As a Contracting Officer, You’re in the Compliance Business

Andrew Obermeyer, CPCM, NCMA Fellow, Senior Audit Readiness Advisor at the Defense Contract Management Agency, shares career lessons from escorting leaders, walking plant floors, high school journalism and debate team, leading people, and beyond.

A graduate of Georgia State University, Andrew Obermeyer holds master’s degrees from the University of Dayton and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at the National Defense University. He has been a contracting professional for four decades, first as an Air Force officer and now as a civil servant.

Obermeyer is an NCMA fellow and past director. He received the NCMA National Achievement Award in 2006 for his contributions to contract training, and the NCMA Charles A. Dana Distinguished Service Award in 2012, as well as the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service in 2004.

NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad, MBA, CAE, CTP, interviewed Obermeyer in May 2022 to discuss the role of compliance in contract management, key influences on his career, life lessons, and his advice for students and early career professionals. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kraig Conrad (KC): Drew, we want to know about your career journey. What did you plan and what are examples of wonderful accidents?

Andrew Obermeyer (AO): There was a little of both. I’m the fifth of eight children, so getting help with college was high on my priority list in high school. I come from a family with a strong military background. I had applied for an Air Force scholarship and was fortunately picked for one in the business area. I was given a collection of all the different job descriptions, with the business fields sectioned off, and told, “You have to pick one of these.” I stumbled across the contracting career field description and of all the ones I read that day, that sounded the most appealing. That’s pretty much how I came into contracting.

KC: Delighted that you made that choice. Why contract management versus all the other fields that were listed? And can you talk a little bit about some of the mentors that you’ve had along the way?

AO: The appeal of contract management was the breadth of what’s available to do. I’ve certainly had that experience over my career. I started at the Air Force Logistics Center in Oklahoma City and bought primarily aircraft parts. I moved on to buy full weapon systems, the JSTARS aircraft system [E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System], for example. I bought a lot of information technology and a lot of healthcare over the course of my career. I like the idea that there is a huge variety of what we’re buying to which our core set of skills as a contracting officer can be applied.

I can’t really say that I had a formal mentoring relationship early on, but I certainly had two leaders who influenced me greatly. The first was my first contracting officer, Dorothy Fox. She used to frustrate me to no end. You couldn’t go to Dorothy and say, “What do I do now?” Dorothy’s stock response was, “What have you done to research the governing set of regulations? Put your problem in context with those regulations, and come to me with proposed optional solutions, and we’ll pick the best course.” It wasn’t, “I’m going to tell you what to do, and then go back to your desk and do it.”

The other individual who affected me greatly was Colonel William Hengtes, the director of contracting at the Air Logistics Center. When I was the head of one of our post-award sections, I would brief him monthly and it always amazed me how he could remember what I had told him the month before, or two or three months before. His amazing attention to detail impressed me and that’s something I’ve taken with me. Attention to detail is critically important – the ability to zero in on the particular issue that you’re facing and pay attention to the details. I’ve tried to apply the same skills going forward.

I think the other thing that was important early on was volunteering. It didn’t matter if the job was to be a driver to pick up guests at the airport and make sure they got to the right room and the right place at the right time. I really benefited from my willingness to be an escort officer because it gave me one-on-one time with some of our senior leaders when they came to visit the Air Logistics Center. I got to see the world from their point of view.

KC: You mentioned the different places you’ve been in contracting, and I know you’ve spent quite a bit of time in the compliance area. Can you talk a little bit about what got you into that?

AO: Fundamentally, as a contracting officer, you’re in the compliance business. You’re charged with the execution of a mission within a framework of rules and regulations that really rely on trust. You’re spending other people’s money. People are deciding not to replace the refrigerator this month or get new tires to pay the tax bill.

There’s trust that comes with that. We’re the keepers of that trust. Compliance is integral to what we do and it’s part of maintaining that trust that we’re spending other people’s money in accordance with the rules and exercising our best judgment.

I spent my first four years of contracting in Oklahoma City. About the last year and a half, I ran the post-award division where we made sure that the contract was executed after award as the parties intended. We had a production problem with an aircraft part that had to be chrome plated. It was produced by a facility in New Jersey. They were falling behind on production schedules right and left. My boss, Col. Hengtes, said, “You need to go out there and see what’s going on.”

Two things always stuck in my mind about that experience. First, after multiple engagements with the administration office, I flew in from Oklahoma City, got a rental car, and went to a hotel. That night, I got a phone call from the administrative contracting officer asking me if I could give her directions to the contractor’s facility. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute,” I thought. This problem was important enough that I’ve flown halfway across the country with a team to come to grips with the contractor’s production issues, and the local administrator has never been to the facility before I came to town. That was eye opening.

