The ‘New’ Acquisition Workforce
COL Gail Washington
When you think of Army acquisition, you might picture PowerPoint briefings, memos for signature, Pentagon strategy sessions, or testimony on Capitol Hill.
You probably don’t think of innovation in the desert.
But during the past year, a team of military, civilian, and contractor personnel from across the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology community has expanded what it means to work in acquisition. As the Army executes Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs) as a key component of the Agile Process, these individuals—engineers, technicians, planners, operations experts, and other staffers of all stripes—are working constantly behind the scenes to ensure a successful transformative process.
The NIE environment—encompassing Fort Bliss, TX, White Sands Missile Range, NM, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, and other sites across the country—poses unique challenges. The sheer number of Army organizations, industry partners, and Soldiers involved makes coordination a monumental task. The pace of the events is brisk, with one NIE executed every six months and others simultaneously in various stages of planning, risk reduction, and follow-up. Add to that the personal sacrifices that our employees make in support of the NIE mission, and it’s clear that this job is not for everyone.
The ability to work within the team is paramount out at the NIEs, and the ability to form personal relationships and leverage people’s expertise is the only way to get things done.
Here’s what it means to be part of the agile acquisition workforce: Put aside your organizational allegiances for the sake of a better-integrated solution for the Soldier; stay flexible and accept that the process will continue to evolve with each NIE cycle; be willing to learn not just in a classroom or from a policy manual, but from those around you and through your own hands-on experience; and even when the work is mundane or complex, keep in mind the big picture—because in the big picture, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The goal of the Agile Process and NIEs is to field integrated capability sets that deliver unprecedented network connectivity to Soldiers for a decisive operational advantage. Starting this fall, the first of these capability sets will be fielded to brigade combat teams bound for Afghanistan. Our work to build, integrate, and validate these capability sets through the NIEs will pay huge dividends when Soldiers downrange receive game-changing gear that has been tested and is ready for the fight.
As the NIE and Agile Process have matured from a new concept to the Army’s official way of doing business, we are standardizing and refining the supporting policies and procedures. These improvements include additional upfront integration before each NIE, a well-trained and multidisciplinary NIE “trail boss” team, and better-defined roles for each member of the NIE triad: the Brigade Modernization Command, U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, and System of Systems Integration (SoSI) Directorate.
The NIE process still isn’t perfect. Like any major change, it is taking time to realize the Army’s ultimate vision. But we are making progress, thanks in large part to the individuals of the “new” acquisition workforce. Here are some of their stories.
Role and organization: DA civilian, Program Executive Office Command, Control, and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T)
NIEs participated in: 3
For Clif Basnight, the clock started ticking in April 2011.
That’s when the Army first launched the NIE concept, with the first exercise planned for June—leaving a very small window for engineers like Basnight to grasp and integrate dozens of tactical communication systems that had never been forced to work together.
“That entire two to three months that we had, I spent in the lab learning the different technologies, trying to decompose and trying to understand,” said Basnight, a retired Army staff sergeant who specialized in computer intelligence.
The process allowed the Army to dig deeper into claims made on paper and “come to that ground-truth understanding of a system or a technology,” he said. “And from there is the only place that you can springboard into a solution.”
It was meticulous work. Every application, network device, radio frequency signal, and other network component had to be boiled down to its actual performance. Then came gluing the pieces together.
“It was fun. It was a geek’s fantasy,” Basnight said. “But it’s so intense.”
Building a functioning network in time for the first NIE also required technical experts from various Army organizations and industry to look beyond their own systems and join forces for a common goal.
“It was a leveling ground,” Basnight said. “For the first time since Force XXI, you had an activity with the right people on the ground, the actual experts, the people who could actually see beyond what somebody wrote down.”
Together, the engineers produced an end-to-end network design that for the first time would deliver an integrated voice and data capability throughout the brigade combat team formation. That baseline has continued to evolve through subsequent NIEs.
After running network operations for NIEs 11.2 and 12.1, Basnight has turned his focus to tactical radios, serving as the Technical Management Division Chief for PEO C3T’s Product Manager Network Systems. There, he is attacking a challenge similar to what he faced before the first NIE: evaluating numerous technologies from government and industry to ensure that they meet expectations and, if they don’t, figuring out a solution that does.
