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IBM’s Don Fenhagen Talks Emerging Technologies and Company Culture

IBM’s Don Fenhagen Talks Emerging Technologies and Company Culture - top government contractors - best government contracting event

With nearly two decades at IBMDon Fenhagen has held a variety of roles across the company’s commercial and government sectors. He is currently part of IBM Consulting’s federal market organization as a managing client partner overseeing the organization’s national security sector. When explaining his tenure at IBM, Fenhagen cited the company’s wide range of opportunities, positive work environment and great people as well as his passion for the missions he serves as notable factors.

In a recent interview with ExecutiveBiz, Fenhagen spoke about IBM’s approach to putting artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies into action, the impact the organization’s core values have on its endeavors and his advice for those entering the vast government contracting space.

Tell me about the current state of the artificial intelligence market. Where are you seeing new opportunities for AI, and where do you think the market is heading?

AI is reshaping business and the business of government. The platform and data storage technologies that enable AI are advancing rapidly, with more processing power than ever, while also becoming more affordable. Most organizations are already beginning to implement AI in some way or are planning to. That said, it is certainly not something to rush into without a strategy. The rapidly evolving landscape around AI and emerging technologies means that it is critical to not only have a foundational understanding of how to manage your organization with data, but also the corresponding organizational strategy implications. Most importantly, however, are the ethical and societal responsibilities of using AI. Accelerated adoption and use of AI means more risk related to data security, inclusion and ethical accountability. IBM believes that when AI is implemented in an experienced and transparent manner, there are important outcomes and value that everyone realizes. 

IBM has been involved in the field of AI since the 1950s. Our early AI technology was demonstrated by Watson, which made a huge splash back in 2010 when it won Jeopardy. We’ve come a long way since then. In recent years our Watson AI has focused on AI-based cognitive services, AI software as a service, and scale-out solutions designed for cloud-based analytics and AI services. We not only offer the software itself, but we also provide the end-to-end strategy, implementation and management services to help agencies operationalize and scale AI across their enterprises. Some big areas of focus for us are foundation models and generative AI, human machine teammate and human-in-the-loop.

Foundation models represent a huge opportunity for federal agencies. They are types of AI models trained on a broad set of unlabeled data. They can be used for different tasks and can apply information about one situation to another. We have quickly learned that organizations need significant resources and teams of skilled data scientists to train and manage AI models. Foundation models can simplify that and lower the number of people needed to train a model on basic functionality.

IBM recently collaborated with NASA to develop a new application of AI foundational model technology for NASA Earth observation satellite data. The goal of the work is to provide an easier way for researchers to analyze and draw insights from large NASA datasets related to Earth processes. It is exciting and can ultimately benefit industry and government. 

What are your company’s core values? How do you think these values translate into continued success and growth in the GovCon market?

One reason why I stay at IBM is because of our core values: dedication to every client’s success, innovation that matters for our company and for the world and trust and personal responsibility in all relationships. We put our values and our ethics above everything, and every IBM team member lives by them. They set us apart with clients, investors and employees. They shape everything we do and every choice that we make as IBMers. Because of how clearly IBM embodies the core values, our clients understand and trust us to help them solve their biggest challenges and meet their overall goals. 

We can also tie these values back to the use of AI. IBM’s experience and goal of promoting effective and trustworthy AI has never been more important. We have always embedded ethical thinking across our work and partner with leading minds worldwide to advance this critical dialogue and learn from each other. But ultimately, it’s our job to show federal agencies and citizens that AI is meant to augment human intelligence – never replace it. That is why we advocate for the precision regulation of AI and have called for:

  • The tightest regulatory and policy controls on technology end uses where the risk of societal harm is greatest. In other words, regulate the use, not the technology itself.
  • International cooperation on standards of AI, which says our common objective must be to build trust.


How do you set your priorities around limited capture dollars? How do you decide on what contracts you want to go after?

Whether you are a big company like IBM or a small startup, the problem of limited capture dollars always exists. My team and I are strategically selective on the types of work that we go after, making sure what we pursue is centered on both our and the client’s strategic priorities. Since going all in on hybrid cloud and AI in 2020, our capture efforts are guided by opportunities to use and help implement those technologies. Transformative projects surrounding hybrid cloud and AI can create a connected enterprise. IBM Consulting is unique in that we have access to leading edge IBM technologies like AI, as well as deep partnerships with other industry players like AWS, SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Salesforce and UI Path. All are critical to the success of our business and our client’s. No one vendor can solve today’s complex government challenges alone. Business partnership is no longer a choice, it’s a must. Our partner ecosystem is also a growth engine that can help establish us as a leader in hybrid cloud and AI. 

Aside from hybrid cloud and AI, where are you seeing opportunities for accelerated, meaningful tech growth for the U.S.?

One area where IBM is seeing opportunity for accelerated, meaningful technology growth for the U.S. is in quantum. The long term is quantum computing, and in the short term it is post-quantum encryption. Both relate to quantum, but one is the actual computer and the other is preparation for the commercial availability of the computer. 

Quantum computing promises unprecedented speed and power to the benefit of a range of fields from healthcare and drug discovery to finance and climate science – but it will also introduce an unprecedented security risk. Present-day encryption methods (algorithms) will become vulnerable to the processing power of quantum computers – which could mean sensitive data getting into the hands of bad actors. Because the years to quantum cannot be definitively predicted, it is easy for federal agencies to postpone preparations. However, changing a security model can take anywhere from two to ten years – and the quantum threat is more than imminent. It’s already here in the form of ‘harvest now, decrypt later’. The path forward to a quantum safe future is formidable but well-defined and sustainable. 

I am very proud of the R&D work we are doing to develop quantum computers, while also supporting the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop a post-quantum cryptographic algorithm standard and federal agency’s in their efforts to protect their most vulnerable systems.  

What advice would you give to those who are pursuing executive-level positions in GovCon and looking to accelerate their professional growth?

My advice would be to find an area of the government that you are passionate about. The U.S. federal government is arguably one of the largest, most complex service delivery organizations in the world – from national security to national parks. Find an area that you are interested in, immerse yourself, learn everything, and work with others that love it too. 

For me, I completed both the Border Patrol and Coast Guard Industry Academies, which immersed me in each of those agencies for a year and allowed me to truly understand what those who serve go through each day on the job. The experience also helped me fully appreciate my client’s challenges, in turn allowing me to deliver targeted solutions that efficiently use taxpayer dollars. 

I think I have the best job for me at IBM. I love the national security mission and go to bed every night feeling like my team has made a difference.

What is your strategy for attracting and retaining top-level talent, amid ongoing talent shortages, in today’s highly competitive market?

First of all, I think IBM is an amazing place to work. I’ve had diverse experiences, surrounded by great people and opportunities to grow.

To me, attracting and retaining top talent means building a fun and diverse work environment, with mission at the center, while ensuring that the work we go after matters. I believe in creating an inclusive environment and regularly rewarding, recognizing and thanking my team and our partners. If you are hired into IBM, the sky’s the limit. 

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Written by Ireland Degges

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