Keeping an eye on U.S. defence spending
As Assistant Secretary of Defense (Acquisition), Katrina contracts and awards business to industry to build defence systems.
It was a hunt for short-term employment after a research grant fell through that led Katrina McFarland, Sc’85, to her first civil service job as an engineer with Headquarters Marine Corps in 1986. Her steady climb thereafter through the ranks of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has led to her most recent and most exciting role yet: Assistant Secretary of Defense (Acquisition).
“I have a strong belief in the importance of national security,” Katrina explains. “This, combined with the interesting aspects of my first DoD job, including being one of very few engineers there, meant I was engaged from the start and grew to find the area of procurement – how we contract and award business to industry to build defence systems – a natural fit.”
In 2006, she began work at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The innovative strategies she introduced during her tenure as Director for Acquisition meant that more than $37 billion of procurement activity was opened up for competition, something, she notes, that doesn’t just lead to better engineering, but also gives smaller businesses a chance to compete for contracts.
At the same time as she was working full-time for the MDA, she had been recruited onto a special business-practice team that was charged with examining ways the DoD could improve business during a period of economic decline. In 2010 her work on this special team led to her taking on the role of President of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), an institution located across five geographical regions of the U.S. that provides specialized training for about 157,000 people from 15 major functional areas of the Defence Acquisition Workforce.
Eleven short months later she was asked to consider the position of Assistant Secretary of Defense (Acquisition). She accepted the job and within five months passed through Senate Confirmation. “It’s an honour,” she says, “and since it’s what I’ve been doing all my life on a grander scale, I felt I could serve.”
Katrina’s business savvy, teamed with her knowledge of engineering and programmatic rigour, makes her perfect for a role in which she’s responsible for examining the costs, risks, and benefits of major defence-acquisition programs and determining whether Congress, the Senate, and the Department as a whole should continue its investment or restructure the program.
“Engineering is a discipline; there’s a disciplined approach to producing data, and data speaks for itself,” she explains. “You can’t just rely on someone saying ‘yes, it’s working fine’; you actually have to assess the data, and that’s where my engineering training is extraordinarily helpful. I know where to glean information from and how to poke at issues related to the engineering design to make sure things are working along the right lines.”
This ability to “play” is one of the things Katrina says she enjoys the most – at heart she’s an engineer, and sees the new opportunities she is experiencing, such as working on submarines, as interesting.
In addition to adjusting to her new role as Assistant Secretary, she continues to have oversight over the DAU, and is following up on educational tools and techniques that she learned and enjoyed during her time as an undergrad. “I have a special place in my heart for Queen’s. I had a good experience and I really enjoyed my time there,” she says. “Something that really helped me personally, especially as a woman in engineering, was that there was a lot of practical application. I got to weld, to build things, to go out and experiment. The combination of theoretical learning and practical application was consistent, deliberate, and thorough. As an educational tool, I couldn’t endorse that more.”