GovCon Different Featuring Rob Baum: Beyond the Contract

Originally published by GovCon Different on March 1st, 2024. Click here to visit the episode page at GovCon Different.

Got what it takes to win a $2.1 B TSA contract? Rob Baum, TechFlow CEO sharesthe playbook to forge deep customer relationships through creative mission solutions and relentless performance that go well beyond the contract.

Podcast Transcript

Eric Prostejovsky (GovCon Different Host):

You’ve got to go beyond the contract. So what do we mean by that? Hey, when there’s the RFP, when there’s the contract, when there’s the negotiating of the terms and the conditions, yeah, that’s one thing. But great leaders find a way to go beyond that, to build those deep connections with the customer, to be part of the mission, to get in the trenches. And to build a delivery and execution culture that goes far beyond the contract to whatever it takes, whatever’s required to do that mission. Really excited today to talk with Rob Baum, CEO of TechFlow. So Rob’s got a lot of experience in doing this, in leading teams to really get in the trenches and deliver for that mission and go well beyond the contract. So Rob, great to talk with you again today.

Rob Baum (TechFlow CEO):

Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Eric Prostejovsky:

When we talk about these contracts, I’d like to start off with a big one. You’ve just won a big TSA win. Tell us about that a little bit.

Rob Baum:

Yeah, so it’s quite exciting. It’s the largest contract that TSA has ever awarded anyone, and that just is a huge statement to the hard work that the team puts in. This is a follow-on contract for us. We had won the prior contract which was just under a billion dollars. This one is $2.1 billion, and we’re responsible for maintaining over 1800 pieces of equipment, explosive detection systems and over 300 airports across the nation. Just a huge privilege and a huge opportunity.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Now, when you win something like this, we talk about in our business a lot of times the math, we talk about the technology, but what’s it feel like when you achieve such a massive victory?

Rob Baum:

Yeah, it’s incredible. You got to realize how much work goes into the front of this, the beginning. We’ve spent years researching this contract. We’ve spent years working on solutions, thinking of everything that can go bonk in the night to try to address in terms of our response and the plan and how to scale and how to grow. And so you’re spending days and weeks with folks white boarding solutions and talking through things. And then when you finally do submit it, you’re kind of on pins and needles. You wonder when it’s going to… Do I have to check it every day? Do I have to check it every moment?

When you finally hear about the win, it’s just incredible. You’re bouncing off the walls, you’re going crazy. It’s hard to think straight, you’ve just won a $2.1 billion contract, largest single contract ever awarded by TSA. And when you make that statement, that kind of resonates and it’s just an incredible privilege and an incredible opportunity. Your mind goes to, what are you going to do? Who are you going to contact? How are you going to tell people? And oh, by the way, I have to be careful because we don’t want to get this in protest. And then maybe a day later you’re like, oh, because you think it’s hot, how much work do I have to do? So I think there’s three phases that you go through

Eric Prostejovsky:

That wild ride of emotions and I could imagine, and most people would love to be in those shoes in our business. First winning the billion, and then secondly, the 2.1 billion. How do you even sleep at night, Rob? When you’re that jacked up, how do you get yourself calm enough to rest before even the next day it can hit you the wave of what you got to do? Was that a challenge actually, to get rest?

Rob Baum:

It’s funny, I think it’s more challenging to fall asleep when you’ve got worries on your hands than something so big. It’s so dreamy that I didn’t have any trouble sleeping after. I think sleeping before might’ve been more of the issue.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Yeah. I’d love to rewind a bit, and you talked about of course the intense capture effort and the tremendous amount of work. But you and I know you don’t just win a contract like this on paper, and I’d really be curious in hearing about how did you build those deep connections with the customer?

Rob Baum:

I think it’s about going above and beyond for the customer, doing whatever it takes for the customer’s mission to be successful. TechFlow is an employee-owned company. So for us, employee ownership drives our employees to care because they own the delivery, the solutions and the excellence that makes us different. We have a field quality manager, a guy named Greg Gray who oversees the airports in Alaska for us. And recently was recognized at a company meeting for going above and beyond for what I’m going to explain here. Airports like Juneau in Alaska are on an island, so they’re only accessible by air or ferry. They generally have a small staff of TSA agents. So if an EDS machine, one of those electronic detection systems goes down, screening officers have to hand search luggage. Hand searches can slow down airport operations, cause flight delays and cancellations.

