Fall in Love With the Mission

Your objective isn’t to award a contract, it is to have an effect on the ground, says Darryl Scott, Vice President for Contracts and Subcontracts at General Dynamics Information Technology.

Darryl Scott, Fellow, received NCMA’s most prestigious accolade, the Lifetime Achievement Award, at the 2022 World Congress in Chicago in July. He is a longtime, well-known, highly regarded member of the association and the defense and industry contracting communities.

Especially renowned for his generosity in mentoring fellow contracting professionals, Scott continues advising all those who seek his assistance, two-thirds of whom have been professional women. 

Here’s how he puts it on his LinkedIn profile: “My passion ... has been growing wise, effective, and compassionate executive leaders. I have helped dozens of young leaders achieve executive status in government and industry, and I can do the same for you!”

Scott graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1974 and rose to the rank of Major General. He retired in 2009. His 34-year Air Force career included service as Vice Commander of Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Director of the Defense Contract Management Agency, Commander of the Joint Contracting Command for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Deputy Commander of the Defense Business Transformation Agency/Task Force for Business Stability Operations in Iraq.

He graduated with distinction from the Air Force Institute of Technology Graduate School of Systems and Logistics, is a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Squadron Officer’s School, a “top third” graduate of the Air Command and Staff College and a distinguished graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
Upon retiring from the Air Force, Scott became Vice President for Contracts at The Boeing Company and served as a Commissioner on the Advisory Panel on Streamlining and Codifying Acquisition Regulations created in Section 809 of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.

The 809 Panel’s 18 members were required to be recognized experts in acquisition and procurement policy and were charged with delivering recommendations to transform the defense acquisition system to meet the threats and demands of the 21st century.

NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad, MBA, CAE, CTP, spoke with Scott in July 2022 to discuss his experiences as both a buyer and seller in the federal market, his work on the 809 Panel, contracting in Iraq, his advice for incoming contract management professionals, and his stint on the Jeopardy! quiz show. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kraig Conrad (KC): Our readers very much want to know about your career journey. What did you plan and what happened by accident? They certainly would love to hear about your early experience in the Air Force and what drew you into the contracting career field.

Darryl Scott (DS): I planned to be an Air Force officer. My dad was a Tuskegee Airman1 and after World War II, he continued in the Air Force Reserve and eventually retired as a major. I wanted to follow in his footsteps, and I made a plan to get accepted at the Air Force Academy. That was the first thing in my life that I had ever planned and then went out and executed. Almost everything that happened after that was by accident, including becoming a contracting officer.

When I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I was commissioned in information technology (IT) operations running data centers. I had been doing that for about five or six years when the Air Force suffered a very embarrassing program cancellation on a $1 billion logistics information technology program.

This was a billion dollars in the 1970s, so it was a huge deal. The postmortem identified that the contracting officers responsible had no idea what they were buying. Consequently, the Air Force selected six officers who were in IT-related career fields and decided to make us contracting officers.

They sent me to the Air Force Institute of Technology to get a master’s degree in contracting and acquisition management. They had to drag me kicking and screaming because I was enjoying IT. They told me that after I paid back my school obligation, which was basically three years for every one year I was in school, I could go back to IT if I wanted to.

My first contracting assignment was as a buyer at the Air Force Computer Acquisition Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts. One year into my three-year payback tour, I went to my boss, the director of contracting, and said, “I don’t want to go back. I have found my calling.”

In contracting, everybody who walked through the door had a different business problem that they needed solved. That got me really excited. I got to solve problems for the benefit of the clients and the Air Force. It was a different problem every time. I fell in love with contracting, and as they say, the rest is history.

Even in my transition from the military to the civilian side, there was a bit of an accidental element. I had made my decision to retire from the Air Force. I had not decided what I was going do next. I hadn’t publicized my decision other than to my boss.

One day, the phone rang and it was a former mentor of mine, Tim Malishenko, whom many people in NCMA will remember. Tim said, “Hey Darryl, do you want my job?” I said, “Tim, I might want your job if I knew what it was.” Tim was about to retire as the vice president of contracts for Boeing. I wasn’t sure I was the right fit for the job, but I agreed to interview. I must have done okay because they didn’t interview anybody else.

