Interview with Dan Ward, Debra Zides, and Lorna Tedder on streamlining acquisitions
Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri
Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice.
In the FY16 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress established two Middle Tier of Acquisition (MTA) Pathways to streamline the requirements, budget, and acquisition processes to provide technologies faster to meet emerging military needs. Rapid Prototyping focuses on using innovative technology to rapidly develop fieldable prototypes within 5 years. Rapid Fielding uses proven technologies to field production quantities of new or upgraded systems with minimal development, to begin production within 6 months and complete fielding within 5 years. Dan, Debra, and Lorna are collaborating with government to make this rapid fielding a solution that sticks!
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|Hello and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast, a show where we interview brilliant minds across MITRE. I’m your host, Cameron Boozarjomehri, and today, I’m joined by Dan Ward, Debra Zides, and Lorna Tedder on Middle Tier Acquisitions. Would you all like to take a moment and introduce yourselves?
|Sure. Hey, everybody. Cameron, thanks for having us on the show. Great to be with you again. My name’s Dan Ward. I’ve been here at MITRE for about three years. Prior to that, I spent a little over 20 years active in the Air Force, where I specialized in rapid innovation as an engineer and a program manager.
|Thank you, Cameron. This is Deb Zides. Like Dan Ward, I too am retired military, 20 years active duty Air Force, acquisitions background. Came over to MITRE to help in this specific area, actually. One of the biggest challenges that I saw while I was active duty and a federal employee is that sometimes policy and great ideas that come from the top down don’t necessarily implement well here at the execution level. So, happy to be here and share what we’re doing and hope to help the team out. Thank you.
|Awesome. And how about you, Lorna?
|Thanks, Cameron. I’m Lorna Tedder, and I retired from civil service a little over a year ago. I’ve been with MITRE for just a little over two months now. My background is Air Force contracting, 31 years there as a contracting officer. My special sauce was doing really creative, innovative rapid contracting tools to get the product on contract faster and out to the field much faster.
|That’s fantastic. I’m really excited to get to talk to all of you. I think our first real question is, what exactly is Middle Tier Acquisitions?
|That is a great place to start, because there is a lot of churn out there in the field. What is this MTA or Section 804? Just to clarify for everyone, Middle Tier Acquisition, also commonly known as Section 804, is a new authority that was given to the Department of Defense. Basically, what it does is that it undoes a lot of the red tape that was built up over the past 20 or 30 years, slowing down the opportunity for the acquisition workforce to get the capability into the hands of the war fighter.
|So, specific to MTA, Middle Tier of Acquisition, there are two areas. The challenge is, can we field a rapid prototype within five years, somewhere in between two and five years, or can we rapidly field a capability to the warfighter and start production of that within six months, and then complete the production, complete that fielding, within five years, to field a quick prototype, or to field a quick capability that’s pre-existing?
|And these prototypes, they are all sorts of prototypes, or are they specifically for defense, or are they specifically for technology? Maybe you can speak a little more on what exactly we’re trying to cut down the time on.
|The Section 804, Middle Tier Acquisition, is directed specifically to the military, so this isn’t someone for Department of Homeland Defense, or FAA. This is specific policy or statute provided to the military. And for rapid prototyping, the intent is to use innovative technology to rapidly develop fieldable prototypes, to demonstrate new capabilities and meet emerging military needs.
|So, rather than saying, “We need an airplane, and we’ll build something,” and in 20 years, we’ll come back and show it to the warfighter and say, “Does this make sense? Is this what you asked for?”, the idea is to put something together, understanding some very high-level requirements, dare I say back of the napkin as opposed to a 300-page document, to start activity moving forward, get that into the hands of the warfighter, and say, “Yes, this meets this emerging threat that’s going on in a particular region.”
|Pretty broad range of applicability, really across all those services, so Army, Navy, and Air Force, and the Marine Corps are all using this new authority to quickly deliver and test out some new prototypes for new capabilities for really and virtually every domain that the military operates in.
