How DC is seen by the rest of the country

Steve Harris, senior vice president and general manager at Dell EMC Federal, discusses the structure of relationships when a business's main customer is the fed...

A large portion of the D.C. region’s economy comes directly from private companies dealing with the federal government in the public sector. However, the nuance and structure of dealing with the government as a customer isn’t always clear to companies and entrepreneurs outside of D.C. To get better insight into how government contracting works, we spoke with Steve Harris, senior vice president and general manager at Dell EMC Federal.

ABERMAN: What makes it fun to work with the government?

HARRIS: I think it’s a lot of fun working with the public sector in general. I’ve actually made a career of very specifically working across every segment of the public sector. So, I’ve done higher education, K-12, healthcare, I’ve done state and local government. And now, I do fed. It’s the association with a mission, in all of these different areas, that is the real thrill of being part of the mix.

ABERMAN: When you say mission, I hear that a lot when I talk with people who I work with in government. But what does that actually mean?

HARRIS: For both me, as well as the thousands of employees I’ve had at Dell EMC, it’s actually understanding why we are selling technology, why we are working with people, what they’re trying to do with it, and what that actually means. So, I have folks that have been married to the K-12 sector, as an example, for their whole careers, because they care so much about student outcomes, teaching and learning, pedagogy, curriculum. We become an expert in what the actual customer does, and then bring technology to the mix, to help people reach their full potential.

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ABERMAN: Is it that public service aspect that really is the biggest difference selling to a government customer, compared to say, a commercial customer?

HARRIS: Oh, you can’t imagine the passion that exists in my organization, as an example, around the support of the Department of Defense. I think that all of our citizens appreciate, in a very heartfelt way, the sacrifices that folks in uniform make on our behalf in keeping us safe every day. But we actually get to work with them, understand their mission, and deliver technology that actually is out on the battlefield, and supporting the people that support the troops.

ABERMAN: What is it that keeps people from really understanding or appreciating that folks in the government sector probably work as hard, or harder, than their analogs in the commercial sector?

HARRIS: Well, a lot of government happens in one place, that’s Washington, D.C., right? So you have forty-five states that are a long ways away. And so, D.C. becomes this image that they gain through whatever media. The more involved you get, and the closer you work with the people in the agencies, you find people that care deeply about what that agency is responsible for executing on. Many many times, and I’ll tell you I see it every day, there’s people that could be making a lot more money working on the commercial side, but they’re so dedicated to the agency’s mission, that they work long hours for less pecuniary benefit than they’d get someplace else.

ABERMAN: Yeah, I’ve seen that, consistently. Are we just bad at PR?

HARRIS: Well, it’s funny. It’s like a great big accumulation of Fortune 100 companies. It’s the complexity, I think, that gets in the way of people understanding what’s going on. And you hear more about the lawmakers, and what’s going on in the White House, than you hear about, you know, what what the actual individual that’s getting their car, driving through rush hour traffic, going to the agency, and actually doing God’s work, right? You just don’t hear about those folks, and unless you’re lucky enough to work closely with them, it’s really hard to understand.

ABERMAN: Now, I know you’re very involved, in your current position, in technology, from the standpoint of what’s the cutting edge. Before I let you go, where’s the government in the lead right now in technology, or where’s the biggest area of technological opportunity right now, that you see with your government customers?

HARRIS: I think government’s doing a great job of trying to get ahead of the cyber threat that exists. There’s no greater threat to our country and our freedoms, than the threat of the cyber offense coming from nation-states, coming from all kinds of different bad actors, and I give this administration, this White House, an awful lot of credit for pushing the envelope, and advancing our cyber capability, and through bringing things like artificial intelligence to bear, and getting to next-generation capabilities in support of areas like cyber.

ABERMAN: Well Steve, I want to thank you for coming into the studio today and being a voice for the millions of people here who work their butts off so we can live safer and better. It’s just been great having you here, thanks for joining us.

HARRIS: Well, thanks, it’s nice talking to you, and I’m grateful for the service of all the men and women that are our federal workforce.

ABERMAN: Thanks. That was Steve Harris, who is here with Dell EMC Federal.

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