Serendipity played a great part in my ability to do what I’ve loved for more than 40 years.

KC: We hear a lot that not everyone starts out wanting to be a contract manager, but we’re delighted that you made it to our profession because you’ve given back so much. You mentioned Tim Malishenko, your mentor. You also are known as someone who has been very generous with your time and your willingness to help people on their career journeys. Why do you serve as a mentor and what are your key goals as you’re mentoring someone?

DS: The story about Malishenko plays a big part in it. I was mentored by many, many people. We had conversations that changed how I looked at my career, how I looked at the service that I was rendering to the nation, and changed the way I thought about myself. These relationships led to friendships that have gone on for decades.

Many members of NCMA mentored me at various stages of my career. There are way too many for me to mention – I would feel embarrassed if I left somebody out. But it occurred to me fairly early in my career that these were seasoned senior people, and they were investing their time and their talent in me.

At that point in my career, I couldn’t pay them back. So, I decided to do what they were doing and pay it forward. Throughout my career, one thing I’ve always been able to find time to do, regardless of what my job was, is spend time with someone who wanted help, wanted to learn, wanted to be able to ask questions in a safe space.

I have very rarely turned anyone down. Anybody who cares enough about their career, is concerned enough to want to lead well, who thinks enough of the mission that we do in our profession to ask, they deserve the best answer I can give. I guess I got a reputation for it because people still ask.

KC: You served as a commissioner on the section 809 panel, which of course was about acquisition reform. How do you feel about its progress now?

DS: The section 809 commission was a watershed and a high point in my career. Out of the 18 commissioners, over half had been mentors to me or were friends, and I quickly developed friendships with the others. We were a bunch of friends who had gotten together to do something important for the country.

We stood up in 2017, and published our first volume in early 2018. We made a bunch of quick-hit recommendations that showed up in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. But the quick hits were not why we felt we were there. We felt our job was to make recommendations for long-term, lasting change that would sustain the U.S. Department of Defense’s technological superiority over near-peer enemies.

We talked often about wanting to put something on the shelf. We wanted something like a classic novel that people take down and refer back to three or four or 10 years later, and it still is relevant. The other thing we did that was different from a lot of commissions was to develop implementing language, both legislative and administrative, so the executive branch could go about implementing our recommendations in law and regulation. We wanted it to be camera-ready.

I spent most of my time on the subcommittee that worked on the acquisition workforce. One of the things that we felt very strongly was that preparation and career management had over-rotated towards certification. We wanted to see many skills development opportunities, not just on-the-job training and preparation, but access to resources that were tailored to where people are in their careers. We wanted to shift the focus to lifelong learning.

As everybody knows, DAU and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) have made that change. There’s no longer a three-stage certification where the emphasis is on getting coursework done by some milestone. Now there’s one certification and a requirement for lifelong learning.

All of us who worked on that are quite proud of it. We did what we set out to do. We left something behind for generations of contracting professionals to come.   

KC: I am delighted to hear that. As you know, many of the NCMA common language initiatives, the ANAB ANSI approved Contract Management Standard (CMS), are the basis of that single-level DoD certification.

Just as a clarification for our readers, the certification you mentioned is the attestation that certain requirements are met to sit in a government chair. That’s a bit different from a professional certification.

As we look at our common language initiatives, we are trying to leverage them. We want the workforce to be able to come in and out of different practice areas knowing that they’re going to have the same language. Part of what we know the 809 panel was seeking, and why they also encouraged the NCMA Contract Management Standard, is that the CMS is the way we are going to help the workforce build and grow and have a common language. I would say the section 809 panel has been very successful in part because of what NCMA has been able to do to support it.

DS: We were very aware at the time of the work that NCMA was doing to get the CMS accepted and to move towards that common language. That was very much a model for what we were recommending in the panel report.

KC: We always are trying to find ways to explain, and encourage members to participate in the common language efforts. We also manage our neutral forum between buyers and sellers. Given that you’ve been a buyer and a seller, what advice would you give both sides to help them learn a little bit more about each other?