|Right. So you can use it in the space arena, you can use it for armaments, you can use it for software, all of those different mission areas.
|Actually, Lorna, as I understand, you have an Air Force background. Can you elaborate maybe more on the different Air Force applications you’ve seen that you think this will really help cut down on?
|Right now, the place I see the most applicability is probably with IT, and just being able to feed new ideas into the future as we go forward. There’s not one particular way of doing this. There are actually a lot of different tools out there that could be used as highly tailorable, so that you could do prototyping and get into MTA, for example, through other transactions for prototype leading further into other transactions for production. You don’t have to follow any one particular structure to do it.
|So, where does MITRE fit into this picture? A lot of consultants, probably, could have done this work. I want to understand what specifically about your team made you say, “We need to rise to this challenge for our sponsor.”
|Now, if I can brag about Debbie and Lorna for a second, they were both fairly modest in their intros. Previous to coming to MITRE, Debbie was leading an urgent operational needs, a number of different urgent operational needs projects, doing counter-drone work. And Lorna is, I think it’s fair to say, one of the most innovative contracting officers I’ve ever come across, and a brilliant and terrific writer. So, they really both bring great experience and skill sets to understand the language, to understand the environment of what it’s like to be a program manager, what it’s like to be an engineer, or a contracting officer in the defense acquisitions space, and then combine that with the innovative mindset, and the innovative experience for, how do you do things differently and more effectively, and really speaking the languages of both the policy makers and the practitioners with credibility and with experience. So, it’s a tremendous opportunity to get to work with these two.
|Cameron, can I jump in here for a moment?
|Yeah, go ahead.
|Just to piggyback off of what Dan was explaining, I think, and not to spoil the opportunity for the reader to take a look at the MITRE AiDA website. It’s the acquisition and the visual aids website, and that’s one of the tools that MITRE has put together to enable anyone … This is something outside the MITRE firewall. It enables academia, industry partners, and the government to access what MITRE has curated along this area of MTA, and also go faster.
|I think the experience that Dan referred to for himself, myself, and Lorna, what makes MITRE unique from the team that’s been assembled is that we have been living, we’ve been embedded, in the military’s culture of acquisition for, I would say, 60 years worth of experience just from the three of us, more than 60 years’ experience. And what I would say, and Lorna and Dan back me up on this too, please, is that you can write … Congress can give us the best law ever. OSD, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, can take that law and make the best policy ever. But if you don’t have a culture, if you don’t have the right people in the right place at the right time, all understanding what MTA is, what opportunities there are to tailor, and how that can provide capability to the war fighter, it comes crashing down. It’s all for nothing.
|So, what MITRE brings to the table is this unique curation of individuals with the experience, having just come from all different routes, and just within the Air Force and our experiences on staff, the Pentagon, to understand that if you put this policy out, that’s great. However, your contracting officer needs to understand and be on board. Your financial manager needs to be on board, your engineering team, everyone on that … your logistician. You can’t wait for the loggy [logistician] till the end and say, “Hey, surprise. We built this. Now take care of it.” All of that has to come together.
|And the unique capability of MITRE is to look across all of these functional areas with the team’s expertise, and the team’s ability to reach out to other experts, and bring that together, curate, and help define and help shape and help coach the different services, the different program offices. So, developing that culture to understand and interpret the statute and the policies and the opportunities. So, that’s huge for the DOD. And that’s something that has never been done before that I’m aware of.
|Yeah, that’s such an important point, and we’ve been really fortunate to work, not just the three of us, but with a larger team of kind of our core team. But even beyond, with MITRE at large, and tapping into all the different subject matter experts from all the different functionals is really, I think, one of the reasons that this service has looked to MITRE to do this work.
|As part of this Defense Acquisition University, the DAU, that is where you’re offering a lot of these tools and training. I was hoping you could maybe elaborate a little more on the specifics of where this is … what this really is turning into in terms of tangibles.
