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To all you veteran Contract professionals,

How long did it take you to feel comfortable with your positions ("comfortable" as in not having any more "I have no idea what I'm doing" moments)? I've been in contracting for 3 months and still feel totally clueless on how to do this job, where to start, and where to even look for answers.

Is this really just a learn-as-you-go position? It seems like there should be a significant amount of training, but (aside from DAU, which I am not eligible to take yet) there is none. If so, I'll just keep on trucking but I would really like to educate myself at the least. What are some good resources you all would recommend for a newbie?

Thanks in advance for everyone's help!

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The DAU classes do help to a degree. Unfortunately the classes I have been to do not do a good job in explaining "how to" for both commercial and non-commercial contracts. The classes were geared, imo, towards non-commercial. Whereas my office does 99% commercial. But if you are able to check out some of CLC classes in DAU. many of these will give you information on various Acts that you will need to understand and on the basic concepts of contracting.

Otherwise, I have learned the best from my co-workers, other specialists and KOs (Army version of a Contract Officer). My KO's have been great. They freely allow me to ask questions, listen to my reasonings and challenge me to find answers. Some other people I have known have dealt with KOs that are not helpful or only say "do it". So I would suggest trying to find those people in your office that are willing to explain why and listen to your questions. If possible team up with someone to watch over their shoulder to see what they do. Hopefully your office does this already.

Another suggestion would be to borrow a contract (the whole file) and look through it. See what is in there. Read the contract to include the clauses.

As for feeling comfortable, even after several years, while I feel fairly comfortable in some areas there are many other areas that I do not normally deal with and so have little experience with. This forum can contain good information and it is an interesting way to hear how other agencies work and their solutions (and errors :) ) Learning this field definately takes time. It doesn't help that the rules seem to change just when you figured out the rule.

The one thing that will always stay with me is what the head of my contracting agency told me during an interview: No two contracts are ever the same.

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One of the best things about contracting is there are generally a bunch of possible ways to fulfill a requirement. Then you add in the circumstances, local rules/guidance and the list narrows. And then someone (maybe you down the road) makes the decision on the remaining options and the procurement takes off down the selected path. .So as a new guy, master the art of asking Why in a way that doesn't tick a person off. It's an art because the technique will vary based on who you are dealing with. You need to ensure they understand that you aren't necessarily questioning their decision but are simply trying to understand all the factors that caused them to make it - and many times one of them is the CO's past experiences.

Welcome to the ride!

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I’ll give you the same answer you’ll become quite familiar with whenever you start taking the resident DAU classes – it depends. In this case, it depends primarily on personal motivation and your ability to combine logic, law, and common business sense.

Small, non-complex purchases – 6 to 12 months.

There’s a reason why a lot of GS-1102 intern programs last two or three years. At that point, you should be relatively comfortable but won’t be a well-rounded expert by any means.

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Great! Thank you all for your responses. As my first "real job" it has just been a difficult transition from high school/college success where everything came very naturally to me and I was generally near the top of my class - to the 1102 position where I feel completely useless and incompetent. I have just been given my first procurement package, so I'm sure I will learn a lot here in the next couple of months. It is frustrating, to say the least, but I am trying to maintain a positive attitude and soak up as much as I can from my co-workers and CO's. For the most part (it seems), everyone in my office is new and does a good job of working together to solve problems.

It's also really great that there are community forums like this where Acquisition professionals can get together and discuss methods, get ideas, and answer questions. It has been very interesting reading some of the posts here (even if I'm still foggy on most things). Thanks, again!

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Guest Vern Edwards
How long did it take you to feel comfortable with your positions ("comfortable" as in not having any more "I have no idea what I'm doing" moments)? I've been in contracting for 3 months and still feel totally clueless on how to do this job, where to start, and where to even look for answers.

Is this really just a learn-as-you-go position? It seems like there should be a significant amount of training, but (aside from DAU, which I am not eligible to take yet) there is none. If so, I'll just keep on trucking but I would really like to educate myself at the least. What are some good resources you all would recommend for a newbie?

