For Washington's legion of government contractors, the prizes don't get much bigger than this one: up to $10 billion over the next decade to design and install a system that will use fingerprints, facial scans and other technology to identify every foreigner passing into or out of the United States -- and weed out known or suspected bad guys.

It wasn't simply the size of the award that attracted nearly every major government contractor to the competition. It was also the visibility of the work and the potential for follow-on business from dozens of other countries.

For Accenture, the former consulting arm of Arthur Andersen that broke away a couple of years before the accounting firm's demise, the decision to put in a bid as prime contractor was something of a stretch. While Accenture's government business had recently been growing at 30 percent a year, none of its contracts was even half this size. Now it was up against two companies, Lockheed Martin and Computer Sciences Corp., that were not only bigger and more experienced, but also had just completed an initial phase of the new system on time and on budget. Acknowledging the long odds, Accenture officials code-named their project "Seabiscuit."

Heading up the Accenture team were Stephen J. Rohleder and Eric S. Stange. Both men are Accenture lifers who come honestly by their interest in national security -- Rohleder was an Air Force brat while Stange's father was an executive at Pentagon contractor McDonnell-Douglas. Part techies, part salesmen, they are smart, square, hardworking and disciplined -- not unlike the federal bureaucrat whom they set out to impress.

Jim Williams, who directs the U.S.-Visit program, is something of a legend in contracting circles, one of a handful of top civil servants who handle the government's largest and most complex technology contracts. Williams had a guiding hand in FTS-2000, the $25 billion government-wide telecom contract, and more recently helped direct the massive computer makeover at the IRS. After 25 years pushing bureaucracies and navigating arcane procurement rules, he still puts in 60-hour weeks and describes his work as "thrilling."

Accenture began work on its proposal last spring with three people in a small office in Reston. Their task was to start fleshing out the government's original concept of a "virtual border" while understanding the technical problems of integrating 20 existing computer systems into one. Much of the summer was spent trying to put together the team of subcontractors with the best track record and deepest experience in biometrics, border control and data privacy and security. By the time the government issued its official request for proposal in November, the Accenture "capture team" had grown to more than 100, many of them working in an office leased in the Rosslyn building housing Williams and his government team.

Early on, Rohleder and Stange figured that both Lockheed and CSC would take a tech-centric "systems engineering" approach in preparing their bids. So the Accenture team decided to differentiate itself by focusing on the management and operational challenges involved in checking 125 million border crossings a year, working from those to its technology solutions. In pricing their bid, Rohleder and Stange offered to put a sizable portion of their fee at risk, to be paid only if performance criteria were met.

By the time the last of the 3,000-page proposal was submitted in January, said Stange, "every square inch of every page had been meticulously engineered." Then came weeks of dress rehearsals for the two days of oral presentations, scripted and choreographed down to the minute. At the real event, there was even a demonstration kiosk to check Williams and his team in and out of the facility, just as if they were crossing the border.

Finally, this Tuesday, the investment of thousands of hours and millions of dollars paid off. At 9:02 a.m., Williams's voice was on the speakerphone at the Rosslyn office announcing that the Accenture team had won. Whatever came next was drowned out by the whoops and hollers of 120 people whose hard work had just begun.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached at