Greg Gershman-CEO Ad Hoc LLC – How to Stand Out as an Industry Leader

Table of Contents:

Background

Michael Akbar:

Welcome to this special video in our series of conversations with CEOs, executives, and HR leaders. Greg Gershman, our guest today is the CEO and co-founder of Ad Hoc LLC, a leading company helping the federal government transform how agencies use technology to serve the public. He was part of the team that rescued healthcare.gov after its failed launch. His company has gone on to support medicare.gov, va.gov and the headstart program. Greg, thank you for being with us here today. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your personal journey?

Greg Gershman:

Sure. Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me. It's great to be here. Yeah, so I'm a software engineer by training. I majored in computer science and I started working as a software engineer in the D.C. area after I finished college. And I think when you work in this area, it's very hard not to at some point or another get pulled into government, just because it's so prevalent in this area. I was living in Baltimore at the time, so my first government experience was relatively young in my career. I worked for a large government contractor at a large government agency. I'll just, to protect the innocent or not I'll leave that names, but I had, prior to that I had worked at essentially startup companies, Web 1.0 startup companies.

Greg Gershman:

And as a software engineer and someone who's really passionate about software development and engineering, I really enjoyed the culture of a technology company. And just the culture that's built up around what being a software engineer means in those kinds of organizations. So, the growth that you experience, the mentorship that you can have from more senior people in the organization, and the challenges and the rewards that come with growing and being successful. It was disappointing to me when I worked in government as a contractor that I didn't really experience any of that. It felt very much like it was an environment which was not geared towards challenging or growing software developers.

Greg Gershman:

It was really much more, much less focused around that. I felt like there was a lack of discipline or process in terms of how we did things. It was just kind of, get it done, and there wasn't a lot of real thought or intent put into how that was done. And you saw that come through in the work product and in the environment. So I really didn't enjoy it that much. It was not a great experience for me. And so I left and I said to myself, "If this is what government is like, then as much as I would enjoy working on those programs and supporting the mission of government, it just wasn't a place that I felt like as a young professional who wanted to grow and advance my career, I could really, I saw myself growing in."

Greg Gershman:

So I went and I did other things, I did start ups. I did consumer internet, commercial, consulting. I did lots of different things, started a company, didn't work out, did some consulting, et cetera. Finally, almost a decade later found my way back into the federal government because of, I just got connected to some people randomly. And they said, "Come help us out with this government project." And I said, "Well, it's government contracting." I said, "I think I know what that looks like, and I'm not going to, it's not for me." And they said, "No, this is different. We're doing it differently. It's a small team, we're using modern software development practices and it's going to be different." So I took this person's word for it. And I actually, it was a great experience. It was probably one of the best experiences of my career as a software engineer.

Greg Gershman:

And so I got really excited about the possibility for, hey, this was just a small project. It was, rather than a big kind of bloated team that there wasn't any clear process or division of responsibilities or anything like that. This was a really small team, really focused, and really driven to accomplish very specific things with a small amount of resources. And that really was the kinds of environments that I thrived in. And so I thought, "Let's find a way to make every government project like this. Every government and IT program should be like this." And so that set me out on a path that ultimately put me in front of healthcare.gov when it launched, which was kind of a throwback to my experience, working for a large government contractor at a large government agency where things weren't very well-organized and going very well.

Greg Gershman:

And so, kind of worked through that scenario, but when healthcare.gov, when that rescue effort completed, myself and a couple other folks, we just said to ourselves, "If we had been asked to build healthcare.gov from scratch, how would we have done it?" And our answer was very different than what we had seen had been the case for what had been the first version of it. And so, we took that and we went to the government and we said, "We would like to try and do this differently. We think we have a better way of doing it." Unfortunately, there were some people who believed in us, or at least wanted to give us a chance and see if we had, if there was anything behind that. And I'm very happy to say, it does seem like there's been a tremendous amount of interest and desire to work with the kind of way that we would approach building out these public facing digital services for government agencies.