DS: One of the things I’ve always valued about NCMA membership is we are a unique professional association in that people who normally sit on opposite sides of the table can sit together, learn together, build comradeship together. And through that, we build understanding of the challenges each faces. In my professional experience, NCMA is unique in that respect.

My first recommendation to new contract professionals is join NCMA. The other observation I make is that there’s still a lot of “fog of war.” People assume that decisions are made a certain way, or markets operate in a certain manner, and that things should be easy for the other side to do, without any knowledge of the obstacles that exist on the other side.

It takes effort on the part of individuals and on the part of organizations to reach out. One of the things I’ve said in job interviews for industry positions is that if we wait until there’s a solicitation on the street, it’s too late to build real understanding. It’s too late to know why people do the things they do and then build the most attractive, fair, reasonable business proposition that we can. Each side needs to put more effort into venues where we can build those common links.

KC: Today’s generation of workers thinks about life differently. They may not think of a career as lifelong. They want to come out of school and have a tremendous amount of responsibility. What have you learned through your career that you wish you had known known earlier? What would you tell that person who’s trying to have impact through our profession?

DS: The thing that made the biggest difference in my career was that I’ve always been curious. But what I came to appreciate later was the value of curiosity. I was curious about the client’s mission. I’m out in my first job buying a computer system for some agency. What are they going to use it to do and what role does the contract I am charged with writing play in helping them fulfill that?

That mindset, I felt, helped me do a better job. When I deployed to Iraq, that was turbocharged. We were part of the campaign plan. We were not just filling requirements, taking purchase requests, and turning them into contracts. We got requirements like, “We need to get 100,000 young Iraqi men employed because intelligence says most of these guys are not insurgents. They’re people that haven’t had a job in two or three years.”

We were not writing the most efficient contract we could write. We were not looking for the lowest-cost solution to the problem.

You can get a high-lift truck and two guys and change half the streetlights in the city in one night. Or you can hire a hundred guys and give them ladders and tell them to go change the bulbs. That understanding of what the commander was trying to accomplish and why he was trying to do it changed our perspective on what it was that we were being asked to do. We saw the outcome every day – that something we were doing to support the mission made a real difference.

It all started with being curious about what the requester was trying to accomplish. And we offered up a lot of solutions and suggestions that said if you do it this way instead of that way, you’ll get much closer to your real outcome, which isn’t to award a contract but to have an effect on the ground.

Whether you’re working for the Department of Health and Human Services or a small business that caters to the Department of Education or building spacecraft for the U.S. Space Force, being curious enough to want to know how what you do fits in the greater scheme of things is the best advice I can give to young professionals. If you find that, and you fall in love with the mission, you’ll love this career for as long as I have. The mission has changed from job to job, but devotion to it, and seeing the teams around me devoted to it, has sustained me and my interest for an entire career.

KC: I couldn’t imagine anything more important than helping to serve our broader interests around the world through what you did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask about a moment where your powerful curiosity was evident in a very public set-ting. I’m talking about your 1993 television appearance as a contestant on Jeopardy!. Would you care to share a little bit about that?

DS: Well, it was a long time ago, but I am, or I was, in the Guinness Book of World Records. I was the contestant that won with the lowest total in Jeopardy! history – one dollar. My record was tied a few years ago by a Navy officer. I was on active duty in the Air Force at the time.

I was competing against the returning champion (the third contestant had finished with negative money). I’ll never forget the question or the category. The category was world leaders. And the question was, “This world leader wrote two books while incarcerated in prison.”

Both the returning champion and I got the answer wrong, but she bet everything, and I bet everything but a dollar. I finished with $1, and I came back two more times. You can go on YouTube and search for “Darryl Scott Jeopardy!,”2 and I’m there.3

KC: Thank you so much for your time and contributions to our profession. We’re very grateful.

DS: Kraig, thank you for the 2022 NCMA Lifetime Achievement Award. It is an honor that I will cherish. Thank you to all the members of NCMA, you have been a second family to me through my entire professional career. What you do is so important to the success of the nation. I have always been, and always will be, proud to say I am a member of the National Contract Management Association. CM