Contracting is an extraordinarily complex field and it is mainly a learn as you go occupation. There are a lot of resources, but most of them are from unofficial sources, are not organized and cataloged so as to make them readily accessible to newcomers, and are expensive. (Good books typically cost $100 or more.) There is also a lot of bad informaiton and guidance.

"Learning it" requires that you learn several things: concepts, rules, procedures, and skills. For example, if you conduct source selections you must learn (1) the concept of "evaluation factor" (what an evaluation factor is), (2) you must learn the rules about evaluation factors, which are in the FAR 15.304 and 9.104, in FAR supplements, and in case law, (3) you must learn the procedures for selecting and developing evaluation factors (how to know which ones to use and how to describe and scale them), and (4) you must learn how to plan for their use, how to apply them during proposal evaluation, and how to explain all of that to others.

Most of what you must learn you must learn on your own through self study, which means reading, a lot of reading, thinking, a lot of thinking, and chances to practice. How long it will take to "learn it" depends on your goal, on how hard and how well you study, and how many chances you get to do the work. Even under the best of circumstances, it will take a lot of work on your part and a very long time, meaning several years if your goal is mastery. (By mastery I mean the ability to do the work yourself, to do it well, and to explain it to others and show them how to do it.)

Unfortunately, you will be on your own unless you happen to work for a master. There are not many of them around. The "system" is not designed to be of much help. I consider the education and training (there is a distinction) available from official sources to be, shall we say, inadequate. (There is no point in complaining about DAU anymore, since it will produce no good result. DAU is what it is and what it always will be. That's too bad, because it could be great. Unfortunately, it thinks it's great already, which makes mediocracy a reach and excellence unachievable.

As for how long it will take you to feel comfortable, that is another matter entirely and a largely personal one. If you are doing simple work, it might not take very long. If you are doing difficult work, or if you have high standards and are self-demanding, you might never feel comfortable. I've been at this for almost 40 years and I often don't feel comfortable. Feeling comfortable is a good way to embarrass yourself. I'm not sure that "feeling comfortable" is a worthwhile goal. I know a lot of incompetents who feel perfectly comfortable. Ignorance is a great source of comfort. You might think you're knockin' on heaven's door, until the devil opens it. Better to have a little spirit on your shoulder who whispers in your ear every few minutes: "Be careful." Sometimes they goof off on the job.

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Nathan - Welcome to the fold. A wise man (smile) once put these to items on WIFCON and they are posted at my desk as a constant reminder - not sure they are still on here so I will post them again with much respect for the author:

Here are some of the traits that I think makes for an "effective" KO, which is a minimal standard. (I have higher standards for expert, excellent, superb, brilliant, etc.)

Vernon Edwards, 29 Jan 11

1. Pride in competence, but not in title or position.

2. Deep knowledge of the rules. That means mastery of the regulations that govern the specific work that you do. For example, if you conduct source selections, then you should know FAR Part 15 and your agency supplement and any internal policy and guidance like the back of your hand. It also means that you have an educated layman's familiarity with and understanding of the relevant case law. A KO with deep knowledge does not run to the legal office to ask what the rules are.

3. Deep background knowledge. That means, for example, that if you conduct source selections you have studied at least one good text about organizational decision-making; if you price non-commercial contracts you are familiar with cost accounting, the cost accounting standards, the contract cost principles, and profit policy; if you buy commercial items you are familiar with commercial pricing practices and strategies. When I say "familiar with," I mean that as a layman you could engage in conversation with a professional and not make a fool of yourself.

4. Procedural mastery and commitment to procedural efficiency. That means that you know how to do things properly and that you consistently do so successfully and with the least possible expenditure of human and capital resources. You don't spend resources unnecessarily just to avoid criticism.

5. The ability to reason logically and to reach conclusions that are both valid and true, to evaluate the conclusions of others, to write well, and to speak to a group confidently, clearly, and persuasively.