Greg Gershman:

So, the rest of our journey as a company from there and our growth over the last seven years is maybe a different part of the story, but that's kind of how I got to where I am today.

Industry Changes

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. You must have done something really right for being able to convince the government to give you the chance. That's huge. So I appreciate your sharing that with me. How things have changed since the founding of Ad Hoc?

Greg Gershman:

Well yeah, a lot's changed, there's been lots of changes inside government. Post healthcare.gov we've seen a tremendous investment and attention paid to technology and in particular digital services and maturing the way the government does that. I think really it's the recognition that government can't think of technology kind of after the fact. It needs to have the technical plan as a part of when it builds the policy and when it rolls these things out. Government is a service provider and can't just create policy and then hope that everything else down the road, website technology, et cetera, just kind of falls into line. That has to be a concerted effort and a first order capability that government has. And so I think that's something that’s still not uniform across the board, but I think we're seeing a growing recognition of that.

Greg Gershman:

I think that's certainly a sort of a unifying theme with the people that we work with in government, it's people who've realized service delivery, digital services is something that, that's what we do. It's not just the creation of the policy, but it's the actual delivery of it, and through digital channels. And so, becoming an organization that does that, as opposed to an organization that just kind of writes the policy and then somebody else goes and puts together all the technical components. Yeah, as I think as a big change and probably the biggest shift that we'll see government go through over the next several years, maybe even a decade or so. I think it's a lot like what a lot of businesses have gone through over the past 20 years, as technology has kind of just become the central sort of thing in our lives.

Greg Gershman:

I mean, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, none of us were carrying around computers in our pockets and having access to the internet 24/7. Now that's our reality. Apps are how we view the world. And so government has to live in that space if it wants to be relevant and continue to meet the expectations that people have. So I think that's one of the biggest things that has kind of changed through the last couple of years and just kind of continue to be a big change in the space that we're working in.

Client Expectations

Michael Akbar:

That's great. What do you think your government clients want to see in an ideal partner like Ad Hoc itself? What kind of impact they want you to be making?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah, I think that one of the things we always try to do is orient our relationship with our customer around what kinds of outcomes are they trying to achieve. It really, I think a lot of times you can get really bogged down in what’s the list of things we need to complete and what's the project plan and those kinds of things. Having a plan to get through and get from point A to point B is important. But I think it's really, really important that we always just make sure we have a shared set of, a shared vision or a shared picture of like, what are our North Star objectives? What are we progressing towards? Is it more people sign up for healthcare? Is it more veterans getting through the claims process without ending up in an appeals process or getting stuck in a backlog or something like that?

Greg Gershman:

So making sure that we really have that shared sense of like what it is that we're working towards, and then, how can we really be a force multiplier? And government has tremendous amount of resources at its disposal, but at the same time it's very limited in different ways. So I think it's super important that we be not just, it shouldn't just be one plus one. It has to be one plus ... I'm sorry, it shouldn't be just be one plus one equals two. It has to be one plus one equals three or four or something like that.

Greg Gershman:

And so I think for us it's like the contract is always going to say, "Here's what you need to do and that," but that's always going to get you only so far of the way. And it's like, there's that little extra bit that you have to do in order to make sure that millions of people get enrolled in healthcare and can easily navigate through that process or are able to pick a Medicare plan without a tremendous amount of confusion or something like that. And so I think that caring about that and making that, investing your team with the government's objectives there and taking on that shared responsibility is really important to being successful.

Future Goals

Michael Akbar:

Exactly, exactly. That's wonderful. In healthcare we talk about outcomes a lot, but in the implementation, I guess the outcome is as important, it's not like implementing the contract is really how people are affected by that. That's really wonderful. What are some of the important things you see ahead that you would like to accomplish with Ad Hoc beyond what the company is currently doing?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, for us, so there's this concept that the government market is one where, again, we started the company because of the tremendous impact that it's possible to make in government. And because we saw a real need for the kinds of things that we were bringing to the space. And so the government kind of segments its market into two different kind of spheres, and it's the small business market, which is startup companies or growing companies that are really just kind of getting started and proving out, essentially it creates space for new and innovative companies to enter into the space and not have to compete with large, more well-established companies.

