Buy People, Not Products

The technical direction on complex US Navy projects was discussed in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing for the Secretary of the Navy nominee, Mr. Richard V. Spencer. Sam LaGrone of USNI News reported the hearing. I found the discussion on requirements in relation to technology, acquisition, and cost controls interesting.

I think about this a lot and there is no silver bullet answer. What Spencer said: “We really have to have requirements baked when we go out to the market place” sounds like a simple answer that returns to basics. However, while I agree greater focus (and resources) need to be on development of clear and the right requirements, the waterfall process implied in his statement is likely to result in quick obsolescence. Technology is accelerating — not slowing down.

I believe an answer lies in a new acquisition process aligned with Spencer’s remarks on accountability.

“If you’re put on a weapons platform from day one through development, you’re now totally accountable,” he said.

I believe we should buy people, not products for such large acquisitions. That is what large businesses would do. You get the right people in place and then you give them resources and limit turnover. That is the strategy aligned with open source software and the modern agile software development model. Focusing on people rather than products allows for focus on the total life cycle, accountability, and the proper positioning and response to cyber security threats. With the right people in place, priorities can be placed on requirements, technical standards, and systems engineering rather than contracting.

I believe we need to view requirements in a new way. Requirements need to be viewed, especially from the top down perspective, as two different types or layers. The first layer is high level (or enterprise-wide) requirements like policy and technical standards. The second layer is systems-specific requirements. Increasingly, systems-specific requirements depend even more on clear high level (or enterprise-wide) requirements because systems are increasingly systems of systems that depend on some agreement on how to work together.

In fact, this requirements focus leads to why data science is so important to enterprises. Enterprise-wide requirements need to allow enterprise leaders to get the data they need to make decisions, while at the same time empowering leaders of departments to capture and use data as they see best. Thankfully, the father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee has been working on such technical standards for data that enterprise-wide requirements can use. And this offers the alternative acquisition strategy of what Gartner calls a postmodern application integration strategy moving away from troubled large monolithic Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementations.

Successful businesses don’t outsource key technology development. They hire for it and change the entire business if required to meet the needs of customers. IMHO, DoD should follow suit to meet the needs of those we send into battle.