A Passion for Innovation
Karla Smith Jackson, CPCM, NASA Senior Procurement Executive, reveals the full-on procurement transformation she is leading at the agency, and the skills that have mattered most in her contracting career.
From Red Square on the Fourth of July to getting American boots back on the Moon, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Senior Procurement Executive Karla Smith Jackson, CPCM, has spent more than 30 years in contracting drawing on her own and others’ diverse talents to power innovation.
Jackson has held leadership positions within the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including the Missile Defense Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, Office of Procurement Operations at DHS, and the Defense Contract Management Agency. A decorated senior executive, Jackson counts among her awards the Secretary of Defense Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service and the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Humanitarian Civilian Service.
Jackson holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Hampton University and a Master of Science degree in Contract and Acquisition Management from the Florida Institute of Technology. She also was awarded a Master of Science degree in National Resource Strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (Defense Acquisition University). She is Level III–certified in the Contracting (Acquisition) Career Field.
NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad, MBA, CAE, CTP, interviewed Jackson in December 2022 to discuss the real meaning of innovation at NASA, the full-on procurement transformation she is leading there, and the skills that have mattered most in her contracting career.
Kraig Conrad (KC):
NASA spends 70% to 80% of its budget procuring products and services. How does this change the working relationship among contracting stakeholders, and what lessons does that provide for other agencies?
Karla Smith Jackson (KJ):
People think of NASA as a civil space agency, but because we spend 78% of our budget on acquisition and procurement, we’re actually a procurement agency or
an acquisition agency.
We need to be proficient in engineering and technical capabilities and we also need to be proficient in acquisition and procurement. For a long time, we have focused heavily on sciences and engineering to the exclusion of program management and acquisition skills. We need both to be successful meeting the NASA mission.
We are now starting new programs to get back to the Moon in a sustainable way and to get to Mars. They are human space flight programs requiring system acquisition skills.
People are familiar with our James Webb Space Telescope and similar one-of-a-kind research and technology procurements. Those programs require a different kind of acquisition skill set. NASA is starting once-in-a-generation programs requiring specialized procurement and acquisition skills supporting the entire acquisition life cycle.
When we were operating the space shuttle, we were in a maintenance or sustainment role with respect to acquisition and procurement. When you’re starting development and you’re doing research and development, there’s a substantial need for a lot of market research and
understanding emerging technologies. That’s all essential to be able to maximize value for the nation’s taxpayers with our procurements.
NASA has a powerful commitment to innovation, and part of that is diversity and inclusion. You once said the ability to tap into different talents with different perspectives and experiences is how you innovate. How do you view the interaction of diversity and innovation, and how that has worked during your time at NASA?
Coming to NASA from a DoD background is a different culture. The culture is not different when it comes to mission focus, because mission at both DoD and NASA is first and foremost. But NASA has inclusion as one of its core values, along with safety, integrity, teamwork, and excellence.
Diversity and inclusion are principles that we live by. It’s a passion. So not only do we have a passion for our mission, but we are passion-ate about including all kinds of people at the table. This is essential because we need different ways of thinking about and solving problems to be able to tackle things that have never been done before.
One of the other parts of the NASA mission statement centers on innovating for the benefit of humanity. At NASA, we have a passion for what we’re doing, and for what we’re accomplishing. It’s for the benefit of humanity, so it’s more than a job, it’s more than a career, it’s a calling. NASA is so committed to this idea that we codified it in our Agency Equity Action Plan, which was released in 2022.
So, different perspectives help you solve problems. Do you feel that’s a skill set that you can build into your leadership to help include more diversity in the contract management process?
Absolutely. We try to attract diverse talent not just in acquisition or contracting, but in all career fields. When we say diversity of thought, we also mean diversity of experience.
NASA is looking for people who have experience in industry, educational research, academia, and overall life experience in a range of areas. For example, diversity of life experience might stem from ethnic background or sexual orientation. When you come to NASA, it’s a very rich fabric of people with different perspectives. People feel comfortable being who they are and contributing to the mission. All of that combined – and feeling like you’re a valued member of the team – leads to better problem solving and better solutions. It results in a more robust thought process.
It’s great to hear about diversity and innovation for the benefit of humanity. For the past three years, you have been leading a transformation within your procurement organization. You’re going from a decentralized to a centralized enterprise. Can you outline the changes, and then drill into how the reorganization has affected the 760 contracting professionals and the larger acquisition team of roughly 4,500 individuals that comprise your procurement efforts?
First, I want to share a little bit of history to help understand where we were and where we are today.
