EPISODE 334: Federal CIOs Steve Cooper and Jamie Holcombe Tell How Sales Reps Should Work with CIOs

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers LIVE Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales and hosted by Fred Diamond on March 3, 2021. It featured Federal CIOs Jamie Holcombe of USPTO and former DHS and Commerce CIO Steve Cooper.]

Find Jamie on LinkedIn here. Find Steve on LinkedIn here.

JAMIE’S ADVICE TO SALES PROFESSIONALS: “I want to know how we’re going to engage. The idea of procurement working along with operations is required for successful revenue. What you have to do is you have to make the CIO secure. You have to make them feel like you’re offering something that they just don’t have right now.”

STEVE’S ADVICE TO SALES PROFESSIONALS: “I’m going to reveal one of the best-kept actions that any salesperson can take. Go out of your way to build a relationship with executive assistants. Tell them what it is you are trying to accomplish and your objectives and then actively enlist their support because in most cases, they can get things done. In some cases, more effectively than I could as a CIO. They know everybody inside the agency and you can turn an EA who is otherwise a gate keeper and will never give you access to a CIO into your best ally.”

Fred Diamond: We have a brand-new sponsor, Cox Business. I’m so thrilled to bring them on board to sponsor the Sales Game Changers podcast. If you’re looking for an opportunity to take your sales career to the next level, and of course, that’s usually the mission of the people who are watching the Sales Game Changes webinars, consider Cox Business. Cox Business is a leading provider of technology solutions, and they’re looking for salespeople like you, those who listen to the Sales Game Changers podcasts, to grow Cox’s local sales business. They’ve got great benefits, very competitive compensation package plus commission, healthcare, discounts on travel, pet insurance. Steve and Jamie, they also offer pet insurance to their employees and they have a lot more, and they’re on a quest to find people with savvy sales skills to keep Cox’s customers smiling.

Again, if you’re that person, go to salesjobs@cox.com. Thank you very much for Cox Business to come on as an IES sponsor.

The topic today for the sales professionals listening is what’s on the mind of your customers? Here we are in March, we’re a year into the pandemic and we’re very delighted to have Steve Cooper, a very distinguished CIO. Steve, you were the first CIO at DHS, it’s an honor to have you on the show, sir. Jamie Holcombe, you’re the current CIO at Patent and Trade. It’s great to have you both here, let’s get right to it. First off, Jamie, how are things going at PTO? One of the things that we talk a lot is that salespeople may have been remote in the past, especially if they’re on the inside or if they’re working remotely, but for the first time ever, customers and sales professionals have been remote. Tell us how it’s been going with your organization having everybody remote.

Jamie Holcombe: During COVID, we didn’t miss a beat. What happened was we went from about 7,800 simultaneous VP end connections to over 14,000 simultaneous VP end connections every day and we’re maintaining that throughout. I can’t believe it’s almost a year, but in that year we haven’t missed a beat. Our productivity metrics have actually improved, the applications coming in for both patents and trademarks have increased not just by growth and expected, but rather, they’ve increased exponentially. I don’t really know what’s going on other than maybe people are home thinking, “I have this great idea, maybe I should do this.” I really like that, that’s great. USPTO’s mission is unique in that we can serve as an engine for the US economy if we can get the time it takes from a patent applying to the patent awarded or rejected, and if we decrease that time down, we can increase the volume of cash in the marketplace because that’s less time that a patent is pending.

Fred Diamond: We’re based here in DC, the Institute for Excellence in Sales, we’re doing a webinar every single day and we’ve had some great sales leaders who run organizations that support public sector and federal. For example, Joe Ayers who actually recently ran HPE’s Public Sector Market was on the show a couple weeks ago. We’ve had great leaders like that and the one thing that’s been remarkable is how the government, the federal customer specifically, has quickly gotten into the cloud and quickly was able to make its systems work.

Steve Cooper, it’s great to see you. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing right now? I’m also curious, you’ve worked in the federal public sector space a long time, you created many organizations. Tell us about some of the major advances that you’ve seen over the last years.

