Q: What led you to found OGSystems?
About 13 years ago, I was just out of the Air Force and Omar Balkissoon, now OGSystems CEO and co-founder, had just completed his role at the Naval Research Lab. We were both contractors working on a big Intelligence Community (IC) project for about a year, and nothing was getting done. The straw that broke the camel’s back was an all-day meeting, the result of which was another all-day meeting. It was so frustrating. That opened our eyes to what could be done differently. Thinking about a better way to do things led us to start our own business. We realized that customers don’t want these five- to 10-year projects, because by the time they’re delivered, the technology is outdated. So, when we were in our 20s, we created a West Coast-style entrepreneurial, collaborative company to show that innovation is possible in the government and IC.
Q: What are some of your customers’ most pressing problems?
Ninety percent of our customers are in government, defense, and security. On the geospatial side, the biggest issue we’re seeing is how to deal with the exploding amount of location-based data. How do you derive information from that data, how do you make sense of the conclusions, how do you deliver intelligence that’s actionable? That’s where people are struggling. That’s one of the reasons we built BlueGlass—which takes unclassified, location-based data and uses machine learning, artificial intelligence, and pattern recognition to come up with predictive analytics. That frees up our customers’ analysts to do higher-level work.
Another thing we are starting to see is the move from two-dimensional to three-dimensional representation. In 2015, we acquired Urban Robotics, whose PeARL airborne imaging system provides real-time tactical pictures. We also developed a three-dimensional technology that’s being used in theater right now. The next step is doing that for any data type as a cloud-based product—something no one else is doing.
Q: Given that you emphasize a nimble approach to solving difficult problems, are most of your contracts on shorter timelines?
We prefer the shorter ones. When it’s a three- to six-month time frame, it’s really about delivering results. If it doesn’t work, you should cut it off. That’s one of the problems with longer projects; there’s inertia around them that leads to them lasting longer than they should. If it’s successful, you scale up. If not, you find alternatives. We do have a couple of five-year programs, but I don’t want to wait five years to develop and deliver to the customer. Well before then, you need to figure out if you’re on the right track.
Q: How do you stay innovative?
The biggest aspects are workforce and culture. You can’t just say we’re going to pivot and learn from our mistakes unless people aren’t afraid of losing their jobs. I don’t care if you’re a junior staff officer or a senior satellite engineer—we want our people to always try to do things more efficiently. So it’s about saying, “OK, we’re going to try new things and you’re going to be rewarded.” This allows us to build things for the customer faster than the competition. And it’s not just the big things. We see it in things like our contract with U.S. Special Operations Command to deploy hardware. We got kudos from the customer because we reduced the QRC (Quick Reaction Capability) process from four hours to two. That’s really what the company is all about—bringing innovation to all areas of national security.
Q: Can innovation be taught?
We started OGS University in 2015 and now offer two courses a month. They’re held at our office for customers, employees, and partners, and they cover geospatial topics and approaches to innovation such as our Immersive Engineering methodology. The idea is to educate everyone and really break down the process—for example, showing participants how they can use technology to make projects shorter.
Q: You’re trying instill a West Coast ethos in D.C. Have you experienced any pushback?
Not so much pushback as not knowing what to do about it. There’s a huge opportunity for Department of Defense (DoD) innovators—that’s what we call ourselves, versus DoD contractors—but the biggest drawback to being first to market is the community is still risk averse. The mission is critical, and often the cost of failure is high, so it’s a balance of doing things quickly and reliably. The IC hasn’t become totally West Coast yet, but we’re pushing forward. The government’s No. 1 evaluation criteria in four of our last five bids was innovation. That’s telling.
Q: Describe your office and how it’s unconventional by D.C. standards.
Everything’s open. When you walk in, you can see everyone else. There’s glass everywhere. The best thing is that we have a lot of unscripted collisions in the office. For example, we built Scholaris—a semantic search tool to mine historic company data—because the proposal team was talking informally to the software team about a challenge they were facing. The message is that anyone in the company can be innovative.
Q: How do you keep abreast of GEOINT news and trends?
By reading trajectory! And by building a lot of new things and interacting with developers. When you’re out there building something for the unclassified field, you’re ahead. We also have a strong focus on communication and transparency. We put out a weekly video to our company’s 350 employees, have weekly get-togethers at contract sites, send out weekly emails, and have an active Twitter account. This is also where the benefit of membership with organizations like USGIF come into play. These organizations provide opportunities for thought leadership and networking with potential partners, customers, and job candidates. That leads to personal information exchange and is one of the most important ways ideas travel.
Q: What do you consider most exciting about GEOINT today?
It’s cool to see the new providers and the democratization, if you can call it that, of GEOINT. The barriers to entry are lower. When we founded OGSystems, GEOINT was mostly military, and you had to be an expert in all areas. Today, you can just be a software provider or data provider, and because of the cloud, you don’t need a lot of infrastructure. The technology is changing quickly.
Q: Your biography says you are teaching your sons how to build the “ultimate tree house.” Are you a big maker and builder outside of the office?
Yeah, I love pulling things apart and putting them back together. When I got out of the Air Force I thought about being a builder of houses, but fortunately it didn’t work out. It’s been a little bit of a trial with my boys—sometimes it’s forced family fun. But at the end of the day, it’s nice to have built something you can sleep in.
Featured image: Co-founders Garrett Pagon (front right) and Omar Balkissoon after cutting the ribbon at OGSystems’ grand opening open house at the company’s Chantilly, Va., headquarters in December 2015. (Credit: OGSystems)