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Booz Allen’s Matt Tarascio Talks CDAO, Trends in Business Development, Retaining

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Matt Tarascio has navigated a long, unexpected journey to reach his current position as senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. For two decades, Tarascio worked at Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, convinced that the future of his career lay in the design of advanced aircraft. The executive was even a crucial part of the team responsible for designing the world’s fastest helicopter (which is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar Hazy National Air and Space Museum). When a VP asked that he take the reins of the team overseeing health management, prognostics and analytics, he hesitated to relinquish his dream of aircraft design.

Soon enough, however, Tarascio became fascinated with data, analytics and AI and was named Lockheed’s first chief data and analytics officer and eventually transitioned to developing artificial intelligence technologies for the U.S. Department of Defense at Booz Allen.

In this Executive Spotlight interview, Tarascio engaged in a conversation that touches on trends in business development, the qualities that help a company retain talent and the necessity of the formation of the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office.

How have recent partnerships been able to assist your company expand its position in the federal marketplace, drive innovation and new capabilities and ultimately help complete your company’s mission?

What springs immediately to mind is a venture fund that we recently established, led by Brian McCarthy. We look for companies that have amazing tech that can help us more rapidly provide solutions to our customers toughest problems. Latent AI is an example of a company that we’ve invested time and energy in to integrate their technology into our solutions.

One of the big challenges I’ve found when partnering with smaller companies is that it’s easy to make a splash by doing a public announcement, but you have to be willing to dedicate time and energy to work with them in order to extract value from the partnership.  Sounds easy but I would like to integrate that capability and technology and not only guide them, but also kind of drop the ego of, ‘Hey, I’m a big company and we have all the answers,’ which we don’t. And also be willing to understand, here’s where they can fill a gap or need for the customer, and we can integrate that into our solution and jointly present that by jointly providing a solution.

The customer doesn’t care whose name is on it. If it works and solves a problem, it really doesn’t matter. So we have to provide that seamless capability and reduce the friction of working with smaller companies. And that’s really easy to say and really difficult to do. I’m very fortunate to have a team that works tirelessly with smaller companies to understand what they’ve got and then integrate it into the bigger solution that we try to provide to the customer. I think that’s the path forward. I think a lot of mistakes that bigger companies make is that, you know, they go for the splash, the announcement, ‘Hey, we just invested in or partner with this company,’ and then 12 months later, no one from the company has even really talked to them. Which creates frustration with the small company and you really don’t get any value out of it.

I’m a big believer in less is more—pick a few smaller companies that you’re willing to invest time and energy in and then you get better results that instead of trying to make the big splash, ‘Hey, we just invested in 30 small companies.’ Well that’s great, but it’s not really the money that’s helpful as much as the ability to get over the Valley of Death.

How does your company ensure long term success for your workforce to drive value for your employees as you continue to face the uphill challenge to recruit and retain the best talent in the federal marketplace?

This is a question I’m pretty sure everyone is faced with. Particularly in artificial intelligence and analytics, which has been written about a lot. We’re all competing for the same smaller group of talent. But there’s a couple of things which I think Booz Allen does extremely well that are attractive to talent.

I think the attractive thing about working on solutions with our DOD customer in particular (the part of the company that I represent) is that you can have a significant impact. You look at what’s going on in the world, the solutions that you provide are extremely important to our future. The security of our nation from cyber to AI-inspired cyber to humanitarian can all be hugely impacted by our work.

So, I think one of the big selling points for companies like Booz Allen and defense companies is that you can actually have a significant impact on the future. And if you’ve got children, you can be part of securing their future and making the world a safer place. That’s something that always resonated with me—the mission. 

The other thing that we do extremely well is training. Internal training partnered with video and building our own curriculum so that people can upskill at the company. I think that is a key part of retaining talent and providing opportunities for growth.

I also think culture is incredibly important. I just went to a function last night for CARE [the organization that gives support to help fight world hunger]. When the company that you work for is committed to supporting organizations like that, it certainly makes you feel better about being part of that company. Additionally, when your employer walks the walk on diversity, that makes you feel good about the company.

We often discuss innovation from the technical or capability side. What are some of the unique challenges that you’ve seen on the business side of innovation that haven’t been addressed or discussed enough?

Ironically, the thing that a lot of companies do well is innovate on the tech side. Business innovation to me comes down to delivering value to your customers in unique ways. You need some people that have a business development background that can think outside the box the same way you need people with a tech background that can think outside the box to truly innovate. I haven’t seen that skillset a lot, I’ll be honest. We’re always searching for that; being able to deliver through different types of mechanisms is the challenge.

Take software, for example. People immediately jump to ‘let’s license the software.’ You really have to understand what your customer wants or needs—how do their budgets work? When do they get funding? Licensing based on seats or something of that nature just simply may not work long term for a customer. And so, you’ve got to be flexible with how you approach that and extremely flexible with how you deliver that value. I think that’s a place where we can work closely with our customers, to understand what it is that they really can do, are willing to do, want to do and then come up with unique approaches of how to do that. I don’t think the answer is simply licensing all the time.

From what I’ve heard, customers are sick of that approach. It’s great from a business perspective—it’s very reliable revenue that happens constantly. But customers don’t like paying for something forever. It’s like running Windows. If you had to license that and pay for it every month, you’d probably be looking for something different, right? So I think that’s part of the challenge. Understanding how to deliver digital innovation, via newer digital tools and algorithms, in a unique way can be difficult. Because traditional BD is more around systems, platforms and solutions. Understanding how to deliver value from the digital side is, in my view, a big challenge for the entire industry.

Given your deep involvement with delivering AI technology to DOD customers, what has been your response to the fairly recent creation of the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office? How has that impacted your work or how you do business?

It was a very important and critical move to align these groups together under the CDAO umbrella. When General Shanahan started the JAIC from Project Maven, it made sense. He was out ahead of the curve and trying to do as much as possible. But the formation of the CDAO is what’s required now. For us to really be able to tackle the problems of the order of magnitude of Joint All Domain Command and Control, you have to have an organization out in front of that. I saw a great article a week or so ago where—I forget who it was exactly—but it came out and said, “Hey, I don’t think we’ve defined the problem of JADC2 well enough yet.”

I think the reason is that it’s extremely difficult to define that challenge. But that’s what the CDAO is out in front of. So, I’m really confident that we’re going to work closely with them along with many other companies and that they’re going to have success. It’s always a challenge when you’re a centralized organization with lots of different needs and internal customer needs, from different groups. But you really do need that central organization to pull it all together and particularly for joint things like JADC2, I think it’s absolutely necessary. The leader that they found is outstanding, and I think he’s the right person at the right time. I think he’s going to do an amazing job. I’m excited.

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