Steve Cooper: The last few years, I left federal service when I retired from the Department of Commerce as the CIO there in 2017 with the change of administration. Just in the last four years, I continue to consult to a handful of federal agencies and I sit on a number of advisory boards and councils. I also interact quite a bit with the sitting CIOs like Jamie and others across the federal civilian and DOD environment. The thing that I think is the most remarkable is with PTO at the top of the list – and I give Jamie and his team tremendous credit for that, I actually preceded Jamie a little bit in my tenure and then Jamie coming in as the CIO at PTO. Agencies across the board did a remarkably good job of addressing the remote workforce.

I would say overall, although a few experience bumps here and there, effectively, the federal workforce is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing every day. They are delivering their missions to citizens across the United States, to our allies around the globe, they’re addressing major national issues including the pandemic and across the board because CIOs, their teams and all the men and women within those agencies stepped up in a phenomenally good, professional manner. The federal workforce has sustained exactly what it’s being counted on to do.

What’s interesting is that even though that’s occurred, there still isn’t a uniform way or a standard way of actually carrying out remote work, so everybody did a marvelous job but there are still silos inside the departments and the agencies and things like that. Those silos I still see when it comes to adoption of new technology. In other words, let’s take something like contact tracing. Every agency is going at contact tracing for its own employees and for its mission delivery independently. Why wouldn’t we come at this thing – and playfully, I’m going to toss it on the CIO council – why wouldn’t the CIO council come together and create a single cross-agency working group that could develop a contact tracing solution?

Give industry input, you don’t have to adopt just one, but why not do that together? We’re doing the same thing with data analytics, with predictive analytics, we’re doing the same thing with AI, machine learning. The message to the sales teams is think in terms of absolutely selling into agencies, don’t stop doing that, but sell into agencies like GSA and bring forward. If it’s your solution that you want to propose, great, have at it. Simultaneously, propose to GSA that there be a common solution. This is shared services which we still have just not gotten right in the federal enterprise.

Fred Diamond: One person just chimed in, Jeremy who’s in the DC area said, “What exactly does a CIO in the public sector do?” Let’s get real basic. I usually ask this question, “What are your top priorities?” but from a customer perspective, a lot of times in commercial space people say, “If I get to the CIO or the CEO, that makes my sales process a lot easier.” Jamie, tell us what a CIO does in the sales process cycle, and then secondly, what are some of your critical priorities right now as a tech CIO for the PTO?

Jamie Holcombe: I’ll take the second question first. The fact of the matter is my priorities have changed over the two years I’ve been there. When I first came on board, you have to do a triage for your own sanity to figure out what’s up. What I found out was the USPTO had actually stagnated in adopting new technology because they were trying to give the functionality to the patents and the trademark examiners. In doing so, they put themselves at a disadvantage because they weren’t able to take care of cloud technology, they weren’t able to take care of the newer tools that are coming out and the modernization of thought around technical architecture.

What we did was over the past two years, we eliminated most of our technical debt and that was key, because unless you have a core foundation upon which to build, you’ll just always be chasing your tail. It’s all about the mission, and what is the mission? We award patents and we register trademarks, period. This stuff of support being the best in the world, who cares? How well are you awarding patents and registering trademarks? That’s all that matters and that’s why our productivity metrics count. We are a fee-based organization, we don’t take any taxpayer money. It makes us unique because we have a fiduciary responsibility to our fee payers that they get the biggest bang for their buck? The problem is we just raised our fees and I consider that a failure.

What COVID has provided now is the new top 3 priorities and they are #1, cybersecurity and vulnerability. As you know, SolarWinds decimated a lot of preconceived thoughts that have changed the world. Luckily, we were not a SolarWind shop, it did not affect us. However, we did help our brethren in other agencies to respond to that terrible infiltration by the Russians. Next, resilience. Believe it or not, we at the USPTO have the ultimate data center in our headquarters. It’s backed up, but there’s not a hot operation like everyone’s used to so what we need to do is create a new data center where we’re going to back up the facility into that hot operations so that if one goes down, the other one comes up and no one will notice. That is what’s expected in today’s technology.

