Free Software Tools for All
Companies will soon be giving away their software to the Air Force – what’s the catch?
By Bonnie Evangelista and Vince Pecoraro
Vince “Swath” Pecoraro, Lead Program Manager for the Air Force Digital Transformation Office (DTO), has created a “Tools for All” program. It will allow software tool companies to give the Air Force enterprise licenses for free in exchange for precious information about whether and how Air Force program offices adopt and use the tools.
The “free” software approach of Tools for All is similar to the NCMA 2022 Innovation in Contracting Award-winning Try AI initiative at the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO).1 So we asked Bonnie Evangelista, Senior Procurement Analyst at the CDAO and manager of another 2022 Innovation Award winner, to interview Pecoraro. Read on to learn how Tools for All works, why it came about and where it is in execution.
The DTO facilitates collaboration across Air Force and Space Force acquisition and sustainment organizations, the AFWERX innovation hub, software factories, and other innovators in the two services. The goal is to leverage digital technologies and tools to enable better, faster, decision-making.
Evangelista and Pecoraro talked in February 2023. Their entire conversation will be broadcast as an episode of Evangelista’s podcast, “AI Proficiency: Turning Tomorrow Into Today.” 2 This interview excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
Bonnie Evangelista (BE): Talk about what you are working toward in terms of changing and arranging software licensing deals. A lot of us are buying licenses. In the future, a lot of our work is going to be understanding licensing models and understanding how commercial intellectual property is accessed through licensing. Describe what you are doing to create a first-ever licensing model and how that benefits your mission objectives.
Vince “Swath” Pecoraro (VP): We’re trying an effort called Tools for All that dramatically shifts the business model of a tool vendor. When I say tools, think of model-based system engineering. Think of scheduling tools. When you put something on contract you have a set of data deliverables – for example a schedule or engineering drawings – the government is going to collect over the life of the contract.
Every contract will have a Contract Data Requirement List (CDRL) that identifies which data products must be delivered by the contractor to the government. CDRLs often include the timing and format required for the data deliverables. The CDRL groups all the data requirements in a single place rather than having them scattered throughout the solicitation or contract. I can get the schedule in a PDF format, or just a piece of paper that lays out the milestone dates a weapons system contractor is going to hit. And that’s my schedule deliverable. That deliverable is only really valid the moment it was written. After that, it’s old and obsolete.
Instead of collecting paper copies or PDFs, it would be much better and more useful to collect the schedule as a model. This way a government program and its contractor can live inside the model.
I equate it to my cell phone. When I put in my cell phone a destination an hour or two away, my map application will continually update the time that I’m going to arrive at the destination. It does this based on new inputs throughout the journey. If there’s a car accident, the app will reroute, and it will be updating the exact time I’m going to arrive.
That’s pretty powerful. Why can’t we do that in our acquisitions? We could if we looked at deliverables as models. All of our schedule deliverables, our cost deliverables, our engineering drawings could be part of a software model.
I looked at this problem of getting relevant software to all the groups that need it so they can live in the model. I realized that we could never do it under the current situation. There’s infinite amounts of software out there, and we don’t have infinite money. The government can’t adjust quickly to the software we need at a given time. So, I thought, what if we did it completely differently and just asked industry to give us their software for free?
With the CDRL, I have the ability to specify a file format to industry. I expect delivery of that model in that file format. But we now often abdicate that responsibility. We let contractors deliver in whatever file formats they want. Therefore, the government has to be proficient in any kind of software. I can’t tell you how many times the Air Force has spent millions of dollars on a deliverable that we allow the contractor to put in whatever format they want. Then we get that format, and we don’t own the software to view the deliverable that we just spent millions of dollars on.
With Tools for All, we said, hey, tool vendors, give us your tools for free. We’ll create a list of all the tools for which we have enterprise-wide software licenses. Now, anyone in the department can use a software tool. They just have to pull down the software. This will create competition based on the utility of the tools.
Programs no longer are constrained by one tool or another. They have access to all the tools. They pick the tool they want and put that file format in the CDRL. It forces their industry partner delivering the tank or the airplane to make sure it can deliver that tool. They are going to have to buy that software if they do not already have it.
The industry partner that’s making the airplane or the tank has to make a determination. Is it worth the risk to develop its own tool and then do a conversion into the tool that the government wants to view it in? The risk is much lower to develop natively in the government’s preferred tool. That should drive them to use different tools.
The tool vendors that have given us their software make their money selling to our industry partners – our big primes. Tool vendors no longer have to make their money from the government directly.
BE: You are creating an environment where software tools can be used interchangeably, depending on customer preference? It’s like the best tool wins. People are just picking tools and writing those tool file formats into their contracts.
