New law has engineers poised for more management duties

The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 highlights the need to give systems engineers greater responsibility and authority, writes John A. Thomas.

The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, which passed into law this spring, holds promise for improving the acquisition of large, complex systems. However, the imperfections of the acquisition process that the law seeks to correct require careful review and consideration when implementing the law.

Specifically, there is a need for increased focus on areas related to the deployment of systems engineers. For example, on which teams in a program office are systems engineers deployed, and what’s required of them when they participate on those teams? This is an opportunity for the Defense Department to give systems engineers greater responsibility and authority. If it is combined with an effective strategy for workforce development, it could result in improved delivery of programs, as previously demonstrated through lunar exploration, nuclear weapons development and the application of stealth technology.

Most experts agree that building a system requires the presence of a program management office to ensure that there are teams to execute three critical roles: management; definition, test and integration (or systems engineering and integration); and implementation. However, I have found a distinct lack of agreement in government and industry concerning contracting strategies for how teams are aligned to execute those roles. I have also found a lack of clarity on how systems engineers are deployed on the teams that execute those roles and the breadth of skills and experience required.

Acknowledging that those program management office roles exist, agreeing that the roles are accomplished by teams of contractors and government employees, and recognizing that systems engineers are crucial contributors to each team would inevitably lead to recognizing that systems engineers require specialized technical skills and process knowledge, in addition to leadership skills and experience gained during systems’ development life cycles.

Implementing the act will require a robust workforce development strategy for assessing qualified systems engineering candidates and determining which skills and levels of experience are needed for each of the roles and systems engineering positions on each team. The skills of systems engineers must go beyond formal science and engineering training to include skills in communications, decision-making, leadership, and regulatory knowledge of contracts and acquisition policy. And that’s just for starters.

The time to act is now. In the next nine months, DOD and industry should dive deeper than the act requires and begin formalizing those ideas into policy. A successful outcome will include a more uniform understanding and acceptance of the roles needed in the delivery of complex systems and the nuances surrounding the deployment of systems engineers into the teams that execute those roles. The policy should identify a method for achieving agreement on the skills and experience required of systems engineers. Additionally, it should identify the need for leadership and specialized training as part of a workforce development strategy for systems engineers.

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