Greg Gershman:

And then you graduate from that into the larger business. And that's kind of like if you've done it well at the small scale, then grow up and then you have to prove out that you can do it at a larger scale. And I think that's what I'm really excited about right now is, we grew very fast, which I think is a testament to the fact that there is a tremendous demand for what we were bringing to the table. And that's fantastic. We were super happy to see that. Some cases I would say it was a little too fast; it was my first time scaling a company at that kind of pace. And I learned a lot, but there's certainly things that if I could go back and do it over, I would do differently.

Greg Gershman:

But what's exciting to me now is, essentially whether this is true objectively or not, but we are now making that transition to being a large business. And so we have to essentially prove that what we do there's a demand for at a larger scale and that what we offer is something that is applicable, not just in one or two or three places where we've been really effective, but is really broadly applicable, and is something that the government needs at scale. I believe that that's the case, but it's still something that we have to prove by going out and doing it.

Greg Gershman:

And so I think the next couple of years for me, what really gets me excited is that opportunity to be able to test out that theory and see, is what we bring to the space really something that government wants to buy from a company like ours? Or if that's not the case, then maybe that will push me in one direction in terms of what we do next. But my hope and my belief is that digital services and making technology integral to the service delivery and mission for government is something that a government needs a very new kind of a vendor, a new kind of partner to be successful at it. And I hope that that's what we can be, so.

Leadership Style

Michael Akbar:

Wait, it looks like you have had many converts among the government clients. So I'm confident that that had a real continuation. If you don't mind, I was going to kind of switch gears here and ask you a different kind of question. And that is, how would you characterize your leadership style, and what kind of an impact does it have on your stakeholders, the employees, the government, the partners that you have overall?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah, that's a great question. I'm definitely, I would say I'm very much a, I think I have a very strong vision for where I want Ad Hoc to go and what I think we should be doing. So I think that I'm an entrepreneur, like I started the company with my business partner essentially from the startup phase. And that was something I was very comfortable with, but it's been a challenge for me, I think something I'm still learning how to do is how to, how to set that vision out for the company. And then get not just a small team, but a larger, more distributed and more kind of a broader team, I guess, all kind of moving in that direction.

Greg Gershman:

And I think that hopefully one of the things that, I mean, I try to rely a lot upon people who have experience. I think building this company, for me it's been, I have a really strong technical background as a software engineer, my business partner, Paul as well is a software engineer. So we have a lot of that technical kind of experience. Bringing in the right kind of experience in terms of government and government contracting and sort of like business management has been, I think something that's been really important for us. I mean, I think one of the things I try and do is just surround myself with people who can help me understand what are the right questions that we should be asking here, ask those questions and then get answers to them.

Greg Gershman:

So I think that's been something where I very much like to dialogue and converse with my executive team, debate topics and really get into understanding of what our big challenges are, and leverage everyone's experience and backgrounds to their fullest potential. Because I mean, I'm very aware of my limitations and my lack of experience in certain areas, and I don't think I have all the answers and always willing to, very happy in some cases to benefit from other people's experience and input and thoughts. So I try and surround myself with people who have good experience and good ideas.

Company Values

Michael Akbar:

Yeah, that's brilliant. You definitely want to leverage all the smart people around you, no question about that. What would you say are some of the values that are kind of guiding lights of where Ad Hoc is going for?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah. We do have core values as a company, which we set out early on in the business and it's an interesting thing to kind of think about several years in like how those scale and if it's time or if those things kind of changed, but we've kind of held to the same core values. I won't go into all of them, but one of the things that I think has been really important to us is working. Our first of our core values is work on things that matter. I think that that is something that's really important to us as a company. One of the things that really, I think, so I was talking to one of my executives about how we've maintained consistency across various different teams.