|Sure. In terms of training, actually Debbie and I just recently did a guest lecture. They had a class that was being offered at Hanscom Air Force Base, sponsored by Defense Acquisition University. We were able to run over on fairly short notice and spent about an hour, hour and a half talking directly with the students who were all kind of mid-level acquisition folks, so Majors, right around that rank. And really, we were able to answer their questions about military acquisition from what is it, how do you spell it, although they were pretty well-versed in the basics of it, but some of the more practical nuances of putting this into action.
|And then if you go to aaf.dau.edu, at Defense Acquisition University, that has some interactive, clickable digital resources and tools that program managers and engineers and others can use to develop their strategy and to better understand the full range of options available to them.
|As Dan mentioned, a lot of the capability that MITRE has created in support of the Secretary of Defense, that has been provided to DAU to host on their DAU website. So, as acquisition practitioners know about the DAU website, they go there looking for advice, education training, and up pops a lot of the work, the artifacts that MITRE has put together. So, there’s MITRE supporting DAU who’s charged with training the workforce, so MITRE’s involved in helping to train the workforce. MITRE is involved in helping DAU by providing information to curate and place on the DAU website as well.
|I feel something that I would like to understand is, as this trickles down into all these different silos, all these different places where we’re trying to do these acquisitions faster, better, have you seen any sort of differences, good or bad, or trouble collaborating across this space, as people are looking to be better at military acquisitions?
|Yeah, great question. I mean, it’s still early days. People are still … The first group, the first cohort of people using the military acquisition authority are still going through the process. Even though the authority was granted in the 2016 NDAA, it was really only last year that the department has put a renewed emphasis, or any emphasis, really, on using this authority on a regular basis.
|The initial results are pretty positive. I’ve been really impressed with the progress and the outcome that’s been coming, the output that’s coming out of these programs using this. There are certainly things we’re still figuring out, identifying training, for example. And that was part of when Miss Lord put out a memo last April, April of 2018, one of the questions she asked in encouraging people to use this, this authority, one of the questions she asked at the end of that memo is, “Tell me what training you need. Tell me what changes we need to make to this.” This has been an iterative approach to policy development and an incremental approach to policy development.
|The DOD is still in the process of collecting inputs from the field, from the different program offices that are putting military acquisition into practice and updating the policy to make sure it’s more effective, to make sure it really is delivering the results that it’s aiming to deliver. We’ll be seeing an updated version of the policy coming out the end of this year.
|I think a real big question I think a lot of people have at this point is, how did you and Deb and Lorna come together to become this Middle Tier Acquisitions group, and what is the extent of your work and your team here at MITRE?
|I think I’ve been here the longest. I’ve been here at MITRE for about two and a half years. Pretty much from the start when I got here was focused on helping to improve acquisition policy and helping acquisition programs to go faster. When the Middle Tier Acquisition memo was signed out and the DOD really committed to using this authority and spreading it out across all different services, MITRE stepped up to, like I said, help with the training, help with the guide books, help working with program offices. And then we began looking around to find the best and the brightest to come be part of this team.
|And so I recruited Debbie and Lorna to join in. And based on their work, their experience, and their publications and things, and said, “Hey, do you want to come be part of the team that’s helping enable one of the most significant changes to the acquisition world, really, in a generation?” And I’m so happy they both said, “Yes.”
|And Lorna, how did you feel when you were first approached about this opportunity?
|It was like the dream job I had been waiting for. Because when I retired, what I wanted to do was take all of the unique tools and the mindset and all of the things that I was teaching to the people that I worked with, the teams I worked with across the Air Force as well as those I worked with on my own base, I wanted to take those ideas and lift them higher and broader and get those out to more people so other people could use the same innovative tools that I have been using very successfully. And MITRE afforded me that opportunity in a way that nobody else could. So, I was overjoyed with it, and I’ve been really happy.