Third, our final thing is move those old applications into the cloud. Now, do you think I’m going to take a COBOL and ALGOL application and put it in the cloud? Hell no. You have to go through a rationalization of your applications and you have to figure out if it’s apt and you can do it, then either put it out there or keep it within your data center, such that you know you’re going to get rid of that within the next 2 to 3 years. Those are the three priorities, cybersecurity, resilience and moving to the cloud.

Now, you asked me what a typical CIO does. It’s all about the mission, and all we’re doing is trying to give them the tools and the basis from which they can depend on doing their work. Examiners could not do their work without IT, so what do we do? We provide them the entire suite of technology, all the tools in front of them. Believe it or not, most of these examiners have two large screen monitors at their home desk, they have a router with a VPN connection directly in, so we don’t assume that any type of Wi-Fi is trusted. That’s another good thing, you don’t go to your local Starbucks and start examining a patent, that doesn’t happen. These people are home, they are tied to their monitors and so forth, and they go through huge searches. We try to help them. Can you imagine the Google search and the crawls that work when you have to certify that something is unique and novel everywhere in the world, never been before? That’s their professional career, so we take it upon ourselves to give them those IT tools to make their lives better, cheaper and faster.

Fred Diamond: It all goes back to the mission. Steve, I’m curious, if a sales professional who is targeting your agency happened to meet you somewhere, what’s the first question they should ask? What should they say to you to begin to get your attention? We’re going to talk in a little bit about formalized meetings and those kinds of things, but if I were to meet you and I said, “Oh my God, there’s Steve Cooper. He’s the CIO of Commerce or DHS”, what should I ask?

Steve Cooper: The answer is probably not going to be what all salespeople want to hear because the most effective way to prepare for any conversation – and you can’t do it for every CIO that you might bump into – the areas where you have responsibility is to do some homework. Jamie alluded to this, Fred, I know you’ve mentioned it before in some of the podcasts that you’ve done. When you bump into me in Starbucks, you’ve got some tidbit where instead of asking me a question, you can start with something that lets me know a little bit about the area or the department or the agency that I have responsibility for. That’s the most effective way to get my attention.

If it happens to be just an informal meeting or something, I’m not going to get upset and I’m not going to expect that you have to know everything about, in this case, the Department of Commerce, my most recent agency. But if you know that Commerce publishes more data than any other federal agency, then I suspect whatever technology you’re selling or whatever solution you’re selling, you probably can weave it into a conversation related to data. If you’re cyber or information security, protecting data. If you have something that manipulates data, you’ve got the connection. Having one piece of information, just even high-level conceptual, about at least the 24 cabinet agencies would basically prepare you for any informal meeting where you bump into somebody.

Fred Diamond: One thing we’ve been talking about a lot is sales is all about value creation, and we’ve been saying that for years. We talk about that all the time, but when the pandemic kicked in, we talked about how you need to be even more valuable to your customer because we know what challenges they’re going for. Jamie, you just clearly spelled them out. I want to ask Jamie a little follow-up to Steve’s point there. How deep does the insight need to be? Do I need to say, “In 1956, Jamie…” or could it be something like he just said? From your perspective, what would be something valuable that an average sales professional could communicate to you?

Jamie Holcombe: We have to separate our salespeople into the farmers and the hunters. When you’re hunting, when you’re trying to capture that new and kill it on the prowl, you’ve got that 45 seconds to get top-of-mind with me and it has to be something that’s unique and novel. “How about that patent?” but it has to hit me such that you will remain on my mind later on so that I will follow up and say, “I thought that was really neat.” You’ve got to have that 45-second elevator pitch ready to go for a hunter.

A farmer, however, they better know what they’re talking about. They’ve been around, they know the area, they know the lay of the land. I expect a lot more from my farmers than I do my hunters, and I do expect it to be all business-case. I don’t expect it to be, “Look at the shiny little bobbles out here that really work.” I want it better, cheaper and faster. The problem with the federal government is everybody always talks about better, but I have a unique thing with a fee. I don’t care so much about better as I do cheaper and faster and I’m trying to get that done.

