Army PEO EIS Brings Industry Under the Tent
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts when the two combine forces for information technology.
The U.S. Army is building a tighter relationship with industry to tap commercial expertise and avoid long procurement delays that often render new information technologies obsolete before they are fielded.
At the heart of this effort is Cherie A. Smith, program executive officer for enterprise information systems (PEO EIS), U.S. Army. After she assumed her position last year, Smith relates, she focused on making promises and seeking help. Since then, she has emphasized a shared relationship with industry.
Smith describes her role as PEO as slightly different than that of other PEOs. Her office’s broad mission spans more stakeholders than any other Army PEO. “We are literally building software for the Army,” she says. “I am briefing the secretary of the Army on it. I’m briefing the chief of staff of the Army on it … they all have very key things they are focused on, and they tasked us to build that software.”
So her office must manage efforts across that program. “For some reason, there is this magical thinking that we can take something that requires three years of work and do it in two years,” she observes. “There is this mythical thing about what happens in industry—that industry does it in two years,” she states.
Providing capabilities in a short time frame is complicated by the complexity of Army information systems. Smith notes incorporating new software requires interfacing into 60 aging legacy systems, and some of those same systems are failing every day. Plugging in a new capability could provide the tipping point for a system. Industry does not have as many legacy systems to plug into.
“I have a lot of people who come in to just meet with me and talk to me about what they’re selling,” she offers. “What I’m trying to get them to do is to come in and also share a little bit about what’s working, what’s not working, where they try to educate me in what they know that I might not necessarily [have been able to] delve down into the level they have in their areas of expertise.”
Smith relates that some companies have delivered important points of knowledge in these exchanges. Her office is using that expertise to leverage the capabilities of other transaction authority (OTA) processes. Industry is able to bring innovation to the force faster than through conventional methods, she notes, so using OTAs is helping speed information technologies into deployment throughout the Army.
“OTAs are a great way to go for software,” she states. “I think you’re going to see us using them more and more.”
For defensive cyber operations, the Army’s customers—the actual users of the defensive cyber tools—asked the vendors questions within controlled parameters in the context of a Coliseum event. Smith relates that everyone was able to ask questions within a set amount of time, with the result that a broad amount of information emerged. Attendees could compare product capabilities immediately, and it allowed customers to differentiate between a contractor’s public statement and the contractor being able to actually deliver a capability, she offered. Their questions honed in on issues that might emerge in the course of an acquisition.
“The best part about this is that we’re making our customer smarter,” Smith declares. Cross-functional teams are trying to do this with weapon systems, and she believes that proper use of OTAs can generate similarly successful results.
Smith emphasizes that the Army will not “go all-OTA.” For example, a large program, such as a complex software system, would not be best served by an OTA. However, a federal acquisition regulation (FAR) approach could be used for the baseline effort, and all future add-ons could be applied via an OTA. While a contractor could propose a program’s structure, the program manager ultimately would decide how to delineate the different acquisition processes. Smith predicts that the Army will move toward more contracts with fixed prices—“a true cost.”
Smith allows that she is trying to establish a “more portfolio approach” in PEO EIS efforts. It used to manage work within each of the program offices, which led to duplication of both efforts and lessons learned. “We were learning things multiple times,” she related. By doing work across offices, the PEO EIS can avoid losing opportunity, time and funds.
She has established two positions, staffed by a colonel and a civilian, that focus separately on networks and software. Their job is to look across the entire office and compare efforts that complement the two disciplines. They also examine trials that span both areas.
When it comes to planning for future technologies, Smith says that her office aims for high-medium risk. She eschews opting for existing capabilities, lest they become obsolete before they are deployed. Similarly, she shuns blue sky technologies that offer too much uncertainty in their development track. “I want to push the envelope, so I want [planners] to think about emerging technologies—but I don’t want to be so far ahead that [we’re] in the high-risk category. We can’t afford that. I’m not into anything in bleeding [edge] technology. I don’t think we need to do that; I don’t think it’s good for us to do,” she states. “I hear all the time, ‘You can do it in five years because it’s a COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] product,’” she continues. “That’s proven to be the biggest falsehood. The thing about COTS is, you just transfer having to write the code to having to get the customer to agree to the code that’s already written. Changing the soldier’s mind is not an easy thing to do sometimes.”
Smith explains that she urges her people to contact their counterparts who have experience in the types of capabilities or systems they are seeking, including those in other services, to find out what worked and what didn’t work, and then exploit positive lessons and avoid problems.
“We are not going to flip a switch tomorrow and be in some other environment, but we know there are some emerging capabilities that are proving themselves and that you can put on top,” she says. “We can do things more rapidly outside of the ERPs [enterprise resource programs] than we can do inside the ERPs.” These include data warehousing, particularly how the Army captures its data and relates it to other data. “If we take it out of the silos and look at it holistically, it’s amazing.”
As with all government and military information technology organizations, recruitment and retention continue to be persistent challenges. Smith offers that she has an excellent collection of professionals, many of whom thrive on the special work inherent in military information systems. “It’s hard when we can’t pay as much as industry can, but we can give them some exciting stuff to do,” she declares. “There is some level of technical people who would come to us if we give them the right work. I just have to make it exciting.”