Winning IT contracts the military way

To tell the following story, I must change a few names to keep out of trouble. So, instead of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, it will be Force Red, Force Blue, and Force Green -- but not necessarily in that order. OK, then...

Back in the early '90s, I worked for a company in Tucson, Ariz., that specialized in military contracts. Among other things, we maintained the purchasing and maintenance records database for Force Red, using software that had initially been developed 20 years earlier by Force Green. I was part of the group that had written that old software, which probably helped get me hired at the Tucson outfit. In any case, we supported hundreds of military bases around the world and were operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We had a large datacenter with multiple mainframes that were used to store and process the data, plus several inbound WATS (Wide Area Telephone Service) lines, so bases could call in with processing requests.

When I got the job, most of the work involved batch processing with multiple tape mounts and dismounts. This ate up so much time we were able to provide only eight hours of online access to the clients during each 24-hour period. Then I came up with some software tricks that reduced the number of tape mounts, shortening the nightly batch processing session to less than four hours and affording our bases extended access. We also developed a request-scheduling system with an e-mail component that significantly streamlined our operation; this improved response for the clients even more.

Force Red was pleased, and our military users were too. Then the crystal palace began to crumble.

One day we had a visit from Force Blue. For many years, Force Green had been managing its original, unimproved software for Force Blue. But now Force Blue had heard that we were doing things for Force Red that Force Green claimed were impossible. When they saw our installation, Force Blue was livid at Force Green for not providing the same level of service.

The following year it was time for contract renewal. Ordinarily we'd have been confident; Force Red loved us. But Force Green controlled the contract award, and they were sore at us for making them look bad. To make matters worse, the company bidding against us (let's call it "Apex") was located in the same city where Force Green's software maintenance unit had its offices.