VP: That’s exactly right. And it should create a virtuous cycle for the tool vendors. Right now, a tool vendor has to sell to the government. And we’re not an easy customer. Finding out who might buy your tool is hard, which is why they invest heavily in sales teams. Then, once they get into government, they try to get a foothold. They want to sell us training and other add-ons that chew up money that we didn’t plan for.
With Tools for All, vendors are competing for adoption and utilization of their tools. Instead of spending all that money on the sales team, companies can put it back into product development. I don’t expect to spend anything on training for these tools. Companies will be properly incentivized to train the government to use their tools if they want us to select them to be used.
People wonder how we could get software for free in the government. We do it through other transactions (OTs). With OTs, I have the ability to make a deal with industry: You can be on our list of selectable software vendors for someone to put on a CDRL if you give us enterprise-wide licenses.
Free is a misnomer, but no monetary costs is accurate. We provide other forms of consideration because the government cannot actually get anything for free.
BE: The process starts with creating a list of tools. In order to create the list, you have to get vendors to give you software for free. The contracting mechanism to do that would be other transactions. What would be the consideration to enter into a legal instrument like OTs?
VP: We’re going to open up and show usage to provide value back to the tool vendor. These tool makers have dozens and dozens of features they may think are really important. But when they look at our usage, they can see we are really only using two or three features. Maybe they decide to spend time developing those features instead of others that have limited or no value to the community.
That data is a big deal for the tool makers. It gives them market research of value and makes up the consideration required for the deal to be legal.
BE: We use a similar approach with one of our commercial solutions opening models, TryAI. We negotiate low-cost or no-cost tech demos in exchange for user feedback. I think you’re offering a step further. You’re willing to create a more formal and recurring feedback loop back to the vendor to help improve its product.
VP: That’s a big part of the consideration. The other part is that they become selectable.
BE: Let’s say a vendor has a scheduling tool, and it is willing to give you an enterprise license. Someone has to be using, or at least playing, with the tool regardless of whether or not it’s selected to go on a contract, right?
VP: Software vendors ask me what happens if they give me their tool and it never makes it onto a CDRL? My answer is that they are not out anything because they had the opportunity to get into the game. This gave them a foot in the door that they wouldn’t have had otherwise because I never would have known about their software. Now they have very valuable feedback that their tool is not hitting the mark competitively against its peers.
They’ll be able see the usage of their tool. Not being used or used only in one scenario are big indicators.
One of the things that we’ve kicked around is a sandbox tool where vendors can have access to each other’s tools. I think one of the things that will drive tool utilization is tool interoperability – if a prime contractor can use the outputs from one tool to feed into another.
It’s not a one-tool-fits-all scenario. There could be dozens of tools in a contract based on the type of CDRLs used and the deliverables that we expect back. Interoperability throughout the stack is really important. If these companies have the ability to play with each other’s tools in the sandbox, with the government involved, a lot of good can come from it.
BE: The OT arrangement gets them on the list, which is then distributed through-out the Air Force? Is that the idea?
VP: There is a policy that changes. When you put a contract out, you have to go through a review process. One part of the reviewer checklist will look at the CDRL and see that there’s a file format specified. Your contract and request for proposals do not go out the door if you don’t have a specified file format on your CDRLs.
People are going to ask which files they can pick from? Tools for All provides the list. Ideally it is categorized by what the software can do. It could be 15 or 30 or 100, who knows? Regardless, it is more than one file, and here’s a place you can go try them. It’s a chance to figure out which one is going to work best for the program. They start trying them and select the one that makes the most sense based on the user experience and that tool’s interoperability. They put that file format in, and now the contract can go out the door.
We have government leveraging a tool and living in the model, instead of getting a Word document or an Excel file that says here are milestones the contractor is going to hit and is only relevant the moment it’s printed.
BE: The real-time data element of using tools as models is huge. In general, where do you think people are going to try to crush this concept?
VP: There are groups on the government side that would like to see this quietly go away. It’s different and it’s hard. Industry has been very supportive of the concept because they all think they have the best software. They’re competitive and they believe in their products.
I want to get to a place where we allow healthy competition, and it makes all the tool vendors better.
The software tool industry is starting to consolidate the way the defense industry did. There are all these little tools out there that are great, and they’re starting to be bought up. Industry is consolidating them all and offering them back to the government as a giant platform. It’s a good business model for them in the short term, but it’s bad for the country. It’s bad for innovation.
If I want to take one company’s schedule tool and another’s cost tool and make them work together today, they don’t work. That’s an untenable pathway.
We will crash and burn if we only have two or three tool vendors that are the arbiters of which tools can work on our networks. We want to be able to take something that someone just wrote and that works really well and bring it in immediately. Tools for All can do that. If we stick to the traditional model, we’re going to get ourselves into vendor-lock scenarios with a handful of large tool vendors. And that’s it. All the other guys are closed out, and we have no more innovation occurring.
