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Ten secrets to network subcontracting

What do you need as a network subcontractor to get on a design and build team, and subsequently to perform well on that team? Learn here.

David Lease

Your company has just participated in a proposal and won, and your role as a major subcontractor contributed significantly...

to that win. You, your prime contractor, and the other partners are ecstatic…for about four hours, or however long it takes you to exhaust the champagne supply. Personnel decisions, logistics, coordination with partners, and all the other operational issues can wait until Monday, right? Wrong.

This article will not be an existential discussion of what makes a good subcontractor. Performing in that role requires a pragmatic, realistic approach to the way business works. A recent trend in contracting is to not only shorten the bidding cycle, but to cut the time between award and the beginning of actual performance. The result is your team may have only a day or two between the elation of victory and the cold reality of doing the job. As a subcontractor, there are a number of things you can do to assist the prime in smoothing this transition.

Between the point of proposal submission and contract award is the ideal time to work out a number of issues with your team. There is a risk of expending effort with no guarantee of return, but you should view this as a continuation of the proposal process, and it's unlikely you were compensated for that. View it pragmatically, and if the prime doesn't promote partner meetings to plan for post-award activities, tactfully suggest it. The entire team will be responsible for delivery and the perception of quality of that delivery.

What do you need as a subcontractor to get on the team, and subsequently to perform well on that team? A good prime contractor will consider a number of the following issues.

Contract requirements: Are you able to help the prime satisfy some of the requirements of the procurement? Specifically, are you a small business, disabled veteran, woman or minority-owned business, and does the contract mandate involvement of these and other types of business? Be sure to understand the details of your NIAC (National Industry Advisory Committee) classification, and whether or not you may have multiple classifications. Even if there is no requirement for many of these small businesses, you can be involved and contribute to the prime's image of being a good business and sharing the wealth.

Performance history: What have you done in the past that relates to this contract? What are your core capabilities, and do you have a good track record? Understanding what the discriminators of the prime contractor are and how your performance history supports those is critical. This is true not only during the proposal phase but throughout the execution of the contract (particularly the beginning of contract execution).

Organizational capabilities: Do you have the management team in place to handle the contract at hand? If you have to add staff, do you have a human resources department capable of rapid expansion of the right kind of staff? If this is a PBC (performance-based contract), have you experience with the reporting requirements and additional management aspects to deliver against this?

Technical capability: This is occasionally confused with experience. It is a measure of your organization's ability to understand and solve the technical tasks you will be assigned when the award is made. It is often essential to develop several technical alternatives and to demonstrate the costs/benefits of each of these. The prime has a different, broader perspective than the subcontractor and may have reasons that are unknown to you for selecting one alternative over another.

Teaming roles: Recall your grade school report cards and that section for "plays well with others"? Do you work well within the prime's team? Working with your peers without the prime's intervention is critical to the success of the team, and makes life much easier on everyone involved.

Communications: Do you present well? Are you clear in written and oral communications? Do you communicate often, through the appropriate process channels, and with appropriate security considerations? Where are you located in relation to the prime? Nothing can make up for proximity to the prime customer. If at all possible, co-locate with the prime.

Certifications and accreditations: Do you possess the necessary certifications and/or accreditations required by the contract? Having certifications beyond the scope of your specific work area is sometimes helpful to the team as well.

Facilities: If required, do you have the necessary office locations, manufacturing capabilities, warehousing, and transport?

Security: Do you and your key personnel have the necessary security clearances to participate in the contract? Be sure to check the details of this. Many agencies carry their own clearance requirements even though they may be a part of an organization where you already have clearances. For example, the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) has a clearance separate from the Treasury Department (where they are currently located), and likely will maintain a separate one from the Justice Department (where they are relocating).

Financial infrastructure: Do you have the necessary accounting and legal systems in place to support the prime in his delivery of services and materials against this contract? Can you support various federal audits that may occur during the course of contract fulfillment?

Being a good subcontractor really should start with your participation in the proposal process. Be willing to commit some time and effort to the generation of the proposal (should the prime request it), place people in position to aid in preparation of presentation materials, oral practice sessions, and oral presentations if necessary. Your cooperative, communicative attitudes before, during, and after proposal submission, award, and subsequent performance are a large part of achieving status as a good subcontractor.

About the author:
David Lease is chief architect responsible for solutions definition and architecture for customers of WamNet Government Services, Inc. WamNet Government Services is a leading architect and manager of secure enterprise networks for public sector and defense agencies. Contact David at

This was last published in June 2004

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