What is Acquisition Management? (or, my answer to “what did you do in the Air Force?”)

A screenshot from the Air Force's Make-It-Fly mobile app. Funny, this actually sums up our job pretty well. (Courtesy of Air Force Recruiting Service) 
A screenshot from the Air Force’s Make-It-Fly mobile app. Funny, this actually sums up our job pretty well. (Courtesy of Air Force Recruiting Service) 

After a quarter in the MBA program, it’s been really eye-opening to see just how well being a 6X-series in the Air Force can translate into the civilian world. However, since there are so few 6X-series officers (development engineers, scientists, acquisition managers, financial managers, contracting officers, etc) in the Air Force, even members of our own service don’t know what we do.

I remember the day my recruiter told me that I was selected to be an Acquisition Manager. I almost turned the Air Force down because I thought I’d be using my engineering degree to order supplies, which is in line with what the Air Force’s career site advertises. My recruiter had no idea what it was, but eventually she got me in touch with an actual Acquisition Manager who was able to convince me to join.

8 years later, when I was looking to transition out, I was frustrated with the new military skills translators that thought that I know inventory management and purchasing methods. This is a shame, since this kind of information gets sent out to potential employers who use military skills translators to match veterans with potential jobs in their company. 

So hopefully this will help the ~4500 Acquisition Managers and Developmental Engineers out there, or anyone looking to understand what we do.

Weapon Systems, not Office Supplies

Based on military skills translators and the Air Force’s own career web site, it seems like we are some kind of office manager or purchasing officer, responsible for managing equipment and supplies. The truth is that we help develop and deliver the latest products to our users. These products could be a new satellite constellation, a new generation of bomber aircraft, upgrades to existing weapon systems…and so on. These products tend to be incredibly complex and could require years or even decades of development and investment before they can be delivered. Hundreds to thousands of engineers, scientists, financial managers, other professionals could be working on this project. There are government decision-makers at all levels of these projects, many of whom are military. 

What kind of responsibility do you have?

In short, it’s all about providing government oversight (“trust but verify”) and managing cost, schedule, and performance. We represent the American taxpayer and make sure that we are good stewards of government funds. We also represent the warfighter, to make sure that they can get the tools to do things better and potentially save lives. 

Why can’t you just let (insert contractor name here) do it?

There was an effort in the 90’s to decrease the amount of government oversight on these acquisition programs, but then this happened. The debate continues to this day and won’t be discussed much in this post, but let’s just say that being laissez-faire caused some major issues in the past.

But (Insert Contractor Name here) just does all the work, right?

For the most part, yes, and that’s why they get paid the big bucks. They get to turn wrenches, order parts, and do the fun engineering and design work. If there was no government oversight, they could probably do everything and deliver a working product without any issues. However, the Air Force isn’t buying office supplies here. It’s buying (or modifying) huge, technically challenging, innovative and state-of-the-art products, and things don’t always go according to plan. That’s where the government Acquisition folks can help resolve problems – whether it’s a technical or a business challenge.

In my role as an Acquisition Manager, I’ve had the opportunity to influence the decision-making process by providing information and recommendations to leadership. I also had a chance to develop my technical expertise by helping resolve complex engineering challenges, and also got a chance to develop my business expertise by leading major program/contract modifications. Like many jobs, it is what you make of it. 

However, like all large organizations, there’s a possibility that folks can get very comfortable and do as little as possible in their role. In Acquisitions, I’ve found that the majority of folks in the career field are motivated to do the best job that they can for the taxpayer and the warfighter, and anyone who isn’t will get sidelined very quickly. 

What Do they do, then?

We team up with engineers and contracting personnel to oversee the cost, schedule, and technical performance of a government product development contract. From the government’s perspective, we ‘own’ the product and are responsible for all decisions regarding it. We’re expected to be the expert on our product and an advocate for the product and our product’s customer. Particular job details beyond that vary greatly from product to product. We attend plenty of meetings to stay up-to-date on product development status, and whenever possible we watch the product get developed in-person. I was fortunate enough to be co-located with the Boeing Satellite Development Center for my first assignment, so I got to watch my product get built every day. 

