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No easy path in selling tech to NSA

Few federal agencies can match the National Security Agency for technology requirements. Insiders describe the NSA has totally cyber. Insiders such as the deputy director, John Inglis. Staff there basically lives in cyberspace, he said the other night at the FedSMC conference in Cambridge, Md. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, he couldn’t say much about about what the NSA actually does with all that technology. But I’ll wager there is a lot of digital data mining and analysis, much as the agency does signal analysis on analog traffic.

Every year the NSA spends billions — although here again the exact amount is classified. But NSA people aren’t shy about describing what it takes to do business with the agency. One of them is Mark Barnett, the director of NSA’s small business programs. He is regularly on the circuit. He boasts about NSA’s record of small business utilization. And in the same breath he describes how difficult it is to become an NSA contractor.

Part of the challenge is that contractors need top security clearance to work on a contract, but they can’t get a clearance without a contract. To overcome this catch 22, the agency runs a program called Provisional Industrial Security Approval, or PISA,  under which up to five people in a small or disadvantaged business can obtain clearances for the purposes of business development. But there is only one chance for all the people to get their clearances. If one individual doesn’t pass, that’s the end of the road for the company. And no substitutions allowed, Barnett explained. Plus, NSA won’t accept a security clearance granted by another agency. If that’s not tough enough, Barnett said that clearances from NSA can’t be used to gain business development access at another agency unless meetings are attended by an NSA representative.

“We’re not all classified, just 98 percent,” Barnett quipped.

But, clearance aside, you can’t just walk up to the agency with a suitcase full of technology, according to Barnett. You have to be preapproved or recommended by someone pretty high up in the agency — program manager level or higher.

After clearing these hurtles, it can still be a long time — up to several years — before your company can expect to see anything resembling an order.

Yet for all that, Barnett said NSA awards 18 percent of contracts directly to small businesses. Adding in set-aside requirements for awards to large businesses, he said NSA would rank at the top of federal agencies for the number and percentage of acquisition dollars.

Occasionally, the NSA will reach out to a business with a particularly promising technology. Barnett said that poke won’t come from his office but from another group that scours the technology field literature looking for clues to real innovation.

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