NASA is composed of 10 field centers located all over the continental United States, plus the headquarters in Washington, DC. Each one of those centers functioned as a mini-agency. They were self-contained, and that’s how they conducted their acquisition and procurement. That meant a lot of duplicate effort, be it policy, resources, review, even the way we recruited talent. It all was localized in each of those decentralized organizations. We were wasting a lot of money and time.
As we prepared to move forward with big technical challenges, such as our Moon-to-Mars program, and big science and research challenges, we needed to figure out a way to conserve resources and be more efficient.
It has been a three-year journey. First we had to shape the concept of an enterprise, and then we had to articulate it to our workforce. We had to move things around like budget and training resources. We also had to learn how to recruit differently. Now, we put out a single announcement with different locations, refreshed every 90 days. We have multifunctional review panels in multiple locations. We assign talent to the various locations and in doing so, we have become a richer organization.
Our product service lines – engineering, logistics, and the like – are procured in an enterprise fashion using regional or enterprise contracts. No longer are there 10 separate little contracts as before. Once you do that, you start to experience economies of scale and cost savings.
We’ve looked at our workforce and seen that if we use “centers of excellence,” for example, the folks in our IT procurement office (ITPO) develop proficiency in procuring specific IT hardware, software, and services. In fact, most of the personnel in the ITPO (roughly 30 professionals) are now certified as Digital Information Technology Acquisition Professionals (DITAP). All of our IT acquisitions are procured by this organization.
We’ve done the same thing with the space centers and established centers of excellence. We have human space flight located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama or at the Johnson Space Centers in Texas. Launch services and range services are done at the Kennedy Space
Center in Florida. Construction, architecture and engineering are primarily done at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi or at Kennedy.
We also have a NASA shared- services center, which we started 12 years ago. We were the very first in the government to do so. We took services like human resources, financial services, grants, cooperative and partnership agreements, as well as small business innovation contracts and centralized them at the shared- services center to support the entire NASA enterprise.
This has allowed NASA contracting professionals to specialize in these various arenas. We’re much more proficient and our procurement administrative lead time (PALT) has come down.
The other big benefit to operating in this centralized way is the standardization of policies and procedures. When an industry partner does business with NASA, they can expect the same experience whether they do business at NASA Marshall, Ames in California or Goddard in Maryland. Until we completed the transformation, it was as if they were doing business with 10 different agencies. It was a source of real irritation for our industry partners, but we’ve been able to work with them to cultivate a consistent, seamless experience when doing business with NASA.
I would imagine your contract management team feels more fulfilled in its ability to serve. Are you seeing those sorts of outcomes?
That was a second or third order effect. Now, we can rotate people so somebody working at an R&D center can learn more about human space flight. Someone in human space flight might want to learn more about services procurement. So, we’re able to offer career-broadening assignments. Also, we can share some of our successful experiences with the rest of the federal workforce as lessons learned.
You were involved in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL), We know it works to capture innovations and share them across the government enterprise, and it has been incredibly successful. So how are you leveraging your great experience with the PIL at NASA, and how does it differ from what you created at DHS?
We’re really excited about this. I’ve been working for two years at NASA to leverage and launch exactly what I want to do with respect to innovation. We call it the NAIL (NASA Acquisition Innovation Launchpad). At DHS, it was a laboratory; at NASA, it’s a launchpad for changing the way we do business. We intend this to be an experimental space to launch new ideas and innovations.
What’s different at NASA is that we’re looking at smart program management initiatives along with tackling contracting challenges. We’re looking at processes. We’re looking at how to better organize the agency for success. We’re involving our partners in the Office of General Counsel (OGC), the Chief Program Management Officer, the Science Mission Directorate, and our small business counterparts. Each of these stakeholders can benefit from innovations in contracting and program management.
We’re going to evaluate how best to leverage e-business tools. Before transformation, we had multiple sets of digital and e-business tools. We’re going to look at normalizing innovation across the enterprise. We’re going to use a safe space to try to figure out what can be leveraged on an enterprise basis. In some cases, we’ll bring already-developed initiatives to the enterprise. In other cases, they might be developed at headquarters and made available for use at all the centers.
Another thing that’s different is that I’ve had two or three large industry partners offer innovative ideas or processes. But how do I field innovation that an industry partner might leverage without favoring one vendor over another?
One industry partner said, “If I use a commercially available pricing tool to put together my cost price proposal, would it be helpful for you to have a government companion to that tool, an electronic repository where I upload the data that I submit to support my cost? You wouldn’t have to keystroke information. You could get real-time information. We can update things virtually.”
That’s an innovation where we believe industry will really save cycle time with proposal development. We’re going to test that out.