Greg Gershman:

And there's a lot of different reasons. It's kind of hard to pinpoint it. And honestly, all I have is sort of hypothesis about it, but one of them is that I think that one of the things that really does underlie all the people that join our team is that they are looking for, they work to make an impact. And so I think that that's an important factor just in terms of the amount that you are invested in and the seriousness with which you take the thing that the government entrusts you to deliver for them, right? You want your work to matter, but you also know that it has a real impact on people's lives. And so there's a level of seriousness that comes with that. So I think that that's something, has been a really important kind of core animating value for us over the years.

Greg Gershman:

The other one that I think has been really important, our second of our core values is build great teams, which has kind of manifests itself in lots of different ways. We kind of take from that all sorts of different things. Number one, we really believe that a diverse team with as broad set of perspectives as possible is going to be stronger. And so that fuels a lot of our efforts to make sure that our team represents the people that it's serving through work with the government.

Greg Gershman:

But also I think it's this sort of commitment to supporting your peers, working together as a team, rather than, there really isn't success as an individual, there is success as a team, which I think is a real important thing, both for your team internally, but also in terms of when you work with customers. And so that's another one that I think has been really an important value that has driven our culture and who we are.

Michael Akbar:

Thank you for sharing that. Greg, based on those values, and you kind of answered that, but if you don't mind, I'm going to ask the question anyway, based on those values, who would find themselves right at home at Ad Hoc? Who would be the ideal team member for you?

Ideal Employees

Greg Gershman:

Yeah, that's a great question. So, one thing about Ad Hoc is we built the company with a remote first model. We're a virtual company. We do have an office, but it's no one's primary workplace. Everyone's primary workplace is at home. And so, we really are looking, I believe that talent is really everywhere. Opportunity is, in particular the opportunity to work on government programs is not everywhere. And so I kind of look at it as our job is to connect up people who are excited about the opportunity to work on government programs with those programs. So we have employees in 45 different states across the-

Michael Akbar:

Oh, my God.

Greg Gershman:

Yeah, which is, I think it's really cool. I'm working on getting the last five states on the board. We have a little map that shows where everybody is, puts a little pin on the map for where each person is. And so I think it's people who really to want to be a part of that. The other side of it, at least on the technical side, I think is that we're an organization that cares really deeply about the work that we do and how it is that we do, let's say software development or design or product management. And so we really do, we think a lot internally about what is the right way to deliver software, build software. We have strong opinions about that. And so I think people who really care about how is a team that runs efficiently, that communicates well with its customers, that can respond quickly to changing realities and requirements and things like that. There's a lot that goes into that, so people, I think they care and think about a lot about that stuff find themselves very at home at Ad Hoc.

Hiring Process

Michael Akbar:

Yeah, that's wonderful. As you were describing that, it kind of reminded me of some of the famous [inaudible 00:24:09] companies who are passionate about the software and what they create, as opposed to just being a big company and all that. If you don't mind, I know this is a tricky question to answer, when somebody applies and you're looking at the resume and cover letter, besides their technical expertise, is there something about that document that makes you decide, "Hey, it's worth having a conversation with this person."

Greg Gershman:

Yeah. Well actually we, at least for technical positions, we actually, we do this with engineering and we do it more and more with our other technical disciplines, like product management, UX research design, we have a homework process. So we actually have people, we have a set of challenges that are on our website. When you apply, you can find them and that's the first thing that you're really asked to do is to do one of these homework challenges, because we're actually more interested in your work than your resume. And that I think has been a really important thing for us in terms of how we built the team. When people submit their homework, it comes in blind. So we have a little tool that we built so that we don't actually see who you are, we're just evaluating your code or your design or something like that.

Greg Gershman:

We don't know your resume. We don't know the number of years of experience. We don't know where you've worked. It really, I think is focuses in on how do you write software? How do you think about solving a problem? That's what we want to evaluate as we get to know you as a potential employee. And I think that's just, that's been really helpful for us in terms of building out the team. I've seen very, very senior people, you go back afterwards and you look at the resumes and you see a very, very senior person who didn't do so well on the homework problem, and so we don't end up hiring them. And then sometimes there's very junior people or less experienced people who do very well on the homework and we do end up hiring them. And so, it really, I think is an important part of how we have built the team and how we look at, what we look at in terms of what's a good fit for us.

