BRINGING WEST COAST CULTURE TO THE BELTWAY
Periodically, Concept Plus, LLC employees break out of the daily rigors of developing web-based enterprise applications for Tricare, Veterans Affairs, the Department of the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other clients to plunge into a hackathon.
“We are an IT services company. We have a lot of technical folks, so we try to implement hackathons or code-athons and challenge the staff,” says Ahmad Abuzaakouk, president and CEO of Concept Plus.
Leaders of the Fairfax, VA, company, which specializes in Oracle technology and advanced engineering, challenge staff to devise a solution to a key technical problem confronting a potential client.
Such exercises, which are often launched after Concept Plus leaders have spent time researching conditions and contract opportunities within a target agency, can produce valuable results. For example, hackathons or code-athons can generate deeper knowledge of and potential solutions for agencies that Concept Plus would like to add to its client list.
But the hacking/coding competitions serve two other valuable business purposes as well — namely, fueling professional development among Concept Plus’s technical engineers, and reinforcing the company’s vibrant culture and fun work environment.
“You get to provide employees … an opportunity to work outside of what they are normally doing. … They get to try something new, something exciting, something to give them an opportunity to innovate,” says Sam Garbia, general counsel and director of contracts and compliance.
Winners receive cash prizes, weekend outings for their families or goodies from Concept Plus’s stash of Mac accessories.
Ultimately, it’s all part of Concept Plus’s efforts to create a distinctive culture in the midst of the bevy of IT firms crowding the federal contracting space.
“We don’t want to become like the typical system integrator around the DC area,” Abuzaakouk says. “Culturally, we are trying to put forth an environment in the company that mirrors the West Coast, where product delivery is your success, not capturing revenue or contracts.”
Realizing that employees often spend more hours with their coworkers than their families, Concept Plus leaders have strived to create a welcoming and fun work environment.
“We have a lot of offsite activities,” Abuzaakouk says, including many outings to Wizards games, Redskins games and other sporting events. Recently, staff members went on a Terrapin Adventure.
Concept Plus promotes continuous learning among its staff, and Abuzaakouk personally sits with each employee to discuss interests, ambitions and possible career paths within the company.
As a services company, “our people are our product,” Abuzaakouk says. “We release a product to our customer base and that product doesn’t stay stagnant. We continue to improve upon that product by educating [employees], by challenging them with new technologies and by making them successful.”
Concept Plus employees know from the outset that they will be challenged by their work, “but that challenge is solving the problem to make your customer successful,” Abuzaakouk says. “You won’t be challenged in that you are handicapped and you cannot be successful. … It is our role as senior managers to give our staff, our troops, the tools to become successful.”
As a relatively small and young company, Concept Plus serves as a great platform to foster that type of culture and employee development, Garbia says.
“Our strength, being a small company, is you get the advantage of having a direct relationship with management. You get to understand the growth of the company … and experience [personal] growth as the company grows,” he says. “At the same time, the company is able to offer benefits and salaries that actually compete with the larger companies.”
Asked what advice he would offer to other entrepreneurs working to develop a robust corporate culture, Abuzaakouk offers two rules.
First, “don’t force it,” he says. Culture can’t be mandated, but it can be fostered by aligning company operations with the culture, inspiring employees with your mission, and providing them with challenging and meaningful work.
Second, “be consistent,” Abuzaakouk says. “If you are a consistent leader in good and bad, I think it helps grow the company.”
Photos (L to R): Ahmad Abuzaakouk, President and CEO; Sam Garbia, General Counsel and Director of Contracts and Compliance; Mike Quinnelly, Director, Healthcare; Yazan Ramahi, Director, Corporate Delivery