CenturyLink's Gowen looks back on what saved the bacon and ahead to 'a brave new world'

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Diana Gowen SVP CenturyLink

Gowen

with Diana Gowen, senior vice president and general manager, public sector, CenturyLink

After a nine-year tenure with CenturyLink (NYSE: CTLand its predecessor company Qwest, Diana Gowen, senior vice president and general manager, public sector of CenturyLink, is retiring from the company. A 35-year veteran of the telecom industry with a particular focus on the public sector, Gowen may be best known for enabling CenturyLink to win a seat on the Universal portion of the General Services Administration's (GSA) multi-billion dollar Networx telecom services contract. However, government agencies' transition from the former FTS 2001 contract to Networx was nothing short of complex--and controversial. According to the Government Accountability Office, the slow transition to Networx caused agencies to miss out on $329 million worth of savings and the General Services Administration to spend an extra $66.4 million on supporting it. Sean Buckley, senior editor of FierceTelecom, recently caught up with Gowen to talk about that transition, the current status of the industry and her expectations for the future.

FierceTelecom: After nine years at CenturyLink and its predecessor company, you are now retiring from the company. Can you take a quick look back on the major highlights of that time?

Gowen: When I joined Qwest in June of 2005, the Networx contract had already been on the street for a month. Most people thought, "Oh, Qwest will get an Enterprise seat at the table, but there's no way they will even bid for Universal, much less win." My big job was to convince the corporation when I came on board that you did not want to be an Enterprise player; you wanted to be a Universal player and get this thing resourced properly so we could bid and have a chance at winning. That was my big challenge. It's one of the things I am very proud of because we did get a seat at the table even though most folks thought that was highly unlikely. On the other hand, one of my disappointments was that we did not win more of the task orders than we did. The environment and the willingness to change was very different than when we won FTS 2000, where one of the carriers lost and you had to change. It was a big change for Qwest and a change for the telecom industry in that you had more players able to compete for task orders, but it turned out that most of the lion's share went through the Universal contract.

FierceTelecom: The GSA Networx contract was the most important contract during your nine-year tenure at CenturyLink. Besides convincing the corporation to get on board, what were the other challenges in winning a seat on Networx Universal?

Gowen: Despite the fact that there was a capture team at Qwest and a proposal team, they had never done anything as big as Networx. It was a huge challenge, not only to get the corporation behind us, but also to find the right talent both from a consulting perspective and actual live hires to come in and pull this thing off. I was talking to my contract director who said that "had the government not done a complete restart of Networx, we probably wouldn't have had been in great shape." My response was that "when you have tenure in the industry, you never know whether you'll have that chance again."

Those of us that had bid on FTS 2000 and FTS 2001 knew that the government had not structured a great procurement and there probably was going to be a restart. That saved our bacon. By then we had the right resources and right talent in house to put forward a really good bid and win. That's one of the things I am proud of, but there are many others. It's winning that contract, but it's also expanding the business on the classified side of the house. I can't provide details, but we've made big pivots there and gotten contracts that were almost moribund. Then we had very good contacts to recompete for and win over and over.

FierceTelecom: One area where CenturyLink is becoming prominent is cybersecurity. Did the acquisition of Savvis also bolster these capabilities?

Gowen: Well, we were off doing our cybersecurity stuff from Savvis. Right now it's a big challenge for the corporation to get their hands around: Should this all be consolidated? Managed Trusted Internet Protocol Services (MTIPS), which is absolutely cybersecurity, sits in CenturyLink on the product side of the house. All of the DDoS mitigation and managed firewalls sit in the Savvis side of the house. Then, we have what we're doing in government as the third leg. The corporation needs to get their hands on what's the right place to put all of this. At Qwest we had managed hosting, colocation and we were developing cloud, but what Savvis brought was a BPA (blanket purchase agreement) for cloud. 

As Qwest and CenturyLink, we were a long way from getting the cloud capability because the Qwest cloud was abandoned once the acquisition was completed. This meant that we had to go to the Savvis cloud. If we did not have the Savvis cloud, we would have been behind the power curve.

If you think about where this business is going and you're a federal agency, you have already picked who is going to be your data provider, you picked your voice provider and you might be trying to figure out unified communications. Other than that, that stuff is sealed until the next contract comes out. If you're looking at what the new frontiers are, they are cybersecurity and anything that has to do with hosting, colocation and managed services in every way, shape and form. That's a brave new world for all of us. It's a world that systems integrators have been in for a long time, but it's a pivot of sorts for many in the telecom space. I think we're ahead of the pack in cybersecurity and what we're doing with cloud and managed hosting.

FierceTelecom: Industry watchers have said that the transition from FTS 2001 to Networx was too complex and--according to one report in our sister publication FierceGovernmentIT--wasted millions of dollars. Do you agree?

Gowen: The whole structure of the Networx contract, including the nomenclature, was different than FTS 2001. If you're an agency that's been doing this stuff for a while, all of a sudden you need to learn the new nomenclature and everything about doing task orders. You have the Defense Appropriations Act in 2008 that required things over a certain dollar amount had to provide a fair opportunity. Agencies took that very literally and said "we do a whole RFP." All of that made making a decision on who your carrier was going to be very tedious and time consuming.

As I have said in Hill testimony, "GSA had their eye on the wrong measurement." They were not looking at the dollars that transitioned from FTS 2001 to Networx. They were looking at widgets. If you have a lot of calling cards that have no significant dollar value that's a widget that had to be transitioned, but who cares? If GSA had looked at dollars, they would have seen very early on that the data networks were what you needed. It was almost four years into this thing before the agencies got serious about transitioning data networks, and they're hard. From my perspective, GSA tried hard to give agencies lots of choices to build a contract that has all kinds of shapes to create whatever your agency needed, but I think that was a bridge too far for many agencies.

FierceTelecom: What lies next for the service provider industry serving the federal government? There's already talk in the public sector space about the next contract called Network Services 2020, which is the successor to Networx.

Gowen: They are contemplating a 15-year contract. It's hard to imagine what the landscape 10 years from now will look like because we have already seen Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) enter the telecom world and we have seen Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) become a major powerhouse in data, hosting and cloud. If I am the GSA, I am thinking I have to keep my options open. I want as many competitors as possible. As you may recall there was a big push to let systems integrators to be able to bid. If you look back today, we don't have any SIs on the Networx contract. It gets down to whether the fundamental communication, data networking, hosting and cloud requirements and who is the best able to provide them. We're in a world where the major telecom players are hosting their security services, their communications services and we're integrators of all of those things so I am very biased that these NS 2020 contracts should be for those of us that do all of those things. 

FierceTelecom: You're retiring from the company this month. Is there a succession plan in place?

Gowen: There's a search on and I know they will find someone who has good industry experience and good government experience. I was talking to my boss, who said they think by the end of July they will have it figured out. Fingers crossed.