6. The exercise of sound judgment when advising and representing clients. ("Client" is the proper word. True professionals don't say "customers" and don't treat the people they support like customers. They treat them like clients. That means that you are committed to the best possible outcome for them, but that you do not treat them like they are always right.)

7. The exercise of professional caution when offering professional advice and opinions to peers. Honesty, frankness, and courage when dealing with superiors.

8. A commitment to do good work and to reject shoddy work from subordinates.

Posted by

Vern Edwards, Today, 12:39 PM

Sometimes, when I’m teaching a class, and after I’ve had a couple of days with the students and know them a little, I play a game with myself. I pretend that I’ve been asked to assemble a small, elite contracting office to do demanding work under pressure. I then look over the students and ask myself which of them I would choose. Here, in no particular order of importance, is an incomplete list of the qualities, skills, and knowledge that my ideal contract specialist candidate would possess.

Personal Qualities. It may be that people are born with these qualities to some extent, but I think that you can develop them in yourself if you work at it.

An energetic and inquiring mind. I want someone who is never content to simply follow instructions, but wants to know the why of everything and won’t accept “Because I said so,” or “Because that’s the best (usual, standard, generally accepted) way to do it.” I want someone who is not content to be told, but who wants to figure things out and to understand. I want someone who would not ask me (or a co-worker) what a word means or what the rule is, but who would at least try to look it up first.

Feistiness. The ideal candidate will stand up for what he or she believes, but knows the difference between standing up and arguing for the sake of arguing or out of bullheadedness. I want someone who is willing to fight, but who knows when the fight is over and will shake hands, win or lose. No grudges, please. Please don't apply if, when you lose an argument with the boss, you complain to others about how unreasonable the boss is.

Independence. The ideal candidate does not have to be handheld through every step in a process. On the first night of the Invasion of Normandy in WWII, American paratroopers knew that they would land behind enemy lines in the dark and might find themselves alone, lost, and surrounded. But they knew that they were expected to seek the objective anyway, or find Germans to fight, not wait until someone showed up to tell them where to go and what to do. I don’t want someone who shows up at the boss’s door every five minutes to ask what to do next.

Diligence. I want a person who does what needs to be done when it needs to be done without having to be reminded or prodded, and who persists until its done and done right.

Discretion. Discretion is more than “common sense.” Discretion includes tact, good judgment, caution, modesty, and self-restraint. It includes knowing when to act without instructions and when to seek instructions before acting, and knowing when to talk and about what, and when to keep quiet.

Honesty. The ideal candidate knows that it's just as important to be honest with oneself as it is to be honest with others.

Integrity. The ideal candidate sticks to principles, even at personal expense, but isn't a blockhead about it. I want someone who insists on doing the right thing, but not someone who dials the IG hotline when anyone disagrees with his or her notion of what the right thing is. A person with real integrity knows the difference between an objectively ironclad principle (all bribes are wrong) and a subjectively debatable principle (the proper standard for unusual and compelling urgency).

Self-confidence and mental toughness. This is the sine qua non of a contract negotiator. I want someone who not only doesn’t get upset when put on the spot, but who actually gets a kick out of it⎯someone who is not only willing to take the heat, but who even enjoys it. There’s no crying in contracting.

Humor. The ideal candidate laughs at herself as easily or more easily than she laughs at others. I want someone who can see the humor in a desperate situation, but not someone who makes a joke out of everything. Sly, dry wit is welcome, if used with restraint, but not ostentatiously dry wit, which is tiresome. Funny and sarcastic are not the same thing. The trick is to make the person at whom you are laughing laugh at himself.

Acquired Skills. All of the following are things that a person can learn to do. For interns I have provided some references to books about some of the skills.

