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A friend of mine is looking for someone to head their contracts department; mid-size company that does most of its work in the Federal space. He didn’t have anyone in-house with extensive senior level contracting experience so he asked me to perform one part of the interview screening just to discuss contracts and make a recommendation.

This position would have 1 or 2 direct reports of entry to mid-level contracts persons to support and mentor. This position would report directly to the C-level of the company and provide guidance on contractual issues/risks and manage its day to day contractual needs.

The minimum requirement, among the obvious educational requirements, was 10 years’ experience managing contracts.

I interviewed 9 people; all exceeded the minimum requirements including two that had a JD.

Their HR department asked that I develop a list of topics/questions to cover for the sake of consistency.

The topics/questions were, not asked in any order but I made sure I covered them during our conversations:

  1. The US government has three branches of government; the FAR applies to which one these three? Feel free to discuss any exceptions - No one could answer this question.
  2. Are you familiar with the Christian doctoring and how it relates to government contracting? – two people answered this with understanding.
  3. Tell me about an instance where an issue/disagreement was identified by Operations/Program office and was sent to Contracts to resolve? And specifically, how you resolved it? – (I thought this question was a gift). Only three could give a situation where they resolved something (e.g. COTR and PM disagreeing) This was particularly amazing to me, how anyone could go 10+ years supporting corporate contracts and NEVER disagreed with a COTR, CO or program office on the government side.
  4. What statutes which govern federal procurement are you familiar with? Of those, what risks would you advise during a proposal and/or operations phase? – No one could answer this until I started throwing softballs, “like the Davis-Bacon Act?”
  5. Tell me some of the different risks associated with a T&M, FFP and Cost Plus type contracts. – I got a lot of ‘choppy’ answers, most kept telling me that “Cost Plus has NO risk”…(me: “Really? None?”).
  6. Are you familiar with the Code of Federal Regulations and how it is the associated with the FAR? - only two people knew that the FAR was part of the CFR, one actually knew it was Title 48, chapter 1. One person actually told me the CFR is just another name for the FAR.

There were several other questions related to customer specific/industry experience and working knowledge but these 6 above shocked me the most.

My question to the Wifcon: Where these questions too hard for someone working at this level?

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Guest Vern Edwards

Questions 1, 2, 5, and 6 are are fair and should have been answerable by a person who knows the contracting field. Having said that, my experience has been that 98 percent of the people that have come to my classes, including people with unlimited warrants and 25 years of experience, could not say where the FAR is in the CFR, much less explain what the CFR contains and where the content comes from. Also, asking about the Christian Doctrine is a little petty. A lot of "doctrines" apply to government contracting. What could you tell us about the Severin Doctrine, the Ferris Doctrine, the state secrets doctrine, the Rice Doctrine, the superior knowledge doctrine, the cardinal change doctrine, the constructive change doctrine, the mutual mistake doctrine, the waiver doctrine, etc., all of which, and more, we have discussed in The Nash & Cibinic Report within the last 10 years?

Question 3 strikes me as oddly worded, which might have caused some confusion. If you had asked about conflicts between requisitioners/users and contracting personnel instead of "operations/program office," you might have gotten better responses.

Question 4 is a little strange. You were probably looking for answers like CICA, FASA, TINA, Procurement Integrity, Buy American, etc. People might have been thrown off by the word "statutes" and might have responded better if you had used the word "laws." When I read the question I started thinking in terms of 10 USC… 41 USC…, and then I realized you were probably expecting popular names. In any case, most practitioners are familiar with the implementing regulations, but not the statutes.

If you are looking for someone to head a contracts department for a private sector firm, the interview questions should be more practical than theoretic. That person's main job will be managing conflicts between requisitioners and contracting folk over things like lead times and the adequacy of specifications and sole source justifications, and subcontract management, workflow and work quality, not dealing with the Christian Doctrine.

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I've been working in the private sector for 30 years now, in various capacities including outside consultant. I can say that, without exception, the top level executives in the sell-side Contracts department achieved their positions based on political acumen and "soft skills" and only knew the basics of the profession. The expertise resided at the next couple of levels down.

I also found much the same thing on the buy-side, but the top people seemed to have a better grasp of the constraints under which they operated. Perhaps it was the periodic CPSRs.

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My question to the Wifcon: Where these questions too hard for someone working at this level?

FAR Fetched: While I agree with Mr. Edwards that your choice of vernacular might have confused some of your interview audience, I do not believe they should have been considered too hard for the caliber of professional you were seeking. That said, the issue isn't completely private versus public sector mentality. I've known of several instances both inside and outside of Gov't service where the management candidate was lacking but had a track record of being the ______ that rises. Most recently, I had the opportunity to deal with a Gov't contracting office where the new unlimited warrant, supervisory contract specialist was a field grade officer with no DAWIA courses to their credit, let alone any certifications. So, I'm not surprised that your interview candidates may have been less than stellar.

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MBrown, although it might be possible, DFARS 1.603 requires a military or civilian candidate for a KO warrant meet certain statutory and regulatory training and experience requirements before they can be warranted. There are exceptions, such as havng been warranted prior to 2000 or in a contingency operation. However, I find it hard to believe that a field grade officer these days without such qualificatifications would possess an unlimited warrant for other than extraordinary contracting operations .

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Vern,

As stated in the first sentence, this is a position in a mid-size company (private sector obviously).

I can see the opinion that asking about the Christian Doctrine was "petty" but hear me out. I believe it's important for anyone leading a contracts department to know FAR clauses can be part of your contract even if they're not actually in your contract. This has come up multiple times throughout my career. This was also a good way to discuss their understanding of what/when does the FAR apply a private company's contract. You would be surprised, well... you wouldn't be surprised...but there are many people in the private sector that believe the entire FAR applies to them.

Question 3, in the private sector this makes perfect sense IMO - I did not read these off a sheet a paper but again, as stated in the OP, covered the conversationally. This seems very straightforward to me, I think most people who have been managing contracts for over 10+ years (in the Private Sector) has had at least one rub with a Program Manager and a COTR. I think "requisitioners" would actually be more confusing for someone in the private sector than saying the "COTR" or "Government Customer".

Fair point regarding question 4.

To you last point, again as I stated in the OP I "There were several other questions related to customer specific/industry experience..." which were much more theoretical. All of these interviews were an hour to an hour and a half - these were just a few points that stood out to me.

- FF

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Here_2_Help

Good point and it's exactly what the owners wanted to avoid (nice guys who are just nice guys). They had plenty of people they liked, just wanted someone else's opinion on their working knowledge.

In a mid-size company, the wrong hire can either triple their need for outside counsel or cost them everything.

- FF

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The one thing I picked up from listening to industry at places like NCMA and associations is contract leads/managers often have a different perspective and motivations than their federal counterparts. The commercial side wants to understand risks, assess their competition, figure out how to staff and assign resources to make a profit, and avoid actions that hurts customer relationships. The federal side either doesn't care or makes these lower priorities. So at many companies, understanding business needs and implications of certain business actions are as important as contractual considerations.

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FAR Fetched,

Factors that will influence the type/quality of candidates (and eventual hire) includes geographic location and compensation. Is your friend willing to pay a fair price for somebody who has both strong technical skills and strong executive "soft skills"? If your friend finds the right candidate, is s/he willing to pay for relocation?

If the job opening has a compensation range of $50,000 - $80,000, then you'll likely get a different candidate group than you would with a compensation range of $125,000 - $175,000. If the HQ is in North Dakota, then you'll likely get a different candidate group than you would if the HQ was in Fairfax, VA.

Just some random thoughts, FWIW.

H2H

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