By: Steve O’Keeffe, founder, MeriTalk

Steve Harris runs Dell EMC Federal. His office in McLean, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital, is a long way from the tiny town where he grew up: Wellsville, New York – population 7,000. I sat down with the one-time aspiring professional golfer to discuss how he got into IT, and his vision for Dell Technologies’ position in the changing Federal market. A fellow USO-Metro board member, Harris is hitting a hole-in-one at Dell EMC Federal.

How did you get into this business?

“I grew up in a small town in New York state, just north of the Pennsylvania border, where my family ran a plumbing, heating, electrical, and cooling business,” said Harris. “I got my start in that line of work…and figured I’d likely migrate back to Wellsville to run the family business. However, that all changed when I followed my fiancé–now my wife–out to Austin, where she was attending graduate school.”

“Being in Austin at that time, the whole city was abuzz with a dynamic growth company called Dell,” he said. “So I quit the electrical, plumbing, and cooling business–funnily those are all key elements in a data center–and took an inside sales position with Dell in 1998. And, as they say, the rest is history.”

“My first Dell assignment was in the Higher Education segment. I learned all about how universities run–academics, administrative, research, advanced computing programs, health centers, every aspect of the institutions. What a wonderful start in an area that delivers breakthroughs that unlock new possibilities for America–and I couldn’t get enough–so I worked maniacally. At that time, Dell was the first direct-to-consumer company for most anything, not just computers. Our products were very customized. We were also rolling out eCommerce. It was a great on-ramp.”

“Next, I moved to various leadership positions in our State and Local as well as Education–SLED–business, and just over 5 years ago I was asked to move to head up the Federal space. It’s been quite a learning curve–and I enjoy every minute of my job.”

What are Dell’s strategic priorities in the public sector?

“It’s all about mission and customer engagement. Leaders like Suzette Kent [Federal CIO] and Dana Deasy [Defense Department CIO] are focused on transforming Federal IT: modernizing the infrastructure, bringing new applications on line, shifting the spend from legacy to new agile, nurturing the next-generation Federal IT workforce. But ultimately, it’s all about improving the quality of American life and improving outcomes for our nation–and IT modernization plays a foundational role in enabling better outcomes for America.”

“Okay, so that’s heady stuff, right–so how do we operationalize that? Well, it’s all about speed to mission value. Delivering new systems that take value up while taking cost out. So yes, we’re committed to FITARA, MGT, and CIO empowerment. That means infrastructure modernization. Delivering new agility and value through the cloud. Enabling security transformation. Turbocharging performance and citizen services with new machine-learning and AI capabilities.”

“And, we know Dell can’t do this alone. That’s why we work hand in hand with the major Federal systems integrators, VARS, and channel organizations.”

What do you view as Dell’s key differentiators, capabilities, and contributions?

“We’re the Dell Technologies family–that’s Dell, Dell EMC, VMware, RSA, Pivotal, Secureworks, Boomi, and Virtustream. We spend $4 billion every year on research and development–that’s why we define the cutting edge in the IT industry.”

“We’re the leading software-defined infrastructure company; and we offer the most disruptive financial models to allow the government to jumpstart meaningful IT transformation. We’re looking at everything as a service (Eaas), and empowering customers to engage with the broadest portfolio of services in the market. In line with that Eaas thinking, for example, are disruptive financial solutions that unlock a host of new horizons for our customers, allowing them to invest in innovative cutting-edge technology.”

“And it’s not just about technology–people and financing make a huge difference. Our folks are true patriots and we have a solution orientation. We work shoulder to shoulder with our partners to deliver integrated capabilities that unlock transformational mission functionality. We have close to 1,000 professionals in D.C., Austin, Boston, and in the cubicles and trenches with our customers across all 50 states and OCONUS.”

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges in Federal IT?

“A lot of the time the challenges and opportunities are closely related. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: modernization. [Former Federal CIO] Tony Scott famously said that the Federal government spends 80 percent of our IT budget on O&M for legacy systems. We need to modernize so we can get that financial burden off the books. Think of the legacy spend as an interest-bearing debt. We need to retire that debt more quickly than we accumulate it.”

“Further, all those legacy systems, they’re not just inefficient, they’re also dangerous–insecure, unreliable, slow, and not nearly so capable as modern approaches. Every penny we invest in legacy systems sucks the life out of our future.”

