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The Ideal Contract Specialist

Posted by Vern Edwards, 22 December 2008 · 3,703 views

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 mean or unreasonable the boss is.

Independence. The ideal candidate does not have to be handheld through every step in a process. 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.

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 a tough challenge, says: I'll figure something out.

Knowledge.

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, and ( c) how public and private controversies are settled or adjudicated.

How funds are appropriated, managed, obligated, and expended. See the GAO's Principles of Federal Appropriations Law (the "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, clerical support, 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.




Good stuff. I'm going to share this with my students.
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Excellent. Another Vern authored document that I will keep and tape up in my workspace to remind me to be all that I can be. THANKS VERN!!!
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Thanks, Vern! You've inspired me to work hard on becoming an ideal contract specialist.
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