Fred Diamond: Steve, let’s say hypothetically a sales professional gets to you with that data point. What are you going to do? Let’s say it’s from a company that isn’t a provider to your agency currently, but it’s a $100 million company that’s gotten a bunch of funding that maybe has one agency they have a customer to. If I’m able to get to you, get your attention, give you an interesting data point, what might I expect that interaction to lead to? Jamie, same question for you. Once I get your attention, what can I expect or what are you going to do with me? Steve, you go first.

Steve Cooper: In this case, I’m going to assume that we’re talking about a planned meeting. In other words, this isn’t the informal bump-into-me-at-Starbucks. That means you’ve got time to do a little bit of homework and I’m going to very quickly summarize, let me give you two important sources of information. What you’re looking for are problems that I currently have or my agency has, like a cyber breach or something that you might have read about. Challenges, challenges are things that haven’t yet become problems, I hope they never become problems but I’ve got to deal with them. Cybersecurity fits into that, supply chain risk management fits into that, applications moving to the cloud fits into that. Almost everything fits into a challenge if I’m not managing my challenges. Last are opportunities, Jamie’s examples about emerging technology are opportunities, you’re bringing something that’s innovative, brand-new, different, competitive advantage, that type of thing.

An incredibly valuable source of information that I’m amazed salespeople seldom use, go get the Inspector General and GAO audit reports on my agency. Read them, they will highlight for you exactly what I just spelled out. They’re going to highlight problems, challenges and potential opportunities. Armed with that information – as Fred, you said – go read the agency’s business strategic plan. Jamie emphasized the focus is on mission delivery. If you want to, read the IT strategic plan, those are out there but read the business plan and come in armed to explain what you can do to address a problem, challenge or opportunity that specifically helps me and my team deliver our mission as Jamie said, faster, better, cheaper.

Fred Diamond: Jamie, similar question to you. Let’s say I’m with a well-known brand, the CIO for Public Sector Federal, what is your role in the selection of vendors and choices of which technology to use? One thing we talk a lot about on the Sales Game Changers podcast when we talk to public sector salespeople is there’s rules. You’ve got the Federal Acquisition Regulations, there are laws, etc. What is your role in the decision-making as the CIO?

Jamie Holcombe: Of course, I have the ultimate authority and the signature authority, but that’s just my position. What I really am charged with doing is ensuring that my direct reports are holding their subordinates accountable to deliver that mission. So yes, I can inspire, and I can steer people certain ways but at the same time, it’s up to the salesman to figure out those people who are responsible and accountable for delivering. If they can figure that out and they can figure out the procurement end of things… I hate when people come to me, small businesses, God bless them, love them but it’s all like, “Oh, we do this.” That’s great, have you ever worked a government contract before? Get over that.

You’ve matured to the point where you have a contract vehicle, you know how to work with the government, and you have CPARS. The fact of the matter is you better be putting those CPARS in front of me so that I can know where you go, how to categorize you. Or you can say, “And we’re trying to get away from that because that was our commodity, we’re getting into the new cyber end of things where it’s a high margin, but we also see we can help you in this because of our experience in CPARS.” You have to come with knowledge of how that procurement is going to be handled because if you don’t, you’re just talking. I want to know how we’re going to engage, and in that regard, you can steer me to the right contract vehicles. The idea of procurement working along with operations is required for successful revenue.

Fred Diamond: Typical person who’s reached CIO has had a successful career to get to that level. You’re the highest level, Chief Information Officer, but you’re also human beings. You’ve gone to college, you like sports teams. Steve, I think I see a treadmill or some kind of device behind you, Jamie, I’m trying to make out some of the books and some of the pictures in your office. We have a couple points here, one is from Matt McVay over at DLT, “Talk about relationships.” Again, you’re in the public sector market, we talked about procurement, Jamie, in your last answer but you’re also successful businesspeople, commercial and public sector. You have interests, your kids have probably done interesting things. Steve, talk about the relationship side and if I’m a sales professional, do I want to find out what college you went to? Do I want to find out if you’re involved with charities? I know Steve, you and I have a couple in common. Is that important?

