Montgomery Business Journal

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MBJ, Rich Aldridge

Program Executive Officer Hears Comments From Experts

October 2016
By David Zaslawsky  
Photography by Robert Fouts

In a PowerPoint presentation, Program Executive Officer Rich Aldridge said that delivering information technology “is a brutal business” and “is a full-contact sport.”

Really.

That’s because he does not work in a vacuum. He has that “functional partner sitting right next to me, helping me as we deploy the software …” Someone looking over his shoulder, and don’t forget, a lot of people think they are technology experts. Just about everyone with an iPhone thinks that, said Aldridge, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Business and Enterprise Systems, which is based at Gunter Annex.

With so many experts, Aldridge said he has a plethora of advisers. “Everybody that normally has a say in a program would have one input and then go away – none of these people go away. They are walking with you all along this journey offering advice. That’s why I say it’s a full-contact sport, because you better have a thick skin because everybody with technology … (they’re) going to tell you on a daily basis how you should be doing your job better and differently because they are as smart as you are in what you’re doing. They aren’t bad people. It’s just is what it is.”

Aldridge, along with about 2,300 employees scattered at four locations across the country, including 1,300 people at Gunter, is responsible for 162 programs and 400 apps/systems in those programs for the Air Force. Those sites are Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio; Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio; and Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.

The organization’s tagline is: “We run the systems that run the Air Force.” Those systems are manpower, money and materiel, he said.

“I am responsible for cost, schedule (timetable) and performance of those programs,” said Aldridge, who earlier worked at Gunter with the 554th Electronic Systems Group, the forerunner of the Program Executive Office for Business and Enterprise Systems.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say the Air Force sends requirements for a new accounting program. He would figure out the timetable and cost, and the Air Force would give the organization money for a contract.

The organization typically awards around $1 billion worth of contracts a year and those contracts range from a couple hundred thousand to a multiyear $600 million project. A customer will give the organization a set of requirements and the Program Executive Office will send out a request for information to private industry. “We get a feeling from industry if this (program) is something capable technology-wise,” Aldridge said. After receiving responses, the Program Executive Office builds “an acquisition strategy” to determine if a small business could deliver the program, or because it’s so complex and so large, if they need to go to larger companies, or does the program need to be broken into three or four pieces.

When the organization is ready to accept bids, it sends out a request for proposal. Aldridge said there are no secrets how the Program Executive Office scores those bids, that include cost, schedule, right talent, familiarity with the program and adding creativity or innovation to the program.

An evaluation team reviews and ranks the bids. Those teams could range from a few people to 50 depending on the size and complexity of the program. The larger programs will have evaluation teams of 20 to 40 people.

The evaluation ranks the bids and sends its recommendation to Aldridge, who almost always follows the recommendation.

Unlike his predecessors, Aldridge brings an extensive technology background to the post he took over in March. He said that background is one of the primary reasons he is now one of 10 Program Executive Officers. As a systems engineer, he understands the programs and understands vendors “selling you the bright, shiny piece of software” and that was not always the case. He didn’t need two or three years of on-the-job training.

“I’m walking in the door understanding the complexity of IT,” Aldridge said. “I’m not your traditional PEO. I’m not a career program manager.”

With technology, “you touch everybody – every business space of the Air Force, whether it’s civil engineering, maintenance, logistics personnel, finance, legal community. I have to interact with every tribe in the Air Force because all their systems talk to each other.”

He has three priorities that mirror those of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. Those priorities are taking care of people; balancing sustaining programs with modernization; and “making every dollar count.”

There has been a “huge strain” on the Air Force – basically doing more with less. “We’re the smallest Air Force we’ve ever been, yet we’re doing more missions than we’ve ever done,” he said.

Taking care of people means recruiting the right people; retaining the right people; and placing the right people in the right job. It also means developing people, and that has been difficult, because in the low-cost environment, training usually gets cut first, Aldridge said.

“We’re finding that’s hurting our people because they are not staying current with their skill sets like industry partners are and especially in the IT world, which is constantly changing,” he said.

He is also performing a delicate balancing act of maintaining legacy programs that are 30 to 40 years old with new programs and new technology to send data faster and more securely. Some programs are actually run on 1960 software technologies. “We can’t just throw away what we have and buy new because we can’t afford that bill,” Aldridge said.

The Department of Defense and Air Force are looking at modernizing weapons systems, which has not been a focus.

Making every dollar count is a necessity in these days of budget constraints and always on the minds of Program Executive Officers. The Air Force saved $67 million when the organization’s IT Business Analytics Office discovered thousands of laptops and desktops it had instead of purchasing 83,000 unnecessary computers.

“Program managers are charged with looking at their purchases and identify ways to decrease costs,” Aldridge said and that includes bulk buying.

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