Information Technology and State Government and Government & Economic Development and Government and Manufacturing & Technology and Technology

Quest Information goes after government contracts

August 10, 2009

Quest Information Systems does the kind of contracting where any screw-ups—even those not necessarily of its own doing—can bring an unflattering public spotlight.

The Indianapolis custom software developer works for politicians and bureaucrats, a group many businesses seek to avoid.

But one won’t hear Quest CEO Steve McNear disparaging his government clients. They now represent about 55 percent of Quest’s business, in the form of computer software and services for state and local governments.

“There are plenty of companies that don’t want to get near it,” McNear said. “I guess I have a little risky streak.”

Quest has been expanding its capabilities in government contracting while it pursues new opportunities by tailoring software for mobile devices used by businesses.

Among its government work: Earlier this year, Quest landed a $1 million contract to build a campaign-finance reporting system for the state of Colorado.

Last year, it completed a roughly $250,000 contract to improve the IT system for South Dakota’s division of motor vehicles. The division’s data had been housed on a 20-year-old mainframe computer.

Anyone with an Indiana license plate has encountered Quest’s work.

Over the span of three governors and five motor vehicle commissioners, Quest overhauled the IT system of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

That work, conducted through a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Unisys Corp., involved everything from the computers BMV employees use at the license branch to the bureau’s Web site, where customers can now renew plates.

The lucrative BMV contract—worth more than $32 million, though Quest won’t break out its share with Unisys—didn’t come without the hazards of government contracting.

By 2007, the cost of the system ran $6 million higher than anticipated. Some customers experienced glitches. Then-BMV Commissioner Ron Stiver told the press the contract with Quest could have been drafted in such a way to better protect the state from cost overruns.

Quest officials didn’t respond—at the time. Today, they say the work on the BMV system, which keeps track of 4.5 million drivers and 6.7 million vehicles, was monumental. The state had been using computer hardware that had aged to the extent it was hard to update. Many of the BMV’s systems also operated independently and couldn’t readily share information.

Extra time was spent correcting problems that became apparent as the redesign progressed. For example, employees used to have to remember certain codes to perform a function in the branch. That was fine until Quest came to realize license branches had a fairly high level of employee turnover. So a system was designed to guide new employees through the process.

Additional work went into addressing the practical problem facing customers who would sit down with a BMV employee to conduct a transaction, only to realize they lacked a key piece of paperwork.

Rather than having to key in all the information again when the customer returned, a new design function allowed the employee to bookmark the transaction during the first visit and to call it up later.

Such design functions resulted from meetings with branch employees before the software design.

“The worst scenario is a [software designer] guy in the back room saying, ‘This is how this should work,’” said Dave Kleiman, senior vice president of Quest.

Focusing on government work isn’t always easy for software companies. Many have grown up with an entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself mentality of, “I don’t want to deal with the red-tape world,” said Stephen Dutton, an attorney at Barnes & Thornburg.

“There’s a lot of investment in figuring out how to deal with government,” he added.

But it’s paid off for Quest. In 2004, the company won a contract to build a statewide voter registration system in Indiana worth potentially more than $10 million. That was after a relatively modest contract in the late-1990s to build the state’s campaign-finance database. That database works, perhaps too well—it shows Quest gave $2,500 last year to the campaign of Secretary of State Todd Rokita, the state’s top elections officer.

Quest has also landed work for campaign-finance systems in Colorado, Maine and Rhode Island, plus a statewide voter registration system in Virginia.

The company has also worked on motor vehicle projects in Louisiana and Washington.

McNear declines to disclose Quest’s revenue. The company also is trying to grow its commercial line, including matching software with customers using tablet computers in the field. “It’s all headed to the mobile phone,” Kleiman said.•

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