Pentagon looks to cement career paths for software acquisition experts

For the past year, the Defense Department has been piloting “career planning for digital acquisition."

The Pentagon’s latest warfighting concepts largely rest on acquiring and integrating new technologies into the military services, especially software-driven capabilities like artificial intelligence and machine learning, but officials say those efforts could struggle without an equally tech savvy acquisition workforce.

For the past year, the Defense Department has been piloting “career planning for digital acquisition,” according to Tory Cuff, senior advisor for agile acquisitions within DoD’s acquisition and sustainment office.

“How do we provide that multidisciplinary foundational training that is responding to the changing concepts and really relating why and how agile can be applied, not only to your engineering approach, but all the way to your contracting strategy,” Cuff said during a Wednesday event hosted by GovExec.

The Defense Innovation Board’s influential May 2019 report on software acquisition advocated for “new mechanisms” to attract, educate, retain and promote digital talent. “DoD’s current personnel processes and culture will not allow its military and civilian software capabilities to grow nearly fast or deep enough to meet its mission needs,” it stated.

Cuff said DoD needs more than software engineers and coders to be successful in adopting new software and digital technologies. She said DoD is updating policy and guidance to ensure its acquisition personnel are using DevSecOps software practices recommended under the department’s new agile acquisition framework.

“We need our whole workforce to have, in my opinion, an understanding of digital foundations to the same extent that we are comfortable with Microsoft Excel and Word,” she said. “Procuring cloud technologies, being responsive to changing tech, that needs to be understood from a program manager to a contracting officer so that they can use all the tools in their tool belt, to be able to write contracts to provide the guidance to vendors, so that it is executable and it’s really meeting the demand of our users.”

DoD has been testing the workforce pilot across multiple disciplines since October 2020, and Cuff’s team is in conversations with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to expand the pilot to an AI specialty as well, she said.

“I would love that we are on par and competitive with industry, and the department is in that flux with ‘insert startup here,’ Google, Amazon, Microsoft, we are in that cycle of getting employees,” Cuff said.

The Defense Innovation Unit is also testing out a new project authorized in last year’s NDAA to create an Uber-like application to link reservists with DoD organizations that need a specialized skillset, according to Mike Madsen. The project is called “Gig Eagle,” and DIU released a call for proposals to build the application earlier this summer.

“DoD entities can put what they want, they might need a reservists that can code in Python, and there might be reservists that work somewhere that that happens to code in Python, and they were able to link up that way,” Madsen said at the GovExec event.

Congress is eyeing even more new authorities to allow tech savvy personnel to move in and out of government as part of this year’s defense authorization bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the legislation would establish a civilian cybersecurity reserve pilot project at U.S. Cyber Command. The temporary pilot program would allow the head of CYBERCOM to respond to cyber incidents by “noncompetitively appointing members of the Civilian Cybersecurity Reserve to temporary positions in the competitive service,” according to the legislation.

Meanwhile, an amendment submitted for consideration in the House’s version of the bill would establish a National Digital Reserve Corps at the General Services Administration.

The program would “allow private sector tech talent to work for the federal government for 30 days per calendar year to take on short term digital, cybersecurity, and AI projects,” a summary of the provision states. “Reservists would report to GSA, who would then detail them to executive agencies as needed.”

The House is debating the defense bill this week and had yet to consider the reserve corps amendment as of press time. However, the proposal is slated for inclusion in an en bloc amendment package, meaning it is likely to make it into the House bill.

The American Federation of Government Employees has raised concerns about the digital reserve corps proposal, warning it could erode trust in government.

“While we recognize the valid intent of the program, we hope to work with the amendment’s sponsors to address the need for public disclosure when private companies send so-called ‘reservists’ into federal agencies to gain internal knowledge of the agencies’ organization and practices,” AFGE wrote in a Sept. 22 letter to House lawmakers.

“Additionally, we believe that federal agencies should have a greater role in defining the scope of the requirement for deployment to avoid waste and allow extension of deployment times so it would operate more like a reserve that could be of benefit to agencies rather than a training platform for industry.”

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