Karla Smith Jackson, NASA senior procurement executive, deputy chief acquisition officer, CFO and assistant administrator for procurement, tells Supply Management about supporting under-represented businesses and building world-class expertise
How does procurement function at NASA?
It’s extremely crucial to note that we in procurement call ourselves the cornerstone of NASA because what we help do is translate. We know the ultimate goal, what the desired result is, and we help the technical architects, scientists and engineers translate their requirements to paper. I provide the senior executive leadership and the oversight of the procurement functions.
And you recently transformed the department?
Up until about a year ago, each of the centres operated independently. We now have an enterprise procurement organisation where my staff and deputy provide the strategic leadership as well as the more hands-on operational and tactical contracting we do now. We have about 750 procurement, meaning contracting, personnel, but the acquisition workforce is about 4,500. The skill sets we need are very scarce so we’re creating a nationalised workforce, it’s like a virtual pricing community.
So regardless of where the individuals are physically located we will deploy those resources to whichever centre needs them, based on the mission, priority and programmes we’re executing. That also allows us to share lessons learned, training and experience, so if you’re in one centre, you might do fixed-price construction, while another might be doing propulsion or boosters, and another pure R&D. We’re able to move people around and give varied experiences that contribute to their job fulfilment. But it also allows us to build a deeper bench to draw upon as we get new requirements and new procurements. We’re able to, from a tactical perspective, give advice, counsel, offer them tools and training because we’re taking the best of the best-in-class within each department.
How did you come to work at NASA?
I was recruited by the Department of Defence right out of college, on campus, to start a career in contracting. I was planning to work in the retail or fashion marketing area, but I found there was a real nexus in the ability to negotiate and to market and sell, or in this case buy, for the federal government. My dad was in the military for 32 years, so I was very familiar with the military life and ethos.
I started with the Defence Nuclear Agency in the early 1990s and got an opportunity to work with the former Soviet Union in defence conversion, where we transformed and negotiated to convert businesses or factories that produced things like military equipment to more commercial applications. One example would be a production facility that might have done optics for weapons systems, we helped them to make eye contact lenses and things that would need similar technologies. That was my first taste.
The other thing I worked on was underground nuclear test facilities – we pretty much shut those down and I found I had a knack for negotiation, analysis and writing. So I moved from there to what was a ballistic missile defence agency, the Strategic Defence Initiative, and had most of my career there, 22 years. Now, coming to NASA is what I would say the pinnacle of a very rich career.
The organisation strives for ‘acquisition excellence’. What does that entail?
Acquisition excellence starts with people – we want to make sure we have the best qualified people. In order to do that takes a combination of actual training, formal training, we use the Federal Acquisition Institute. There are also a number of other skills that lead to a successful acquisition workforce and acquisition excellence – that’s critical thinking, and we look for people that have some creativity, problem-solving ability.
Now, what does it mean after I get this great talent in place? Quality contracting. That means with little or no error, so we don’t have to do modifications or revisions. We want to negotiate good deals and efficiently use our funds. Then we want to award on time or ahead of schedule to meet the milestones for our technical people. We want to be experts in our field, not just the leadership, but we want the NASA procurement employees to be out in the world sharing their lessons and learning from other acquisition professionals. All of that leads to a high-performing organisation.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
In fiscal year 2020 we obligated more than $19bn, and we had over 28,000 procurement actions completed by our 750 staff. So when you look at the NASA budget, approximately 70-80% goes to procurement for goods and services, so we are an acquisition agency. We’re a space technology agency, but to get all of that done, it’s through acquisition and contracting.
We are centralising management at the headquarters and then working through empowering executives at each centre. And that’s kind of like the national workforce standardised policy to make sure we have a better and more efficient use of resources. It’s not only an efficiency but a cost-savings opportunity for us as well. We do a lot in standardisation, care and feeding of the training for the entire Federal Acquisition Workforce. And we also have been working on the new Biden initiatives, as President Biden has issued a number of Executive Orders, especially in the areas of diversity and small businesses, Made in America and cybersecurity, so we work on what you would call a whole-of-government procurement policy.
Can you tell me more about your diversity goals?
We have a really big programme or initiative within NASA called Mission Equity and we just released an RFI in the Federal Register. We’re going to be having a public meeting which will be led by the Administrator to talk about why and how NASA plans to diversify not just our workforce, but to remove barriers to have underserved populations participate in the NASA mission, either as employees, contractors, researchers etc. It’s a really exciting programme for us.