The ability to reason logically. We all do that more or less naturally, but the ideal candidate is self-conscious about it and strives to be rational, to develop valid arguments, and to evaluate arguments based on logical principles. See Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach, 2d ed., by Douglas Walton (Cambridge, 2008) and Logic and Its Limits, 2d ed., by Patrick Shaw (Oxford University Press, 1997).

The ability to read analytically. Reading, interpreting, and applying the Federal Acquisition Regulation is not as easy as most people seem to think it is, yet a contract specialist must be able to do it and do it well. The level of of FAR reading difficulty falls somewhere between a college political science textbook, which almost everyone can understand, and Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, which hardly anyone can understand (no matter what they claim). My favorite difficult FAR passage: the cost principle at FAR 31.205-6, Compensation for Personal Services. If you can read that and pass a test about what it says and means, then you’re good. If you can read it, pass the test, and suggest other interpretations, then you’re my kind of contract specialist.

The ability to write well. To test for this skill I’d give a candidate a problem in equitable price adjustment and tell him to determine the proper amount according to the facts and established case law. I’d then give the candidate one hour to type a one-page explanation of the basis for his determination. I’d evaluate the explanation for grammar and punctuation, and for the ability to write a coherent explanation of the answer given. Note: My model for good writing is George Orwell. See his essays Books v. Cigarettes (1946), The Complete Works of George Orwell, and Politics and the English Language (1946), The Complete Works of George Orwell, which are polemical, and The Moon Under Water (1946), Essays and Journalism which is a fine piece of imaginative descriptive literature. A fun piece is Some Thoughts on the Common Toad (1946), The Complete Works of George Orwell. If you can learn to write even half as clearly as Orwell you need never be unemployed. The ability is in very short supply.

The ability to speak extemporaneously. A candidate must be able to stand up in front of strangers and people who are opposed to his or her point of view and speak clearly, coherently, confidently, and persuasively about something that he or she is supposed to know.

The ability to listen actively. See Wikipedia. Listening actively saves a lot of time and may prevent needless disputes and litigation.

The ability to negotiate. The ideal candidate can make a deal with a contractor or with other agency personnel. Anyone who has the qualities and skills listed above can learn to negotiate⎯to bargain, to haggle, to engage in a rational (or intentionally irrational) exchange of views in order to make a deal. Some people are better at it than others. There are hundreds of books about negotiating. Take your pick. They all have something useful to say.

A reasonable facility with mathematics. Some contracting problems entail more than simple arithmetic. You might need simple statistics, but you probably won’t need trigonometry or calculus. Wouldn’t hurt, though. Library of Math

The ability to design efficient and effective contracting processes. Some would say “the ability to innovate.” To me, it’s nothing more than the ability figure out how get things done without wasting time and resources. The ideal candidate, when confronted with an unreasonable request, says: Give me some time. I'll figure something out.


A candidate must possess the level of basic knowledge that is necessary to work at the pay grade that he or she wants. I don’t believe in paying the salary while the person learns the basics of the job. (But time must be provided to learn the particulars.) A candidate must know the rules that govern the job that he or she has been hired to do. The rules include the FAR and other official “shall,” “shall not,” “may,” “may not,” “should,” and “should not” statements. When I say “know the rules,” I mean know what the rules say and what they mean, which, in some cases, requires familiarity with case law.

The candidate must know other things as well, such as:

How our government is organized and how it works, for example: (a) how laws are enacted and published, (B) how regulations and policies are promulgated and published, (c ) how public and private controversies are settled or adjudicated, and (d) how funds are appropriated, managed, obligated, and expended.

How government funds are appropriated, managed, and properly obligated. See Principles of Federal Appropriations Law, Government Accountability Office (GAO), GAO Redbook

How the industries and firms that sell what is to be bought produce, price, and distribute their products and services.

How the markets in which the buying is done are structured, regulated, and behave.

So much for my game. Contract specialists who possess all of those qualities, abilities, and knowledge are hard to come by. In fact, I don't always qualify. If you're a boss and you find such persons, someone will try to take them away from you, so you had better offer interesting and challenging work, interesting coworkers, and a decent place to work.

