A traditional program manager joins the rebellion

Steve Kelman reports on the internally driven innovation taking place in the Air Force's BESPIN program.

business opportunity (Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock.com)

The Business Enterprise Systems Product Innovation program is an Air Force initiative established by PEO business systems established about three years ago to develop business software. BESPIN runs out of Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., which IT veterans will remember as a government pioneer in the 1980s and 90s for buying commercial IT hardware solutions using some of the first-ever blanket purchase agreements in government.

With BESPIN, Gunter is innovating again. This is not a traditional program office. The most obvious sign of that is that all the contractors supporting this effort for the government are non-traditionals -- a first for government -- including the provocatively named Fearless, which I featured in a blog on non-traditional digital government contractors a while ago. BESPIN is also embracing the idea pioneered by Kessel Run at Hanscom Air Force Base outside of Boston to use in-house, blue-suit developers to develop a good deal of the Air Force's code. Gunter and his team have also adopted as one of their goals to help nurture a tech vendor base in Montgomery. Finally, like the Air Force's Kessel Run, the name BESPIN comes from Star Wars, where it is a planet that is an immense gas giant surrounded by a number of moons, appearing in The Empire Strikes Back.

A key figure for BESPIN is strategy and innovation lead Christina Rhylander, who was an internal hire within the Air Force about six months after BESPIN started. What is special about Rhylander is her history -- though she is doing lots of new things now, she comes to her job with a background as a very conventional Defense program manager. She started in government contracting right out of high school, working for a contractor, and after four years, when she relocated with her Air Force husband to Hawaii, she switched to civil service.

Rhylander rotated around various programs for a number of years. Perhaps her most-important experience was as a contracting officer's representative working on contract administration.

"What I saw was that a lot of bad behaviors had become part of the culture," Rhylander said -- "people signing off on part ordering on time sheets without oversight. ... Invoices came in. and nobody was tracking or tracing." So she saw her job as involving a traditional contracting role of protecting taxpayer dollars against overcharging abuses and seeking to increase oversight of contractors. Nothing wrong with that, but hardly out-of-the-box thinking for a contracting person.

Gradually, though, Rhylander developed a new way of thinking. Realizing that "technology is outpacing our ability to quickly innovate within the acquisition space," she concluded "it's necessary for us to understand our roots (respect the past) but to put aside compliance driven mindsets." (Rhylander herself suggested the provocative title for this blog.)

Rhylander is a poster child for market research. On the previous program she had been working on after developing her new mindset, she decided to learn more about a phrase she had heard but knew nothing about – civic tech. She did a lot of reading and learned more about civic tech companies. She liked what she found. "They put purpose over profit," she said. "They wanted to help end users versus just saying 'I'm following the letter of the contract and doing what you told me to do.'"

When working on the new contract, Rhylander said she did "tons and tons of research; it was very time consuming." She learned about Fearless through her market research. They were "light on the defense side," but she pushed ahead anyway.

After making an award to Fearless, she learned they had done significant work in Baltimore, the company's headquarters, to help local small businesses develop digital development skills. That led Rylander to think that "all this good work could help grow the digital footprint in Montgomery," where Gunter was located. She made that part of Fearless' assignment.

The BEPSIN contracts were procured using a hodgepodge of methods. Fearless is an 8(a), and to work with them Rylander used the USDS acquisition service operation for such firms, with the RFP based on the TechFAR.

Traditional government RFPs are too difficult for many non-traditional vendors to deal with, so BESPIN used templates from the TechFAR. They also worked to simplify CLIN structures and invoicing procedures, and to train the new vendors about how to use them.

Fearless brought in Skylight Digital as a sub, another non-traditional contractor whose CEO was a former leader of 18F. They hired nine additional contractors through the Small Business Innovation Research program (Rhylander characterizes all of them as non-traditional, rather than long-time DoD vendors), which allowed BEPSIN to leverage Air Force SBIR funds.

Can BEPSIN give small contractors like these big jobs? "They can absolutely," Rhylander said. "Some larger ones we've given them – developing software applications used on mobile devices securely. They've been able to do that. And the modular contracting language in the FAR supports and allows for the opportunity to reduce monolithic applications and contracts. Large and small vendors have an opportunity to work this way."

"You submit an RFP out to our standard base – the traditional integrators have a habit for how they work – big teams," she continued. "These new guys don't do that."

Rhylander said the traditional defense contractors have the "skill set" they have because "that's an investment in how to win work at DOD. It's nobody's fault, it's how we have trained vendors to come up through our systems. Program managers can break this apart by their actions."

Cooperation among vendors is key for BESPIN -- again, something that was not emphasized by the old Rhylander, and not in the culture of traditional contractors either (except for transactional teaming arrangements). "If we couldn't get vendors working well," she told me. "You could have vendor fights about whose job is this. Instead they say 'I have somebody who can help you.' There is sharing, transparency – nobody going behind closed doors. The most important thing to do is openly address our needs, show successes, help each other through stumbles – explain our vision, letting vendors know this is what is important to us is for us to succeed together or fail together."

For each project, a government person is paired with a vendor person, so the government people can be taught technical and programming IT skills, including how to develop a minimum viable product in agile design. Uniformed Air Force personnel have been "willing to step out of their regular jobs long enough to learn software development," Rhylander said, "because they were so frustrated with how outdated are many of the systems they deal with -- some are 50 years old."

These new contractors have been working at Gunter only since last August. They have been writing code and fielding apps for an Air Force apps store, as well as developing more customized apps for local use. Some applications have already been developed using agile software development methods.

Rhylander's story is one of personal growth and transformation. It is also a signal and a message to those doing their jobs in traditional ways that it is possible to change and to reinvent oneself.

P.S.: After this blog was completed, Rhylander accepted a new position at MITRE, the FFRDC, working on implementation of new ways of buying in DOD.

NEXT STORY: The 2020 Federal 100

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