Q&A with Steve Charles of immixGroup: The Changing Federal IT Landscape

Steve Charles, Co-founder, immixGroup

Steve Charles, Co-founder, immixGroup

The Institute for Sales Excellence (IES) recently announced that immixGroup co-founders Steve Charles and Jeff Copeland and former president and CEO Art Richer will be awarded its 6th Annual Lifetime Achievement Awards on June 3. The leaders will be recognized for guiding a company that helps technology enterprises do business with the federal government. Past award winners have included leaders at Oracle, Cisco, IBM, and NetApp.

We conducted a Q&A with Steve about his career in public sector sales and the changing federal IT landscape.

WashingtonExec: What attracted you to public sector sales?

Steve Charles: After a career in advertising during my 20’s, I found myself in Washington chasing a woman. I got a job with a local IT reseller supporting their sales organization where on my first day I learned that as marketing director I was also responsible for our government contracts. As they put it, “you can’t sell anything in this town without one.” I immediately enrolled in a government contracts class and asked countless questions of our consultants and lawyers. It took five years of continuous learning for me to put together the disciplines of marketing, sales and contracts in the federal market. What attracted me? It was the challenge of getting to the bottom of how everything works and then being able to apply it in different selling situations for different technologies that have captured my interest and held it for the past 30 years.

WashingtonExec: How have you overcome preconceived perceptions some have of sales to build a successful sales program?

Steve Charles: Some beliefs are accurate and some are not. Since the sales and marketing landscape is constantly shifting depending on what you are selling and who your prospective customers are, most notions are somewhat ill informed. But to build a program we need to build upon a solid platform, a baseline, to deal with the 80 percent that stays constant, while recognizing there are exceptions and workarounds for a relatively small minority. Too often sales programs get built around the exception that was leveraged for the big deal everyone remembers rather than the rule for the run-rate business. In the public sector where we are seeking to capture business funded by taxpayer money, we want to ground ourselves in the government’s acquisition planning and procurement processes as key activities, milestones and metrics in our pipeline and forecasting model. When we customize each type of item we are selling and include our partners in our programs, we are on solid ground and create programs that can scale and deliver ever-more predictable results over time.

WashingtonExec: How do you collaborate with marketing to build an integrated sales program?

Steve Charles: As an advertising undergraduate at Temple University, I was trained to integrate all marketing and sales activities, making adjustments in the mix based on objective data throughout the product life cycle. From defining market segments to developing compelling messages and empowering sales teams to deliver them to prospects, the whole marketing mix process requires integration, feedback from the market and adjustment to keep it fresh and relevant. Sales is on the front line and its day-to-day interactions should inform the next spiral of innovation with a strong definition of where we provide the better value versus our competition. This should occur while marketing pushes substantive content and compelling messaging so the right prospects will want to open their doors to our salespeople.

WashingtonExec: What conversations are you having with clients about federal IT acquisition initiatives such as FedRAMP and FITARA?

Steve Charles: Both of these initiatives are part of the broad trend in the government to centralize IT for the benefit of the enterprise. This effort will take decades and legal changes beyond FITARA. FITARA changes the authority of the CIO, especially the program managers relative to IT. While each program is still funded by Congress for a particular activity and the authority for deciding how that money is spent still resides at the program manager level, Congress, through FITARA, is now saying that program managers need to inform CIOs of their IT spending plans for approval so agencies are centrally deciding which technologies best fit their architecture and long term plans. This is a big change. For any company selling new technological approaches, this change means selling at both the program manager and CIO levels. The company must have both a programmatic focus as well as an enterprise view.

FedRAMP is also a centralizing concept, related to implementing another law, FISMA, which requires each agency’s Inspector General to audit each business system for compliance with the latest NIST security controls and report back to Congress. FedRAMP was created to help eliminate the redundancy of each agency having to do this for a cloud service that was also being used by another agency. Since this is about security, the requirements are a constantly moving target. Combine that uncertainty with the fact that each cloud service itself is constantly evolving while each agency’s implementation of a particular software application in a cloud stack has different business system boundaries than the one certified in the FedRAMP process, and you can see that this is not as simple as many had hoped when everyone was only thinking about cloud at the infrastructure layer. This process will be a long winding road with each twist and turn an opportunity for substantive conversations between the buy-side and the sell-side players in the ecosystem.

WashingtonExec: How can government best overcome its acquisition challenges?

Steve Charles: I go back to where everything in the system begins: the many statutory changes each year that are then implemented in regulation. For example, we had 99 provisions in Title VIII of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the legislative vehicle for changes in the acquisition system each year (the 2017 NDAA proposes 40). Some of the rule changes needed to implement them are proposed in a timely manner, but many are not. The sad fact is that the timeline from an idea for a law change to actual implementation averages about five years. In that five years everyone is confused about what is actually required. Typically, a company that lobbied for a particular provision spins up a marketing campaign around it, expecting results that year, but they are responding to regulations that aren’t yet written rules so the workforce has no authority to act. This leads to frustration about the “system” when, in fact, it’s a simple lack of understanding about all the steps in the process and how long each takes. My wish would be that whenever the media references a statutory provision related to the acquisition system, it also references the status of the accompanying regulation required to implement the statute, so we could all be working from the same realistic timeline.

WashingtonExec: What is the technology that will impact the public sector most over the next five years?

Steve Charles: By “impact” are we talking about the five years of buzz that typically precedes actual buying, or are we talking about the actual buying that typically starts to ramp in the five years after no one is talking about it anymore? I predict that the buzz will be all about IoT at the enterprise level, which is what NSF and NIST are referring to as cyber-physical systems. These systems are increased connection of things not previously connected combined with the intelligence of information technology. The result is a whole new set of policy-level challenges that we will have to talk about while pilot programs take root. As far as actual procurement shifts, the as-a-service models are fairly well matured now, so increased integration of hybrid services will likely be the largest shift in dollars bringing with it new challenges in orchestration and governance, in addition to contractual, billing, and accounting challenges.

You can learn more about the Institute of Sales Excellence Life Time Achievement Award or to register to attend the event please go to: https://i4esbd.com/event/6th-annual-ies-sales-excellence-awards/

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