Of course, if you think that contracting is about sitting in a small cubicle, staring at a monitor, and klacking away at a keyboard, just ignore me.

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How long did it take you to feel comfortable with your positions ("comfortable" as in not having any more "I have no idea what I'm doing" moments)?

Hi Nathan. Don't sweat the "no idea what I'm doing" moments. This is the beauty of the contracting career field. I've been on the private and public sector sides of contracting for over 15 years. The things I know for certain about what I am doing are I am always encountering new issues that I never dealth with before; that I need to be self-reliant in discovering answers while being flexible enough to rely on the gracious assistance and expertise of others; and that if I don't like/can't use the answer that I found in the FAR, I should either turn the page and look at the next answer or wait a few weeks for the answer to change. Knowledge of the rules is great. Knowing how to find rules and being able to apply what you find is better.

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I was in your shoes nearly 9 years ago. Trust me, what you are experiencing is perfectly normal. I felt like a fish out of water for about the first year. By my second and third years I felt like I was at least treading water. As my supervisor (KO) at the time stated, my cost/benefit ratio to the office was exactly 0. Nowadays I'd say I am relatively comfortable with what I do, however as Vern correctly points out, Contracting is a complicated field and the only constant is constant change. And after 5 years, don't be surprised if you look back at what you learned in earlier years and realize you had it all wrong. Sometimes, just reading the FAR helps. I know, it can be painfully boring at times, but sometimes it helps to just sit down, read it and think about it on a deeper level. That's how I ended up challenging some of my earlier notions that proved to be false.

But to master the field? I'm not sure it is even possible. And as Vern points out, there might well be some harm in thinking you've mastered anything. For example, as a gun owner, I don't EVER want to feel I've mastered safe handling practices ... that leads to complacency (in any endeavor) and complacency leads one to shoot themselves in the foot. Literally in my example (trust me, I've seen somebody do it, and there foot was only about 18" from mine!) :o

You can get close to mastery, but just when you think you've seen it all, usually within hours of that thought something will rise up from behind and kick you squarely in your hind parts and prove you wrong. Over the years I've seen some incredibly goofy stuff that I thought wasn't possible, but now that I'm a little older I know better. I have the bruises on my back side to prove it :P . So I think the key is patience, an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a desire to strive for excellence.

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It depends on how much you want to learn and how fast you pick up on things, but if you are looking for that "lightbulb" moment where it all starts to make sense, it could take anywhere from a year or two to many after that. I would highly suggest taking the FAR Bootcamp early on (free advertising for you Vern, I loved your class) if your agency offers it in your area. Or perhaps approach your training coordinator about taking it elsewhere and see if your agency would pay for you to go. You may not feel like you learned something then, but you will realize that Vern really does hammer down on how you should read the FAR, and his case studies that he presents to you and lets you work on gives you a really good feel for how the FAR is interpreted (and how it is completely vague in many areas).

Besides, if you are an active reader of this forum, it allows you to put a face behind his username, and you'll really start to understand his posts (if that matters to you at all).

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You may be able to try and use this training exercise that Vern has in his blog and tailor it for your use:


Also Vern has a good entry that he wrote for contractors that has some good information as well:


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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm on my way out of the field, by way of retirement after 30 years. The learning takes time and most of it will be on-the-job. I very much learned from others who were willing to take me under their wing. And your career is going to be what you make of it. The interesting thing is that so much continues to change. The range of items I have acquired through the years (from typewriters to IPADs), as well as the range of people I have worked for and with, have held my interest. You can learn and perform pretty much by rote if you desire that route. But, digging into the depths of the organization you service, the mission and Agency contracting needs is where the fun and challenge lies. I've had an impact in suggesting changes (procedurely and regulatorily) that were adopted. I've had to stand up and support my position during controversial actions, and I've not always been successful. Good luck to all of you who are new to the career field - and read those protest decisions! You can learn a lot from them.

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