Steve Cooper: I think that’s a terrific question, Matt, thank you for that question. I happen to be an extrovert, I draw energy from social interactions, I’m dying here slowly with the pandemic, I can’t go out and meet people for lunch. Jamie and I used to get together for lunch, we haven’t done that in a year. Yes, I actually believe that the social background and what I call a background of relevance is valuable. It helps us as people, human being to human being, relate. When people come in, I’m flattered when they’ve done a little bit of homework.

Most of us probably have LinkedIn profiles – I’m not endorsing LinkedIn, but the reality is most of us are on LinkedIn. You can get a whole bunch of information. Social media, you can check and see if people have Twitter accounts, Facebook or Instagram or whatever your favorite social media is these days. You can look to see if any of us have blogs, many of us do, many of us have personal websites and we post stuff out there. Any and all of that, in my mind, that’s publicly available is absolutely useful to build a background of relevance. If someone brings it up with me, absolutely, it breaks the ice, it makes me feel a little bit more receptive and I like it. I think a lot of my former colleagues and sitting CIOs, CISOs, Deputy CTOs, that type of thing are very similar but I admit, I can’t give you hard and fast data as to what the percentage breakout is. I think it’s good and I like it, I’m much more receptive when people do that.

Fred Diamond: Jamie, how about you? The relationship side of the business.

Jamie Holcombe: That’s a great question because as Maya Angelou said, “People might not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.” People do things on a human level. No matter how technical things are, people, when you really get down to it, do it at that human level. Without a connection, it’s very hard to relate. The problem with a lot of IT guys, especially CIOs, they look at toes especially when the business talk starts. What you have to do is you have to figure out, introvert, extrovert, and you have to actually care about how they like to receive the information. I was always trying to figure out what was important to my customer. I was on the other side at the Harris Corporation and we dealt with Intel customers. I’ll tell you what, they’re some of the most arrogant sons of bitches you want to know, but why? Because they can be, they don’t have to listen to you, they can just pick what they want sole source due to national security, and if they want that guy, they’re going to keep that guy. How do you break into such a brotherhood? What you have to do is you have to make them feel like they’re secure, you have to make them feel like you’re offering something that they just don’t have right now. That is the human element.

Fred Diamond: We’ve got a couple more questions here. For both of you, what are sales professionals doing right now and what are they doing wrong? Steve, why don’t you go first?

Steve Cooper: During my career, I relied extensively on sales folks to help keep me abreast of emerging technologies, state of the market. The reality was when I was sitting and serving, I didn’t have time to do the amount of research that I would love to do. Yes, I did have some of my team, but it was never enough resources and they also had full-time day jobs, playfully speaking. One of the things that I believe the best salespeople do really well is to bring CIOs or decision makers information about the state of the market.

This next point is important, even when it might be something your competitors are doing, if you bring that forward and actually say, “I want you to know this about what we’re up to, but I also want you to know about this from ABC Corporation, who happens to be a competitor.” My respect for that salesperson goes up about 100%, I can’t tell you how much of an impression it makes when somebody helps me understand and points me toward a competitor to help me learn. Any use cases that you’re doing in other agencies is another very valuable amount of information that I don’t normally have access to. When your company is doing something successfully in other agencies, help me understand that, help me know about that. Just a capsule summary, you don’t have to have an hour-long discussion or 30 slide deck presentation, in fact, don’t do that. A minute telling me enough so that I get excited and say, “Have you got a point of contact over there that I might be able to call?” That’s extremely valuable.

The last thing is help me navigate your own corporation. One of the things that the best salespeople did, the larger your organization, the harder it is for me to actually understand, if I do want to follow up, who do I talk to inside your organization? A lot of times, it may not be you as the salesperson. I might actually have some questions. Let me pick on Dell as a representative example because I sit on their federal advisory board and I can get away with this and they won’t shoot me for using them as a positive example. Dell is huge and they’ve got all kinds of components, parts and pieces but they used to come at me with a dozen different salespeople.

