Boeing Contract Spawns New Opportunities
Boeing's top business development executive talks about the company's move into professional services
P> George Coulbourn, who retired from Boeing May 23, forecasts changes in the infotech services industry. A native Virginian with a doctorate from the University of Virginia and an undergraduate degree from VMI, Coulbourn plans to split his time between McLean and Seattle, continue his Alaskan salmon and halibut fishing expeditions, and consult about one week a month. An instructor for the Trail Boss program and National Defense University, Coulbourn was Boeing Information Service's top business development executive for five years following extensive experience running programs. Most recently, he has been responsible for the company's professional services business area, a key ingredient to exploiting Boeing's big win on the Defense Enterprise Integration Services IDIQ contract.
WT: Tell us about Boeing's migration into professional services.
Coulbourn: When I say professional services, I am referring to what of late has become the [federal government's] most volatile and popular mechanism for acquiring services, the indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity unit price-type of contract. We're a DEIS contractor, and that has been a very good contract for us. It has gained us a lot of new customers and new associations and we learned a lot about the business. We're doing the same sorts of things we've always done for the customers, but the business delivery system is different.
DEIS has been a good, profitable contract for us. It's one that we bid very tightly, so we had to pay a lot of attention to the business management of that contract, especially in the early going.
WT: How could you afford to give a lot of value-added on such tight margins?
Coulbourn: It's difficult. We thought it would be difficult to find people at those margins, but it's not as difficult as you might imagine. There are a lot of people who enjoy the kind of work where they retain a fair amount of freedom. It's a different contract between the company and the employee. We frequently find people who have retired, who have a lot of experience, who have already had a career and who enjoy working in a situation where they don't need quite the long-term security you might have with a company.
WT: What are the most dramatic changes you see in the market?
Coulbourn: We're in a market dislocation in the federal government. And I think it results from the market becoming mature. We've seen the people, who are the most important aspect of the market, move from the classical following -- the product cycle.
Twenty years ago there was mystery and confusion. Some of the more adventurous souls would have computers on their desks, and then computers were placed on the desks of people who didn't really want them. But after that period of acceptance, there's an almost instantaneous move to impatience.
I think that's what we're seeing now -- a slow move to acceptance and then rampant impatience. 'Why does it take so long? Why can't I use this fantastic resource?' You see that frustration with the acquisition process, and in the demand for commercial, off-the-shelf products and very robust platforms that can accept changes in technologies.
Another thing that strikes me as just fascinating in terms of human behavior, because that's what this business is all about, is the potential for an extraordinary power shift between industry and government.
In the acquisition process, the federal government is gaining considerably more influence and more control over its own fate. And with that comes a great deal of risk and more responsibility than they've had before, which they might not be prepared for.
Growth of the multiple award, IDIQ contract coupled with the demise of [General Services Board of Contract Appeals] is simultaneously lessening the threat of protest, which hangs heavy over the head of government.
When we remove that threat which pervades everything they do, at the same time we're introducing this extraordinarily powerful means of acquiring services.
It's an amazing time to me. If I'm a government person I have the opportunity to get the people I want, almost instantaneously, doing whatever I want them to do, wherever I want, whenever I want, for as long as I want. And if I don't like what they're doing, I can get rid of them. Now that's as close to commercial practice as I can imagine. And it also brings extraordinary control, power and responsibility. One of most important lessons I've learned is that somebody's got to be the systems integrator, and it's not understood. It all has to fit together.
WT: Is there sufficient power and capability inside the government to manage that change?
Coulbourn: The problem is getting worse. People who are quite technically competent and also very knowledgeable of the system are retiring -- the giants of our business on the federal side.
I used to tell people in my classes, 'This has been an extraordinarily stable business. If I told you the first name of a person, you would know instantly who that person was. Hank (Philcox), Roger (Cooper), Reed (Phillips) -- the [information resource managers] who have been in their departments forever. These people have retired. They're almost irreplaceable.
WT: Boeing is an international company. Are you leveraging that to get into global markets?
Coulbourn: Not yet, in the sense that we are ready to execute a plan. We see that market out there. The market that we are exploring more seriously is the commercial market, as are all federal contractors, for obvious reasons -- for one, there's more commonalty between the two. Boeing will give us entree into the aerospace commercial market. It's a very challenging time.
WT: What are you doing in state and local?
Coulbourn: That has almost been subsumed into the federal. Even the new FTS 2000 is potentially an attractive vehicle for state and local. There's a growing commonality of platforms and services that makes it a relatively easy extension of service albeit a very complex marketing job. The market is very different, and fortunately, we have a presence in a number of areas in this country. I think we'll go about it by extending our presence.