Jeff Bezos pushes government to buy commercial for ‘auto-magic’ benefits

Jeff Bezos, Amazon chief executive officer, speaks with retired Gen. Larry Spencer, Air Force Association president, during AFA's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 19, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr.)

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos thinks the government should buy commercial technology for the same reason you wouldn’t see a doctor for whom you’re the only patient.

“The last thing you want is a personal physician who only services you. … You want a doctor who’s seeing hundreds of sick people so that when you have a problem, that doctor has a bunch of data points. … You don’t want a private doctor,” Bezos said Wednesday at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “You want a bunch of co-patients, because those patients are teaching that doctor every day. And that’s what happens if you can use a commercial system.”

When agencies buy commercial capabilities, Bezos said, they “keep improving kind of ‘auto-magically’ without any effort.”

“And part of what’s going on there is in a system like that, you want co-customers, because the co-customers drive the product forward,” he said. “If you’re the only customer of a software system, you’re the only one driving it forward. If thousands of customers share that system, then the other 999 that are not you are also driving it forward, and you get that as a tailwind.”

Bezos said that Amazon Web Services is seeing a growth in that direction with government customers, like the CIA and the Department of Defense. But custom-requirements acquisitions are still quite prevalent.

“What I find is that when the requirements get written, they’re not written necessarily taking that into account in all cases. And so you end up getting a custom-built system, which meets the requirements when a commercial system would have met…in a much better way for the capability that’s being required, and that’s a big problem,” he said. “It’s very costly, it slows you down. You want to reserve your custom requirements for things where you really need special sauce, something where there isn’t and really shouldn’t be a commercial avenue.”

While it’s obvious that Bezos’ company would stand to benefit from a more commercial-driven procurement approach in government, he’s far from the only one to think that way. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan also advocated Wednesday for buying commercial, calling custom technology “a trap.”

“I’d urge this audience the embrace enterprise solutions and speed,” Shanahan said. “Many of the back-office HR and materiel management systems that industry has deployed over the past decade are ripe for our adoption. It’s what I call R&D: ripoff and deploy. … Our teammates deserve a modern environment, the department deserves standardization, and the taxpayers deserve the corresponding dividend.”

Noticeably absent from Bezos’ on-stage interview before a large crowd of current and former DOD officials and military service members was any comment on the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) commercial cloud contract. Bezos’ AWS is considered by many in the defense base to be the leading candidate for the contract, based on its experience handling some of the most sensitive data in the intelligence community’s AWS cloud.

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Amazon, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Cloud, commercial, Department of Defense (DOD), JEDI, Jeff Bezos, Patrick Shanahan
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