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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.