The Defense Information Systems Agency often relies on the small business community to assist in its mission to provide seamless communication services and cutting-edge IT to American war fighters and senior military officials across the globe. From cyber defense to cloud storage, small businesses offer flexibility and efficiency, often rendering them uniquely equipped to meet Department of Defense rapid capability demands.

That emphasis isn’t new at DISA, where specific goals and requirements help spur the agency to fully embrace the innovation small businesses can offer. The Office of Small Business Programs functions as the principle advocate for small businesses within the agency, leveraging its position as the primary adviser to the director, senior leaders, workforce and industry on all aspects of programs “to ensure the continuous growth of the small business industrial base that supports information technology products and services for the global war fighter.”

Carlen Capenos took over as the director of the Office of Small Business Programs in August, as the office was coming off a strong fiscal 2018 — spending $1.72 billion and surpassing its small business goal of 28 percent.

Capenos talked to C4ISRNET’s Brandon Knapp about her plans to find areas for improvement and continuing the office’s success — or, as she puts it, “not trying to fix what doesn’t need to be fixed.”

C4ISRNET: Share a little about your background and how it has equipped you for your new position as the director of Small Business Programs at DISA.

CARLEN CAPENOS: I have 22 years of federal service. I’ve spent 17 of those in contracting, so I have a solid background in contracting. I’ve worked for the Air Force, for the Army. And the last three years I’ve worked for DISA. For the Corps of Engineers, I did a job for a couple of years for the construction industry. I think all those things rolled together allow me to have a good solid basis for being this director and helping DISA and its mission, as well as the small businesses in our industry.

C4ISRNET: Why is it important for DISA to have a good relationship with the small business community?

CAPENOS: The first thing is that it’s the law. So, to be compliant, we’re going to do it. But it behooves us to do it well. And it behooves us to have the relationships with industry to help us when we need help and support them when they need support.

But really the bottom line of our goal is to deliver what our war fighters need. And a lot of times the small businesses can do it and will do it. That allows us to meet our statutory goals and law-based requirements, but really when they have the best answer and can get us a solution quickest — that’s the real priority for us to have the relationships with the small businesses. Because in the end, it is all about the war fighter.

C4ISRNET: What are you particularly excited about at DISA in the next year or so?

CAPENOS: I’m super excited about SETI, our systems engineering, technology and innovation requirement. So much of the focus of that contract really was about bringing innovative small businesses to DISA. As we were working toward that request for proposals we asked, “How can we remove barriers to get those innovative small businesses to come to us and want to work with us?” And we developed SETI around that.

In my new role, I still want to have an active part in getting those small businesses into DISA to figure out what DISA’s main innovative challenges are and to set up a forum that works for DISA and for industry. Whether it’s through the SETI vehicle or through our [other transaction authority] process or any other way that can be advantageous for small businesses, for DISA and, most importantly, the war fighter.

C4ISRNET: How do you see the Office of Small Business Programs’ role externally in working with these businesses?

CAPENOS: We need to be the advocates for the small business. We spend a lot of time meeting individually with small businesses. We do a monthly group meeting with small businesses that are either new to federal contracting or new to DISA, so we can show them how we’re organized, how we execute contracts, programs that we have upcoming, and a lot about how to find information and where to get information.

C4ISRNET: What about advocating for the small business community within DISA?

CAPENOS: We also teach internally. We teach our contracting folks. We work with them on doing market research and we work with them on their acquisition strategies: Should we set this aside for small business? Should we not set this aside? If we’re going to set it aside, can we hit one of the other federally designated categories?

Because we report directly to the commander, we also are leadership’s eyes and ears for small business. We apprise them of where we are, where we’re going … any issues, concerns. Once contracts are awarded, we also can be involved if there are issues with performance, to help improve performance or to see what we can do to facilitate corrective actions. We do whatever’s necessary to make sure that small businesses have a voice.

C4ISRNET: What aspects of the IT community are challenging for small businesses?

