In NASA’s Contracting Office, Skip the Buzzwords, Please

Edwin Verin/

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NASA prefers to focus on the requirements its mission owners need to fulfill their endeavors

NASA might be one of the most buzzworthy agencies but don't expect any love from the procurement office if you come in throwing around buzzwords.

NASA prefers to focus on the requirements its mission owners need to fulfill their endeavors – like launching humans into space – and less on secondary ramifications like cost savings. That includes cloud computing, said Bill McNally, assistant administrator of NASA’s Office of Procurement, at least when it’s not intrinsically tied to mission requirements.

Just because the federal government is set to spend some $7.3 billion on cloud in fiscal 2016 does not itself merit buying it.

“If you walk into my office wanting to talk about cloud, you’re going to get kicked out my office,” McNally said. “The problem with government is, we’re spending too much time trying to understand cost savings rather than focusing on requirements.”

McNally spoke Wednesday at an event hosted by Nextgov and Defense One, discussing the uniqueness of NASA’s missions and why the agency tends to avoid purchasing technology and services from governmentwide acquisition vehicles that aren’t NASA SEWP, or Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement.

NASA’s success over the years is also buoyed by transparent open-market procurements whereby source selection statements are communicated to winners and losers, which also tends to reduce the frequency of bid protests.

Not surprisingly, most procurements at the space agency revolve around requirements. McNally said cloud computing needs often aren’t communicated correctly, comparing the emerging technology to Y2K, which consumed a lot of the agencies’ time in the months leading up to 2000 because few knew “what the heck we were doing because we didn’t understand Y2K.”

“With cloud, I want to understand, ‘What is your requirement?’” McNally said. “Is it getting data? OK, then I’ll support your procurement to buy data.”

Ultimately, McNally said NASA aims to get out of the business of buying hardware altogether, spending its money instead on data and services.

He used an example of a device aboard the International Space Station that converts astronauts’ urine into water to bring home the point.

“I didn’t buy that system, I buy the water – some vendor built it and demonstrated it, and now, I’m just paying for the water,” McNally said, likening water to data and services and the device itself to racks of servers.

“What we’re trying to do at NASA, while we have to develop some systems unique for our needs, is we’re trying to get to just buying data and services, not the hardware,” McNally said.