“You will get so much more than you think you will”: Iris Cooper

Every NCMA member has a story to tell, and Contract Management is capturing, cataloging, and sharing these stories—here in “Faces of NCMA”—to show how our members are making a positive impact in the contract management community. This month, we highlight Iris Cooper.


Contract Management How long have you been a member of NCMA? 

Iris Cooper I’ve been a member of NCMA since I started in contracting in 1989, as a Copper Cap Intern with the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

CM What led you to join?

IC I think the Air Force does a great job of training, hands down, but they highly encouraged us—especially the interns—to join a professional organization like NCMA. Some of my senior colleagues who were mentoring me were members, and so it just came naturally to me. It was something you did if you were starting in contracting.

CM What was it about NCMA that made you want to become involved?

IC It wasn’t any one episode; it was the whole journey! In the late ‘90s I was involved in acquisition reform as a deputy program manager of the DOD desk book effort, where we separated the mandatory from the discretionary and really tried to simplify how we did acquisition. A lot of that we did through NCMA, as a forum to talk about this. I think the energy around us, and the passion people had for making that happen, really compelled me to continue with NCMA and to get more engaged with it. It was such a great vehicle to get the news out, to get feedback, to get people involved. It just really made it fun.

CM Tell us a story that illustrates what you’ve gained professionally and personally from being a member.

IC You know, you join because it is a professional organization. You don’t join expecting to make friends, because you already have your colleagues, and you already get to meet people across government and industry. I thought, “Yeah, this is your little stoic organization, you go to the meetings and you learn a few things.”

Instead, I found this camaraderie across the whole spectrum. It’s absolutely great, the sheer diversity of people you gain access to—who were just so much smarter than I was, trust me—they are incredibly smart and dedicated to our career field. That makes it fun. I know I have a whole reservoir of people I can reach out to if I have a question. You run into things you’ve never seen before, and it’s okay to reach out and say, “Hey, I have no idea what to do about this, does somebody have a good idea?”

What I see, now that I’m more at the senior leadership level, is that we are so committed to growing these younger members and investing in them. All of us are more than willing to donate time. I still mentor people in Washington, DC, even though I’m in North Carolina now, because I think it is so important that we do this.

CM You’ve served as a subject matter expert for NCMA. Tell us about why you decided to take on this role. What’s a key lesson you’ve learned from it?

IC I taught a couple of one-day seminars on acquisition reform and performance-based contracting. I get energy from people, so the interaction with the audience, being able to share lessons learned and things to do that I learned in my career, that was so rewarding.

CM What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve discovered as an NCMA member?

IC I think this goes back to my earlier answer: discovering that these people have become much more than my colleagues; they’re my friends. You go the World Congress—I think I’ve been to every single one, ever—and you’re so happy to see people again that you haven’t seen in a while. You attend the breakout sessions, and you learn so much. I think that connection is real, and it’s enduring. Just the ability to reconnect, to learn from them—I just did not expect that when I joined.

It’s just so rewarding. I always look forward to World Congress, even this year when we did it virtually. After thirty-some-odd years in contracting I still learn a lot every day, and the ability to share that information and for all of us to learn from each other, and to have this camaraderie, is really incredible.

CM What is your hope for the future of your membership in NCMA?

IC Well, I will continue to be a member, whether I eventually retire or not; apparently I can’t quite retire, because I keep doing this! I want to continue to contribute and to help some of our younger members to learn what a rewarding career this is, and how instrumental NCMA can be on this career path.

Often we put people in this position, hand them contracts, send them to training, and think, “Just go.” But I think it’s really important that those of us in leadership positions continue to grow, mentor, and create that same environment that made us passionate about it. Because at some point, I think all of us had great bosses who made it interesting, and I think we need to continue to foster that environment. That’s why membership is so important to me.

I’m really excited to serve on the board of directors, especially as a state-level representative, after leaving my federal career. Because there’s a whole pool of contracting professionals that really haven’t had the exposure to NCMA, and I think there’s so much opportunity. We have so much more work to do.

CM What one thing would you tell a contracting professional who is on the fence about joining NCMA?

IC I would say, join and get involved. You’re getting out of it what you put into it. So even if you just join with the idea that, “Okay, I’ll take a couple classes, or I’ll go to a couple meetings,” you will get so much more than you think you will. That’s exactly what happened to me.

At my organization here in North Carolina, where we just started on the journey of actually accrediting people and training them, they did their first pilot program based on the NCMA Contract Management Body of Knowledge®  (CMBOK®). And I now have people at the state level joining NCMA, because I have a CPCM certification, and they have decided they want one. So I’ll form my own little study group here.

          Just the opportunity for continued growth, and the access to the wisdom—the things we have learned, the mistakes we have made (and I’ve made my fair share)—the ability to tap into this is so critical.

So I would say, come for a couple of meetings, and you’ll stay for a lifetime.

Iris B. Cooper

  • Assistant Secretary for Procurement, Contracts and Grants, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Raleigh, NC.
  • CPCM, NCMA Fellow.
  • Board of Directors, NCMA.