“We’re trying to be on the edge of the Agile Process, and the only way that I know to do that is to continuously do discovery learning,” Basnight said. “We’re asking these guys with new technologies to come in, get us smart, and help us make informed decisions. [That way] we can provide our leadership with intelligence versus information. Information is just what it is. Intelligence actually leads to something accomplishable.”
MAJ Naim Lee
Role and organization: Trail Boss for 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment, SOSI Directorate
NIEs participated in: 3
As the Army built its integration team for the NIEs, it faced something of a cultural divide between newly hired civilian engineers and the Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division (2/1 AD).
Lee helped bridge that gap.
As a trail boss, Lee serves as the liaison between the acquisition and technical communities and the Soldiers who evaluate their equipment. He leads a group of engineers focused on the systems used by the 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment within 2/1 AD.
“No one on my team had any military prior experience, so it’s like every day they learn something new about the military,” Lee said. “I try to get them a lot of face time with the unit so the Soldiers know who to go to as far as support.”
Through three NIE cycles, Lee has had the satisfaction of watching his team members mature, not only in their understanding of military operations but also in their technical savvy about the network.
“The knowledge base is definitely growing and getting a lot better,” he said. “A lot of them came in lacking knowledge, and when you’re lacking knowledge, you’re going to lack confidence. Now that they have the knowledge, now they have the confidence.”
Before joining the acquisition workforce, Lee served as an infantry company commander in Iraq, where he deployed a total of four times.
“We were a lot less blessed with equipment than what I’m seeing out there on the ground now,” at the NIEs, Lee said.
That experience also influenced Lee’s leadership approach, ensuring that his team looks beyond individual systems to understand the big picture of how integrated communications gear will make a difference on the battlefield.
“Although a lot of my team aren’t military, they do understand the importance of what they’re doing,” he said. “They come in motivated and give 100 percent effort every day to actually provide these Soldiers with the best equipment they can. That is definitely something I applaud them for.”
Role and organization: DA civilian, PEO C3T
NIEs participated in: 3
Tim Selph knows how to juggle.
As the NIE Operations and Integration Lead for PEO C3T, which supplies many of the core systems comprising the Army’s tactical communications network, Selph facilitates everything from training to system safety certification, to fielding and technical integration.
With PEO C3T located at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Selph at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, he serves as a critical link to daily activities on the ground. Selph ensures that the right people are involved in the extensive and complex number of working groups and integrated product teams involved with NIE—several of which he leads himself—and pushes and pulls information to where it needs to go.
“The ability to work within the team is paramount out at the NIEs, and the ability to form personal relationships and leverage people’s expertise is the only way to get things done,” said Selph, who has been working for PEO C3T since 2005 in various military, contractor, and now government civilian roles.
Selph was drawn to military service in part by his father, who served in the U.S. Air Force. The younger Selph traveled around the world for roughly 10 years as an armor officer, serving along the demarcation line between East and West Germany, in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm, and in Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti. He understands Soldiers’ frustration with military technology lagging behind commercial industry.
“I’m a big fan of the NIE objective of getting technology into the hands of the Soldier sooner,” Selph said. “The NIE is a great venue to test and turn things around, to see if certain technologies are of value to the military.”
When Soldiers obtain their own commercial-off-the-shelf solutions in theater, multiple issues often arise with network interoperability and the ability to make efficient network upgrades, he said.
“It behooves everybody to let the experts in procurement provide new technologies quickly through the NIE and get inside the unit’s decision cycle, so we’re fielding them viable equipment before they go out and look for it on their own,” Selph said. “That requires more of an Agile Process than we have used in the past.”
Additional profiles appear in the July-September 2012 edition of Army AL&T Magazine, in the article “The New Acquisition Workforce – Getting Dirty and Making It Work,” starting on Page 42.
- COL GAIL WASHINGTON is Project Manager Current for the SoSI Directorate. She holds a B.S. with a concentration in marketing from East Carolina University and an M.S. in information and resource management from Webster University. Washington is Level 3 certified in program management.
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