Hacking Acquisitions

  • Published
  • By J.M. Eddins Jr.
  • Airman Magazine


Defense Innovation Unit training Air Force Program Managers to be more agile

The Defense Innovation Unit is in the business of finding solutions to military problems in the commercial marketplace.

First, they investigate technological solutions to address a military need or problem. Then, they determine the best commercial company to provide that solution and facilitate an agile acquisition of the technology.

DIU can then assist as the company and the warfighter work in tandem to develop and improve the product—and they endeavor to do all of this as quickly as possible.

DIU (then DIUx – x for Experimental) was stood up in 2015 with the sole purpose of engaging with the commercial technology marketplace and acquire technologies to solve military problems in a new, more agile way, according to Maj. David Rothzeid, DIU director of acquisition pathways in Mountain View, California.

Now, after years of successfully matching commercial companies with military customers, DIU is no longer experimental and they are endeavoring to spread the methods of agile acquisition throughout the military via the Hacking Acquisitions Program, or HACQer.

“With the HACQer program, we bring in seasoned veterans of the acquisition career field, two people at a time, with some overlap, and they spend time at DIU, apply their tradecraft and learn our business models and culture,” Rothzeid said.

Currently, two Air Force program managers, Maj. Denzil ‘DT’ Thomas, Air Force Materiel Command, Special Programs/Cyber Operations lead project manager, and Jaylene Carteret, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Business Systems Division senior program manager, are working at DIU headquarters.

Historically, the military, especially the Air Force, was the primary developer of advanced technologies that were then embraced and utilized by the private sector, often to dramatic societal effect.

The global positioning satellite system is the poster child for that paradigm; developed by the Air Force and used by the majority of the planet.

But as the digital revolution became our digital way of life, that paradigm has shifted dramatically. The private sector now outspends the military in research and development by nearly three to one, according to Rothzeid.

To maintain its advantage in a world where technology is rapidly changing, the Air Force must adapt how it acquires if it hopes to attract companies accustomed to developing solutions at that pace.

Unfortunately, the Air Force, along with the rest of the military, has a reputation within the private sector of being a sluggish, slow and difficult business partner rooted in a cumbersome system of military acquisitions.

The old method of spending years writing requirements, processing proposals and awarding contracts before ever seeing a product simply does not work in the digital world of software, artificial intelligence and data management.

“It’s been hard to work with DoD in terms of how long it takes to carry something forward onto a contract, then how long to execute that contract and then move forward to fielding a product,” Thomas said. “DIU reaches out to those commercial companies that have technologies that can meet the warfighter needs, in a way that’s friendly to their business model. Enabling them to work ‘with’ DoD rather than having to jump over a lot of the hurdles with a FAR-based (Federal Acquisition Regulation) acquisition.”

DIU performs exhaustive market research to canvass the commercial technology ecosystem for DoD priority problems. Upon solicitation, DIU invites companies to submit their solutions, ideas and technology similar to how they would to a venture capitalist.

Then by employing existing, but underutilized, acquisition authorities, the winning company is rapidly awarded a contract to work directly with the warfighter to apply their commercial solution quickly and consistently with warfighter input.

The poster child for this new technology acquisition paradigm is Kessel Run, which was born at DIU and is upgrading air operations centers with new software solutions.

Instead of trying to eat the whole AOC elephant at once, Kessel Run attacks smaller high-priority problems on the AOC wish list. They deliver a software prototype or minimum viable product, often within weeks, and then incorporate feedback, often in real time, to refine and upgrade their product as it is being used by the warfighter – just like a commercial software company does with a consumer product.

“This way of working is all about buying down risk,” said Adam Furtado, Air Operations Lab Director at Kessel Run of the AOC Pathfinder program. “Working in smaller batches and validating our assumptions continuously ensures that we are always building the right thing, the next most valuable thing, and if we aren’t- it allows us the opportunity to pivot. Frankly, agile optimizes for us being wrong about requirements up front- the hard part is this requires systemic and organizational self-awareness to be able to admit that we don’t know the answer up front.”

Thomas, who is currently working at the A3FS office at AFMC headquarters, is responsible for range testing of some of what he refers to as, “the Crown Jewels” of Air Force technologies, believes agile acquisition methods he is learning in the HACQer program have definite cost-saving applications to his mission because you learn what does not work quickly.

“Test is definitely a world that iterates quickly. You’ve got a very high ops tempo moving assets onto and off of the test range and interactions with the contractor, but also reaching out to the program offices that are developing those technologies” Thomas said. “If there are ways to accomplish a prototype test that can be faster to determine whether something is viable or not before you schedule a whole bunch of range time. That sort of testing approach definitely has applications for the AFMC headquarters.”

Sixteen years into her 26-year Air Force career, Carteret crossed over from aerospace medicine to program management. Then upon retirement she went to work as an executive at an internet technology company in the private sector and saw first-hand the difficulties the commercial sector had working with the DoD.

“For about six years I was seeing how we were getting things from the Department of Defense acquisition community…The amount of work and detail that would be required to respond to an RFP (Request for Proposal) was immense, you have so many pages you have to respond to, you have to use a specific font or it will be denied: really restrictive,” Carteret said. “Then with the FM (financial management) requirements; (you are) trying to fill out these massive spreadsheets of financial data. Then with the (DoD) contracting teams, because of the constraints they had, you had 30 days to respond to the RFP, but only five days at the beginning to ask questions.

“The more I was involved in these, and we did about 300 while I was with this company, the more I thought maybe there is something I can do to help this. So, I resigned my position and went back to the Air Force as a GS employee.”

At the Program Executive Office for Business Enterprise Systems at Maxwell Air Force Base, Carteret is working to analyze the software used by various sustainment programs, often written in different programming languages and by different developers, and then reduce the costs incurred to deconflict that software as it is upgraded.

“We’re trying to get the program managers to understand what type of code they have and then put together a plan for how they’re going to make this code more sustainable, more agile, and how we can make changes to it a little quicker and faster,” Carteret said.

When she saw the request for applicants to the HACQer program, she saw an opportunity to learn new ways to accomplish her mission.

“It (HACQER) is all about innovative new ways of doing things right and making these procurements happen faster. When I look out the software world, at how long it takes for us to either put somebody on contract or make changes to a contract… it’s so difficult. It’s like moving the Titanic. I thought there’s got to be a way that these guys (DIU) can help us out,” Carteret said.

“When I brought it up to our leadership, they’re excited about it. The four-month part, they were a little concerned about, but, once they kind of got over the timeline, they were like, ‘You know what? This is going to be great. You’re going to come back and you’re going to show us how to do this.’”

Carteret believes the top cover she has from leadership, from Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics and Ellen Lord, under-secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment to Richard Aldridge, program executive officer of the business and enterprise systems directorate at Maxwell AFB, is essential to success in acquisition reform.

“They are saying, ‘We have this opportunity, this window, let’s move forward and push this as far as we can.’ It is great,” Carteret said. “I’ve never seen this the whole time that had been involved with the Department of Defense. So, to me, it’s super exciting.”

Rothzeid hopes with news of HACQer successes after the participants leave DIU, that applications for the program will increase and HACQer veterans will spread what they have learned back at their home stations, in time helping to change the acquisitions process across the Air Force and the DoD.

“As we spin them (HACQers) back out into the larger DoD acquisition community, we hope to continue to grow the training base for leveraging under-utilized acquisition authorities and create better mission outcomes,” he said.