Why should you even care?

First, let me start by saying, I AM NOT the world’s foremost expert on public procurement. Public procurement is simply too broad and diverse for such a single person to exist. There are hundreds of very smart people in this field, and I have been fortunate enough to associate myself with such people for an extended period of time, in which some of their knowledge and experience, and clout, has rubbed off on me. And so, while I have built a sound understanding of public procurement from the experts in the field, paired with my own education and experience, my only real contribution to the furtherance of the profession has been in bridging the communication gap between government and industry.

The Road Show

In January of 2016, while working as an Agreements Officer at Army Contracting Command – Warren, I wrote a LinkedIn article entitled, “Other Transaction (OT) Authority Mythology: Reflections on the Cure-all of Defense Procurement.” The article featured a picture of a snake-oil salesman, and largely focused on the lack of understanding by Department of Defense Acquisition professionals on the changes in the Other Transaction Authority (OTA) under Section 815 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That article, by pure chance, caught the attention of then US Special Operations Command Senior Procurement Executive, Jim “Hondo” Geurts, and prompted an invitation, along with my Defense Acquisition University mentor, Ms. Joanne Abbott, and US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) customers Brandon Pender and “Breakfast” Mike Karaki, to travel to Tampa to provide OTA training to SOCOM attorneys, contracting officers, and program managers. It was a great honor, and simultaneously the beginning of a great journey. Over the next three and a half years, I would visit more than 100 locations and provide training and direct acquisition support to more than 5,000 acquisition professionals, industry and government alike. At some point in 2016, our traveling band of facilitators was coined the “Acquisition Innovation Road Show (#AIRS)”, which was later changed to “#FUTAIRS” after US Army TARDEC became the US Army Combat Capabilities Command – Ground Vehicle Systems Center, a subordinate center of US Army Futures Command. Over three and a half years, the Road Show grew from our band of four providing OTA training, to more than 20 facilitators providing on-site workshops, industry outreach sessions, procurement design sprints, joint acquisition agility workshops, pitch days, and general education across a myriad of topics to all of DOD and partner Federal Agencies.

Transparency starts with openness and continues with collaboration

The aspect of the Road Show that always provided the most value, at least in my opinion, was the universal message, content, and delivery. Very early on in the life of the Road Show we began adding industry “pop-ups”. The pop-ups first began with a trip to California in 2016. For that trip, we were officially scheduled to provide training at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey; Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental (DIU, when they still had the ‘x’) in Mountain View; and Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base. In between our official briefing itinerary, we partnered with the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum to set up pop-up events. The pop-ups were open to the public, and provided an environment for industry and academia to receive the exact same training and education that their Government counterparts were receiving. The training was kept entirely the same for both audiences and evolved over the years to incorporate continuous feedback from government, academia, and industry. As the Road Show evolved, these pop-ups evolved into joint government/industry events. Later partnering with organizations such as the Strategic Institute for Innovation in Government Contracting, the National Contract Management Association, the National Defense Industrial Association, The American Council for Technology (ACT) and Industry Advisory Council (IAC), the Association of Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, and a whole list of other government and industry organizations, the Road Show was able to create a platform for open discourse among those in the Federal procurement space. Input was gathered from multiple perspectives, integrated into the joint training activities, and delivered consistently to government, industry, and academia.

Sounds like things were going well, so why did you bail?

Over the course of the three and a half years I spent on the Road Show, between my time as an Agreements Officer for US Army Contracting Command, and then later as the Chief of Acquisition for the Ground Vehicle Systems Center, things WERE going well. I was given top cover to push the Army and DOD in a direction towards streamlined acquisition, and I enjoyed general autonomy to determine the best course of action to meet that goal. I served under outstanding leadership, and I was afforded an ideal working environment, with opportunities to continue up the ladder. On top of all that, I was surrounded by one of the best acquisition teams in all of DOD, who continue with the Road Show to this day. What led me to leave an ideal situation and stable career behind for the technology startup world, was the same thing that led me to start this BLOG: Gaining a new perspective.

