What’s the next part of your process after settling on the requirements?

Wood: The vendor is selected, and they proceed to come up with a “first-article” type of equipment. You always produce 5-6, 15-200, or however many I/Os make sense, for testing. Invariably there are problems, depending on the expertise that the company puts on it, their understanding of the specification, their background in producing similar equipment, and, of course, how well guys like myself have put together a specification. Did we say it right? Did they understand what was written? We get into a big semantics battle sometimes.

Once they produce these, we have to perform test & evaluation (T&E) activities. You make sure that you referee the [product] for the vendor. They know their job, but are they testing it in the manner that you thought it was supposed to be used? Even though they are hardcore test and evaluation engineers, they don’t necessarily have the insight that the program management does, as far as what the fleet needs and what’s practical. That’s where we get to adjudicate that type of situation. There’s a lot of subjective judgment. Every aircraft design that ever existed is a compromise of different requirements. It has to be faster, it has to be stronger, it has to lift more, but there are tradeoffs. If you go fast, that means you’re burning a lot of fuel.

What’s next after the testing process?

Wood: We finally get it to the point where this is a product, and we can get it out and into the fleet. Once the company goes forward with full-rate production, then we try to get it deployed. There are all sorts of ways to go about getting it out there. You can just put it on the shelf; when the old one breaks, they get the new product. Or you can do a forced retrofit: You set up these kits, you drop ship into the squadrons, and say “Here are the instructions on how to install the thing. Make it happen.” Sometimes there are problems with that because the people who write the instructions don’t necessarily write them so that you get the product that you expect. Then I get called in again: “Well, wait a minute. We didn’t quite do that right, or you should have set it this way, or that wire goes over here and not there.”

Out of all those phases, which one, do you think, is the most challenging?

Wood: The most challenging part is getting the commercial vendors to understand what’s needed: What does the end-product need to do? There’s some hand-holding that goes on there.

Of course, as a consultant, that comes to me again, to try to work with the company engineers to teach them as they go along. And, of course, people have a lot of ownership [issues]. They don’t like to give up on that. You’ve got to put a little diplomacy in there sometimes. Sometimes company management gets into it because they see the bottom-dollar figures are changing, or they dig in their heels and say “You’re getting requirements creep in here.” You’re refereeing between the customer, that is, the Navy and Marine Corps or the military, and the vendor, who’s trying to produce a product and make the best they can out of it. Of course, they have to earn a profit too. I come across lots of government administrators who don’t understand that principle, that the vendor needs to make a profit if they expect to stay in business.