They also present a security and injury risk. Exasperating the problem at places like Juneau is the weight and volume of luggage in that area, which often contains firearms due to the hunting in the area or sharp hooks do the fishing activities in the area. Recently we had two EDS machines go down, they failed. Greg worked tirelessly to dispatch a technician to diagnose those problems. Spare parts were needed, Greg searched far and wide to secure the needed parts and get them to the mainland in Alaska as fast as possible. To get the parts to Juneau as quickly as possible, Greg booked the flight on a commercial airline as an emergency passenger with an extra seat for the parts so that he could personally deliver the required parts to the technician and get the equipment back up and running in as little time as possible. I think this is a great example of our commitment to get it done for the customer no matter what it takes. This is how you separate yourself. TSA, our customer was elated at our response.

We have recognized Greg internally at our company and call it out his heroics as an example of the level we want people to go to in order to deliver success. So I think that is what you have to do to build that deep customer connection, go above and beyond in the details.

Eric Prostejovsky:

It’s interesting, the contract and all of the things that are in there and the RFP. But I guarantee you there was nothing in there that said, “And you will travel and you will have a empty air seat that you can put parts and you will set aside everything in your personal life to do that.” And there’s a couple of things I resonate with Rob when you talk about that, people see the glamour of winning some of these big contracts but I really connect with the dedication and the details. That wasn’t a spectacular technology per se. It was Greg saying, “I’m going to make this work. This mission matters.” And it leads me to a question of where when I hear you tell that story, there’s so many things going on beyond just a technology. And from your point of view, Rob, as a veteran in this business, what’s the essence of differentiation? Because everybody talks it, oh, differentiation and their pretty slides and my elevator speech. But in your view, what’s the essence of differentiation?

Rob Baum:

I think at TechFlow we operate at the intersection of deep expertise, tireless innovation and personal touch. We were recently awarded the DIU’s only success memo for self-sustaining EV charging infrastructure, which highlights our unique approach to solving problems has opened the door for us to enter into immediate production agreements at over 800 military facilities nationwide. For the military self-sufficiency is important to ensure that they have energy independence. When the power goes out, the military still has a job to do. And our solutions help them overcome grid downtime to execute missions and maintain mission readiness. So to effectively build charging solutions capable of charging a wide range of personal and government vehicles on military installations, we were able to demonstrate our difference in three ways. Firstly, deep expertise, we understand what they need, how procurement works, and use that to develop a solution that achieves mission and answers to leadership in a win-win kind of way.

You need to marry people who have deep understanding of the technology with people who have served in the roles aligned to the outcome, so that they can explain how the solution carries the mission into the future. You need visionaries who speak and understand the issues and can talk to all levels of the organization. Number two, talked about tireless innovation. You need to incorporate the latest technologies while engineering solutions that can evolve and incorporate new capabilities, such as microgrids and hydrogen fuel cell technologies in this example. We talk about future-proofing, which is a tireless technology innovation learning path. It is tireless because it is always changing. You need to lean forward not to the bleeding edge, but to meet the future from where you are today. You need to understand the technology deep enough to navigate to a future forward design. If you are not tired, in my humble opinion, you have not searched or done enough.

A bad pick at the beginning is like starting your house on a shaky foundation. So you need to be tireless when it comes to innovating. And finally, number three, personal touch. In short, the DIU trusts us and forging such solid relationships with government partners is difficult. It takes time. They know when we recommend a solution, it is in the best interest of their mission. You establish this through experience and consistency, doing the right thing, even when the right thing might not be the best thing for your company but is the right thing for the nation. You don’t over promise and you find a way to deliver because the mission matters, the customer matters and that is what you value above all else. In this universe, you might be on and off a customer depending upon the stage. But whatever you recommend, they know it is about them and not about you. This takes investment and the ability to see beyond just today, I think that is the essence of differentiation.