“So the challenge is legacy systems, and the opportunity is moving to new, more secure and more agile approaches that accelerate time to mission success while slashing cost. How do you get there? Well, that’s a multi-cloud approach. Moving everything off to a place called the cloud is not the right way to do it. There’s a misconception that cloud is where you move IT to fix all your problems. That is not accurate. It’s really about a multi-cloud capability. Cloud is a way to get to outcomes that you desire–not a place. In fact, agencies can shift to on-prem cloud for a fraction of their current expenditure. And like any move, you need to go house to house, room to room, mapping workload by workload. That’s also a huge challenge and a massive opportunity. The government needs cloud architects and systems experts.

“Procurement is also a critical enabler, and how quickly you eradicate that tech debt is a function of how quickly you can make the procurement machine move. That said, acquisition is a tough job, that’s why Dell focuses hard on helping agencies with financing. In many cases agencies can refresh their legacy systems inside the existing financial footprint.”

What emerging trends are you seeing in the Federal IT market?

“It’s difficult knowing where to begin. Artificial Intelligence, IoT, software defined–there’s a whole candy store of breakthrough capabilities that promise to improve everything. However, like new improvements in your house, none of this stuff works without a solid foundation, and that solid foundation is IT infrastructure modernization. If you have a building and you have foundation problems, it really doesn’t do much good to repaint the bedrooms or put solar panels on the roof if the house falls down.”

“So, there are myriad shiny new objects, and we love them all, but without infrastructure modernization, we can’t afford to transform, and new capabilities will fail to deliver.”

How is Dell EMC positioned to help the federal government with its IT modernization drive?

“First, we make sure that we really understand what our customers are trying to accomplish. Armed with key insights, we focus with our partners on delivering IT solutions that are highly optimized–software defined, automated, with focus on speed to value to mission. We ask ourselves a series of questions every time we look at customer requirements. How much cost can I drive out? How easy can I make it? How do we deliver maximum value today, but also minimize maintenance and sustainment cost? And, it all starts with understanding the specific use case and associated workloads.”

How do you see FITARA and MGT impacting prospects for wholesale federal IT modernization?

“As agencies modernize they naturally look at the big questions–do we spend too much or not enough on IT–and what’s a reasonable return on investment from the mission perspective? It is impossible to answer those questions if we have no visibility into where we spend our taxpayer dollars. That’s why FITARA’s so important. It empowers CIOs with responsibility for agencies’ IT spend–and requires that they report to the head of the agency. MGT is also key. We have to get out of the use-it-or-lose-it mentality. MGT is now part of FITARA. Agencies are graded on their performance setting up a revolving capital fund. Visibility is critical.”

What should Federal IT leaders prioritize as they work to meet the new DCOI 2020 deadline for optimizing/consolidating Federal data centers?

“It’s really about a common-sense approach. First, agencies need to get a better handle on what they have. Dig into workloads. Then, it’s double down on application rationalization. In most cases, optimizing data centers is more productive than closing facilities.”

“Considering technology savings opportunities, we start with hyper-converged infrastructure. Solid state storage and modernizing data protection are key steps. There is still a lot of low-hanging fruit. You walk into some data centers where agencies are still using tape libraries the size of a conference room. Agencies have the opportunity to move to software defined infrastructure–that’s the future–slashing cost, turbo charging agility, and revolutionizing service levels.”

What do you see as the greatest opportunities for Federal IT in the year ahead?

“I’d map back to the O&M burden. We need to modernize so we can get that financial burden off the books. Rapid adoption of next-gen, software-defined capabilities will transform mission performance and unlock human potential at scale.”

Could you talk about Dell EMC’s commitment to the federal community?

“Dell has been, and continues to be, involved with many veterans’ support efforts, and places a high value on veterans’ skills and abilities as we recruit for the best talent in the market.”

“Beyond the workplace proper, and my role on the board of USO-Metro, we love working with K9s for Warriors, a service-disabled veterans program that connects service dogs with veterans that are recovering from PTSD. We’ve sponsored a number of dogs, and even have gotten to name some of them, and we could not be happier to help out the organization and its mission.”

What would you do, if you weren’t doing what you’re doing today?

“Well it’s a long way from Allegany County and our family business. But, those early experiences certainly shaped a lot of my thinking–a focus on family and working hard to meet and exceed customer expectations. We have three young children, so you’d find me attending more sports games, fishing, gardening, and working on my golf handicap–that’s a life-long challenge.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.