By Lt. Col. Rachael Hoagland
When people learn that I spent a year as a Training with Industry Fellow at Amazon.com, Inc. I get asked, “Did you meet Jeff Bezos? Did you get to work on the drones?” Or, “You must have seen some really cool technology.” Yes, I attended quarterly all hands with Jeff Bezos but we never had a one on one conversation. No, I did not work on the drone project. Yes, I did see some really cool technology. Every time someone asked one of the questions I had already been asked a hundred times I asked myself what it was that I was really learning.
The experience was so much more than just seeing a new technology or meeting one person. So, here are my top five lessons learned while working at Amazon.com. I hope these thoughts will provoke discussion and inspire curiosity.
1) Location Matters
I was initially shocked to learn how many people had worked for a large Information Technology (IT) company prior to working at Amazon or were leaving Amazon to go work at another large IT company. The location of Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, WA allowed for talent to move around in different companies without moving physical locations, thus allowing Amazon to recruit the best of the best in their respective fields.
While some may view talent moving between companies as a negative thing, in reality, it’s very positive. Having people with diverse experiences work in different companies means that new perspectives and ideas are constantly being generated, rather than relying on those with the same experiences doing the same things, just with a different company name or logo. This made me ask myself, has the Army located our project management offices strategically in the best way?
When it comes to building Army vehicles, locating the project management office near Detroit, MI—home of the American automobile industry—it is absolutely right. But when it comes to information technology, I believe we have miscalculated. It is no secret that Silicon Valley is known for being home to many of the world’s largest IT companies, yet the Army has no IT project management offices there. Instead, most of our IT offices are in Aberdeen, MD and Fort Belvoir, VA. These locations cause us to hire employees who are less familiar, and engaged with, the current IT trends, usually a retired military member who owns a flip phone and has no social media account but is willing to stay in the area.
We need to ask ourselves, who do we want building our software? Do we want people who all look the same with the same background and same experience? If the answer is no, then the project management office needs to be in a location which supports more than just the government organization; it needs to be in a location where we can attract diverse, young, and energetic talent.
2) Yes Works
Saying yes is not something Government Acquisition is known for. Maybe it is our training, the type of people we hire, or the way the system is setup, but in government acquisitions the default answer is, “No,” and too often, “I can’t do that, if I do I will go to jail,” with a follow up citation of some statute or regulation that supports their answer. However, the problem is not the statue or the regulation; it is how people choose to interpret and administer them, which leads to processes being implemented that are the same as they have always been done, even if they are not the most productive or effective. We hire smart people but do not empower them to make changes or experiment with new things, which is why they so often say no.
There were a few key fundamentals I observed at Amazon that supported employees saying yes. First, they decentralized decision making; second, they encouraged teams to self-organize and self-manage; finally, they empowered decision making at the lowest level. Implementing these ideologies would be a major culture shift for most of our program offices, but I think it is important to apply them to government acquisition. It is time to change our culture from a “no” organization to a “yes” organization.
3) Custom versus Configurable
Do we really need a custom product or could we use an industry product and configure it to fit our needs? Configurable software products offer customers the ability to take advantage of all the innovations industry has to offer. Custom software is expensive; development is slow; upgrades are difficult, slow, costly and are sometimes unreliable. These can all cause the government to fall behind the rest of industry relatively quickly. It might seem as though building a custom solution would better fit the requirements, but the opposite may be true. Highly configurable software provides the user with more options, thus allowing them to adapt to changing environments.
4) Requirements Change
When it comes to developing software solutions we often try to plan everything upfront without building in any flexibility. Flexibility lets us react to unexpected changes and take advantage of breakthroughs. While at Amazon I watched how requirements shifted and changed as new breakthroughs were discovered. This kept the speed of development very high.
In government acquisition, we find similar breakthroughs but are unable to take advantage of them because we are not authorized to make changes to our requirements within the program offices. To change requirements there is a drawn out process that often makes the discovery irrelevant because the by the time you get approval the moment for implementation has passed. Changing requirements will empower us to make monumental changes instead of incremental changes.
5) Companies Care
While living and working in Seattle I was able to spend time with military recruiting teams from Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft. What I found most encouraging was that the companies not only focused on hiring veterans, they also focused on education. Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers a free AWS Educate membership to transitioning service members and military spouses. Starbucks offers all employees a free college education if they work an average of 20 hours a week. For veterans, they will also pay for one child or spouse to earn their college degree as well. Microsoft provides certifications to transitioning services members that provides 18 college credit hours upon course completion.
There are a lot of similarities between the lessons I gained while working at Amazon and those I learned as an Assistant Project Manager in Special Operations Forces Command (SOCOM). A large number of the project management offices are located with the user community. There is a culture of saying “yes,” which aids in getting the mission done right as quickly as possible. They decentralize decision-making. Configurable products are the norm. Calculated risk and experimentation are acceptable, which often changes requirements or drives new ones. Finally, there is a considerable focus on education. SOCOM is proof that these processes work within the government construct.
The future of our national security depends upon a culture shift in the acquisition community. We have an obligation to work within the statutory and regulatory requirements, but we also have a responsibility to learn how to govern the processes so that we better meet the user’s needs.
Lt. Col. Rachael Hoagland is currently an assistant executive officer in HQDA CIO G-6. Previously, she served as a Training with Industry Fellow at Amazon.com, Inc. She has held assistant project management jobs in the U.S. Special Operations Command and Project Manager Tactical Radios within PEO Command, Control and Communications – Tactical. Prior to entering the Acquisition Corps, she taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and held several roles as a military intelligence officer.
This article is a honorable mention in the 2017 Maj. Gen. Harold J. “Harry” Green Awards for Acquisition Writing competition. A special supplement featuring the winning entries is online now, and will accompany the print version of the April – June 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine. If you wish to be added to the magazine’s mailing list, subscribe online; if you’d like multiple subscriptions, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.