Eric Prostejovsky:

I resonate with that so much, and I love the phrase it’s about them, not you. And the expertise you talked about the innovation, the personal touch but it’s one thing. You may have spectacular ideas from Silicon Valley or somewhere else in the commercial sector, but they remain just that without what you’re talking about. That mastery and expertise of how the agency worked and you talked about it beautifully in the roles of what folks are doing, and being able to get the right folks in there and then that right mindset of innovation. Now, help me understand a little bit more the point. So I’ll give you an example, AI, machine learning is the rage but how would tech flow perhaps offer a different approach regarding AI? And really again, this differentiation but really thinking about AI, how would your approach be different?

Rob Baum:

Well, AI is a topic that is near and dear to my heart as a technologist and first adopter. I’m a big fan. AI is moving so fast, cannot be ignored. You think about ChatGPT, ChatGPT jumped on the scene and demonstrated the power of natural language processing by revolutionizing how we interact with technology, making it more intuitive, efficient and accessible to people across the globe. It rolled out and was adopted in a nanosecond. Really when you think about it, I remember the press and people talking about it and boom, everyone was using it. I had to get it. It was just instantaneous.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Same. I’m using it, yep.

Rob Baum:

Yeah, me too. So I think you either adopt and use or risk falling behind quickly. So the federal government is one of the largest producers of digitized data and the sources are growing every day, creating massive data source. They need to simplify this data in a meaningful way despite its size and scale, and that just screams for automation and the insertion of AI. But you need to think of AI as being a tool in the toolbox. It is a powerful tool, but can also cause a lot of damage if used incorrectly or by people who don’t know how to properly use it. At TechFlow, I started an AI adoption tiger team which consists of a cross-functional team of interested stakeholders that are looking at what tools are available, how we leverage them, and how we then drive employee adoption. We’re doing a series of pilots. My advice would be to start small and grow your AI footprint. We’re also innovating with our customers in inserting AI into some of those discussions.

On our TSA EDS contract, we are harnessing the power of AI to develop a predictive maintenance dashboard on what we call single pane of glass. That will help our fuel quality team reduce downtime on the EDS machines by raising potential problems before they cause the equipment to function. But you have to keep an eye on being responsible with AI. I’m encouraging our team to insert AI into their daily routines with one caveat. Don’t paste anything in that you would be uncomfortable having printed on the front page of the New York Times, that’s kind of the way we think-

Eric Prostejovsky:

It’s a hell of an aphorism, yes.

Rob Baum:

So I guess the answer would be full in but with our eyes wide open.

Eric Prostejovsky:

And when we talk about these missions and the stakes and critical that we adopt or die, yet some of the things that you’re talking about there but it’s got to work. And if we rush too quickly to it, oh my goodness. So I think it’s just a fascinating topic, but when I think about this notion of beyond the contract and whether it’s in AI, whether it’s in a lot of the other missions that you’re working, I think it dawns on me, Rob, which is how do you build that culture within TechFlow? It’s obvious that’s where your mindset is, but you and I know that no organization, you don’t win billion and $2.1 billion contracts if just the CEO thinks that way. So how do you build this culture so that the entire team from Greg to the directors, the VPs, that everybody is saying we’ve got to go above and beyond the call?

Rob Baum:

That’s a great question and one I personally spent a lot of time just thinking about. I think building a great culture is all about empowering the people in your company. You bring people in who share your values, but who also bring complimentary skills and gifts. I tend to be a very positive person. I tend to be an optimist. My team and fellow leaders know this and I’m often teased for it, but I really do think it is a really great quality for a leader. For me, I feel it’s my job to find the positive in the face of the storm. You acknowledge the hard and difficult, but you need to help people see the positive path that could be followed. An easy example and perhaps a little controversial one, but would be when one of our key people leaves the company for a new opportunity.

