Common sense is key for RFPs: Ask Me Anything with Fang Lu

Intuition and a logical structure are crucial for vendors to consider when putting in a Request for Proposal process at a public agency. In this AMA, CTO Fang Lu of Golden Gate Bridge lets us in on the most common mistakes vendors make. 

What do public sector organizations have to be more cognizant of when making business decisions?

I need to be even more sensitive about the users because government agencies face a lot of consensus. So the way that things work, even if you have the best technology–and you may have a departmental head who is very into technologies–if a key end user isn’t able to use the system then it makes a huge difference. I’ve worked in the public sector for six years and I’ve worked for the private sector as well. I can definitely tell the difference.

This consensus-based approach is really important. At the very least, it’s going to delay the timeline. A lot of times, it is delayed significantly and that can add to costs. Government agencies are not profit-driven. But we are very sensitive to the costs associated with projects. It will look bad in front of taxpayers if we’re not sensitive to costs. So that’s where the drive is a little bit different.

How do you approach investing in a new product?

The role we play, even myself being the CTO, we’re like internal sales people. We have to sell the product to the business. Because at the end of day, they are our ultimate users.

We don’t want to make a big investment just to find out people refuse to use it. It happens a lot. From early on in my career, seeing that happening, got me super cautious before I implemented or invested in something technology-wise. I make sure to involve the end-users on the business early enough.

What are some examples of automation you’ve implemented?

For one we’ve allowed for a direct connection between the driver on the bus and the scheduling system so they can tell if there any changes to routes or if routes have to be shut down in an emergency.

We also have a ferry system that we’ve automated to a large extent, looking to connect the ferries via Wifi when they’re out at sea as well. We’re also looking to connect the ferries for the purpose of security so those on the coast can know what’s going on onboard. Those are all the things that my department has implemented. But in my world, since

You mentioned before that the RFP process is a large part of your role. What is some advice you could give vendors in this process?

The vendors who come in, sometimes they’re good with their products and they’re good with technologies, but they’re not good at talking to us.

You can argue whether you need many steps in the process. One vendor came to us with a proposal of over 100 steps. At each step there’s scrutiny and this takes time. So definitely from a public agency’s perspective, there’s a lot that can be done to shorten this process and make it more efficient.

From the questions being asked, I also sense that there’s a lack of confidence, they are giving us a sense of a lack of confidence. Going from programmer to CTO, one of my aims is to find a team that can give us the confidence that they can do it. Withina couple hours of a demo with brief conversation, we would never be able to find out all the details. Yet we have to take the details we are able to get from the short interactions, see if that feeling of confidence is there.

Intuition is also important and often vendors are not being intuitive about our process. They don’t know how to follow up and they don’t know what okay to do and what’s not okay to do. So I realized that if they get some coaching that would help both sides get on the right track.

What are some examples of RFP mistakes?

For an RFP process, in order to build competence, you have to do a good good job from the beginning. When vendors submit their written proposal, we usually whittle it down to two or three before we start negotiating terms and conditions.

I had one vendor over two years ago who bid on a budget tool implementation. On a Monday morning we found piles of paper just wrapped in rubber bands and put in an envelope! It gave us a sense that they didn’t take it seriously, you know that it’s not worth it.

So for one it has to be legible to gain points with us. We also allocate 5-10% compliance bidding on the right topic. Being legible and structured wins you points: text and graphics are better than text and bullet points. After so many years, I can flip through one and within three minutes have a take of how well this RFP proposal is done.

Presenting a unified team is also important when bidding. I had an interesting interview recently with a vendor making me think they were in a divided team. My management team and me was shocked. People do not realize what impact they were making if they are not presenting a unified team as it’s related to the confidence factor.

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