Minh Tran, an independent mobile app developer, knows this well. Based in Virginia, Tran developed Fix311, a mobile app used for roadway damage alerts that has been adopted by a number of jurisdictions around the country. More recently, Tran developed CardSwapp, an app that processes mobile payments using QR codes.
But Tran notes that while he's had some success working with government, it isn't easy for someone like him to break into the world of public-sector IT. He told Government Technology that government RFP processes typically aren't very friendly to new developers. He sees a tremendous opportunity for governments, balancing tight budgets, to leverage the ideas of newer and smaller IT providers.
“I have yet to meet a jurisdiction that offered any special support to independent app developers,” Tran said. And while Tran empathizes with public-sector resource constraints, he thinks it's time to inject some flexibility into government processes that would allow them to benefit from innovators like him.
Government typically awards projects to established companies with long track records, viewed, at least on paper, as "safe bets," Tran said. This often keeps smaller developers from bringing more innovative products to municipalities, while also preventing public-sector agencies from innovating in a cost-effective way.
1. Don’t Underestimate the Little Guy
Big-box branding can overshadow local talent, who typically can't afford top-dollar marketing campaigns. However, it’s important to remember, Tran said, that many projects may not call for big-box solutions — with its associated big-box pricing. Many communities can achieve huge savings, and hit more of their IT targets, by considering smaller companies.
“Government should not dismiss new companies. New companies offer new ideas and often, more efficient solutions,” Tran said. “Just because a company is new, does not make it risky. If you look at some of the best companies out there, they all had humble beginnings where they had to compete against the gorillas of their industry.”
As examples, Tran pointed to current tech industry giants, like Facebook and Google, that once launched as untested startups. Tran said there have been many cases where contracts will go to companies that have either “established” relationships or industry clout, even if the products offered were not technologically competitive.
2. Try It First
The next tip may appear obvious, but it’s not always so. Tran recommends that officials selecting tech providers personally use the prototypes and demo the software. Don’t trust the brochures or assume a software demo is as straightforward as it seems, he said.
“During a demo, the product may seem stable in the hands of the representative; however, this is a controlled environment,” Tran cautioned.
Independent developers benefit from hands-on use, Tran said, because accountability creates a more even playing field in which the tech speaks for itself.
3. Look at Goals, Not Flashy Features
Tran encouraged municipalities to focus on their key IT goals and not be distracted by the total number of product features. Large companies have a lot of resources, which can manifest as additional features, but many may not be necessary for a particular project.
“When a big company makes a product, it usually will ask itself, ‘How can we make money on this or will the features win a proposal?’ Whereas an independent developer may ask, ‘Is the product that I am creating solving a big problem efficiently?’” Tran said.
Basing decisions on whether a solution will meet specific project goals, versus its number of features, allows independent developers to focus their ingenuity in a competitive way.
4. Consider Trending Tech over Historical Tech
It’s no secret that the latest technologies are the indigenous environment for aspiring app creators. Tran urged governments to look beyond traditional technologies and consider what's coming. Too often, he said, governments miss out on opportunities because they’ve grounded themselves too heavily in the technology they're already using.
“Sometimes, the government will ask for declining technology (for example, BlackBerry), and you have to be sure to offer those features even if you disagree with the request and even if you consider the feature to be a poor ROI for the government,” Tran said.
Requirements that include dated features often eliminate new developers, who might not have additional resources to dedicate to a declining technology.
5. Create a Unified, User-Friendly RFP Process
“There is no good centralized RFP site, with specific standards on the process,” Tran said, although he credited the U.S. Small Business Administration with making some progress with its RFP-EZ website. In general, Tran views the RFP process as highly organized and at the same time, highly haphazard, depending upon the agency.
An admittedly hefty task, Tran called for a unified and collaborative approach when crafting government procurement processes. There are few things that can hinder a developer more, Tran said, than not knowing where to start, and for many working with government, the RFP process is that starting line.
Tran acknowledged that reforming procurement processes may be a long-term goal for governments, but he sees it as a critical goal that would benefit many small app developers who struggle to sift through so much red tape.