Founded in 2003, CollabraLink for years supported clients in the commercial realm before shifting its focus to driving enterprisewide, mission critical digital transformation in the federal sector.
As a result, the company brings a highly entrepreneurial mindset to the GovCon arena
“We had to learn really quickly to be nimble in how we adapt to emerging technologies. If you don’t do that when you serve commercial clients, you basically get eaten up by the competition,” CEO Rahul Pandhi said.
Today, that same agile spirit drives the firm in its service of an expanding federal client base.
“We bring more of a commercial flavor to our engagements here in federal,” Pandhi said. “For example, we do internal hackathons: We form teams and perform a weekend sprint or a 1-week sprint to build a new product, based off of a government use case that we’ve encountered.”
These forward-looking projects typically incorporate some element of emerging technology, such as artificial intelligence or machine learning. The outcomes of these efforts then become part of CollabraLink’s government offerings.
“It’s a real-world example of our ability to embrace and utilize some of these emerging technologies to solve real government problems,” Pandhi said.
In addition to bringing new ideas to the federal market, the hackathon approach also helps to keep the CollabraLink team on the cutting edge.
“It allows technologists to showcase their skills, and also it allows them to get exposure to new and different areas, different ways of thinking about the problems that our government customers face,” Pandhi said.
Many of those customers face overlapping problems.
As a GovCon executive focused on digital transformation, Pandhi sees many of his clients struggle with tasks around correspondence tracking, cyber risk management, or case management. He seeks out a competitive edge by developing solutions to these common problems that can be deployed across multiple federal user groups.
“There are repeatable processes, for example around things like security clearance processing, or achieving authority to operate for new applications,” he said. “We can help to solve those shared challenges with tools that are repeatable and re-leverageable. We can help to address those at one agency and then showcase those solutions at other agencies.”
This approach helps CollabraLink to operate efficiently, and it’s a net win for the taxpayer as well.
“At the end of the day, we’re all taxpayers,” Pandhi said. “We want government to be more efficient. We want it to be more secure. We want it to be more productive.”
How to make government more efficient and more productive? That’s the question Pandhi asks himself every day. As CEO, his task is to always be steering the firm toward solutions that will best serve the federal mission.
But how to know whether you’re placing the right bets?
For Pandhi, the answer lies at the intersection of efficiency on the one hand, and intelligence on the other.
“We are entering a ‘cognitive era,’ where applications have to drive a more efficient working environment for the government, specifically by performing functions in a cognitive fashion,” he said.
With tools like AI and machine learning, agencies can leverage data to drive better decision-making.
“I look for the places where technology can help them to build better policy,” he said. “That’s the sweet spot. That’s where we want to be placing our bets as a company.”
To find that sweet spot, Pandhi has put in pace an organizational structure that supports a forward-looking view. A digital services practice group, for example, is charged with watching the horizon and understanding what’s coming down the line.
“You have to have deliberate sort of structure and infrastructure around this,” he said. “You have to have a systematic approach to gathering the data points.”
Even as Pandhi keeps an eye on the technology landscape, he also is focused on ensuring he has the right people on board to support emerging implementations. The best way to meet that mark, he said, is to focus on the culture of the company.
“As an executive team, we are having deliberate conversations all the time on culture, on the direction that we want to go,” Pandhi said. “We’re constantly asking people for their feedback, and then acting on that.”
When all the pieces fall into place — when the people are on board, and the technology is in place to help make government both smarter and more efficient in its operations — Pandhi goes home happy.
“For me, it is all about the human impact,” he said.
Pandhi has been involved with IT for a long time, and the notion of implementing systems that helped somebody to sell more widgets wasn’t fulfilling to him.
“Building a modern digital government has real human impact,” he said. “It will improve the lives of citizens across this country. I am passionate about that and my team gets really, really charged up by that.”
As young children, our parents do their best to protect us from harm. We’re taught not to play in the road or speak with strangers. As we grow and our environment changes, these foundational lessons guide us even when we are old enough to know better than to touch a hot stove.
When my wife and I had our first daughter, we had a very low Risk tolerance. We child-proofed every corner of the house, sanitized every surface, and never fed her candy. At that moment, our Risk radar was solid red. It was hard to see areas where there wasn’t danger around every corner. Over the years we relaxed, and by the time we had our third child, we stopped sanitizing surfaces that likely would never be touched and even allowed the youngest to eat that piece of candy Grandma was always trying to give the kids. Our Risk tolerance level raised significantly as we gained context on parenthood.
