Bruce Gilkes wants to help save the world. The 30-year military veteran, who became a computer-training-services and software-solutions developer, formed C4i Consultants Inc. in 2003 to create disaster-response tools that train people around the world to handle life-threatening situations. As the company’s president and CTO, Gilkes recruits like-minded software geniuses to work on projects that fight everything from weapons of mass destruction to oil and gas spills. Read on to understand what sets his company apart and how it has grown into the sole supplier of disaster-management programs to the US military.
Advantage: How did you find yourself, as a 30-year military veteran, in the software-development field?
Bruce Gilkes: I was always interested in military technology and computers. As I kept doing this, I realized I had a stronger affinity toward technology than I had for the military. I was presented with an opportunity, while working as a CTO for an airport-services company, to develop a system for Saudi Arabia.
I got a call out of the blue from people out of Saudi Arabia looking to translate a piece of software from English to Arabic. I took a look, and it looked like it was a bowl of spaghetti. But I told them I could make them software that was better—and I’d do it for the same amount of money. I had to sign a note to a prince that said that I would give back all the money if it didn’t work, but it worked.
What sets C4i apart from the competition?
People are the centre of our work. I hire geniuses. It’s like managing the Manhattan Project; I just optimize for people.
We think differently about defence and the oil and gas industry. We’re trying to change the way the world trains and how they manage information. I knew we had good secret sauce because people would evangelize. Somebody encounters our software in one job, and they move on to somewhere else, and they ask for it again.
How are you able to get “geniuses” to work for you?
My job as a business developer is to get amazing projects—because nobody wants to come onboard and build the next level of Angry Birds. So I put together and hunt projects down that are amazing—like one where we save people from weapons of mass destruction.
You’ve become the sole provider of the US military’s disaster-management software. Why do you think that is?
We’re a highly desired, agile force. Oftentimes, we’ll have the government reach into a contract and say, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll hire these guys to fix this problem,” and we’re kind of like the “Software Impossible Mission Force.” We’re also recognized for our products. Every single one produced in the last 10 years has won awards from the likes of the military [and] private companies.
Your firm started with an international project. How do you ensure you keep expanding globally?
We’ve been doing software development for the Canadian Department of National Defence for the last five years. We believe that people are at risk everyday in developing countries because their disaster managers are not adequately trained. So we’re working with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to provide software to make a difference—training up this generation but also partnering with schools in developing countries to create a curriculum for disaster management.
All of our software products we sell internationally, primarily to the Middle East because it’s green fields there. We’re the only people that make our type of training software in Arabic. I don’t know why.
Retires from full-time military work
Works for General Dynamics until 2001
Forms C4i, and the company accepts its first project in the Middle East
Makes his first software sale to the US military
Creates his company’s disaster-management product
The US military adopts C4i’s disaster-management product wholesale
Retires from the Canadian military as a lieutenant colonel
What was the genesis of these disaster-response tools?
The military has been using constructive simulation for 30-plus years, and it made sense to bring that same technology into disaster
management. Our disaster-management product was sole-sourced to the US military to provide this type of training for all of the state, local, FBI, air force, coast guard, and army [authorities].
What about your oil and gas tools?
After the BP oil spill, we saw that the industry needed help, so we created a tool that allows them to create their emergency-response plans electronically using a military-grade simulation engine. Right now, the plans are in a three-ring binder that just sits on a shelf.
What are you most proud of accomplishing through the creation of all this software?
Several years ago, before the H1N1 virus came out, we were working with the CDC. We were able to use the simulation tool to show them why it was so important and how many lives could be saved by following specialized procedures. And the very next year, the virus hit. We believe that lives were saved by our training efforts there.
Is there anything about your industry that you’d change?
In the simulation industry, there are a lot of government programs. What seems to happen is that these programs take about 10 years to get started, and meanwhile the world has evolved and changed. You sometimes end up having the US spend $1 billion creating a new Model-T.
What’s keeping you motivated these days?
I always like to punch above our weight. We’re a small enterprise, but I want to make big changes in the defence industry. It’s known for big, cumbersome, expensive projects that seldom deliver. I want to change that. Very soon, we’re going to be delivering a low-cost command-and-control system to a country in South America. A new command-and-control system is about $100 million. They need to have ones where the entry point is about $1 million, so we’re trying to provide a lower-cost solution for these countries that can’t afford the big bang.