CAPENOS: The issues that we’re starting to see for small businesses, though it hasn’t really come directly to us at DISA, include the fact that the requirements for all the cybersecurity can be very expensive. There have been some questions about whether the government is doing anything for the industry to help out with all those requirements. I think the cost of doing business with the federal government — to keep our data and networks safe and secure — is a challenge for small businesses when trying to meet all the requirements and pay for it.

C4ISRNET: What unique advantages do small businesses bring to the table in the IT space?

CAPENOS: What I would say is very desirable with the small business side is they’re generally the ones that spur the innovation and have the solutions to the problems that we have, or problems that we don’t know we have yet. It’s on us as an agency to facilitate a way for nontraditional companies to get into the federal government. It’s on us to clear out the red tape, to remove some of the requirements and to figure out how we best make it easy to do business with us.

C4ISRNET: What can small businesses do to improve their ongoing relationship with DISA?

CAPENOS: The biggest thing they can do is respond to our sources-sought notices. When we post stuff out there saying, “Hey, small business can you do this? Do you want to do this? How can you help us with that?” That’s a really great step to indicate that they can do the work we have and they want to do the work we have. And then engaging with our events; for instance, Forecast to Industry days to hear about what DISA is doing.

C4ISRNET: Are there any areas of small business contracting where you think DISA has room for improvement? For example, the previous director of Small Business pointed to HUBZone small businesses as an area that needed to improve.

CAPENOS: The good news is that we met all our goals for our socio-economic categories this year, so we don’t have to focus on a specific area. We can really look at how can we get the best small businesses — whether they are HUBZone, service-disabled veteran-owned, women-owned, or just plain small business. Or if it’s something that’s not suited for them, then we have to make sure that on the other circuit stuff that we have solid subcontracting goals and evaluating participation plans.

C4ISRNET: What are you doing to reach out to industry and to get better acquainted with their concerns on an individual level?

CAPENOS: One thing that we’re working on is putting together a small SurveyMonkey questionnaire for industry, large and small, to ask what this office is doing well that we should continue to do and what we are doing that we shouldn’t be doing. But, most importantly, what we are doing for them.

C4ISRNET: How do you see the future of small businesses as potential prime contractors. Is that an area you see as having a viable future?

CAPENOS: Absolutely. When we’re looking at the increase of the DoD’s budget, that means that we can do more, and we’ve seen that this year in four of our five categories. We’ve executed and obligated more dollars for each of those categories than we have ever at DISA. And some of that is because we know small business can do this work, so we’re setting more things aside. But with the increase in the dollar value it means there is more things we can do to execute programs now instead of later.

DISA and our small businesses have shown historically that they can do it. So, it’s not hard to twist the arms of program managers to say, “Yeah, this one small businesses can do.” The good news is we have that history and we have that support from leadership top down. DISA considers every requirement for small business first.

C4ISRNET: In your view, is the small business community adapting in ways that make them more attractive to DISA or are you seeing stagnation?

CAPENOS: The challenge is really for DISA to keep up with small business. We need to learn how to be more flexible and less stagnant on how we approach small business, how we get them under contract, how we utilize [other transaction authorities] and those are things that we are working on.

I really think they have what we need, we just need to find the avenues to get them under contract, find the right pots of money, that kind of stuff. I think with these healthy DoD budgets, that’s good for everybody — most importantly the war fighter — that those problems will be quickly solved.

C4ISRNET: The Department of Defense is receiving record levels of funding from Congress. How do you expect this healthy budget to affect the Office of Small Business Programs and what does it mean for small businesses?

CAPENOS: The increase in the DoD budget is good news for DISA and for [the Office of] Small Business Programs. We saw record dollar amounts awarded in four of the five federally designated categories in fiscal year 2018. We expect this to continue. Bigger budgets mean more requirements can be executed — and with DISA’s small business-first policy, that means more opportunities available. For the requirements that aren’t well-suited for small businesses to prime, it’s still good news — there will be more opportunities for subcontracting.

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