When I wanted to actually follow up, and what I really wanted to do was to connect the storage people with the data folks and the analytics folks and other parts of Dell. I didn’t really know who to talk to, who to go to, to do that. I know Jamie sometimes uses this phrase too, I’ll give him credit and he can give me credit when we’re not together, we want one belly button to poke. We want one person that we can go to, to say, “You round up all the right people.” \

Those three things are extremely valuable and honestly, I don’t want to pick on anything that people are doing wrong, that’s not the purpose of our conversation today, but my pet peeve, please don’t ever ask me or a sitting CIO, “What keeps you up at night?”

Fred Diamond: We’ve addressed that as the ‘never to ask’ question. Jamie, last question for you, same thing. What are the best sales professionals doing that you interface with?

Jamie Holcombe: I’ve got to give credit for that last answer because the whole, “What keeps you up at night”, those are the buzz word bingo things. I come up with it, but of course, this belongs to General Mattis. I do apologize, but when people ask my that question, I answer with, “I sleep very well at night, I’m the guy that keeps other people up at night.”

I’m going to validate what Steve said. The fact of the matter is when you inform me about things that are happening right now, on the scene, things that were just approved, things that have just proved successful, that is so important. As an example, what was going on in the last 5 years? Kessel Run is one example of something that’s just been huge. Where are the people saying, “Look at this, maybe we should do this”? They’re all over the place now. How about CIS and how it ran its agile DevSecOps? They’ve got great success stories. We want to know about those things when they’re happening. In order to repeat those success stories, though, they found it’s very difficult and mostly because of the people, it’s all about the people who are running these. The nuggets of wisdom is you pull out what types of people need to be in there. Don’t sell me a technical solution, sell me a people solution where I know that they’ll be successful because they’ll take in all the different inputs. It’s a lot about culture and not so much about the actual tech.

Fred Diamond: I want to thank CIO Steve Cooper, Jamie Holcombe, I also want to thank Cox Business for sponsoring today’s show. Gentlemen, before I ask you for your final action item, we’re getting a couple comments here. Jerry says, “This was awesome.” Mike says, “Thank you so much, Jamie.” Sherie says, “Thank you so much for this information.” I’m going to ask you both for your final action step for salespeople, but before I do, I just want to acknowledge you both for the service that you’ve provided to the United States citizenry making our country safer, making it more secure. Also for the services that you’ve provided over your career as CIOs and your service to the public sector markets. Thank you both for all of that.

Let’s start with you, Jamie. Briefly, one final action step that a sales professional should do today to take their sales career to the next level.

Jamie Holcombe: It’s really basic and Steve already said it, I apologize for stealing it. Do your homework, that’s it. Do your homework and be yourself, that’s another thing, you can’t be somebody you are not. Be yourself and do your homework.

Fred Diamond: Steve Cooper, why don’t you bring us home here? Final action step for the sales professionals listening to today’s show.

Steve Cooper: Now that I’m out of public service, and Jamie, forgive me, I’m going to reveal one of the best-kept actions that any salesperson can take. Go out of your way to build a relationship with executive assistants. Build that relationship, tell them what it is you are trying to accomplish, tell them your objectives and then actively enlist their support because in most cases, they can get things done. In some cases, more effectively than I could as a CIO. They have reached everybody inside the agency, they know everybody inside the agency and you can turn an EA who is otherwise a gate keeper and will never give you access to a CIO into your best ally. In many cases, you don’t even need the CIO to be involved and I really mean what I’m saying because if you build a constructive person-to-person – go back to what Jamie and I said, this is people to people, human being to human being. Build that relationship with the Executive Assistant. I’m telling you men and women, it will make a huge positive difference.

Fred Diamond: Once again, Steve Cooper, Jamie Holcombe, thank you both so much for the content today. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

1 thought on “EPISODE 334: Federal CIOs Steve Cooper and Jamie Holcombe Tell How Sales Reps Should Work with CIOs”

  1. Appreciate the frank conversation with these executives and their insights. They also validated my efforts to research a prospect in advance and to be prepared with relevant talking points when I contact them. I will continue to evangelize this approach with my peers and co-workers along with your podcasts.

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