Today will be a Great Day, I can and I Will
Lean in and hear Rahul share not just the growth of CollabraLink Technologies, Inc. as a company through multiple challenges but his own journey through leadership. He shares practices that help us take care of “Mental Hygiene” and keep the “Windshield Wipers on The Mind”.
Learn the basic aspects of the CollabraLink Delivery Model, including the integration of Human-Centered Design, Agile Product Management, & Engineering, including DevSecOps. This solution-driven approach works in concert with our proven Appian accelerator framework, creating a powerful combination that is helping Federal agencies to rapidly field enterprise-grade business applications that are secure, performant, and highly usable.
Built entirely on The Appian Platform, CollabraLink’s Enterprise Risk Management solution leverages cutting-edge AI, Machine Learning, and Appian RPA to deliver a comprehensive suite of reports, analytics, and metrics meeting industry standards, but delivering far more for the Federal Government.
Early in the Fall, a colleague asked if I would connect with some students currently studying computer science who might be interested in User Experience Research or Design.
One student reached out and we had a lengthy email correspondence about User Experience (UX), User Interface (UI), and broader challenges breaking into the industry.
I have duplicated the questions and my responses below, with some modifications for context. This conversation is one I’ve had many times throughout my career and I’m excited to share the knowledge with a wider audience.
What is the UX/UI Field?
Student: I hope you’re having a good week, I’m a freshman majoring in Computer Science. I don’t think I understand it too comprehensively, but I’ve been looking into the UX/UI field and was referred to you for insight and advice about the industry and how to break into it. I would love it if we could set up a time to talk more.
David Farkas: Thanks for reaching out! To get to know more about your interests, could you tell me more about:
- What originally interested you in computer science?
- What now interests you in either User Experience or User Interface work?
- What do you currently understand of those fields?
Student: To answer your questions, I’m not really interested in pure theory or a traditional software development career, but I always found the applications of computer science to be extremely useful and interesting and wanted to have a good foundation in it. In choosing my major for college, I struggled choosing between graphic design, psychology, and computer science. I decided on computer science because I wanted to gain that skillset and develop a better problem-solving mindset.
I heard about User Experience and User Interface from upperclassmen and researched it a little online, and it always mentioned how UX/UI is like an intersection between design, communication, psychology, informatics, and technology, which sounded really appealing to me. As someone who doesn’t really know which direction to head career-wise, this field seems like something I’d definitely want to explore, but I’m not completely sure where to begin.
At this point, I was really interested to chat more with this student. My own background started as an Industrial Design (physical product design) student and it was through an upperclassmen I learned about Human Computer Interaction and found the career path I have been on for over a decade.
David Farkas: Thanks for sharing a bit more about your background. The description of User Experience and User Interface as an intersection between design, communication, psych and technology is a fair one.
I would caution the blending of UX/UI as these are two distinct fields though.
User Experience is much more about the communication, psychology, and business focus of a product. Understanding the intent and value.
User Interface is much more the design and implementation of that intent with technology. The blending of UX/UI is often done unintentionally by business/IT folks lacking the clarity that there are different tools, approaches, and mindsets for each.
Differences between UX/UI and software development
Thinking of UX, UI, and software development as three different, but complementary career paths, don’t feel you need to choose now, during your studies. I know plenty of folks who have bridged the gap between one and the other over the course of their careers.
In my opinion, the main difference in the work is as follows:
User Experience practitioners may be doing qualitative research, collaborating across the business and end-user, and sharing feedback with developers with a more traditional computer science background on the product needs.
User Interface practitioners coordinate with the UX practitioners on the findings and mold that intent into the wireframes and design artifacts. UI is the bridge between UX and Technology, creating the visual representation of the product.
Developers, or those most often with computer science backgrounds, ultimately have the most control in the sense they write the code to implement the solution, but also the least power in shaping the solution since the business requirements are often already defined.
These three definitions, and the roles, are far from prescriptive. The higher anyone goes in their career, the more collaborative the decisions and work is and the more everyone becomes an equal player where product, design, and development share ownership of the delivered solution.
As a decision in choosing your immediate path, it’s important to think about what you want to make (e.g. reports, visual artifacts, or code) and to use that insight to take a first step. The industry has changed at least twice during my career and the roles are constantly in flux, so whatever the choice is today, will be different 3-7 years from now.
What challenges are there in the UX design field?
Student: Thank you so much for taking the time to write such an informative response and explaining the different aspects of UI and UX. If you wouldn’t mind sharing, what are some of the biggest challenges you face working in UX design, and do you have any advice for anything I could do right now to get started if I am interested in the field?