When technical problems arise, we bring to bear a variety of government resources to help keep the product on track. We can leverage technical experts on the government side, government research facilities, and our own background to tackle engineering challenges. We can advocate for additional funding or schedule relief. 

We work closely with finance and contracting to manage the product budget. I’d say I spent 40% of my time working through technical issues, 40% funding/contract issues, and 20% doing other activities like government internal processes, additional duties, and other military responsibilities. Everything is done in teams, and we constantly communicate or provide information to internal stakeholders (management) and external stakeholders (ranging from the customer to Congress). 

So what Key skills do Acquisition Managers Need?

Cross-functional Team Leadership is the name of the game. You do all your work in cross-functional teams, with specialists in finance, contracting, engineering, and other disciplines. At the lower-mid level ranks, you need to use your soft skills (relationship building, building trust, emotional intelligence) to influence without any formal authority. We don’t have formal authority over the defense contractor outside of what’s stated in the contract, so ordering people around won’t get you very far. I’ve always worked hard to establish credibility early on, and build trust and nurture relationships with folks from all stakeholder organizations (and at all levels). These relationships become invaluable over the long term, and I think they are the primary drivers in job effectiveness. 

As far as hard skills, you’ll get most of what you need from the Air Force (program/project management, critical path analysis, etc). Having a technical background helps, but I found it’s more important to have a growth mindset and a willingness to learn, and learn quick. You don’t need to be an aerospace engineer to effectively lead a satellite program, but you need to be able to communicate what’s going on with your program to a variety of audiences. 

Note that this isn’t a be-all end-all list, typical military skills like general management, dealing with ambiguity, leadership, communication, and having a strong work ethic are all important as well, but just wanted to highlight what the top two are for this career field. 

So what kind of Entry-level roles do you fill?

Brand-new Acquisition Managers can go to System Program Offices (or SPOs, the units that are responsible for a particular product system, like the F-22 Raptor or the Atlas V Common Core Booster) and be put in charge of a particular subsystem or modification/upgrade program. In smaller SPOs, you might be responsible for an entire product line. This means that you get cost, schedule, and performance responsibility right off the bat, and you are given very little direction in how to achieve these goals. There are sets of internal/external government processes to manage, but I’d say the majority of your time will be spent working with the contractor and other stakeholder organizations, and breaking down barriers to progress. 

Acquisition Managers can also be assigned to research labs, where they will get to manage research programs. Similar to being in a SPO, but instead of working with a large defense contractor, you could be working with an internal research organization or with smaller contractors. Work is a little irregular, and depends a lot on the availability of research funds. Lots of variability here in terms of experience.

There are a variety of other options, to include a ‘career-broadening’ assignment where an Acquisition Manager gets ‘operational’ experience as a Maintenance Officer, Logistics Officer, Space Operations Officer, and so on, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Some folks get farmed out to defense agencies like the Missile Defense Agency or the Defense Contract Management Agency, and some folks get to be on test programs and run/manage flight tests. The list goes on, but typically they all involve some kind of responsibility for a program to either develop or modify a particular product or technology. 

Is there a civilian equivalent?

There isn’t a one-for-one equivalent outside of the government, but there are many parallels with program management at major defense contractors. The next closest thing seems to be ‘product management’ – but the definition varies depending on the firm. Marty Cagan from Silicon Valley Product Group wrote a description of what makes a great product manager, and there seems to be a lot of parallels with this career field. 

Will they ever make a movie about Acquisition Managers?

Sometimes a movie can explain a career field better than any job description. Navy pilots have Top Gun, Air Force pilots have Iron Eagle, we have The Pentagon Wars. Yes, it’s a comedy. Here’s a clip: 

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