Michael Akbar:

No, that makes sense. That makes perfect sense. Now, once they are done with the homework, are you still having some internal interview process? And if so, what are the things you're looking for in those interviews?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah, absolutely. We do have an interview process beyond the homework process. I think that's just, again, since we're working in a virtual environment most of the time, a lot of Zoom, video chat, a lot of working through Slack and things like that. So we're always looking for how do people communicate? Communication skills are really important, being able to, sometimes I think working remote is great because it gives us just a broader group of people that we can recruit and make a part of the team, but it also adds challenges in terms of communication. Communication becomes much more disjointed and you have to be much more intentional around it than if you were just sitting in an office.

Greg Gershman:

So communication skills are really important, how people are able to interact with people in the course of an interview or in the course of even just emailing back and forth. That's very important. And then we are always looking to see, are people interested in their work making an impact and is that something that they care about? And if that's important to them, because we think that people that have that same kind of outlook will fit in well with our team.

Michael Akbar:

Absolutely, absolutely. How much of a difference would it make if your current team members would recommend a candidate?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah, we do a lot of hiring through referrals. We love to do that. We actually incentivize that. So we're very, very open to that. And I think it's been a big part of how we've grown.

Job Seekers

Michael Akbar:

What are some of the hot topics in digital services that the job seekers should be interested and focused on?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah. I mean, if you're a technical person, I think an understanding of government, the challenges that government has around delivery of digital services is helpful. But I mean, I think for us, I think the most important thing is just caring deeply about what it is that you do, the quality of the work that you produce, and having a strong opinion about why you do certain things, strong values around what you do. I mean, a great example is, over the last couple of years agile has been sort of like, agile software development has been kind of like the panacea of all government's problems. And I certainly think agile has its very strong benefits over doing something in much more of a waterfall of process.

Greg Gershman:

But really understanding why does government needs to be agile, and what is that? What is the benefit of that? We saw this very much over the pandemic. There were new policies or new laws that were enacted in order to help people with things like unemployment or businesses with support loans, things like that. And a lot of times those programs struggled to actually have that impact, because they couldn't modify the systems, the IT systems that supported them to change the rules to allow people to be eligible or get the money out to them in a timely fashion, and that's a big problem.

Greg Gershman:

And so understanding the need for agility, the impact that that has, and then being able to not just say, "Okay, we're going to be agile," but to really look for ways that you can introduce agility into an organization that in the past has not had that agility in a way that's going to support those outcomes that we're looking for, which is like, how do we get unemployment insurance paid to people in a timely fashion? How do we keep small businesses open? How do we get people vaccinated and connected up with available vaccines, things like that. So yeah, I think that's an important thing.

Young Professionals

Michael Akbar:

Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. What kind of advice do you have for young and mid-level of professionals to keep a balance between their technical work and their personal life? I know that when I coded a century ago, it would be impossible to take me away from my computer, because I had so much ... I enjoyed it so much, but there's more to a person's, like what are your thoughts and recommendations?

Greg Gershman:

I mean, that's honestly, that's a big part of why we built the company with a remote first approach as well is that sort of a recognition that you want to be able to work on your work and then we all have lives and personal stuff. And so the closer that is to where you are, the easier it'll be for you to make that also a part of your life. And so we've tried to build in as much flexibility as possible into our culture. The remote aspect has been one of them, allows people to work from home. It's always really interesting to me to see, as people join up and if this is their first time working remotely. A lot of times they'll move, they'll move to someplace where they have family, or they'll move someplace that they've wanted to move for, but they haven't been able to write, it's a big thing and that all factors into just creating the right work and life balance for yourself.

