Software Acquisition Survival Skills: Helping the DoD and Government Program Offices Improve Acquisition of Software and Systems

NEWS AT SEI

Author

Joseph P. Elm

This library item is related to the following area(s) of work:

Acquisition Support

This article was originally published in News at SEI on: February 1, 2005

The SEI’s Acquisition Support Program (ASP) assists the U.S. Department of Defense and civil agency program offices responsible for acquisition of software and systems. To accomplish this, the SEI has developed a three-point approach.

  1. Needs Analysis: Understand and characterize the acquisition environment by gathering and analyzing issues and problems associated with advancing the state of the practice for acquiring software-intensive systems.
  2. Acquisition Improvement: Work directly with key acquisition programs to help them achieve their objectives. Apply new technologies by conducting experiments with maturing SEI products and services in real-world acquirer contexts. Establish a delivery capability to meet the strategic software acquisition objectives of the DoD and civil agencies. As needed, provide an on-site presence to assist acquisition officials in the improvement of their software-intensive system acquisition activities.
  3. Knowledge Integration and Transfer: Capture knowledge from engagements with acquisition organizations, integrate it with lessons learned from other similar work, and help transfer that knowledge for the betterment of the acquisition community. The outputs of these activities may include conferences, workshops, courses, briefings, technical reports, articles, advocacy, and participation in acquisition communities of practice.

Software Acquisition Survival Skills

As part of knowledge transfer, the SEI has developed “Software Acquisition Survival Skills” (SASS), a three-day training course aimed specifically at acquisition professionals tasked with acquiring software or software-intensive systems. This course provides an overview of skills needed by the program manager and program office staff to successfully acquire systems and software.

SASS was developed by first researching the problems that typically beset acquisition offices. SEI staff members studied a number of published reports addressing acquisition by the DoD and other civil agencies, and examined the training provided by the DoD to acquisition professionals, and extracted the major issues. (We reviewed the DAU acquisition courses, earlier DoD training [ARES, Boldstroke], and training from other sources [Aerospace, NRO].) We surveyed program managers from the DoD and other civil agencies, staff from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and SEI staff involved with acquisition programs, asking them “What are the five biggest problems that you see in programs?” We categorized and prioritized the responses based on the frequency of occurrence and severity of impact as reported by respondents. We started at the top of the list and built instructional modules for each category. Because the course duration was specified at three days, we had enough time for eight modules. The top eight problem areas (listed below in no particular order) became the topics for the SASS instructional modules.

  • Risk Management
  • Process Management
  • Requirements Development and Management
  • Pre-Award Activities of the Program Office
  • Systems Engineering
  • Technical Evaluations of Work Products
  • Software Architecture
  • Program Management Using Metrics

Each topic is presented from the perspective of the acquirer and examines the challenges posed in acquisition programs. For example, the Process Management instruction module covers the role of the program manager in defining and managing program office and program processes, in overseeing contractor process management, and in integrating the process sets of the program stakeholders (e.g., program office, contractors, and subcontractors). The module also presents steps the Program Manager can take to improve Program Office processes, and to encourage contractors to improve their processes.

While the breadth of the information covered and the short duration (three days) of the course precludes in-depth coverage of these topics, instructors do attempt to provide actionable recommendations for the students. In addition to background information for each topic, SASS provides

  • Warning signs to look for in programs (e.g., Warning sign of problems in Risk Management: An examination of the risk database reveals that no updates have been performed in several months.)
  • Strategies to prevent the occurrence of problems in programs (e.g., Strategy to prevent problems with metrics in program management: Train your program office staff on the development and use of program metrics. Use these metrics as “early warning” indicators of program problems.)
  • Strategies to recover from problems in programs (e.g., Recovering from problems stemming from architecture suitability:

    • Evaluate your architecture’s conformance to the defined quality attributes, functional requirements, and system constraints.
    • Identify and prioritize gaps (involve your stakeholders).
    • Spend the time and money to develop a better architecture for comparison.
    • Prioritize your changes based upon impact upon the project and the importance of conformance.)

To help students apply the concepts presented, each instructional module ends with a series of “What Do I Do Now?” slides, providing clear suggestions for next steps that can be taken at various stages of the program. Additionally, instructors provide a number of checklists, tools, and references that the students can use in the execution of their programs.

For students needing more detailed information on the topics presented in the course, the SEI offers a number of companion courses covering specific topics in more detail:

  • Continuous Risk Management
  • COTS-Based Systems for Program Managers
  • COTS Software Product Evaluation for Practitioners
  • Defining Software Processes
  • Introduction to CMMI
  • Managing Software Projects with Metrics
  • Mastering Process Improvement
  • Process Improvement Overview
  • Documenting Software Architectures
  • Software Architecture: Principles and Practices

The SASS is a relatively new course, offered for the first time in 2004. Over the past year, SASS has been offered 15 times, and more than 200 students have been trained.

It has been offered as a public course five times (three times at the SEI in Pittsburgh and twice at the SEI in Arlington), with attendance from Army, Navy, Air Force, civil agencies, and commercial contractors. Public offerings in 2005 are scheduled for

  • SEI-Arlington
    June 28, 29, 30
    December 14, 15, 16
  • SEI-Pittsburgh
    September 27, 28, 29

Visit our website to register for the public course.

SASS has also been offered 10 times on-site at Army and Air Force program offices. On-site offerings have the greatest impact because the instructors can address a broad cross-section of the staff at a single program office and, in addition to presenting the course materials, discuss the specific issues affecting that program. Comments from program office staff, as well as follow-up contact with these program offices have shown the benefits achieved as the programs adopt the concepts presented in the course. Visit the training section of our website to learn how you can bring the SASS to your site.

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