Rajal Ganatra (center right) with Acquisition Pathway Director (right) Maj. David Rothzeid and other cohorts of the program: from left, Denzil Thomas, Jaylene Carteret and Steve Rapp (on screen). (Photo courtesy of the author)
An acquisition professional recounts her eye-opening four-month assignment at the Defense Innovation Unit in California’s Silicon Valley.
by Rajal Ganatra
One morning in December 2018, an email arrived in my inbox with the subject, “Applications Now Open: Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) – Hacking Acquisition (HACQer) Program.” The four-month developmental assignment sounded interesting, but as soon as I saw the location—Mountain View, California—I closed the email. I work in the Warfighter Deployed Medical Systems Project Management Office of the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity (USAMMDA), at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and have a family.
That evening, I told my husband about the developmental opportunity. He looked up DIU, was struck by its focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and said it seemed to be an awesome assignment. “It’s in California,” I said. Still, he was supportive.
After a day or two, I opened the email again. The deadline was in two weeks, so I started writing my letter of intent. By the weekend, I had a first draft. Meanwhile, I sent an email to my supervisor, telling her that I was interested in applying for this temporary duty assignment, and asked if she would ask my senior rater to write an endorsement letter for me.
When DIU extended the application deadline—and offered an option to submit a project proposal or problem statement—I put together a project proposal for a medical device that’s not only an Army requirement but a joint service requirement. Finally, I felt my application was ready, and submitted it after the Christmas holiday. I was nervous, excited, and relieved that it was done.
THE SPEED OF RELEVANCE
Even the selection for this assignment went at commercial speed: Less than a week after the application closed, I received an email that DIU wanted to arrange a telephone interview the following week. As I prepared for the interview, I noticed that DIU used LinkedIn quite a bit to post articles on its portfolios, other transaction authority, and other topics, as well as to post current solicitations—which is unusual for a defense agency.
My interview was lively and interactive, and our conversation lasted for almost an hour. In less than a week, I received the email saying I’d been selected. I almost jumped out of my chair! I read it over and over again before I finally forwarded it to my husband.
I flew out early on Monday, April 14, to the San Jose, California, airport. The DIU office is in a small building owned by the Army Reserve Office and right next to NASA’s Ames Research Center.
Denzil Thomas, a fellow within the cohort, escorted me to the office, which had three conference rooms—”Arpanet,” “GPS” and “Duct Tape”—equipped with full video teleconferencing capability and used primarily for vendor visits, pitches and demonstrations. After that, Denzil took me through the second secured door where the DIU staff sits.
The office setup was an open floor plan, no cubes. There was only one office, for the DIU director; everyone else found an open space around one of the tables, booths or sofas, wherever they felt comfortable. There were seven conference rooms, one of which was equipped with a massage chair. There were also three noiseproof telephone booths with USB ports and wall outlets. The setup was totally different from a typical federal office—high-tech, and more like something you’d see at a startup company.
Within a half-hour of my arrival, I received a sleek MacBook Air and a Common Access Card activated for secure entrance through the DIU’s doors. That was one of the fastest in-processing times I’ve ever seen!
I was then introduced to the acquisition pathways director, Maj. David Rothzeid, who had interviewed me for this assignment, and his team. I asked what the normal office hours were. Flexible, he said, depending on the workload. If there were deadlines to meet, people usually worked until late in the evening and on the weekend, too. I was really taken aback when he said that for today, because it might have been a long day for me so far, I could leave and go settle in to my apartment.
JUST THE FIRST WEEK
DIU uses a web application called ASANA to organize, track and manage the tasks. The app also featured a list of training sessions to familiarize us with the way DIU functions, which is totally different from other federal agencies. DIU uses web applications for day-to-day activities, like ASANA, Google Hangout, Google Drive and Google Docs. What I found particularly interesting, however, was that DIU uses other transaction authority rather than contracts based on the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to award contracts at commercial speed.
One of the biggest differences I noticed in the office was that military employees didn’t wear uniforms, except at all-hands meetings. Later, I found out that, in the earlier days of the organization, vendors couldn’t make out the rank from the uniform and were afraid to use the wrong rank. This same philosophy—“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”—serves to lower the barrier to entry and to invite innovative, nontraditional companies to work with DOD.
In my first week at DIU, David provided training on the fundamentals of other transaction authority, program manager best practices, commercial solutions openings and statements of work. That same week, we also had an opportunity to go to Stanford University to listen to pitches from students involved in the Hacking for Defense (H4D) program. H4D is an initiative by the National Security Innovation Network to present research universities with military problems for professors, veterans and students to work on. During the pitch session, professors grilled the students to identify ideas with potential for a prototype.
A PRESCIENT PROPOSAL
Right before starting my assignment, I’d submitted a project proposal on using artificial intelligence for predictive maintenance of medical devices, in response to a request from Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) National Mission Initiatives. As the workshop was to be held in Virginia, just a week after I arrived at DIU, I participated by teleconference.
