When Nick Nayak took over the Department of Homeland Security’s procurement operations in 2010, the agency was dealing with the failure of a large border-security contract with Boeing, blamed on poor communication with industry.

Nayak, a former Internal Revenue Service employee, was picked by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to improve the agency’s acquisition process.

Under his leadership, the department became one of the most efficient government agencies at procurement, picking up several awards along the way. His mission accomplished, Nayak announced that he would step down this month.

Nayak talked to Capital Business about his time at the department and offered lessons for others in the business of buying for the government:

What was the secret of your success?

Nick Nayak, former chief procurement officer at the Department of Homeland Security. (Department of Homeland Security)

You have to have a plan, a road map for success. And you have to have measures of that success. I created a strategic plan, which very specifically said: Here are my priorities and the initiatives we’re going to do and the performance metrics we’re going to measure. Then we’re going to put out annual reports and put it out for any taxpayer to see.

What were some of those priorities?

[At DHS], we have to buy things to protect the country at the least cost to the taxpayer, while fulfilling public policy. That’s what federal procurement is.

So, you have to have quality people to do quality contracting. Procurement is not something you can automate. You also have to engage with industry in order to get the best solutions, because things are changing all the time.

What challenges does the procurement sector face?

Getting the best people, training them to be even better and retaining them.

The reason it’s a challenge is because [many] in the workforce are close to retirement. Also, 1 out of 4 contracting folks who have five years of experience or less are jumping to the private sector. You can’t blame them, because procurement is not easy work. It’s serious, and there is a high level of responsibility.

So how do you get people to stay?

It’s a constant leadership challenge. You have to treat people extremely well, and you have to step out in front of all the missiles that [come their way]. You have to tell them: “If you do all these things right, you can retire on time.”

But the new crop coming in is fantastic. They’re this younger group and they’re a lot smarter.

How does the tenure of a procurement officer affect the quality of contracts?

I was the longest sitting procurement officer at DHS. [Nayak worked at the agency for three years and nine months]. But I don’t think [the length of tenure] affects procurement.

If you create something that’s sustainable, then if there’s transition, the transition should just evolve it. If you were sloppy, it’s going to be difficult for the next person.

So transition in and of itself isn’t bad. The infrastructure [should be] there, and then the new leader can come in and tweak things.

Why did you decide to leave now?

It was the best time to leave, because I institutionalized a work flow [at DHS]. I wanted to put in place a strategic plan that will last over time, that gave them a sense of direction, a sense of pride. And, we got past the big procurements [the department’s EAGLE II contract].

Also, my mother had a heart attack recently, so that escalated [my decision].

What’s next?

I am seriously considering opening up my own consulting company. I’m not ruling out a comeback to government, but right now I’m just kind of weighing options.

What is your biggest takeaway from your time in the procurement space?

Procurement is absolutely critical to protecting the country. Every time you see [an example of] DHS protecting the country, you will also see something that was bought by one of the 1,400 contracting [staff] at the agency.

The biggest difference about working at DHS versus anywhere else is that it’s really a 24/7 kind of job, because protecting the country never stops.

It’s rough, but you really do find it a privilege.