David Farkas: This is a difficult one to answer simply, as the challenges change as someone goes through their career. For instance, in my current role leading UX Research and Strategy, a challenge is building a business case and finding advocates across the organization to build momentum for the practice.
Thinking back to those starting in their career, I see three key challenges:
Empathy: Empathy for the users is standard. But also empathy for business stakeholders. And empathy for our colleagues. We all have different backgrounds, experiences, and goals (project goals, family goals, financial goals). Having empathy is key.
Resistance: Throughout our careers we get pushback. Pushback about the “right” solution, or simply told our recommendations won’t be used. It’s important to learn how we each handle resistance, and rejection, and grow from those experiences.
Flexibility: One challenge I continually see in folks coming directly out of formal programs (both higher ed and bootcamps) is they try to hold to the documented way of doing research or design. The real world is messy, and while it’s important to learn the “rules of the game” for processes, it is equally important to be flexible with those approaches within real-world constraints.
There is no clear playbook in addressing these items, but an awareness of them, and yourself, is key in identifying and working through them.
At this point, our conversation came to a natural close. A special thanks to Gracia Xu from the Thomas J. Watson Collage of Engineering and Applied Science at Binghamton University who asked such insightful questions and was open to having our conversation shared more broadly.
I didn’t set out to build a company that was focused on Creating a Modern, Digital Government. That wasn’t even a thing in my mind when I started CollabraLink. My first instinct was survival.
In 2008, as an upstart Chicago-based Commercial IT shop focused on process automation, we showed some early success with contract wins at Motorola and Bank of America. Little did we know the worst economic recession in decades was lurking just around the corner. The U.S. housing bubble burst and The Great Recession rolled through, halting our projects mid-stream and without warning. As 2009 came to an end, my world had been turned upside down. The monthly invoice payments stopped and I could literally count down the number of months of cash we had left in the bank. At one point I started calculating it in terms of the number of days we had left before we were insolvent. All I could think about was “How do I keep this company alive? How do I find a way to still be around next week, next month, next quarter?” Survival was a huge motivating factor, to say the least. My choice was either to find new opportunities for our young company or go find a new career.
I looked deep inside myself to consider the next move for CollabraLink. The more I pondered, the more I realized that the US Federal Government was heavily process-oriented with antiquated legacy systems in need of replacement. On top of this they were the biggest customer in the entire world and still had ample budget despite the recession. It was clear to me that in order to survive as a company we needed to find a way to penetrate the Federal marketplace.
I had a new mission – bring commercial cutting-edge technology solutions to the Federal sector. I started commuting from Chicago to DC to get in front of potential customers and spent 3 years couch-surfing before I could justify a more permanent relocation. A combination of serendipity mixed with the right capabilities and perseverance led to early success. When CollabraLink began on those first few projects, it was affirmed that the U.S. government had a tremendous need for cutting-edge software solutions to enable more efficient operations and a more engaging service delivery to the citizens of this country.
Things began moving really quickly – and soon for me, CollabraLink was a blur of very tactical activity focused around growth, scaling, hiring, building technical talent, and building relationships with our customers. It was, quite literally, all-consuming. Candidly, it felt like there was no time for higher-order thinking – or anything strategic. I remember thinking ‘I need to focus on strategy’ and not even knowing what that truly meant for having been buried in the tactical execution.
Without me even realizing it, however – a very distinct pattern began to emerge: the programs we were involved with and responsible for modernizing had a massive Human Impact. First, we built a case management system that standardized the way wounded soldiers were cared for when they left the war theater, which was eventually used by over 50,000 soldiers! We then modernized the website used by parents and students across the country to learn about college loan programs, apply for aid, and manage their loans, allowing for better access to loan resources to students and borrowers nationwide. We built the application through which Grants are applied for and administered to support local school districts with concentrations of children who reside on Indian lands, military bases, low-rent housing properties. Our team has been modernizing the system through which State Medicaid offices submit data to CMS, which drives funding and policy for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance programs. Recently we supported awards of nearly $25 billion in federal funding for CARES Act to help transit agencies prevent, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is to name just a few of the programs CollabraLink has been involved with over the years.
