Networx] is that back when we were first bidding on Networx, [and in the context of] our experience as a data center provider for the Treasury Department, the U.S. Mint, the National Institutes of Health, we saw that GSA was asking for structuring [of those services] differently from the way those agencies had purchased them. When I look at Networx, I use the Lego blocks metaphor. So we expected that once awards were made, agencies would be looking to do things a little bit differently than the way GSA had structured them.
But there have really been limited requests for data centers. The Labor Department has a bid out right now — I think clarifications are all in or will be soon. And part of the U.S. Courts bid is a very large data center requirement. But other than that, we haven’t seen a lot of data center requirements.
Q: Why haven't there been more data center requirements?
Gowen: Data centers are really sticky, and customers don’t want to [change] unless they’re doing a wholesale upgrade. And then it’s a little bit easier to pick the whole thing up, and you don’t have to do a forklift; you just deliver the new stuff. I think there’s a hesitancy on the part of agencies to embrace the data center concept on Networx, because, as I said, it’s sticky and it’s a hard thing to convert.
Q: What do you see 2009 bringing?
Gowen: We continue to look forward to the tsunami [of new orders] being a small one, or maybe more like wavelets over time. I know John Johnson over at GSA is hoping for the same thing. What he hopes is that when GSA gets the SOW and has to review them, that it is able to look across the board at the number that have come in and release them in pieces so that we don’t have a lot of Cabinet-level agencies releasing their entire statements of work all at the same time.
That’s what I look forward to in the new year — little wavelets instead of a huge tsunami.