This is not to say that I have always, and every day, loved my work. Acquisition program management in the Department of Defense can prove extremely frustrating when you deal with bureaucracy; you may even have a project in which you have investigated a great deal of time, effort, and care thrown on the trash heap in an instant. Sometimes that is just the way things happen, or so it would seem, and the aftermath leaves you quite discouraged, angry, even ready to quit. But, more often than not, I have also been blessed to see the things that I poured my heart and soul into turn out to be successful. A major acquisition strategy briefing was approved and even praised, an entire fleet of aircraft was delivered to an operational command – a group of pilots and maintainers – and is flying missions today, to everything in between has been the result of work that I have done. I should hasten to add that I never did anything entirely on my own but, as I enjoy the most, always with a team of similarly motivated professionals.
As an Air Force Officer, my most enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding times came through the leadership of teams, or entire organizations, on a successful project or program. I especially enjoyed the challenge of taking a program that was in trouble (over budget, behind schedule, and/or not meeting its technical performance requirements) and turning it around. When I took over programs that were seemingly hopeless, and made them successful, I felt as though I was doing not only meaningful work but also doing what I was “born to do”. I thrive on challenges and even chaos, meeting those challenges, and turning chaos into the orderly execution of an acquisition program. I’ll give you an example of one mental and physical challenge that I will never forget.
Back in 2001, when I was assigned to the Joint Strike Fighter (now the F-35) program and we were in source selection to select the winning contractor of the competition to enter the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase of the program, I was working especially late one evening with one other guy still in the office. Around 9:30 in the evening, the Marine Corps two-star general who was the Program Director at the time came into the office and told me that he wanted me to brief the senior acquisition leadership of both the Air Force and Navy the following morning at 8:00. He wanted a detailed briefing on my (and my team’s) work on avionics open systems architecture – what we had learned, and what we thought about the contractor’s demonstrated abilities in that area. He told me that I could brief whatever I wanted and what I thought was right. As he left, he said that I needed to be in his office the next morning at 6:00 to go over my briefing. The two of us left in the office looked at each other and said simultaneously, “It Looks like we’re working!” We finished the briefing and left the office at 2:30 in the morning, then drove the 43 miles back to the commuter lot where I had left my car at 5:00 the previous morning. I drove to my house, took an hour nap, shaved, and put on a fresh uniform, and met my ride in the same commuter lot at 4:30. We were in the general’s office by 6:00, and I began my briefing promptly at 8:00. The senior leadership proved extremely interested in what I had to say; they asked many questions and my briefing lasted 90 minutes. It was among the best briefings that I ever gave and when it was over, I felt elated! Then the fatigue set in and the rest of the day felt almost endless until I could get back home and get some sleep. But I was motivated! I felt extremely good about what I was doing and had done. These are the kinds of challenges I lived for.
Now retired from the military and working as a defense support contractor/consultant, I don’t get nearly the thrills that I used to get as a leader in the military. My role now is generally advisory; I generate reports, I work with some pretty massive spreadsheets dealing with budgetary issues, and I provide advice to senior leaders. But so long as my work and my advice are appreciated and put to good use, I find great satisfaction in what I do. I am in a spot where I am paid sufficiently well that the issue of money is off the table and all that is left are the intrinsic motivators. As always, I do what I do first and foremost to provide for my family. But beyond that, I do what I do because I believe in the objectives of our program and I believe that my work adds value. If it were otherwise, I would be looking for other work.
I am also at the stage now where I have a strong desire to give back to the profession, so I mentor junior government civilian and military members who work with me. I enjoy teaching them about program management, and I enjoy seeing them succeed in part because of the help that I was able to give them. For me, it has always been about achieving the mission or objectives in a team setting. Seeing a new aircraft parked on the ramp and knowing that I had something to do with putting it there gives me a feeling of deep satisfaction. And the brilliant and motivated people that I have had the privilege of meeting and working with across the years has made my work so much more interesting. I have had opportunities and experiences that many people my age have never had. These things have kept me motivated throughout my career as both an Officer and a civilian.