Hot on the heels of my last post, I’ve run across a great description of the problems facing tech companies when interacting with the government. Too often they are ready to resort to the courts rather than facing the regular rulemaking processes. An article in Defense News offers an example.
In it, Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, the private aerospace company, is looking to secure contracts for national security launches. Obviously, to do so, such rockets must be certified by the appropriate government agency before taxpayer money is spent on them. We don’t want to watch one of SpaceX’s rockets — and its expensive payload — falling into an ocean on the taxpayers’ dime. In this instance, it falls to the Air Force to certify the rockets.
Musk isn’t happy about how long it’s taking for the Air Force to certify his rockets. He even seems to believe there’s a conspiracy against him and his company. I think the real issue is a clash of cultures — one I have noted in so many posts before regarding Lyft, Uber, SideCar and other app-based transit options.
Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the head of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) puts it nicely:
Mr. Musk is a very successful entrepreneur. I think what you’re seeing reflected in his comments is his approach to life. I don’t take it personally for the Air Force because I think that’s in [his] nature — he’s been very successful in a number of areas in taking on the culture.
I understand why the process that we use is frustrating to him, but I can also tell you I’m not going to be the first SMC commander to lose a satellite on a launch. I’ve got to balance the appreciation for how he’s been very successful at changing cultures while making sure I’m not sacrificing our high mission assurance that is our expectation as part of that culture change.
And what’s really silly is that Elon knew what he was getting into. He signed the 200-page contract.
Musk is likely experiencing issues that do need to be fixed in defense procurement and other areas. There are probably enough of them that few programs are untouched. If there are actually problems preventing the certification coming from the Air Force’s side, they need to be fixed. If not, he has to realize this is just how things work. And filing suit probably won’t help. (Sunil Paul of SideCar also filed suit, if you remember.) Also, don’t piss off what could be your biggest customer.
Too often, the leaders of tech companies want to resort to the judicial system before even attempting to engage with the legislative branch or agencies charged with rulemaking authority. They go about making their point — and trying to get what they want — completely backward.