Steampunk Looks to Bring Integrated, Human-centered Approach to GovCon

Steampunk has implemented extensive training around human-centered design methodologies, which has helped not only to focus the firm’s efforts, but also to help steer the team toward bigger horizons. Image: miakievy/iStock

As a design genre, “steampunk” refers to a futuristic melding of advanced technology and human aesthetics. That’s just what the new leadership was going for when it rebranded the recently acquired SE Solutions.

For 16 years, the company delivered cyber solutions in the homeland security space. As Steampunk, the firm seeks to bring a bigger, more human-centered approach to its government contracting work.

Robbe Pearson. Steampunk

Robbe Pearson, Steampunk

“It’s about putting users and stakeholders — and the problems they’re trying to solve — at the center of solutioning,” said Chief Marketing Officer Robbe Pearson.

In a GovCon world that can sometimes look like a sea of sameness, the Steampunk team is looking to stand out by putting the emphasis squarely on the human aspect.

“With cybersecurity as our foundation, we thought, where do we need to go from there? We decided we really wanted to hone in on a couple of areas that have the biggest impact,” Chief Technology Officer Sean Dillon said. That meant bringing human-centered design and strategy to the fore, and the firm has an entire practice devoted to doing that.

In addition, Steampunk emphasized the “platform” approach to technology, with low-code solutions that offer federal clients a faster time to market.

“Our customers are looking to put capability into the hands of mission users faster, without having to do a lot of custom development,” Dillon said. “So we’ve really focused on providing support to Salesforce and those types of platforms, and that’s going extremely well.”

Another area of focus is DevSecOps, a technology approach that integrates development, security and operations into a single streamlined workflow.

Sean Dillon, Steampunk

“Users get ideas about something that they can use, a piece of software or some kind of capability,” Dillon said. “It typically takes years to get through the cycle of how the government manages building, testing, deploying, ensuring that’s done properly. For us, it’s about getting that cycle time reduced, helping the organization work in an integrated way to get that path to production very, very fast.”

Finally, Steampunk is emphasizing data exploitation.

The government has become adept at generating mass quantities of data, but many agencies have yet to realize the full power of that collected information. Data is more a burden than a boon to mission.

“They are drowning under the weight of that,” Dillon said. “There’s a tremendous need for cleaning up that data and learning how to secure it and share it, how to visualize it and exploit it. That includes things like machine learning and artificial intelligence and some of the really advanced capabilities.”

While these technology fundamentals help to describe the Steampunk approach, the company’s leaders say the secret sauce is in how they bring those ideas to market.

Getting it done

Sean Dillon, Steampunk

Sean Dillon, Steampunk

In a crowded GovCon field, Steampunk’s premise sounds almost too simple.

“How do we differentiate ourselves from our competitors? We’re just going to get stuff done for our customer,” Dillon said.

“The reality is, many of the providers in this space are all about: How many butts can I put in how many seats and how long can I keep them there?” he said. “For us, it’s all about finding a hard problem and pointing our energy at that, getting that hard problem solved and then shaking the customer’s hand to say: ‘Thanks for the opportunity to serve.’ What we found is, when we do that, they won’t let go of our hand — because they have got a whole host of hard problems.”

To fulfill that promise externally, the team has had to build an internal organization that reflects that mindset. That has meant taking a deep dive into the inner workings of the firm, in order to drive a positive culture change.

“We have a huge team of amazing people who are delivering in a certain way, and now we’re shifting and changing that,” Dillon said. “We really thought about the values of the business and how we could build a strong culture of inclusion, diversity and people who want to get stuff done for our customers and have fun doing it.”

Steampunk has implemented extensive training around human-centered design methodologies. This has helped not only to focus the firm’s efforts, but also to help steer the team toward bigger horizons.

“Where we were primarily in DHS before, now we’re in federal civilian,” Pearson said. “We’re in Department of Defense, we’re in justice and legislative. This is a sizable shift, a new journey we’re going on, and we have new policies and methodologies in place so that we can practice what we preach. We feel that it should be integrated throughout our DNA, not just something that we offer as a service.”

Robbe Pearson, Steampunk

Robbe Pearson, Steampunk

As the company has embarked upon this new journey, the team naturally has had to navigate around certain obstacles.

For example, leadership realized early on the Steampunk moniker might be a sticking point: “Punk” can have negative connotations to some.

Rather than shy away, they decided to embrace the challenge.

“We wanted to bring a little bit of that West Coast startup feel to government contracting here in the D.C. area,” Dillon said. “We like the idea of being a little bit different. And our people are embracing that punk nickname — they do stand out in the best of ways!”

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