I always try to frame the departure as growth for the individual, but a great opportunity for us to find someone even better. I’m a big believer in motivating people with a carrot, not the stick. To do this effectively, you need to pay attention to the achievements, find them, highlight them and shower recognition on the real life illustrations of people going above and beyond. You use those examples to highlight your expectation of how you want people to respond. As part of this, you need to spend time to develop an effective internal communication system. Your internal communication ensures that the whole team is singing the same song. You also need to listen a lot. You need to find ways for people to share their opinions openly. You treat people the way you’d want to be treated. As CEO you need to make an effort to talk to all levels of the organization, find ways to connect with people.

For a long time at TechFlow, we’ve done chat with the CEO which gives new hires 20 minutes where we get together on Teams and just talk. I think that humanizes the organization, it makes everyone more comfortable. At TechFlow we also hold quarterly town halls where leadership discusses the quarter’s performance, events of strategic significance. We call out people who have rocked it and we answer questions on an open mic. We also do several written communications to emphasize our culture, the achievements and our plans. Culture starts from actions at the top. I have a great team who embraces the culture and pushes it down through the organization. CEOs can’t do it alone, you need the power of a unified team who exemplifies doing the right thing for employees and customers through positive messaging. Lead with the carrot, not the stick. You grow the culture by energizing it through the celebrations and the recognition of the positive contributions people make towards company success. I believe that if you lead from the top with a positive message, you can build a beyond the contract culture that grows stronger through its workforce.

Eric Prostejovsky:

And when you talk about this notion of recognizing the achievements that as a team and you’re developing this, and then when people are performing and going above and beyond that you recognize it, Rob, do you sometimes see it’s almost like when I was a kid in the ’80s and you’d get in a performance car and you’d wait for a turbo. There’d be that turbo lag, but when it would hit you would feel that sort of surge. So do you get that surge of where when folks are recognized, when there is an achievement, a win, a significant contribution, do you see that surge of buy-in and people getting even further invested and dedicated?

Rob Baum:

Yeah. No, absolutely. And I think that’s the timing thing too, so you really need to be timely with your recognition. And because people are feeling that and by tying those two together, yeah, I do think you get that turbo lag surge where you hit the pedal and it takes a second. But then it accelerates at an extra speed, an extra push because the positive thing that happened and what you’re recognizing are happening so closely together. And it builds the team and causes people to surge forward.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Now, you said a few things in there that piqued my interest. One is in the eye of the storm of keeping positive, of keeping people in the right direction. And yet you and I know how hard that is when everything is going to hell, when you can feel it in your gut that feeling of misery. How do you do that, Rob? How do you dig deep to do that?

Rob Baum:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think I was born with it, I don’t know. When life beats you down, you just got to keep getting back up. And yet you can’t think about the past and the negative, you got to think the positive forward. And I don’t know why I am so like that, but that’s part of my personality and the way I was raised, I guess. But I think it’s a quality that can be learned. It is definitely a quality that can be taught and practiced, and I think it’s been extremely helpful for our company because I never dwell on a negative. I try to look past and try to find what is it we’re going to go to. And how do you turn that into something more meaningful as a momentum shift for the company in a positive way. I talked a lot about leading positively, and I firmly believe that positive attracts positive. So it’s kind of been my philosophy.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Well, and that tenacity because I think about it again, when the press pieces are going out on a $2.1 billion, the largest in TSA, there’s a kind of a glamour cycle. Wow, that’s amazing and these guys are rocking it and killing it, yet to be in your shoes, in the team shoes and to build something like that over a couple of years, you talked about the tireless work, the tireless tenacity as well. And I just love that notion of no matter how many times you get knocked down, the mindset that we’re going to get back up, that we’re going to find a way. We’re not going to be dumb about it. We’re going to find if there’s a barrier in front of us, we may have to work around it. But the tenacity to keep going and throughout the conversation, I can just hear that tenacity of we’re going to make this happen. So you’ve done a lot, Rob, yet I sense that there’s a lot of runway in front of you yet. So what’s really next for you and what’s next for TechFlow?

