A Hard Talk about Software with USD(A&S) Ellen Lord

NOV. 12, 2020 | by Defense Acquisition University

Nearly one year after the release of the Adaptive Acquisition Framework (AAF), the new defining policy document for the Software Pathway has been delivered, guiding the military’s software development and streamlining the acquisition process. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord signed DoD Instruction 5000.87 (Operation of the Software Acquisition Pathway) Oct. 2 to establish official policy and responsibilities and prescribe procedures for programs acquiring software.

Following the release of this document, Lord sat down – virtually – with DAU President Jim Woolsey for a Think Differently webcast where they discussed software acquisitions, the AAF, defense acquisition successes from the past year and what the Defense Acquisition Workforce can expect going forward.

“[One of the] largest accomplishments I believe we have had is the total rewrite of the 5000 series, our Acquisition policy, narrowing it down to the fundamentals and provid[ing] the workforce with an opportunity to tailor their future,” Lord said. “I was extremely determined coming into this job to ‘move at the speed of relevancy,’ as Secretary Mattis used to say, and the team has made astronomical changes in terms of how we are acquiring goods and services with six different pathways, a ‘back to basics’ initiative, bringing point-of-need training and job relevant credentials to focus.”

Considering the acquisition policy rewrite, Lord is confident that this revision addresses the 70 to 80 percent focus on sustainment costs incurred during life cycle management due to the fact that the rewrite drives efficiencies earlier and places emphasis on cost implications, but the shift has to take place in practice.

Lord highlighted three additional accomplishments of the Acquisition and Sustainment team that she was particularly proud of for fiscal year 2020, starting with cybersecurity expansions of the defense industrial base and national weapons systems. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (OUSD(A&S)) rolled out the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) and also expanded upon the acquisition pathways to make sure that cybersecurity standards in weapons systems exceed quality expectations.

Secondly, was their work with the nuclear weapons council and the modernization of nuclear deterrence. This supports not only guarding against nuclear attack, but conventional weapons as well. ­­­­OUSD(A&S) has taken immense strides to modernize support, elevate standards and launch provisions designed to ensure a robust national industrial base and the protection of state.

The third accomplishment to date, Lord stated, was the COVID-19 response from the OUSD(A&S) team. They showed remarkable support and a rapid stand-up of capability in a time of emergency, providing assistance for Health and Human Services (HHS), FEMA, and across the government and the nation.

Software was the dominant topic of the discussion between Lord and Woolsey, who discussed everything from the tactical development of software by coders to the large-scale implications software has on national defense.

A digital transformation is underway; the Warfighter will depend on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the future and defense capabilities will continue to evolve and change with the implementation of digital engineering, design and testing. With today’s environment of rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war, Warfighters need access to intelligence and communication capabilities to enable quick decision-making and maintain a competitive edge.

“I want our [coders] to get downrange and talk to the Warfighter, or talk to them virtually,” Lord said. “I want them to understand what the problem is, and then hand a potential solution, a prototype, and let that get in the Warfighter's hands to try.”

This data-driven, hands-on approach to new policies and instructions is complimentary to the future of business. The mission to utilize software within the OUSD(A&S) directly supports the Warfighter – giving the acquisition workforce the ability to leverage data collected, apply multi-platform system standards, and then program within those systems the capability to analyze data compiled to determine optimal solutions.

Focusing training on core competencies required to execute the business as well as point-of-need training and job-relevant credentials will enhance acquisition workforce skillsets relevant to do the job and deliver those capabilities in a time critical, data-driven, meaningful way to the Warfighter.

“An 80 percent solution quickly is often far, far more valuable than a 99 percent solution six months from now,” Lord said. “Time matters, and we are trying to allow the workforce to be responsive.”

Lord focuses on process versus activity, and prefers to look at the return on invested capital, whether that be money, or people’s time. The new software pathway allows for tangible output and to get going quickly and not admire the problem for long periods of time.

Lord expressed the importance in supporting the technology developers and considering the problem that is trying to be solved, using “creative compliance” to come up with the best acquisition pathway to get there. Lord explains that the policy does not follow the same protocol as a preflight checklist, where is it crucial to follow the same protocol, every time. This is about looking at the customer or user needs, thinking critically, and tailoring an acquisition strategy to meet that need.

All these initiatives are focused on empowering the workforce to act decisively and quickly, removing unnecessary bureaucratic processes and ensuring they have the right information and training at the right point in their career. These efforts, spearheaded by Lord throughout FY20, will continue through FY21 and beyond as policy documents are improved and modified based on workforce feedback and needs.