A blog about perspectives in public procurement

For anyone who has been a Procuring Contracting Officer / Agreements Officer, you know that the procurement process is so complex and takes so long because program managers can’t create a quality procurement package. It’s just a fact. PM’s don’t know what they’re doing. Conversely, for anyone who has served as a PM, you know that PCO / AOs want a level of detail that is unreasonable and unnecessary in procurement packages. They are always whining about going to jail, and they really don’t even understand what that means. It’s just a fact. PCO / AOs don’t know what they’re doing. Having served in both of these roles, I can tell you that they are both correct, some of the time. It was gaining the perspective from serving in both roles that made me an effective communicator in my career in procurement. My insight and knowledge of both roles was genuine. I had lived it. So as I spent the past three and a half years on the road interfacing with industry, and working to lower the barrier of entry for nontraditional defense contractors and small businesses, I listened, intently. I listened to how difficult Government requirements were to understand. I listened to how DOD Cost accounting standards, and audit requirements, and intellectual property requirements were overly burdensome. I witnessed great technologies that weren’t making it to the field because the burden of entry was too high, and because there simply wasn’t a cohesive path to transition technology through the valley of death. I listened, and I heard, but I had not lived that struggle. As much as I passed on to Government acquisition professionals that they needed to dramatically lower barriers if they wanted to field relevant technology while it was relevant, my words were not truly genuine, because I had not lived it.

DOD has attempted to address this gap with programs like the Army’s Training With Industry (TWI), or DOD’s Industry Exchange Program, where military or DOD civilians spend 6-months to a year working with an industry partner to get a different perspective. The people I know who have participated in these programs, however, have noted frustration in institutionalizing what they have learned within the program upon returning to their home station. It is not because they haven’t gained perspective. They absolutely have. What they lack is perspective with authenticity. Rather than being seen as genuine, they are viewed as someone who played a part, within a carefully structured and safe environment, for a short period of time, at no personal or professional risk, and have now returned to tell their organization what changes it should make based on their experience. The situation reminds of a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting:

Sean: Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me… fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven’t thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?

Will: No.

Sean: You’re just a kid, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talkin’ about.

Will: Why thank you.

Sean: It’s all right. You’ve never been out of Boston.

Will: Nope.

Sean: So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. You’re an orphan right?

Will: [nods]

Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. [i]

In order to understand the barriers to entry into the Defense acquisition world for small businesses, start-ups and new technology, one must LIVE it. In order to truly understand the impact and frustration of unclear requirements, or a PCO who refuses to communicate with industry, or evaluation timelines that drag on for months, I decided that I must live it. I must live the confusion, and the pressure, and the risk of trying to bring a new product to the Government market. I must learn how it feels to launch a startup; to obtain financing; and to scale a product. I must perform without a net. I must genuinely live the other side of the equation. And so this BLOG, and my decision to leave the most secure and rewarding career one could ever wish for, is about exactly that: Gaining a new, genuine, perspective.

What you can expect

What you can expect from this BLOG is an Ex-PCO/AO, Ex-PM’s perspective on doing business with the Government from my new role as a startup technology owner, entrepreneur, and industry consultant. I will use a combination of mediums, from articles to slideshows to video, to live interviews with my Government counterparts, in which we will discuss how we saw things previously, and how we see them today. You can expect to see me discuss actual RFPs that don’t track to logic and hear from Government POCs on their pet peeves in proposal review. The common thread in all posts will be a concentration on perspectives. How PCOs and PMs interact; how policy shops and Government practitioners interact; how industry and government interact; how primes and subs interact; and how transparency and collaboration require understanding the other side’s perspective.

Get involved

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[i] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119217/characters/nm0000245
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Comment

  1. Ben, I’ve witnessed/participated in one of your Road Show presentations (NAMC Members meeting in 2018) and left with hope that SOMEONE in a (at least one) ACC was seeing both the forest AND the trees at the same time, and maybe – just maybe, had actual empathy for the industrial base. Your persistent energy and positivity is contagious… I’m looking forward to following your blog and perhaps a conversation down the line.

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