FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
Every minute counts when there’s a glitch in one of the dozens of systems Defense Logistics Agency acquisition specialists use to make almost 10,000 buys daily. As the seconds tick during a major outage or minor issue, business process analysts throughout DLA’s supply chains scramble for a solution that keeps systems humming.
“Our BPAs are behind the scenes but they have a no-fail job. When an issue pops up, they swarm around it to come up with a fix, working with users and information technology specialists to test solutions,” said Air Force Col. Daniel Stupinski, DLA Acquisition’s deputy director of systems and procedures.
As everyday users, acquisition specialists are usually the first to know when there’s a system problem and rely on BPAs at help desks representing various supply chains and processes to provide technical assistance. BPAs respond to users’ requests for help within minutes to let them know they’re researching the issue. Sometimes it’s simple user error.
“When we discover the problem is isolated to just one user, we assist them by walking them through the system process to resolve their issue,” said Christina Witham, DLA Land and Maritime BPA.
If a genuine problem appears, BPAs send a mass email that does two things: alerts programmers and IT specialists at DLA Information Operations their assistance may be needed and asks counterparts at other help desks whether the issue is widespread.
“Maybe all of a sudden my folks are experiencing something new. I’ll reach out to the BPA community to see if users at other supply chains are noticing the same thing. Even though we work in different areas and have different processes, we’re all still working in the same systems,” said Rosanne Sarkissian, a BPA at DLA Troop Support.
BPAs collect screenshots and detailed descriptions of the problem from users as they search for root causes that could include recent system upgrades or basic system failures. Their goal is to solve the problem among themselves without creating an IT ticket and they typically spend about an hour researching before declaring a dead-end. The information they gather is included with IT tickets, as well as anything they think might help solve the issue, numbers of any affected purchase orders and names of acquisition specialists who are available to share screens with IT specialists.
“Our BPAs are very good at pulling IT specialists in the right direction even if they can’t pinpoint exactly where the issue is coming from. Most of them know the inner workings of our systems because they used to work as pre-award buyers or post-award administrators,” said Kelly Penwell, a BPA at DLA Headquarters who specializes in system change requests mostly resulting from policy changes.
Because BPAs are functional experts who know what transactions need to occur in DLA’s business systems, IT specialists rely on them to test the solutions they create through system coding before they’re implemented. That includes testing to ensure the solution doesn’t cause subsequent issues and typically involves intense back-and-forth communications with BPAs and system users who are all well aware of the ticking clock and deadlines, Penwell added.
Tickets can range from one to five a week on average, and while many are resolved in hours, some take days or months. A recent problem in EProcurement that gave users a “not responding” notice took several months to fix, for example, but programmers developed a temporary workaround that allowed buyers to continue working.
“Sometimes the initial solution isn’t 100% perfection, but it’s enough to get the train running again,” Stupinski said. “Most people don’t realize all the things that have to happen behind the scenes to keep our acquisition team operating, but in the year I’ve been here, it’s been impressive to watch.”
Big issues can take dozens of people to solve, Penwell estimated. And BPAs do more than help fix problems. Policy and regulation decisions made by Defense Department officials and Congress often result in process changes.
“At that point our systems may not be compliant anymore, so we have to look at the functional specifications and relay to programmers what internal logic changes need to take place,” Penwell said, adding that logic can be especially complex for automated processes, which accounts for about 90% of DLA’s acquisitions.
“There’s a lot of excitement that happens when something involves one of our automated systems because a few years ago we estimated it would take between 600 to 700 additional buyers just to manually process all of our fully automated one-time buy awards,” she continued.
Giorgi Bickel, another DLA Headquarters BPA, specializes in functional integration in the Enterprise Business System and new development. She’s currently assisting in business process reengineering that’s necessary as DLA migrates to a new Enterprise Resource Planning system and also conducting user tests for receive and stow functions that are part of the new Warehouse Management System.
“Even though I’m a procurement-focused BPA, there are cross-process touch points with procurement, purchase orders and goods receipts, so I’m making sure the WMS communicates appropriately back to EBS so that all of our systems stay in sync,” she said.
Bickel, who joined DLA in 1996 as an intern, worked previously as a buyer for aerospace items. She describes the agency’s BPA community as close knit.
“We lean on each other heavily. It’s a family. I’ve known some of these people probably longer than I’ve known friends outside work. They’re all really hard-working people who are striving to do their best,” she said.
Penwell is also a former BPA and arrived at DLA Headquarters from DLA Land and Maritime’s automated team in August. She still interacts with BPAs like Sarkissian and Witham during regular weekly meetings where they discuss issues like system modernization, system downtimes and system change requests that are pending.
“The thing many of us like about this job is the challenge,” she said. “It takes a lot of people to analyze the issues that come up, and being flexible is one our strengths.”
Witham agreed that variety and her desire to keep learning new things keeps her committed to her job.
“It’s also nice to know you’re helping people and to hear them say, ‘Oh thank you, now I can move forward with my award,’” she said. “I feel appreciated.”
Warfighter support – the agency’s No. 1 strategic goal – guides the team as well, Bickel added, because keeping DLA’s systems running so end users can work at their maximum potential is a key part of getting supplies to those who need them.