“The policy is very lean and reflects the continuous involvement with the customer, a major step forward,” Woolsey said. “This is all part of a larger digital transformation. The emphasis is on supporting the Warfighter and data decision needs; the Warfighter will depend on artificial intelligence in the future and even how we develop our capabilities, with digital engineering and testing.”

The Software pathway is designed for software-intensive systems, with the objective to facilitate rapid and iterative delivery of software capability to the user at the highest priority of need, with a keen awareness of the data-driven future of business. This pathway integrates modern software development practice such as Agile Software Development, DevSecOps and Lean Practices, capitalizing on active user engagement and leveraging enterprise services. Instead of delivering a product once at the end of a long timeframe, tightly coupled, mission-focused government-industry software teams developing software iteratively release the software to the operational environment and make changes based on user feedback and needs.

“How do we measure how well we are doing?” Lord said. “We have been extremely disciplined under Secretary [of Defense Mark] Esper and the Deputy Secretary of Defense to come monthly with our major defense acquisition programs and rate where we are in terms of cost, schedule, performance. And now we are looking at the cyber vulnerabilities. We’re really going to have to use all of that data we are generating to truly manage progress in terms of these programs.”

Lord stated it comes down to metrics – capturing them and shining a light on them in the vision of leadership. Lord expressed her interest in the technology side of the workforce, explaining that successfully bringing technology into programs is often easier to achieve since individuals typically emerge from their education with good technical skills and then they apply them.

Lord noted the culture of business change is not so clear and easy. One of the key enablers to having a true high-performing digital workforce is to make sure we have the business systems and tools that are required.

“One of the key reasons for the rewrite is to make sure the business systems do not hold back the technical innovation,” Lord said. “They go side by side. This effort takes a lot of training … less on the receive mode and more experiential learning.”

This transformation of learning in the workforce directly relates to DAU’s transformation to a modern learning platform and there is a parallel between the future of acquisition training and the AAF. Each strategy became larger than life, with the intention to “become everything to everybody” according to Woolsey. Ultimately, after careful thought and consideration, the AAF rationalized the 5000 series to the basics, letting individuals tailor up as needed. Correspondingly, in training, Woolsey said, “DAU is taking the core of its training to the necessities and allowing individuals to build their own knowledge as their careers depend.”

Leadership’s current approach for many software policies and instructions has been allowing the workforce a hands-on approach to challenging product, avoiding the middleman and going directly to the source. DAU follows a similar approach, focusing on the acquisition workforce needs.

Lord has always been a champion of improving acquisition training to provide the right level of information and training at the right time in the most interesting way possible. This reduces time spent in training and gets program managers the information they need faster and in ways that they want to learn.

“This is exactly the transformation DAU has been taking for the last couple of years,” Lord said. “Whether it be the TEDxDAU, where you have actual practitioners talk about compelling issues they have and explain how they address them … program managers or program executive officers standing up and talking about real life problems … vignettes DAU has recorded, videotaping, the podcasts, the webinars, I think that is incredibly important so people hear what is relevant to what they are doing today and they hear it from their peers – their contemporaries – versus reading what was done 20 years ago.”

The Defense Acquisition Workforce experiences a complex myriad of processes in the life cycle of development. The design of Agile has benefited the force in that it does not attempt to define detailed steps and requirements from the beginning. Instead, this leaner and faster process of planning for procurement starts with a vision and works backwards, expecting and allowing for a shift based on the user’s needs.

Credentials are an example of empowering the workforce to tailor their training based on their needs.

“In the old world, the way we would have gotten Agile [methodologies] into the workforce would have been to make it a required course for certification,” Woolsey said. “But it would take years for that to happen as people cycle through the certification program.”

Today, DAU offers nearly a dozen credentials, including one for Agile, shares powerful examples on its website, and offers a wide variety of practical tools to help acquisition professionals on the job, Woolsey stated. This cross-functional practice gives awareness to the workforce, providing knowledge, diversity and a platform for leadership to take responsibility for their development and success. This new process is an active and purposeful one, rationalizing what the individual and workplace needs and allowing them both the space to grow into their obligations.

“We are changing the way the workforce is trained, to use all the different tools, and to be as flexible and customer-driven as [we] can be," Woolsey said.

Acquisition does not happen in a vacuum—it takes teamwork between the Defense Department and industry partners to get services and products into the hands of the Warfighter. As a reflection of Lord's history as an executive for Textron, she is always considering the relationship between Defense and industry, providing additional insights unique to her perspective and experience.