OGC has been working on some suspension and debarment best- practices-based litigation outcomes that would allow us to anonymously share successful initiatives. That might be a place where we’ll partner with OGC and targeted industry partners to be able to leverage best practices with respect to training, documentation, and collaboration with government. And then we’ll also do the traditional things like streamlining source selections, evaluation criteria, reducing cycle time, etc.
We may have 10 NASA centers but we now have one procurement organization with 10 different execution locations. Each of those locations can be a test site. They each can test initiatives locally before we field them or try to experiment with them across the enterprise. That way, we’re doing enterprise initiatives by first experimenting at the lower level at a local execution location. We hope to manage two acquisition/program management and two procurement initiatives per year at a minimum.
Exciting, I look forward to highlighting upcoming initiatives. Moving on to your career, you were recruited into the government right out of
college. Are there things you have learned that you wish you had known at the outset of your career?
That’s a really interesting question, and I’m really happy to talk about this. My undergraduate degree was in merchandising and design, not in business. I thought it would be interesting to interview with the government. When I realized my buying skills were transferrable, I became a buyer for weapons systems, research and development instead of retail fashion.
Slightly different from your degree.
Slightly different, but using some of the same skill sets. That’s what I wish I had known. I went into my career field thinking I would have to learn all this stuff, but I didn’t value what I was bringing to the table. I consider myself creative in thinking about problems differently. I have an ability to communicate and to assimilate large volumes of information that I can shrink down to sound bites. I connect with people and negotiate with them on common ground. I didn’t value those things. I was thinking I needed accounting, math, and finance. What I would tell my younger self is, ”You already have a set of skills that are valuable.”
I would say the same thing to any young person. I devalued those things. I honed my mathematic and numerical analysis skills to be proficient as a contract specialist and contracting officer. But as I moved up in my career, I relied on the soft skills I already had more than the math and being able do the calculations and the analysis.
The reason I stayed in the government is that I like being on the side of the “good guys” – the people that go out on behalf of the United States taxpayer to procure the best value in goods and services. I like looking at problems and trying to figure out a creative way to solve them, to meet people halfway, and to end up with a win-win solution.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of agencies. I got an opportunity to travel in my early 20s to the former Soviet Union to negotiate the demilitarization of Soviet factories in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Moscow, Russia. I have pictures from when I was 25 and in Mos-cow’s Red Square on the Fourth of July.
For DHS, I wrote policy and guidance for the procurement workforce to manage challenges with placement and care of unaccompanied immigrant minors and federal emergency contracting. I worked for the Missile Defense Agency to field layered defensive weapon systems to protect the nation.
Time after time I helped answer the question, “How can we do that?,” for systems and projects that were the first of their kind. That’s similar to what I’m doing now at NASA with respect to getting boots back on the Moon and creating a sustainable presence to conduct research and science.
If you look at my career, you’ll see that I got to work on a lot of programs that have never been done before, and I’m proud of that. I’ve been able to use my problem solving, my creative thinking ability, as well as my math and analytic capability, to achieve that. My hope is I can inspire others who don’t come by a traditional route to consider a career in contracting.
I love to hear the advice, “Value your younger self.” We all bring something to the table. When you talk to someone who’s considering a career with the federal government in government contracting, what would you say to the generation that really wants to have an impact and make a difference in their careers?
I would tell them first and foremost, “We’re the only people in the United States of America who procure the things we do.”
I would also say, “Where else could a 22-year-old negotiate with a vice president for contracts at a major company?” If they were hired by a major company, or even a small company, they likely would not be negotiating with the most senior person in that company.
That’s what we do, we allow our young people to learn how to evaluate and analyze and communicate and negotiate. We empower people at a very junior age in the federal government to obligate the government, to speak on behalf of the government. The training we provide is some of the best in the world for this career field. How do we know that? We know because industry wants to hire our midcareer folks.
As I move toward the end of my career, I think we ought to be able to have people work in government, transition to industry, and come back to government. Or people can start with industry, move to government, and then go back to industry.
I’m committed to working with NCMA to develop a way for people to get competencies that can be transferable between industry and government. We have to tackle some conflict-of-interest issues, but we can broaden the skill sets and bench strength of both the public and private workforce.
In government contracting, you can experience the entirety of the acquisition life cycle. You can learn about new starts/procurements, R&D, prototyping, etc. You can do sustainment and end-of-life acquisitions. You can do major modifications. There are so many different things you can do, you’re never going to be bored.
That’s what I would tell young go-getters. Don’t pick a job and stay there for 20 years. Stay three to four years, and after about four years of doing something, you probably need to try something else.
You should always be moving, constantly broadening and learning, and the promotions will come. I’m living testament to that. I was just talking to my workforce about patience because people want promotions, promotions, promotions. You need to get knowledge, knowledge, knowledge and when that happens, promotions will follow. CM