Rob Baum:

That’s a fun question. I’m going to push for us to continue to innovate. I love finding ways to insert technology to solve problems. TSA Predictive Maintenance initiative has been a lot of fun. Harnessing the data sets we develop and counter to help us make proper assessments of machine reliability is fascinating and evolving so fast. And very challenging and complex mind you. But our results are incredibly encouraging and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish. Our work is so rewarding because our missions matter to our nation. Demand for passenger air travel is expected to double by 2040. We are working so closely with our partners at TSA to ensure they’re able to handle that demand safely and securely. Our success is linked to the TSA’s success in being able to develop and innovate to scale to this challenge. Then with the military and its use of energy, not only are we helping the DOD reduce its carbon footprint which is the largest of any government agency by the way, we are also helping keep our troops safe.

Many battlefield casualties are a result of moving diesel fuel to the front lines through a supply line to power all the tactical and combat systems. If we can help transition to renewable and self-sufficient energy sources, we can help deliver technology that will help keep our war fighters safer on the battlefield and not exposed across a supply line. That’s cool. So we’re making an impact. These missions matter and we are excited to keep delivering our deep expertise, tireless innovation and personal touch to drive success. I plan to keep pushing us to innovate and find better ways to do things as technology evolves. That is what excites me. And since my excitement often transfers down to the company, I believe this excitement will be what drives our company forward. Besides with a name TechFlow, we better use technology to make things flow smoothly.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Yeah. No, that notion of technology and the flow, my last question would be, and it’s been very cool to talk with you today, for those that whether it’s some of the EV charging or the artificial intelligence they’re kind of afraid of these technologies because I love the vision. I love where you’re going. What do you say to those folks that are afraid of it and they’re maybe skeptical of it, or they just have an inherent distrust? What do you say to those folks, Rob, to kind of get them moving in the right direction?

Rob Baum:

I think that’s okay. We talked about it with artificial intelligence, there’s a… We’ve all seen the movie Terminator and that seems more real today than it ever did 10 years ago, because it’s just evolved so fast. So I think some trepidation about technology is okay. We talked earlier and about the Teslas having frozen batteries and is that a really reliable resource? And so being a little bit, not necessarily being a naysayer but seeing the weaknesses in some of those solutions in my eyes is where you find the opportunities. I have a Tesla. I wouldn’t drive it across the country in a way. I’d be scared. I’d get down to 50 miles left and it’d be like, “Holy cow, where’s a charger?” It doesn’t exist today but it will, and it’s coming.

There’s conversations on cars using hydrogen as a source of energy as well. So I think you have to go as much in as you can on a technology and you have to go in eyes wide open, like I said before, and experiment and see where it leads you. But leave yourself open to being able to change your opinion too if times change. We saw that, I remember years and years ago coming into some government offices and they had a fiber-optic switches between the computers. That was a technology that just didn’t survive. It made sense. It was superfast. It was 100 times faster than an ethernet connection, but there’s no way to maintain it because the companies went out business and it wasn’t widely adopted. So I think you have to keep your eyes open, you have to try, you have to experiment.

I think you have to go in. The two technologies you mentioned, both electrical vehicles and artificial intelligence, you can’t help but read about them every day. They’re here, they’re coming, they’re going somewhere. And so I think you have to figure out how you play in the angle that you leverage them.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Yeah, well said. And I like that notion because if you’re just trying to push EVs and say, “Oh, there’s no challenges on AI, that’s really not a realistic approach. So I really resonate with that. So Rob, just been great to talk with you today about really what it takes to perform on a higher level and just appreciate the time and hope you’ll come back again and talk with us, because I think this insight for other leaders is invaluable.

Rob Baum:

No, I appreciate it. It was a lot of fun. Like I said, it’s something you think about every day. The questions you asked were very relevant for the work that we do. And as a leader trying to get your force and everybody aligned and moving forward on the same path, those are all tough things to look at from the outside in. But things that you have to do to make a company effective and move forward.

Eric Prostejovsky:

Okay. Awesome, man. We’ll talk to you again. Thanks, Rob.

Rob Baum:

All right, thanks. Appreciate it.

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