The traditional model of government contract awards is outdated—and that statement should surprise no one. By the time federal agencies draw up their list of needs and requirements for a request for proposal (RFP), award contracts, and receive the finished product, several years will have passed—and more often than not their needs have changed. This model doesn’t work for government agencies or the companies seeking to work with them.
Thankfully, there’s a new way to seek innovative solutions from the private sector gaining traction: technical challenges and demonstrations. This method takes projects off paper and into the physical world before an award is even given, and the benefits to this approach are huge for both parties.
What is a technical challenge?
Technical challenges, or tech challenges for short, bring prospective companies into government offices to work side-by-side for a set period—usually no more than a day. During this time, each team must prove the extent of their resident technical capabilities and vision for solving the problem put forth by the federal client. The idea is to evaluate bidders by what they can do, not what they say they can do.
Once the challenge is over, programmers and developers review the code to see which company executed the best plan and coded the best working program in the allotted time. From there, they can select the winner and get to work.
Four major benefits of tech challenges
1. Projects shift from linear to agile approaches
The rigid, linear way the government typically approaches contracts is modeled after the waterfall style of project management, which has largely fallen out of favor in the private sector. Waterfall leaves little room for shifting needs and priorities over the course of a project—a critical need for projects that take years to complete. By the time the government is ready to acquire a solution, it’s likely already obsolete.
Tech challenges, by contrast, align with agile development principles. They urge potential companies to build a small portion of the final product quickly and allow both parties to shift focus if needed before engaging in a full contract. This makes the likelihood of a final product actually being timely, relevant, and useful much greater.
2. Stakeholders get to work together from the get-go
The traditional awards process tends to be fairly impersonal in the early stages. It’s common for companies to meet their government customers for the first time after the papers have been signed and work is set to begin. Tech challenges allow teams to meet with their government counterparts from day one. This is great for several reasons. No matter how good something looks on paper, personal interactions add a whole extra dimension to a partnership. Tech challenges allow both parties to get a feel for each other and answer more than merely whether they can do the work—it answers whether they can work well together.
3. Show, don’t tell
In addition to getting a feel for everyone’s personality and learning whether you’ll work well together, tech challenges allow companies to show, rather than tell, their capabilities. It’s one thing for proposal reviewers to read all about your team’s agile certifications—it’s another thing to show them your agile methodology in practice. Likewise, if a company claims to design based on user experience principles but goes on to create a difficult-to-use platform, the experts evaluating the tech challenge can spot it immediately.
This is a win-win for both sides. Smaller and nontraditional companies and startups have an easier entry point for government work even if they have a highly skilled technical team but few or no staff dedicated to proposals. It’s also a great way for the government customer to have a tangible proposed solution to evaluate and a realistic preview of how the company operates.
4. Companies must work with what they have now instead of hiring later
Another downside to proposal submissions that tech challenges address is staffing. Many companies bid on work with the intention of hiring employees or subcontractors once they secure the work. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice, it does mean that the resumes submitted and the contacts listed in proposals aren’t always those of the people who will actually be doing the work.
When a company comes in for a tech challenge, however, they’re demonstrating that they have enough key personnel to do the job right now—and the tech challenge participants will likely stay on to lead the contract work upon award, as well. This helps both parties get a feel for whether their team can handle the challenge at hand without having to scramble to staff a contract later on.
U.Group’s tech challenge experience
Our team enthusiastically supports the transition toward tech challenges and demonstrations. They mirror how we prefer to work—approaching projects with agile methodology alongside our customers from day one. We recently participated in a coding challenge that had our team working along government stakeholders for a full day, developing a DevSecOps solution together. It was an exhilarating experience for the team members who participated and a great opportunity for us to show our chops while competing against other big-name players in the industry. Our team thrived in the environment and beat out 13 other firms to secure the win.
In a future post we’ll talk about the specifics of that code challenge, and what we learned from the experience. In the meantime, you can sign up for our newsletter to get U.Group’s latest insights and event listings delivered straight to your inbox.