At CollabraLink we are touching things that really have an impact in people’s lives across this country. This impact is tangible and easy to see. Never before have I been involved in IT programs that could so directly move the needle on people’s lives. On top of all of this we oftentimes are supporting programs that touch marginalized or underserved communities. I have developed a passion for the idea of driving Human Impact via technology solutions – I personally find it satisfying and hugely motivating. The realm of Civic Tech – the use of technology to directly improve or influence governance – has become my passion. It wasn’t overnight – it was organic, and truthfully it wasn’t part of the plan when I started CollabraLink.
This notion of Civic Tech is now the foundation of CollabraLink’s Mission: To Create a Modern, Digital Government. Technology can democratize the way government services are consumed. When wielded correctly, it can be used as a great equalizer – delivering the government to the citizens of this country in an egalitarian fashion. No special treatment for those who know the ropes, or those who understand how to navigate the system. Technology and the extent to which we can digitize the delivery and consumption of government services can level the playing field. This is needed more than ever today. The function of government, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, is more important than ever. The ability for it to function seamlessly and without bias is paramount. We can enable this to happen. We can drive this forward. We can Create a Modern, Digital Government – for all.
As the country adjusted the “new normal” of life under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, many citizens experienced far worse. Entire industries shuddered their doors and millions of Americans found themselves out of work. On March 27, the United States Federal government earmarked $2 trillion to support this vulnerable population through the aptly-named
Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. With the world at home and no longer on their daily commute, local transit authorities found their ridership way down, straining cash flow and placing employees at risk. Part of the CARES relief package was routed to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT), to supply the nation’s local transit providers with critical funds through the Transit Award Management System (TrAMS). The CollabraLink Help Desk team has been hard at work supporting applicants through the grant process to get much needed Federal dollars into the hands of the most vulnerable and save workers’ jobs.
Days on the Help Desk for the TrAMS start quiet and last long. Team CollabraLink runs two shifts: The first starts promptly at 8:00AM, and the second shift starts at 12:00PM and does not end until 8:00PM. Still, Help Desk Lead and Help Desk Analysts are all smiles and good spirits despite their workload. While it ebbs, flows and occasionally trickles to almost nothing, this nimble and dedicated team is typically very busy. In fact, they have created an average of 301 tickets per month since May 2020 and resolved an average of 229 monthly for the same period of time.
The day starts with reviewing the daily Help Desk report, checking emails from the Tier 2/3 teams and DOT FTA customers, and updating the weekly status report used for FTA Oversights meetings. Knowledgeable from cross-training, team members alternate the responsibility for developing routine reports and responding to ad-hoc report requests. While waiting for calls, the team reviews the TrAMS Knowledge Base, a collection of instructional videos and system documentation, such as the 324-page Recipient User Guide that CollabraLink maintains, and checks the FTA website for updates that they need to communicate to users. As one of our Analysts pointed out, “Reviewing the knowledge base keeps the mind fresh! You may learn one thing about the TrAMS and the help desk, but you may not use that knowledge [to help a user] for months”.
As our Help Desk Lead stated and the team agreed, most calls are straightforward and to the point with users asking, “Heh, why can’t I do this”, jokingly stating that, “Honestly, a lot of people don’t pay attention to emails and forget deadlines”. An Analyst added, “We get a lot of people who procrastinate. As luck has it, they get a lot of error messages. It never fails. Our users call in a little annoyed and confused. We get on the same page with them [as to the nature of their issue], and it all works out”.
The Tier 1 Help Desk role tests our team’s collective emotional intelligence. In the time of COVID-19 and with most TrAMS users now working from home, some struggle to meet deadlines for grant application submissions as Wi-Fi speeds lag and brash children and boisterous pets clamor in the background. Others break from fear of losing their jobs. One of our Analysts recounted a call with a hysterical user, crying from fear of being furloughed from their job, adding that, “They had not logged into the system in a long time. They kind of lost it for a quick second, trying to submit a grant application before the deadline or before they were sent home. It was an emotional time, but I told them, ‘Heh, no worries. We can get you into the system’”. Like many of the calls that our team receives every day, our Analyst only had minutes to help this already stressed out customer submit a grant application, and breathed an oh-so-familiar a heavy sigh of relief when the application was submitted just in time.