An illustration of this competency is Lord’s DoD Public-Private Talent Exchange program between acquisition industry professionals and the government. This initiative has assigned private sector employees to civilian defense positions and vice versa to provide participants with a secular view of each other’s respective operations and share practices.

“It is absolutely incredible,” Lord said. “Industry professionals realize all of the statutes we have to comply with [in the government], the complexity of the legalities, and complexity of getting an RFP (request for proposal) out. On the flip side, the government individuals realize what it takes to submit a proposal and how onerous it can be to make sure you are compliant so you have a proposal that will not get kicked back, so to speak.”

Lord stated that an exchange of both learning and respect results from the experience and most importantly, incredible networks are formed which benefit the government-industry ecosystem tremendously.

“Communication is absolutely critical,” Lord said. “One of things I have tried to promote in all of my colleagues and teammates, all of which have been very supportive and generous in doing, is meeting with the industry on a routine basis.”

Lord said her team has engaged three industry associations to be force multipliers, working with CEO’s of Professional Services Council (PSC), National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), and Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) to quarterly have meetings with representatives from DoD sectors such as A&S, Research and Engineering, Service Acquisition Executives, and agencies in an effort to discuss challenges, pressures and expectations of each side.

Collaboration has proven beneficial in the pursuit of strengthening national security. In an effort to gain knowledge on financial and tactical expectations of the nation’s security provisions, OUSD(A&S) analyzed data gained from briefings with the Defense Science Board and Defense Innovation Board. As a result, the team designed straightforward, sophisticated, cost-effective pathfinder projects to better understand the ‘software color of money’ and presented these findings to Congress. Congress, legislators and other stakeholders authorize that pursuit with a purpose of supporting the perspective of the Warfighter from an objective and educated posture.

“On a different vector, when we talked about cybersecurity on the Hill, we came up with the notion of the CMMC standard and certification and rolling it out over five years, and Congress backed us up,” Lord said. “If Congress hadn’t stood shoulder to shoulder with us we would not have had an interim rule published. It is striking how hard the staffers are working to solve problems. It is fantastic to see the level of interest from individuals who take the time to educate themselves and understand the issues, because that is where you can be constructive.”

Due to the complex and evolving nature of technology and industry, there is a steady demand to maintain the power in challenging yourself and the industry to beat outdated systems. Similar to how Think Differently webcasts are a non-traditional approach to communicating information to the Defense Acquisition Workforce, Lord reiterated the importance of communication, cooperation and continuous improvement, as the DoD continues their efforts to demystify and decode the Software pathway and principles.

“You need to form a network of like-minded thinkers,” Lord said. “Share what’s going on so you can share your challenges and how they’ve dealt with it … you really have a group to bounce things off of, and figure out what has worked for everybody and what hasn’t.”

Lord expressed the importance in finding a champion within one’s organizational structure; identifying people within the Services who are trying to do things very differently – acquisition professionals in or outside of an individual’s chain of command pushing for change and rooted in perspective and ideas very different than the norm.

During her tenure as undersecretary, Lord stressed that cooperation has been one of her key themes, identifying the role of a leader, with the overarching responsibility to “provide support, help and ideas” to those who need it, and the importance of bringing information from the field back to the offices of DAU and USD(A&S).

“Cooperative learning and learning from one another is a very powerful thing,” Lord said. “This is what we as leaders need to deal with, so reach out to us confidentially if you want some support, help or ideas. We really do answer our emails and answer our phones.”

Reducing complexity in systems is a reoccurring theme in Lord's initiatives. Much like the AAF and simplified policies for defense acquisition, the Back-to-Basics initiative focuses on the core competencies required for the workforce to execute their job with a focus on point of need training and job relevant credentials.

“In training we are taking the core of what the workforce needs, narrowing down to the fundamentals and then through the credentials, tailoring up, allowing the workforce to build their own knowledge and skillset as their careers depend,” Woolsey said.

Whether it is tailoring a professional development path or an acquisition strategy, the emphasis is on thinking critically and doing what makes sense. This also allows for flexibility to adjust course along the way.

“We know [the software policy] is not perfect, we know it’s directionally extremely correct, but we know it’s a living document,” Lord said. “We are going to get those cycles of learning, and just like we do with software, we are going to build – test – build – test – build – test, plan it out and keep going, because as we did with many of the interim policies, we got them out there, let people work with them, learned a lot and figured it out.”

Software is everywhere and there is a necessity to embrace it, Lord said. Congress continues to provide operational, logistical and financial support to improve the workforce and defense systems, heeding to requests and recommendations, and providing OUSD(A&S) and the workforce with authority and a voice to implement change.

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