|Yeah. And actually that’s something I wanted to understand. I know you had used this term before. I don’t remember who mentioned this since we started recording, but you’d referred to yourself in your prior life as an idea fairy? I realize it’s kind of a fun term, but maybe you could elaborate what that specific thing was and how it played into the value you see here in military acquisitions.
|Oh, to me, ideas are very, very easy, and I have no problem sharing those ideas with other people or helping people to tailor their particular acquisitions using creative ideas so that they can be as creative and flexible as possible. If they can be creative and flexible, then they’re able to support quick turns later and get things out there faster later.
|So, just to give you an example, one of the ideas that I worked on some years ago … Because none of these ideas are really that new, a lot of them have been around for a long, long time. They’re just not popular until recently, they’re getting more popular. Price-based acquisition, for example, that was one where I was able to cut off a whole year of lead time on a production lot. So, why not teach that to other people so that they can make their acquisition’s lead time a lot shorter as well?
|By lead time, you mean the amount of time it takes to go from …
|No, to actually get on contract, rather than from the time that the requirement comes up until the time that we get a solution out to the war fighter, or to the end user. I’m talking strictly the lead time just the begin the technical part of the process. So, there’s this … It could be months, it can be years, just to get on contract to go get the solution.
|Wow. And so it sounds like that this, especially this effort, is going to really help the warfighter, and I imagine people at all levels, of our different branches.
|Yes, and unfortunately, contracting, as a profession, we’ve always tended to take kind of a hit in taking so long to get things on contract. Part of what the problem is there is that you’ve got inexperienced people in the contracting field who’ve never seen these ideas or techniques before. We have a lot of people leaving the field, a lot of new people coming in, so we just need somebody to be able to kind of mentor them and coach them along, and show them what has actually been done so that they’ll feel comfortable with that precedent.
|Yeah. I want to say something really important just there. Well, a lot of things, but two in particular that really jumped out. Ideas are easy. Absolutely. Execution is hard. And so, as these new folks maybe haven’t seen this before, not experienced putting the stuff into practice, or the experienced people who have seen it before and are wed into the older, traditional ways, who also then have a hard time executing on these new ideas. And that’s something I’ve seen Debbie and Lorna both do is not just have whole sounding ideas, but really the execution that goes beneath it, and helping other people in program offices and other places put the stuff into practice.
|I think those are some important distinctions to make. Are there any other things that we should be keeping an eye out around military acquisitions coming from MITRE?
|I just want to give one last plug for the AiDA website that Debbie mentioned earlier. That’s A-I-D-A.mitre.org. Tons of resources and I think 32, in fact, last time I counted, 32 different strategies for how to help your programs go faster, a lot of guidance on how to put military acquisition authority into practice. We also recently launched a blog also on that website. Great content on the blog and more in the pipeline already.
|I would say that this is the MVP. This is the minimum viable product. This is the first opportunity out the gate from this MITRE team, this MAD team, if you will, yes. MITRE … What does MAD stand for, Dan? How have we named ourselves?
|The MITRE Acquisition Disruptors.
|So, this is the first time out the gate for MITRE’s MAD team. What we’re doing is, as we continue to engage with stakeholders, with sponsors, with partners, we take that information and say, “This is great. Did not think about that in the first pass. Let’s bring that back over and add it into the AiDA capability, and/or provide that information to DAU, to share those lessons learned.” So, this is a continual process. We bridge that. We bridge, “Hey, here’s where we’re going to give more authority to the military. Now let’s figure out how we define the policies, how do we help teams create their acquisition strategies, and how do we help teams execute on those acquisition strategies,” so you’re spot on on that.
|With that in mind, I’d like to give a quick thank you to MITRE and the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise for making this show possible. And a very big thank you to you, Dan, you, Deborah, and to Lorna, for all your work in military acquisitions. It was great hearing from you, and we can’t wait to see what you do next.
|All right. Thanks a lot for having us on.
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