Iagnemmo stakes GSA's online claim

During buying site's first four years, sales rose by more than 1,400 percent

By Richard W. Walker

GCN Staff

When computer specialist Al Iagnemmo arrived at the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service five years ago, he quickly became known as 'the closer.'

Like a relief pitcher in baseball who enters the game in the ninth inning, Iagnemmo was brought in to finish the job.

'My boss would stick me on projects that were hanging around and weren't getting done,' he said.

Iagnemmo took over one project that put thousands of supply system reports on the Web, saving FSS several million dollars a year in printing costs.

Now, as program manager of GSA Advantage, FSS' online store, Iagnemmo faces an entirely new lineup of challenges.

'We are the biggest electronic-commerce site in the federal government,' he said. 'We are at the center of it. We are the 800-pound gorilla.'

GSA Advantage offers more than a million items, everything from pencils to computers. It has more than 2,200 vendors and 100,000 registered users, who make about 25,000 searches every day.

In fiscal 1999, GSA Advantage's sales totaled $86 million, up from $61 million the previous year.'Sales so far this year have already topped $80 million, and Iagnemmo expects them to reach $125 million by the end of September. He thinks sales could balloon to $500 million next year and may hit $1 billion in two years.

'GSA Advantage's size and sales have just gone through the roof in the last two years,' he said.

As head of GSA Advantage, Iagnemmo is at ground zero of the government's e-commerce movement.

There are pots boiling all over the stovetop at GSA Advantage.

One major project is setting up a GSA Advantage portal for the Naval Supply Systems Command in Philadelphia using Commercial Extensible Markup Language from e-commerce platform provider Ariba Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

Time to shop

'NAVSUP wants to shop our site and tie it into the Navy back-end finance system,' he said. 'They'll get their shopping cart, get their funding approvals and then send the orders to us using their cXML tags.'

Another key undertaking is offering the Veterans Affairs Department's medical supplies on GSA schedule contracts through GSA Advantage.

'That has a big potential because not only will it let VA buyers use the site, but buyers from agencies like the Indian Health Service and Navy hospitals can go to the Web and buy from VA's 750 GSA schedule vendors,' Iagnemmo said.

Iagnemmo also is preparing a big publicity push for GSA Advantage in the coming months. He calls it the education campaign.

Despite dramatic sales growth since it was launched in 1996, GSA Advantage is still 'the best-kept secret in the government,' he said. 'Within the next three months, we won't be.'

The campaign will include print advertisements in government and commercial publications, poster displays on Washington Metro platforms and buses, and radio spots.

Let's talk

Iagnemmo also will take part in more speaking engagements to promote GSA Advantage, adding to the approximately 50 talks that he and FSS chief information officer Edward O'Hare share annually.

'We are the biggest e-commerce site in government. We are the 800-pound gorilla.'
' Al Iagnemmo

All of this will likely mean a whopping upsurge in business for GSA Advantage. Iagnemmo expects new users to log on in droves.

The biggest challenge, Iagnemmo said, is scaling the site's hardware and software infrastructure to meet increasing demand.

'We work at Internet speed,' he said. 'We have to make all these changes and make them fast.'

Indeed, Iagnemmo and his team are gearing up for a major upgrade of the site, which they call the Mass Customization and Personalization effort.

GSA Advantage prime vendor Computer Technology Associates Inc. of Bethesda, Md., will implement a suite of e-commerce applications from BroadVision Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., that will supply a more personalized, interactive Web infrastructure.

Sybase Enterprise Portal from Sybase Inc. of Emeryville, Calif., will provide a single portal interface into GSA Advantage and other related enterprise systems.

To handle the new system, Iagnemmo recently had 21 rackmounted Enterprise 420 servers from Sun Microsystems Inc. added to the cluster of hardware at a Unisys Corp. site in Eagan, Minn., where GSA Advantage is hosted.

'A couple of [the Sun boxes] will be used for Web servers, some will be used for the Sybase Enterprise Portal, some for Sybase Open Switch and the others for various BroadVision modules,' he said. 'We are building for a tenfold increase in business in the future, so we have redundancy and scalability built into our design.'

Iagnemmo gave an illustration of how the new BroadVision system would work.

'If somebody signs up from the Air Force Department, [the screen] will say, 'GSA Advantage for the Air Force,' ' Iagnemmo said. 'Eventually, you'll be able to put in your local weather, your stock quotes or whatever we subscribe to. You can tailor it any number of ways.'

He described the BroadVision system as 'a big, expensive, canned package. We're getting some of it modified for us, but we'll take most of its standard pieces and brand the system to us. It's just like what Wal-Mart, Sears and Home Depot use.'

BroadVision's system also will make it easier to make alterations to the site.

'Right now, our programmers have to write in C code or Sybase Stored Procedures when we want to make a change,' he said. 'If there's any level of complexity, it can take months to write and test it. But with BroadVision, there are templates, and you basically modify the templates.'

Currently in testing, the BroadVision system probably will be fully implemented in October, Iagnemmo said.

'It's going to look and feel different,' Iagnemmo added. 'It's going to be a lot more user-friendly and intuitive. A lot of people think it's not intuitive right now. It is intuitive to us because we do it all the time. But if [a new user] looked at it, it might not be intuitive.'

GSA Advantage currently distributes a printed handbook for customers, but Iagnemmo hopes to scrap it.

'You shouldn't need that,' he said. 'You don't need a handbook to use'

To make GSA Advantage more user-friendly, Computer Technology Associates has enlisted Touchscreen Media Group of New York, which CTA acquired earlier this year.

'Touchscreen specializes in usability'determining how to design a site so that it's customer-friendly, easy to use so you find what you're looking for in a few clicks and buy what you're looking for in a few clicks,' he said. 'That sort of thing.'

Iagnemmo said Touchscreen officials will soon meet with some of GSA Advantage's major customers, study how they use Advantage and make recommendations for improvements.

In the meantime, Iagnemmo continues to make refinements. 'We constantly have a list of what we call system change requests,' he said.

Recently, for example, he and his team took steps to enhance customers' ability to use the search function.

Big projects, small projects'they're all in day's work for Iagnemmo.

'It's very demanding,' Iagnemmo said. 'But I love it. Everybody here works their butt off, and they love it.'

If Iagnemmo brims with enthusiasm for GSA Advantage, it's no wonder. It's a job he asked for.

Two and a half years ago, after completing several major projects for FSS, Iagnemmo was asked what he wanted to do next.

Without hesitation, he replied, 'I want to do Advantage.'

Title holder

Iagnemmo was soon working on back-end projects for the site. Three months later, he was named program manager.

He recently acquired another title: director of FSS' E-Business Division.

Iagnemmo, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in systems management and computers, has worked for GSA since the early 1980s. He started as a computer-security specialist and later became director of microcomputer training at the GSA Interagency Training Center.

Before landing at GSA, he was a specialist in computer security at the Customs Service and Veterans Affairs Department.

Right now, GSA Advantage is supported almost entirely by a team of outside contractors. At his office in FSS headquarters in Arlington, Va., Iagnemmo works with about 35 developers, testers and programmers from CTA.

'The government staff is me,' he said.

But, like many things at GSA Advantage, that too is about to change.

Iagnemmo has been given the green light to put together a government support staff, including vendor, customer-service, and operations and maintenance teams.

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