However, David had introduced me to the product managers of the artificial intelligence and machine learning portfolio, who were going to be at the JAIC follow-on workshop. I talked with them about my project, and they introduced me to another DIU colleague, a data scientist working on predictive maintenance for Air Force aircraft. We talked at length, and his questions helped me learn more about the intent of the idea I was presenting in my slide—more than I knew at the time of submission.
When the DIU product managers came back from the JAIC workshop, they told me they really liked my proposal and suggested that, while I was at DIU, we could start to work on it. The first and foremost task was to collect the maintenance data for them to evaluate, and then come to a conclusion on whether we had enough data to develop an artificial intelligence algorithm. I gathered data with the help of two experts from the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency, and I consolidated the information and provided it to the DIU product managers. (We are still working on the project, and I’m confident that we are moving in the right direction toward a solution.)
During my third week, something even more interesting happened. A FedScoop article published the names of the 2019 DIU HACQer cohort, which totaled only eight of us, selected out of 80 applicants. I was almost famous! That week, we were invited to attend the Defense Innovation Board’s public listening session on artificial intelligence ethics at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Along with being nearly famous and attending the public meetings, I began networking within DIU and was introduced to one of the product managers from the human systems portfolio. At that time, he was working on the physiological monitor project.
At the time I joined, DIU had just awarded a contract to selected vendors to develop individual prototypes based on the problem statement for the physiological monitor. Only a week later, DIU arranged a meeting with the customer and one of the vendors to develop the statement of work and I was asked to be part of that team.
Also during my first month, I had the opportunity to review and provide comments to the due diligence document for Synthetic Molecular Biological Agent (SYMBA) and Tactical Augmented Reality projects. The work was really engaging and enlightening, and I couldn’t believe I was actually a part of the DIU team.
During my second month, I was introduced to a product manager at DIU’s Boston office who ran the critical supplies delivery program in the field. That manager asked me to talk to my home organization about the project and bring them on board if they were interested in improving the delivery of medical supplies in the field.
At the same time, I met with DIU’s health systems portfolio director to discuss two capability gaps: a product for hemorrhage detection and a multichannel intravenous infusion pump. The director asked me to contact the product manager at USAMMDA to find out if they would be willing to use DIU to facilitate finding product prototypes. During this time, I was surprised to learn that DIU provided its services to DOD, and some other federal agencies on behalf of DOD, without charge.
I wanted to share this with my own organization, so I reached out to the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command’s Office of the Principal Assistant for Acquisition. She invited DIU representatives and the DIU HACQers to Fort Detrick to give a presentation on other transaction authority and commercial solutions opening processes. A commercial solutions opening refers to a merit-based, competitive evaluation process to award prototype projects under other transaction authority to best-of-breed commercial companies that may otherwise not work with DOD.
The entire process of writing the terms and conditions, determination and findings documents, and issuing the letter of contemplation—a narrative of the intent—took less than 45 days. This option was as an extremely cost-effective method, providing the government with the opportunity to purchase newly developed commercial off-the-shelf technology in a small quantity to be tested for suitability and reliability. At DIU, we coordinated teleconferences with pathology departments at military hospitals to find participants for this experiment. It all gave me a sense of achievement that I was contributing to a very important project at DIU.
But we were having fun, too.
On the last Thursday of each month, the DIU team went to NASA Ames Research Center’s Space Bar for drinks and networking, and one Friday we went to a cafe in Shoreline Park near the Googleplex, Google’s corporate headquarters. On that particular Friday, I realized that my time at DIU was ending in just one short month.
HEADING FOR HOME
That morning, I had noticed that one of the solicitations related to the cybersecurity portfolio was closing, so I approached David, the acquisition pathways director, and asked to participate in the source selection. I was stepping out of my comfort zone, but as I neared the end of my time at DIU, I wanted to get as much hands-on experience as possible with the commercial solutions opening.
David agreed, and for a week, I helped vet solution briefs against the criteria stated in the offering, sending out the merit proposals and inviting the vendors for an in-person pitch to the DIU team. I also provided support to complete evaluation forms and write non-selection letters for those who didn’t make the cut, while also helping develop the statement of work with the winner and DOD customer to submit it for a full written proposal. During the entire process, from advertising the areas of interest on the DIU website through the request for proposals, the contracting team worked hand in hand with DIU to ensure that the timeline did not exceed 120 days.
I wished that I had enough time at DIU to witness the award of the project, but my assignment came to a close. I had felt like I was working in the most enriched environment I’d ever experienced. Every day was an opportunity to learn something valuable.
It was a bittersweet moment when I left DIU on Aug. 16—bitter because it was my last day at DIU, and sweet that I was going home to a reunion with my family.
RAJAL GANATRA is a Department of the Army civilian working as an assistant product manager at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity, Fort Detrick, Maryland. She holds an M.S. in biotechnology from the University of Maryland University College and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Dharamsinh Desai University. A member of the Army Acquisition Corps, she is Level III certified in systems engineering and Level II certified in program management.
This article is published in the Spring 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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