As many of your materials are specialised and mission-critical, can you ever ensure supply security?
We have a supplier base we’ve worked with over the years and cultivated since the 1960s, and helped make sure they’re ready and able to supply us with what we need in a competitive environment.
I will say, first and foremost, we do have a global supply chain but over time we have lost our ability within the US to manufacture and deliver those goods. President Biden has an initiative called Made in America, where in the past we might have issued many exceptions or waivers to meeting non-availability within the US, where we would go to our allies and our partners to procure raw materials or goods we needed to make our systems. Now we’re looking at ways we can mobilise our internal US manufacturers to be able to deliver those.
And how do you support those smaller businesses?
As we work with our large businesses we ask them to partner with and work with smaller businesses in a mentor-protege relationship, or together as a prime and subcontractor. We have found that a lot of the innovation we’re looking for is created in the small business community, so we’re always surveying the marketplace to determine what’s available to us either in small women-owned, disadvantaged, veteran or service-disabled businesses, so we have a strategy for how to do that. Also, we received a scorecard grade of A from the federal government Small Business Administration because we have awarded $3.2bn directly to small businesses and then another $3.5bn was awarded to small businesses as a subcontract.
Can you elaborate on that strategy for embracing alternative suppliers?
We’ve achieved or exceeded all of our subcontracting goals, with the exception that there is one for HPC, historically black and minority serving institutions. We are working hard to meet that goal. We do a lot of outreach, conferences and consortia events with universities or minority universities or small business associations. I did a brief roadshow for what we call the historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, to let them know what was coming. This engagement starts at my level, but it goes all the way down to the contracting officer, by meeting with industry and talking about requirements, upcoming requirements and how they can plan to be responsive to our request for proposal.
You specialise in contracting. How do you employ this in your role?
We have a joke within the 1102, that’s what we call our job series, that contracting is an art, not a science. Our work is developmental. For most of the work we do, it’s the first time it’s ever been done so we have to be able to evaluate if someone gives us an innovative solution, are those rates reasonable? Did they give us enough resources to bear? Do they have the right contractors, and past performance we look at. There’s a large amount of surveillance of contractor performance throughout the life of the contract.
And we have a rigorous qualification and approval of components and parts that would lend itself to the building of a major system. A kind of compliance. Those compliance documents and requirements are included in all our contracts, like, with respect to the critical material and supply security, we use those documents. In fact, we have a supply chain risk assessment that’s performed on all of our articles and it’s assessed every two years.
We also have a supply chain group of specialists on engineering – our chief engineering office does that – and we work hand-in-hand. Contracting and procurement people are not experts in that field, but we are experts in integrating all of the rules, regulations, requirements, compliance into a singular contractual document to be able to enforce that compliance.
NASA is renowned for technology and global networks of collboration. In that case, how do you manage cybersecurity with suppliers?
That field is evolving because the adversaries are changing their methods and manner of attack. From a contracting perspective we manage those through statutory regulatory requirements. We’re focusing on continuous process improvement and evolving to make sure we are ahead of the threat or the adversary.
One of the things we look at is called cyber action teams, people that go and do independent analysis. There are private teams and government teams that give advice to members of our supply chain. Then we put out guidance from the government perspective on how they should have their systems. We’re always very careful when contractor systems connect to government systems and those interfaces – those are constantly being checked, evaluated, monitored, and they’re under surveillance.
One thing I live by as a leader is: trust, but verify. Once you get to a leadership position you’re going to get a lot of information coming at you and you need to make sure the source of the information is trusted. So from time to time, you have to do your own analysis to verify its accuracy and to trust the individuals or the source of the information you’re getting.
What do you think makes a world-class leader?
I believe individuals are responsible for their own intellectual, self or career development, and everybody should be a product of lifelong learning. In order to be at the top of your game, you need to know what others in your career field are doing. Also I support the idea of situational leadership, meaning one style will not work in all instances you encounter. You have to be able to flex those styles to get the results you want.
Lastly is reflective thinking. Personally, I like to participate in a daily think-through. How did things go? How could I have done things differently, even for successful engagements? Ultimately, it’s the people who work for you that make you successful. And the question is, as a leader, are you providing the environment where they can be successful, feel supported, so they can be their authentic selves and perform at the top of their game?