The production facility was a rebuilt schoolhouse with chalkboards all over, and the production schedule was on one. The other thing that impressed me was that my contract had been down at the bottom of that chalkboard list for so long that even when they erased it and moved it to No. 1 because I was visiting, you could see it had been number 20-something for a long, long time. Essentially, the contractor was prioritizing what he perceived to be higher profit production lots ahead of mine.

It taught me a lot about how to communicate expectations clearly to other parties in the compliance arena, so you’re not surprised by, “Gosh, you’ve never been to the facility.” I also learned about the difference it makes to actually walk through contractor facilities. Fast forward many years, and now that I work for the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), one of our strengths is that we are in those facilities, and we are walking around on the ground and seeing what’s going on.

KC: Some people view DCMA as a mysterious, imposing agency. We would love to know how you see DCMA’s role overall in the mission process.

AO: DCMA is a monolithic organization. It’s hard to understand, and it can be imposing. I know when I first joined the organization, I had difficulty just figuring out who’s where, doing what. You can kind of figure out the lay of the land on the geographic side, but we have all these in-plant locations as well. The trick is finding the person behind the organization. The nice thing is that I can go to our website tool, put in your CAGE (Commercial and Government Entity) code, and it’ll tell me who your administrative contracting officer is, who your plant clearance officer is, and who your property administrator is. Then, I can reach out and connect with the person behind the organization.

I continue to be amazed at the depth of expertise with our 10,000 team members across DCMA. It’s interesting to be part of an organization that has grown as much as ours has since I joined in 2012, when we only had a staff of about 7,000. There is some awesome human capacity within the organization. That supports our overall mission statement that we’re a team of trusted professionals delivering value to the warfighters throughout the acquisition life cycle.

KC: At DCMA, you’ve had a couple roles. We’re going to talk about two – director of contract planning and performance assessment, and then later, director of the Business Operations Center. Can you talk about those roles and what they entailed?

AO: As director of contract planning and performance assessment, my team was about four people. Our job was to look across the enterprise at placement, skills, and ability, particularly in the contracting organization. At the time, we were hiring like crazy. We also didn’t have a well-documented collection of the ways we do business at DCMA. It wasn’t easy for new people coming into an office in Wichita or a plant in Washington state to figure out.

We had to rebuild that capability relatively quickly and replace the expertise of people who were retiring. We hired retired annuitants to bring those skills back. We put those people on the road to major facilities to conduct PowerPoint training on how to review a contract to make sure we have everything set up to administer appropriately. We did thousands of seats of classroom training using a combination of retired annuitants and volunteers.

Also, while I was the director of contract planning and performance assessment, I had the opportunity to organize a lot of industry meetings. Industry representatives would tell us, “We’re having these challenges with consistency on the application of X, Y, or Z.” Then, I’d push it back into our training program. “People are looking at the same regulation and have four or five different ways to pursue implementation. We need to narrow that down, decide what the best course is, and provide standardized training across our enterprise.”

Later, I became the director of the Business Operation Center with responsibility for CPSRs (Contractor Purchasing System Reviews), terminations for convenience for the military components, and the property and plant clearance functions. We were getting a lot of industry feedback on CPSRs that after an inspection, the report wouldn’t come out for a year, leaving them waiting for approvals. They didn’t know what the criteria were.

The team decided we needed a guidebook on exactly how we do what we do, and we needed to publish it on our website. So, we did that. The takeaway was, you’ve got to empower the people doing the job. They had to be part of writing that guidebook and articulating that standard. We broke up all the standards and assigned them to individuals as champions. They became owners of that process and invested in the successful outcome.

KC: You’ve had responsibility for training and career development for a contracting workforce. Which tools worked best in preparing the workforce, and what are some of the biggest career development challenges?

AO: I’ve latched onto the term “reduction to practice.” When I talk to an industry group about the CPSR process, I’m not talking about the minutia as much as the overall goal and factors that will influence the review.

When you take that back home to the workforce, it’s got to be reduced to practice, which goes like this: “I get the theory, I get the regulation at the high level. Now, what do you want me to do right now? Do you want me to go pull 10 samples from the contractor’s population? Do you want me to review them against what criteria? How do you want me to document that? How do I put that together in my report?” All of those pieces are the reduction to practice.

The other challenge, particularly in today’s world of COVID, is the virtual workspace. I think you can take talented, competent journeymen professionals and send them home to work. We did that, and we’ve maintained the mission execution.

The concern I have is about people you’re bringing into your organization. How do you train them and teach them the culture of the organization in that virtual environment? That will be one of the training challenges as we move forward.

KC: Now you’re the senior audit readiness advisor – how do you see that role?

AO: About two years ago, we decided we needed full-time leadership on the FIAR (Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness) audit for government contract property commonly called GFP. I accepted the challenge to move sideways and take that on.

What we do at DCMA in terms of property administration affects the financial books on the component side of the house, the Army, the Air Force, etc. We’re making decisions about what happens to government property through property loss and the case adjudications that we do in property loss reporting and through the plant clearance function, where we’re giving directions on how to properly dispose of the property that’s no longer required.