Once CARES Act funding became available, our team experienced an uptick in requests from users struggling to modify previous grant applications to reference the new scope code. Users were upfront and honest about being “annoyed” and “perturbed” by the tedious and time-consuming tasks of re-entering data into applications many of which contained dozens of lines of funding data until a permanent fix was put in place to make the process easy. Our Help Desk Analysts ability to remain calm and focus, and commitment to helping customers submit grant applications combined with strong technical skills of the Tier 2/3 teams contributed to TrAMS supported awards of nearly $25 billion in Federal funding for CARES Act to help transit agencies prevent, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regardless of the emotions involved, CollabraLink’s team handles every call with compassion and skill gained from our vigorous training program. Our experience gained from operating TrAMS since 2016 demonstrates that our training works, empowering our team to be a high performed one, but as the saying goes, “Teamwork makes the dream work”. Our team agrees and emphasized, “We’re on the front line, but we are backed up by Tier 2/3 Production Support. TrAMS itself is always a learning experience, but working in a team just makes everything work.“
- DOT FTA Cares Act Funding Page — https://www.transit.dot.gov/cares-act
- Department of Transportation Briefing Room Article, “U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao Announces $10 Billion in Relief for
- America’s Airports” dated April 14, 2020 – https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/us-transportation-secretary-elaine-l-chao-announces-10-billion-relief-americas
- American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Website Article dated March 26, 2020 – “CARES Act Provides $25 Billion for Public Transit” – https://www.apta.com/advocacy-legislation-policy/legislative-updates-alerts/updates/cares-act-provides-25-billion-for-public-transit/
When you complete a transaction at your favorite eCommerce store or do your taxes online using commercial tax preparation software, how often did you say to yourself, “Wow, that was easy!”? Or even better, you were able to complete whatever task you needed to–such as depositing a check using your banking app–quickly without making any errors. These types of digital user experiences did not happen by accident; they were all designed by commercial companies using the Human Centered Design (HCD) process, which is grounded in the theory that including real, representative users in the design process will produce better outcomes.
Fortunately, the Federal government is learning from these commercial software best practices and using HCD to design highly-usable (and useful) government digital services. In fact, in late 2018 the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, otherwise known as 21st Century IDEA, was signed into law aimed squarely at improving government digital service experiences. The end result is that citizens and government employees (doing important work on behalf of citizens) will be able to receive government services as quickly and efficiently as commercial digital services. Finally, usability is being recognized as a pillar of quality in the software development for government digital services.
To meet these user experience goals using the HCD process, the first step is getting to know who you are designing for. This is often known as ‘generative’ user research and provides a critical foundation for successful Agile design and development.
Historically, those in the HCD field have put an emphasis on conducting generative user research with representative users to help to define the problems they will be designing solutions to solve. Designers need to understand how people do their jobs or seek information in order to design a usable and useful user experience. This is where generative user research shines–but it does take time! Our typical generative research process includes recruiting representative users, conducting interviews and/or contextual inquiries, and creating research-based personas and customer journey maps.
Way back when, in the waterfall days, this type of generative user research might have happened during a “requirements gathering” phase. In today’s Agile world, many focus on a rapid “Sprint Zero” discovery period. What we have found is that we have a considerably more productive “Sprint Zero” when we spend a couple of weeks (typically 3-4 weeks) conducting generative research. The result of this pre-Sprint Zero research is that the team has a solid foundation of knowledge about user needs going into Sprint Zero. Sprint Zero then becomes considerably more focused on prioritizing product solutions and components that will provide the highest business value to the government AND the highest value to the end user. This research has a major influence on the product roadmap.
Once the delivery team begins sprinting, the low-level user research, user experience (UX) design, and development begins in earnest. The challenge now becomes infusing the HCD process into the low-level discovery, design, and development process…without user research and UX design coming a delivery bottleneck. We have found that it is most effective to use short-cycles of highly-focused generative research to inform UX prototypes and weave in ongoing usability feedback collection and testing, otherwise known as “evaluative” research.
To address the bottleneck issue, we utilize a Multi-Track Agile methodology. In its simplest form, we have UX researchers and designers working in advance of the development team, often 1-2 sprints ahead. This allows for development items to be considered “ready for development” when the appropriate amount of research and UX design have been completed. Periodically, when enough features have been designed and/or developed, we conduct formal usability testing and move any identified areas for improvement to the product backlog.
Using these methods, you can effectively infuse HCD processes (UX research and design) into your Agile software development life cycle. The key is committing to usability as a pillar of product quality and adapting to project realities, testing out processes and adjusting as necessary.
- Commit to usability as a pillar of product quality (along with delivery business value and timely delivery of defect-free code) and utilize HCD methods to ensure usability
- Always conduct generative user research when starting a new project. Use findings to drive the product roadmap and you will feel confident moving into Sprint Zero
- Utilize Multi-Track Agile methods to infuse UX research and design into sprint-level delivery, conducting evaluative (usability) research on an ongoing basis