Leif Ulstrup Shares Insights from his New Dual Roles as Prime Hook CEO and American University Professor

Leif Ulstrup, Primehook Technology

Leif Ulstrup, Primehook Technology

One year ago, Leif Ulstrup struck out on his own to found Primehook Technology, LLC, a company that helps business and government leaders take advantage of the unprecedented volume and variety of data heading their way to shape new strategies for their organizations. He honed his skills at companies like CSC and Deloitte, where he led the companies’ missions to provide quality services to the federal government.

In addition to his new company, Ulstrup has also taken on a role as an executive-in-residence at American University’s Kogod School of Business, where he is teaching the young business minds of tomorrow. Recently, WashingtonExec spoke with Ulstrup about a number of key industry trends, as well as his experience with American’s first-year MBA students.

WashingtonExec: Lately, we’re seeing a demographic shift that’s happening in our agencies and in the contracting community. The Baby Boomers are retiring in rapid numbers, and the Millennial generation is entering the workforce with different expectations, communication styles, etc. How is this demographic shift affecting the industry?

Leif Ulstrup: Seeing the power of consumer-based IT and big data during the campaign, this administration reached out to Millennial generation IT innovators to play a bigger role in the federal IT market. A lot of the people that they tapped into had experience with the Silicon Valley start-up cultures and technologies and were familiar with Agile software development. This new generation of IT leader is accustomed to getting systems up and running quickly and then evolving with the market.

Millenials have a very different expectation of what it means to build information technology; they’re more accustomed to taking advantage of commercial infrastructure and open source, and they think of mobile first. A lot of those ideas initially rattled some of the traditional federal contractors, but many of the small businesses quickly adapted.

WashingtonExec: How is Agile development changing the way that agencies are using IT?

Leif Ulstrup: Agile software development is a way to build and field systems that focuses on evolving applications through iteration as well as focusing on the end-user and their experience. It involves thinking about doing things in an incremental way instead of trying to design a system to solve all user needs and then waiting years for the system to be fielded. The goal is to get capability up and running so it can be tested and validated as quickly as possible. Agile embraces the idea that creating and evolving systems is a learning experience for both users and developers and when humans are a big part of a system’s success you cannot specify every requirement upfront for a system that has never existed. It simply does not work.

These concepts go back to ideas promoted by the legendary software engineering expert Barry Boehm who advocated the use of ‘spiral development’ in the 1980’s to overcome the shortcomings of an overly rigid lifecycle development processes. The traditional waterfall development techniques that had been pioneered for use in mission-critical space flight and weapons systems in the 1970’s were not working for business systems where a different approach was needed. These iterative techniques, to a certain extent, have been at odds with the way federal agencies get funded and how they procure systems. For example, they need to secure funding years in advance for the ‘whole system’ they are going to build, and they’ve got to build commitment from Capitol Hill. Therefore, that overarching funding model is in conflict with the more rapid software fielding techniques where the funding model needs to be flexible as the users and system developers learn as they go and adjust the scope and functionality of the system based on user and current business or mission priorities.

Agile is a ‘pull’ system whereas the typical federal approach to systems has been a ‘push’ model.

The other thing that has happened is the emergence of cloud computing. It is all about self-service, on-demand computing and enabling small groups of people who are developing and fielding applications to access limitless computing and storage. Cloud enables you to tap into that power without the traditional bureaucracy that was required in terms of purchasing hardware and finding space to operate your own IT systems. Cloud speeds the process of getting applications up and running. It is accelerating the ability to do Agile development. When you don’t have as many constraints on a development team, they can move quickly and they can control the means of production.

The economic effect of self-service, on-demand cloud computing will eventually have a profound impact on the federal IT market and the relative differentiation of contractors.

The other two forces that are playing a big role in this are application programming interfaces, also known as APIs, and open source. Many more federal applications are now exposing data and services; they’re modeling themselves after the APIs you can find on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or the other commercial data sources that Google provides. This makes it easier to integrate systems and services in new ways to support a mission need.

Finally, the pace of innovation and availability of open source software is another game changer; making it easier and a lot less expensive for organizations to field new applications with their data.  The worldwide activity of people contributing to open source projects using crowdsourcing makes it very hard for a traditional software product companies to compete. The Millennials are at the forefront of open source innovation as is clear to anyone with a Github account.

WashingtonExec: How has our approach to collecting and analyzing data changed in recent years, and how is that change affecting the industry? 

Leif Ulstrup:  Pioneers in the field of business systems imagined executive information systems that would aid in critical decision making; however, data was very hard to access in previous generations of custom-built information technology. Today, the conditions are completely different. The volume and variety of data sources is growing at such a scale that a new term has been coined – ‘big data’. There is a lot of hype and hope surrounding the topic.

With the advent of open-source software and cloud computing, it’s very easy for an organization to put the data they’ve been collecting into new types of flexible databases at very low cost. The supply of data and cloud resources has stimulated the demand for data scientists to analyze that data and build predictive models to improve decision making.

The Internet of things (IoT) and the instrumentation of more of the physical world into sources of data will amplify the need for automation to separate valuable signals from the noise. The IT industry is hoping that insights gained from big data analytics and the development of predictive models of human and physical systems will fuel the next wave of investment in business information systems.  The economic benefits from the potential discoveries mining this data are projected in the trillions of dollars and the applications range from personalized medicine to cybersecurity prevention, auto insurance, customized educational courses, aircraft engine maintenance, and beyond.

WashingtonExec: Besides running Primehook, you also work as an Executive in Residence at the Kogod School of Business at American University. Will you share your experience working with students?

Leif Ulstrup: This semester I’m teaching a class in information and information technology strategy to first-year MBA students. My role is teaching them how to think about the management of information technology and it use as a tool in business strategy. For over twenty years, the Kogod School has placed a major emphasis on educating managers to be more technology-savvy, even if that’s not their primary job. They realized very early on that information technology was going to change everything about business, and the faculty in the information technology department at the business school has been an innovator. When the Internet emerged, they were one of the first business schools offering e-commerce education, and they’re experts in how globally distributed IT departments and projects can be run more effectively.

In fact, this fall American University is launching a Master of Science in Analytics program, and I am working with the head of the IT department to put together the practicum for that program. This two-year masters program will be taught out of the business school and will focus on preparing students to be effective executives as big data emerges and they have the potential to do more analytics. Helping to develop that program is part of my role as an Executive in Residence, and I am also enjoying working with the first-year MBAs this semester.

Related: Q&A with Leif Ulstrup: the Future of Cloud Technologies and Big Data