BE: If we get close to your vision and the tools become interoperable, do we start to get where we should be in terms of rapid delivery of capability?
VP: Yes, that’s the key. We need rapid delivery capability, and the tools enable it. But the tools are just a means to an end, and that end is kinetic. That end is going to protect us because it’s a deterrent. Whatever that end is, we need to get there faster.
We need to be able to run all the scenarios in the model to show that this is the best solution to all the possible scenarios. We need to get to very fast decision-making because our adversaries are moving at that speed. Here’s another problem that this solves. Imagine you have a really good engineer who spends seven years on a high-end program. For example, a super fancy airplane that has tons of money. They can buy whatever cool software they want, and they do.
The engineer gets a promotion, moves over to another program that doesn’t have tons of money. It doesn’t have the software that the engineer spent seven years learning how to use. We took seven years of knowledge and made it less useful in a new program office. All because the engineer doesn’t have access to a tool.
Enterprise-wide licenses are transferrable. Anyone can use any tool anywhere, so the workforce is much more capable. We can plug in people, career progression can occur, and we’re not hamstrung by the learning curve.
Imagine going from a high-end program to a program that doesn’t have all the money and that’s been around for a while. You have to go back in time. That’s demoralizing, and you’re way less effective.
BE: Is the policy change that acts as a forcing function to the contracting workforce requiring them to pick from your list pretty critical?
VP: I have to provide a value proposition to the tool vendors. They make good tools; they need to make money. The government buys big things. We buy complex weapon systems. We have a lot of things that are very well suited to those tools. But the reality is, most of the government engineers are not designing the weapon systems. We pay industry to do that. What the government is doing is the verification and validation of a requirement on a contract. It’s oversight. We need the ability to see everything that’s going on. The policy change enables that.
BE: It’s definitely a different mindset, what you’re describing. So where are you or your team in executing this vision? Do you have agreements in
VP: We’ve gone through two to three rounds with the reviewer and the attorney. I’m waiting for that to play itself out. We’ve socialized it with industry. This is now the second podcast I’ve done on the topic. Ultimately, we’re going to roll out one way or another. I think everyone wants to do it. It’s a question of the mechanics. I am confident we’ll have something this fiscal year. I think we’re going to limit it to a single software category, like schedule software, and prototype it from there. If it works, we’ll take on two or three others. We’ll probably do the model-based system engineering tools last because they are the highest-cost tools. And they are the ones that are probably most utilized already.
BE: I appreciate, and I would submit others appreciate, that you are trying to do something different. You are taking on the burden of conducting a great experiment we can learn from.
VP: It is a credit to our leaders, and my boss, for allowing me to even try. An organization needs to allow people to take risks, and to evaluate the upside and the downside. The upside is it’s a massive game changer. I’ve been fortunate in most of my jobs to have good leaders who said, go try, go do. If you are thinking there’s got to be a better way to do something, don’t push it off on somebody else. You have to go invent the better way. We live in a “can’t fail” mission mindset, but by failing to fail, we are failing. We’re not learning, we’re not growing, we’re not innovating as we could be. We’re sacrificing the big wins by not allowing ourselves to fail more often.
Bonnie Evangelista is Senior Procurement Analyst and Tradewind Manager for the Chief Digital and AI Office (CDAO) leading efforts to design and build a rapid acquisition environment to accelerate the pace of digital, analytics, and AI delivery to the Department of Defense. In her previous role, she served as the Deputy Product Lead for Applied Cyber Technologies leading efforts to provide the infrastructure and environments necessary for defensive cyber innovation and integration. She has an MBA from Liberty University and BA degrees in political science and Spanish from Virginia Tech.
Vince Pecoraro is the Lead Program Manager for the Department of the Air Force (DAF) Digital Transformation Office (DTO). He has worked as a contracting officer on some of the largest and most innovative acquisitions in the history of the Air Force (B-21, Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), Open Mission Systems (OMS) Standard, and Light Attack). Pecoraro was an original AFWERX founder as the Director of Agile Contracting and Agile Acquisitions responsible in part for the AFWERX Challenge Process and the SBIR Open Topic. He executed the first Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs) in the Air Force under the modern rules and at one time held more warrant authority than anyone else in the Air Force. Pecoraro values relationships built on shared experiences and believes in thinking differently. He is an entrepreneur in his own right and brings an entrepreneurial mindset to his work with the DoD.
Listen to the full episode of AI Proficiency: Turning Tomorrow into Today on Spotify:
Finding the Tools to Overcome Obstacles with Vince Percoraro
1 Tisone, Carol, “Smarter AI Acquisition Is the Focus for 2022 NCMA Innovation in Contracting Award Winners,” Contract Management, September 2022, National Contract Management