A decade ago, you might put government property on a contract in 2003 and the contractor might work in a production environment until 2009. Then maybe in 2011, somebody would get around to clearing off the property. That doesn’t work when you’re trying to audit the books, because the auditors want to know how you know that an asset value you have recorded is still available to you, that it exists, that it’s complete, that you’ve got a good record of it. Decisions during the lifecycle of that contract affecting the financial value of that asset have to be recorded in a timely fashion.

We’ve got to execute that business process correctly the first time and make sure those records are being transmitted back to the financial statements as timely as we can within the constraints of the FIAR audit objectives. I’ve had a leadership role in putting all that together.

This year, we’ve initiated a service provider audit with a team engagement to analyze our property management function. If you look across the department, the Army, Navy, and Air Force all award multiple contracts to a particular contractor’s facility.

The example I always use is Raytheon Tucson. At any particular plant at that location, they might have 15 different Air Force contracts, 30 different Army contracts, half a dozen Navy, and two or three from the Missile Defense Agency. The auditors for each one of the reporting entities are looking at the property books at those organizations saying, okay, I see on your list that these 15 or 15,000 items went to that Raytheon facility. How do you know they’re there? How do you know that they’re in good condition?

Rather than having auditors from all those different reporting entities descend on that facility independently, we can do that at DCMA under the auspices of a service provider audit. We check the contractor’s procedure for conducting inventories and maintaining those records.

If we conduct a service provider audit that says the process is good, then I can hand that over to the reporting entities. They factor that into the risk assessment on their audits and reduce the number of times they go to a facility to check on items we’ve already reviewed. So, there’s a big payback for the department in reducing the expense of obtaining a good audit. There’s a big payback for the contractors by reducing disruption that comes when multiple parties need to come in and check inventory.

KC: it is good to understand the goal of trying to reduce the burden and consolidate efforts. Within the contract management profession, do you feel there are certain areas that we should be focusing on to develop for the future?

AO: When I started in contracting, we were locked up in a separate building away from our customers. At one Air Force base, if my client wanted to bring me a statement of work, he came to the foyer of our building and slid it under a glass partition. He could ask to speak to me, but odds were, he wouldn’t make it past the foyer.

That has changed to an environment where most of our contracting professionals sit within the teams they support, and they’re integrated within that team. I think that that has been the most positive thing that I can put my finger on in more than 39 years of experience. You are engaged with your customer, satisfying customer requirements, and can see that happening on the ground.

KC: For those who are new to the profession, what would you say about the career journey that’s in front of them? What have you learned, and what do you wish you had known early on?

AO: I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration and master’s degrees in public administration and national resource strategies. Despite all that education, the two most impactful educational experiences I’ve had were in high school.

One was a journalism class where I helped write the local school newspaper. I learned how to write a paragraph. I know that sounds relatively simple, but as one who reads a lot of reports day in and day out, you’d be surprised how much help we could use in writing good paragraphs. The idea that you need to capture in a paragraph who, what, where, when, and why; clearly document the facts; and do that as succinctly and concisely as possible, has benefited me throughout my career. We’ve got to be good communicators in the written word to succeed in contracting.

The other thing that has stayed with me from high school is what I learned on the debate team. You have to take a position and verbally articulate that position in a very constrained amount of time. Now, when everybody’s stressed for time, you need the ability to speak at a meeting or a forum and quickly lay out what your message is and why it’s important and get buy-in across the audience.

Equally important, in debate, you don’t know until you get there whether you’re going to be arguing the affirmative or negative of a particular issue. Learning to think about both sides has been truly instrumental in my career. When I’m negotiating, my skillset enables me to put myself in the place of the person on the other side of the table. What are their challenges, the other side of the argument, and how can I build a bridge that leads to a successful contract partnership?

The other thing I would add is, get involved. As I said about my early volunteering, even mundane things like escorting visitors gave me exposure to the bigger picture so I could see how my little piece, my little job, fit.

Now, on the flip side, I lead the audit team for property administration, and I need to articulate to 200 property administrators across the globe the need to be precise in transactions, record them correctly, and follow the guidebook religiously so that at the end of the day, we have a good audit outcome.

NCMA has been a huge contributor to my career. When I joined back in 1984, there were 300-person chapter meetings. We had distinguished speakers who talked about topics important to career development. I had chapter-level roles and served on the board of directors from 2007 to 2010. I still think it’s a good way to maintain your currency.

The other thing that helped was delivering National Education Seminars. You’ve got to stay current to present that material. It certainly sharpened my skills and gave me a trigger to step outside of my day job and think.

KC: I appreciate how NCMA could be part of your career growth. Before we close, is there anything you’d like to add?

AO: I just think I’ve been incredibly lucky. I fell into a career that has been richly rewarding. I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the course of that career to do so many different things and buy so many different things, and work in so many different organizations. I feel very fortunate. CM.