Watch the interview.


Last summer, Navy Capt. Tim James became the commanding officer of Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) and Naval Support Activity Orlando after serving two years as executive officer. He recently sat down with Team Orlando News to discuss his thoughts on current events, including NAWCTSD’s recent 30-year anniversary and what the organization might look like 30 years from now.


“I think 30 years from now we’re going to have agile training systems that can adapt on the fly,” James said. “We’re going to lose the comfort of having large budgets that we can just keep buying these exquisite ‘one-off’ systems and putting them out there and letting them run for 20 years.”


He added that they’ll start interjecting today’s cutting-edge technologies, whether it be artificial intelligence (AI), data science, or other kinds of movements.


“It’s just going to be resident in all of our systems, so that will help us offload some of the human touch time in both training and maintaining our systems, as well as keeping our warfighters at the edge of their abilities so we can always stress them individually, not as a group, not as a set scenario, but tailored to each individual,” James said. “[That way,] we can progress the superstars faster and help along those that are struggling in very targeted ways.”


He noted the top challenge for NAWCTSD is the same as any large organization: change. Whether it’s training warfighters or fighting wars, everything in their business is changing and the speed of that change is increasing.


“We really need to improve our iteration speed,” James said. “We need to be able to adapt systems on the fly while they’re deployed to capture the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures. We need to get to a more connected, software-defined set of training systems that we can rapidly push changes to. That’s going to stress the acquisition system and the technology involved in the systems we’re deploying.”


According to James, there’s room to improve in NAWCTSD’s collaboration with industry to produce better results.


“Having said that, we’re one of the best organizations I’ve seen in acquisition, but it’s still not good enough to sit at status quo,” he said. “Our leadership is telling us status quo is a losing proposition across the board.”


James emphasized their need to increase their communication and transparency with the industry and be consistent in doing what they say they do when representing the government’s side.


“For instance, if we don’t know the final requirements, then maybe we need to come up with a cost type contract and figure it out together,” he said. “If we do, we need to be very specific and stable on those requirements and put it out and let industry execute.”


James clarified that government agencies can’t “straddle the railroad” when they don’t know the requirements and continue playing “Bring me a rock” under fixed-price contracts.


“On the industry side, we need speed,” he said. “We need people to hit the deadlines they’re signing up for and we need them to return proposals on time. We need them to let us know what it is we’re doing on purpose or accident that makes it harder to work with the government. So, if we’re writing requirements in a weird way and that’s driving bad responses from industry, we need to know it or we’ll keep doing it – but we really need speed.”


While he sees room for improvement for his organization, James is also aware of the “good stuff” happening daily at NAWCTSD and recognizes its best practices, from which, other commands could take inspiration.


“An activity that I don’t see in a lot of other commands that others could benefit from is our willingness to celebrate behaviors and not just outcomes,” he explained. “If you’re going to stress to everybody – industry, government, civilians, the warfighter – that innovation and trying things differently is really what you want to do, then you need to celebrate them trying that, not just accomplishing that.”


James underscored that training is about being comfortable with failure, learning from it, moving on, and not having a knee-jerk reaction of giving up after a first attempt.


“You don’t punish your one-year-old because they fall down when they start walking, right?” he said. “You celebrate them trying and you positively reinforce that.”


Pointing out that people need 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert in a certain task, James said that performing a task perfectly on the first try was not a reasonable expectation. He noted that NAWCTSD promotes the philosophy that celebrates behaviors demonstrating a commitment to learning and improving. This is maintained in a variety of ways, to include the “This is the Way” award, a phrase made popular on the Star Wars streaming show “The Mandalorian.”


“We don’t even wait for the outcome,” James described the award. “If we hear about it early enough, we celebrate the attempt. As long as it’s a core behavior we want to be replicated, that’s really what we’re trying to ingrain in the workforce.”


Because his organization has such a wide portfolio, it’s not one specific product that excites James. He’s enthusiastic about bringing the fleet the technologies that NAWCTSD is trying in multiple products, especially AI.


“[In] one of the trainers we’re working on right now, we’re trying to embed AI on so it can auto-grade certain maneuvers, meaning that students can either go practice on their own and get legit feedback, or the instructor doesn’t have to spend time giving feedback in that area because it’s going to be auto-graded,” James said. “[This is] not just in the training device itself, but in our actual business of acquisition.”


He also announced that NAWCTSD is about to release an Other Transaction Authority to see if industry can start engraining AI in how they either create proposals, or how NAWCTSD grades them. James explained if they could take that proposal creation time frame, which is 30 days to months, down to days or weeks, and do the same with grading (decrease it from weeks to days or hours), then the additional time, money and effort will benefit the warfighter in the products.


“I’m excited about our ability to take out some of the human touch time for the areas that we don’t need to spend it and then free up our resources for those creative or mind-expanding options elsewhere,” he said.


James is an avid reader, a lifelong learner, and he has continued his education at each assignment.


“Everywhere I’ve been, I take a class on the side, whether it’s from Monterey or right now, a Johns Hopkins course in data science,” James said.


Much of his reading is for school, but he is always pursuing two reading projects. One is usually business or leadership-focused, such as Disney CEO Bob Iger’s “The Ride of a Lifetime.” James also listens to audiobooks while driving.


“I don’t like the same radio station over and over,” he said when describing the audiobooks, he listens to, which are normally tied loosely to the industry or science fiction. “Something like ‘Ender’s Game’ or ‘Ready Player One’ – those kinds of books. Right now, it’s [a book] about colonizing Mars and how we would do that.”


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