Office of Procurement, Acquisition and Logistics (OPAL)
"Tips for Conducting Better Technical Demonstrations"
July 8, 2020
Over the past 50 years, the evolution of technology has afforded societal advancements that have revolutionized our day to day lives and the way we interact. Thanks to modern technology, we now have immediate access to a universe of information and services at our fingertips. This transformation has been no less profound in the Government, particularly at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where modernization continues to be a major priority. For the VA’s Technology Acquisition Center (TAC), their ability to support this evolution stems from senior leadership advocacy, advanced training and participating in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s Acquisition Innovation Advocates Council. As it relates to training, resources were set aside to ensure the TAC’s staff were enrolled in and graduated from the Digital Information Technology Acquisition Professional (DITAP) training program resulting in a majority of all DITAP certified professionals in the federal government being resident at the TAC. Further, the TAC’s Acquisition Innovation Advocate’s Council representative has and continues to share TAC best practices with other Agency participants furthering the acquisition modernization revolution across the federal space. However, modernization is very much a team sport and our vendor community is an important member of that team.
As it relates to TAC procurements, vendors are now frequently being asked to propose in new and different ways to our solicitations. One technique that has grown in popularity is the use of technical demonstrations. Sometimes these take the form of process oriented, in-person demonstrations of an Offeror’s agile process and related services (e.g. DevOps) in response to a Use Case provided at the start of the demonstration. In this case, often a user and/or stakeholder attends the demonstration so that Offerors may highlight their user centered design techniques and showcase how they would interact with users/stakeholders in a real-world scenario if they were to win the contract. Other technical demonstrations might include the use of commercial and cloud products, while still others may be virtual or off-site sample tasks that require delivery of a prototype and related artifacts at the end of a specific time period via access to a private GitHub repository. These techniques as described above are often utilized in lieu of written technical volumes and are referred to collectively as the “Show Me, Don’t Tell Me” approach. They efficiently give technical evaluators the assurance that a vendor or vendor team will perform successfully while affording vendors the opportunity to emphasize the unique aspects of their approach that separate them from their competitors. There are many great examples of these techniques and more on the Periodic Table of Acquisition hosted by the Federal Acquisition Institute (with several from the TAC!).
After several years of experience with technical demonstrations at the TAC, the list below was drawn from discussions with a variety of technical and contracting teams, and although some are only relevant to certain types of demonstrations, overall, they cover the full range of techniques referenced above. These are not specific to any vendor or solicitation but are more general “rules of the road” to allow vendors to put their best foot forward and avoid some common pitfalls. In no particular order, here are Eight Tips for Vendors in Technical Demonstrations:
- Be sure to allow Evaluators enough time to see what they’ve asked to see. During in-person demonstrations, evaluators are assessing how the Offeror’s team conducts a complicated and nuanced process. Generally, the solicitation is clear that the demonstration is an opportunity for vendors to demonstrate how they work. Evaluators want to see how the Offerors interact with each other, any users or stakeholders (if provided), and in general experience their approach to work execution. Therefore, Offeror’s should refrain from wasting this demonstration time describing in excruciating detail how awesome their last few projects were and instead, focus on the task at hand. Further, although a certain amount of narration may be appropriate, especially where an Offeror wants the evaluation team to focus on something their team is doing, too much narration can waste time and unnecessarily distract the evaluation team. Lastly, for product demonstrations where vendors are required to show the Government specific, required functions of their product, vendors should ensure that this is where most of their time is spent. Bottom line, time management is key.
- Ensure there is adequate internet speed. There is nothing more unfortunate than watching an evaluation team trying to push their prototype into production while their internet is not functioning; it’s stressful for everyone involved, including the evaluators. The same goes for a product demonstration, or demonstrations of a prototype created during an off-site demo, where internet issues keep required functionality from being shown. Whether virtual or onsite, it is the Offeror’s responsibility to ensure they have all the tools necessary to deliver a proper demonstration. Generally, the Government explicitly states that it can’t guarantee internet access so it’s incumbent on Offerors to come prepared.
- Focus on building something of value and highlighting the details of the agile process. Use the product owner. For some evaluations, the product does not have to be fully functional as it is the process that is being evaluated. In other evaluations, the Government is looking for a working prototype in response to a problem it has provided. In either case, vendors should focus on delivering something of value, using a modern agile process in response to the problem statement, the responses of the users/stakeholders (if provided), and the PWS, and for the Government to understand what wasn’t delivered and why. Additionally, in some cases even if something fully functional is delivered, if the process followed was wrong, it may not matter. This goes for product-based demonstrations as well; it’s great that a vendor’s product can toast bread but if demonstrating that precludes showing the Government a required function, it may not matter. Product owners are good at keeping the team focused on delivery so Offerors should be sure to make use of them if they are present at the demonstration.
- Instead of explaining your design to the user, ask them questions and listen to feedback. This is pretty straightforward; no leading the witness and Offerors should do as much listening as talking.
- Designers and engineers are both very busy and may need reminders to make sure they are collaborating. Team collaboration, especially towards the end when everyone is scrambling to make sure their process leads to something great, is extremely important. Government modernization efforts are hard and how your team handles roadblocks and stress is important to manage as it is indicative of how it will be dealt with during contract performance.
- The Sample Task’s fictional scenarios are fictional for a reason, so don’t overthink them. The Sample Tasks/Use Cases provided for most technical demonstrations are fictional. Although it’s great that Offerors may have someone who is an awesome engineer and happens to also have subject matter expertise related to the Demo’s Sample Task, if they don’t have the prior, they may not be very helpful during the demonstration. Evaluators are looking to assess the vendor’s agile chops and familiarity with a sample task may not be particularly helpful.
- Carefully consider the composition of your demonstration team. This goes more for in-person demonstrations than product-oriented ones. Each participant should have an active role on a scrum team and be willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. The team size is likely limited, so vendors should be strategic about who attends.
- Agile is more than just scrum ceremonies. Manage the clock but remember to build something useful. Offerors must use their time wisely and try not to obsess about ceremonies; if they do not contribute to the final product or to the agile process of the team, don’t do them.
By following these tips, vendors can better show the Government how & why they are the best team for the job and likewise, government acquisition professionals will gain added confidence in their evaluations and ultimately, the selection decisions made.