Think Like You're A Startup—Especially If You're Not One

By Phil Rainsberger

We've all heard the words spoken before: “We need to act more like a start-up company.”  We may (gasp!) even have spoken them ourselves.  We may, most likely, also have come to the conclusion that making good on that unassailable aspiration is a long, tough, often impossible haul.

The reason for that, of course, is that no established enterprise or institution is a start-up.  Certainly, there is room for individual operating entities within a organization to break from the conventions of its parent and function as a start-up would.  But taking an entire enterprise and giving every entry on the organizational chart a clean sheet for setting up shop is an exercise best abandoned.

Still, though, there's value in identifying and evaluating specific steps aimed at specific ends that rely on the best aspects of a start-up mentality to improve overall organizational performance.

And while no Federal Government agency would ever be confused with a start-up, the approach being taken at the Department of Homeland Security is a useful model for how even the largest of institutions can help keep itself in the best possible – if not always optimal – operating shape.

“Given the times we live in, we need to be more agile [with] how we spend our resources, taking a page from the startup community,” said William Bryan, the senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary for science and technology, and a man whose job title reflects the rules-bound limits to optimal governance he faces.

“We have to change and act more like a venture capitalist for our DHS security technology. We have to focus on return on investment,” he said at a recent conference.

In his role, Bryan oversees the 14 Homeland Security Centers of Excellence, which are university partnerships responsible for building innovative technologies to solve many of the agency’s most pressing problems. At the agency’s annual Centers of Excellence Summit, he stressed the need to stay ahead of adversaries in emerging technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence and big data analytics. 

Operationally, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is responsible for identifying solutions to both present and future problems, Bryan said.  DHS is uniquely well positioned to do so, given the government's refreshed emphasis on long-deferred technology upgrades and budget increases to back the initatives. While it’s rare to find a technology that addresses every angle of a given problem, he said when a solution is promising, S&T is more than willing to inject the extra funding to get it over the finish line, a practice any enterprise does well to emulate.

“We simply can’t afford to be years behind on this,” Bryan said, “When [DHS] realizes there's a problem … the solution needs to be quick and turned around very rapidly. Long gone are the days of taking five-plus years to come up with a solution.”

“A good hockey player skates to the puck, a great hockey player skates to where the puck is going to be,” Bryan said, quoting hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. And for Bryan, the stakes are higher than merely missing out on a scoring opportunity.  “In this area of homeland security … we have to meet the threat where it’s going to be before it gets there.”

DHS CIO John Zangardi provided some specifics for how the agency intends to make good on its strategy as he outlined plans for a hybrid cloud with room for multiple cloud service providers because the DHS components all have different needs.  “We don’t want 100, but this will be a hybrid strategy that will allow for multiple players,” he said.

As with any established enterprise, DHS is looking at ways to streamline the process of moving to the cloud such as looking at whether the DHS authority to operate is too bureaucratic. “We need to start unclogging things,” Zangardi said.  Right now there are 29 applications hosted in the cloud and another 70 have been identified that should move, he said.

An important question to answer is what functions need to remain with the components. “We need to conserve the ability of the components to complete their missions,” he said.  “The cloud will fundamentally change how we define IT,” Zangardi said.

“Nothing is going to happen overnight,” he said. “This will take time.”

The challenges DHS faces are probably sound familiar to you.  When you've got the time, we'd love to share with you some of the lessons we've learned and talk with you about how they might make your migration to the cloud – or any number of other new technologies – smoother and easier for you.