Greg Gershman:

So we try and give people as much flexibility as possible. That's factored into really everything that we do, our benefits, our vacation policy, which allows for the maximum flexibility, giving people the maximum amount of flexibility in terms of taking time off as when they need it. We always want people, regardless of time zone or things like that, if you have something to do in the afternoon, if you have to go to a kid's school event or a baseball game or something like that, or if you want to just go out for a run or something like that, we want to build in as much flexibility as possible so that people can really create their own what works for them.

Greg Gershman:

I think that's been a big part of our philosophy is that everyone on our team is a professional. They are going to do the work that they need to do in order to support their team, again, build great teams. So a great team is one where everyone supports everybody and no one leaves anyone else on alert. And at the same time we want people to be happy and to be balanced and have time for all the things in their life that are important to them, so.

Company Information

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. That's wonderful. Thank you. And again, the next question, I believe you have already answered quite a bit of it, but I'll ask anyway. Looking at the competitive landscape, what are the things that sets Ad Hoc apart and how do you want the company to be known for?

Greg Gershman:

Yeah. Yeah, I mean, we're really focused on digital services. There's lots of different areas that the government does, even within IT or technology. We're really focused on, how can the government really make a technology a part of how it serves people as a first order thing and really make it a technical organization. I think of businesses like Capital One or Marriott, I remember back when you wanted to book a hotel at Marriott, you had to call each hotel individually. And sometimes they had individual websites, like their technology wasn't core to their business. And it's not unlike government agencies where sometimes you got to go to this one site for this one benefit and then different sites for this other benefit.

Greg Gershman:

And over time they've realized how important that is and they pulled that together into a cohesive experience, and now you have the Marriott app on your phone or the Capital One app on your phone. Interacting with government should be a similar kind of experience. So I think that's really where we're focused is, how do we do that? And I think we've helped the agencies move in that direction, our work with VA and our work with CMS on healthcare.gov and on medicare.gov are moving the agencies in that direction where they reposition themselves, not just as, "Yes, we're responsible for these benefit programs, but we deliver the services." At the time that you pick up your phone and you type into the browser, you load up the app, that's a part of the experience as well. And that has to be part of what it is that you do. It is a thing that government does. It's not just sort of ancillary or secondary kind of a thing.

Greg Gershman:

So I think that's where we really want to focus. That's what gets us excited. That's the kind of things we want to work on. And I think that's where we're really developing, experience a team that really has done this in ways that I don't know that anyone else out there has really had the opportunity to do. The work that we're doing with VA and the work we're doing the CMS. And some of the, I think most forward leaning in that regard in the government space. And some of the customers that we're starting to work with as well, I think are also moving in that direction. So that's what I think is our strong suit.

Final Thoughts

Michael Akbar:

That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. And thank you for the time that you invested today to have this conversation. Are there any other final thoughts that you wanted to leave with our audience?

Greg Gershman:

Thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun. I think the thing that I would say is that if anyone watching this has thought about working in government and especially if you're, being in the D.C. area, you kind of get to know government a little bit more, but I always remember reading news articles and then I even had this firsthand experience of it where it just was very scary. It looks like it's something where things are very inefficient or something like that. And I won't say that it isn't a challenging environment, it is challenging, but it's also incredibly rewarding. I find that the reward of knowing that the work that I've put in is helping in some cases millions of people, and able to affect their lives in a positive way is well beyond the challenges that come with having to navigate the bureaucracy or the red tape or something like that.

Greg Gershman:

So I would say if you've ever thought about working in government and maybe felt like it's not for you, or it's not the right kind of thing. I think that there's a lot of opportunities now that maybe it's the right time to consider a company like ours, or going into government itself or other companies, things like that. There's lots of different options. And I think it's a really great way to take your technical skills and apply them to something that is really going to have an impact. And so I would encourage everyone to find some way to get involved with government and lend your skills towards something that's going to have a positive impact on people's lives.

Michael Akbar:

Greg, thank you so much for that valuable advice and recommendation. I very much appreciate you sharing your thoughts with our audience, and want to wish you a very successful career moving forward, the best of success for Ad Hoc moving forward.

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