Non-traditional small IT contractors: 'A well-established niche that is here to stay'

Steve Kelman check in with another startup firm finding its way into government IT.

shutterstock ID: 309062636 by lightspring

Shaun So is a former reservist in Army intelligence who founded and now runs a small, 15-person tech firm called The So Company. After serving eight years in the Reserves, three in full-time duty assignments (including a year in Afghanistan), he sort of wandered around -- first doing contract intelligence work for a defense IT firm. So subsequently started business school and also invented a mobile app that he sold and made some money.

He then sought to mix his three skills – knowledge of government, tech expertise and writing talents he developed as an intelligence analyst – to start a business advising tech startups who wanted to act as subs selling their software to IT primes in the government marketplace.

At the same time, he was freelancing for Forbes about veteran entrepreneurship and innovation in government. In 2014 he was writing an article on hiring vets and went to a Google-sponsored event on the company’s recruitment efforts.

While there, he met somebody from the Department of Veterans Affairs and started talking about work VA was doing on human-centered design -- a concept with which So was familiar because of his work in the commercial startup world. The VA person was intrigued to involve So in the project, because of his commercial-sector background and his status as a veteran who knew how government worked. The VA official introduced So to Deloitte, the prime for some of this work, and Deloitte put him on their contract. From there he moved to do content production for the new website that was using non-traditional contractors. His company is also doing software development work.

So is now a full-fledged non-traditional contractor and is optimistic about the progress in this space. He did some research on small-business IT contracting, and concluded that while in 2015 non-traditionals (which he defined as firms genuinely using agile and human-centered design) constituted 20% of the small-business IT space; it is now up to 40%. “This is a well-established niche that is here to stay,” So said.

So is a charter member of the Digital Services Coalition, the advocacy and support group for non-traditional contractors. He knows a number of their important players, some of whom, such as Robert Rasmussen, the CEO of Agile 6 and of the Coalition, and Travis Sorensen, CEO of my favorite-named firm Oddball. In the classic networking tradition of these kinds of associations, So was able to get work through another Coalition member who needed a company that qualified as a veteran-owned business. (In that sense, at least, the new ecosystem retains elements of the old!)

So criticizes traditional contractors for too much happy talk, always assuring the government that they can do whatever is asked. He sees himself as different. “If you tell somebody, ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ you may not win more work,” he said. “That’s the risk we take. We won’t be the next Booz Allen by doing that. I have had to take myself off projects because I was honest, and the customer didn’t like it.

“Saying you are for change is a winning strategy in government,” So said. “Nobody has ever taken a senior position and said, ‘keep it the way it is.’ But there’s a difference between real change and lip service. So for the traditional contractors, before it was lean 6 sigma. Now it’s agile.”

So shares the criticism of those who worry that, for example, contractors claim to be doing agile but really aren’t. “The traditional contractors pick up the buzzword of the day. But for them it’s just another service”; they don’t have enough commitment to what it is they are doing.

NEXT STORY: Quick Hits