JEDI and the Death Star

Like many who are interested in government, technology, and procurement, I find myself like a moth to the flame following the Department of Defense’s “JEDI” cloud contract saga. The latest is that a federal judge ordered an injunction, blocking performance by Microsoft on the $10 billion contract.

This contract has been one of the more overtly politicized procurements in recent memory. And depending on whom you ask, you might find a different party to blame for the politicization. Amazon says Trump politicized it. Meanwhile, an analyst quoted in the NY Times suggests that Amazon and Microsoft are to blame.

Regardless of how everything comes out, one of the things that I keep returning to in my mind is an article by Dan Ward, called Don’t Come to the Dark Side: Acquisition Lessons from a Galaxy Far, Far Away:

After watching the climactic battle scene in Return of the Jedi for the first time, my 8-year-old daughter said, “They shouldn’t build those Death Stars anymore. They keep getting blown up.” She may be a little short for a stormtrooper, but the kid’s got a point. Yes, the Empire should stop building Death Stars. It turns out the DoD shouldn’t build them either, metaphorically speaking. What sort of system fits into this category? I’ll resist the urge to give specific examples and instead will simply point out that any enormous project that is brain-meltingly complex, ravenously consumes resources, and aims to deliver an Undefeatable Ultimate Weapon is well on its way to becoming a Death Star, and that’s not a good thing.

His point is that any contract of sufficient size and complexity is vulnerable to the both programmatic and operational challenges.

Now, I don’t know the ins and outs of the JEDI procurement; in fact, I’ve tried to mostly avoid it. And I have no idea whether Amazon or Microsoft will prevail in their case. But I can’t help but wonder whether it is worth having a contract so large that it ends up on the desk of the Darth Vader or the Emperor.