I recently saw the movie Hidden Figures and I thought it had some powerful messages and interesting references to historic space events. Instead of doing an in-depth review of the plot, I will assume you have seen the movie and just point out my observations.
The Space Race
After a few of the characters are introduced the movie opens with the American perspective of the beginning of the space race in the 1960’s. When I first saw the movie I thought it was showing the launch of the Sputnik 1, which was when the Soviet Union beat us in the race of putting the first artificial Earth satellite into orbit. After further review, I noticed they actually called it “Korabl-Sputnik 4” which was the ninth Sputnik mission which occurred in on March 9, 1961. This makes sense because the NASA administrator answered the phone as “Jim Webb,” and he didn’t take that position until February 14, 1961. If you have ever heard of the James Webb Space Telescope which is the replacement to the Hubble Space Telescope, it is the same James Webb.
Sputnik 1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sputnik_1
Sputnik Missions Overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_called_Sputnik
Korabl-Sputnik 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korabl-Sputnik_4
James E. Webb: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_E._Webb
James Webb Space Telescope: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Webb_Space_Telescope
The movie does a great job of capturing the emotion of the space race for the people who were living during that time. They mention the fear of the Soviet Union slapping a nuclear warhead on top of one of their rockets. Now that they could put something into orbit, there really wasn’t anything that could stop them from doing so and attacking the United States. These thoughts and fears helped mold the history of our country and the development of our space program into what it is today.
Know How to Read, and Fight for What is Right
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), one of the three main characters, demonstrates a natural talent in engineering. When she applies for the NASA Engineer Training Program, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) informs her that the rules have changed and the Engineering Training Program now requires advanced extension courses which can only be taken at all-white segregated schools. The first thing she does after she finds out is reads the regulation straight from the source to understand the exact issue preventing her from achieving her goal. This allows her to understand the possible actions she can take to fight for her right to obtain the education and apply for the position.
Understanding how to read and apply Air Force regulations is one of the most valuable skills I have obtained during my prior-enlisted service. When I was trying to retrain from Security Forces to comm, I had an assignment to another base which made me ineligible to even apply. I asked MPS (the personnel or HR department) if I had any options for turning down the assignment, and I was told that it was not possible. After reading through all of the source regulations called Air Force Instructions (AFIs), I learned although it is not possible to turn down an assignment, it is possible to turn down obtaining retainability (my remaining enlistment contract time) for an assignment. Doing so would cancel the assignment but flag my record with a code which would require me to separate at the end of my contract. Since that was my backup plan anyway I accepted those terms and the assignment was cancelled. After I was selected for retraining, that code was removed from my record and I PCS’d and started my career in my new career field.
After consulting the regulations, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) realizes the only way she could become an engineer was to petition the court to allow her to attend the all-white school. She not only knew how she needed to act, she had the courage to take action. There will be times during your career when you know something is right but there is some injustice that is preventing it from happening. For example, you may go TDY and get overpaid, then six months later the Air Force may try to take $4,000 from your paycheck. Your leadership may try to back-date an EPR so the other guy who is TDY doesn’t have to write the report but you do, even though you have only really supervised the troop for two weeks. If this happens, go straight to the regulations and see if have any ground to fight on. If you do, have the courage to take action and make it right.
I want to pause and make a very clear distinction here. My point is not for you to be insubordinate and disrespectful, my point is for you to fight for what is right but only when it is necessary. There will be times when your guys are getting screwed over and there is nothing you can do about it, but there will be other times when you can do something about it. Don’t be the guy who always causes trouble any time you are threatened, be the guy who wisely watches and listens to everything and fights only when it truly matters. Your priority should be taking care of your people or your career, and your foundation should be in the regulations. Ideally, your chain of command will have your back as well. Whatever you do, do it with dignity and respect. Once you start making waves everyone is going to notice you, so you want to be sure you do it right.
Officer Promotion – Seize the Opportunity
Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) recognized that the jobs they were doing would soon become obsolete because of computer, the IBM 7090 DPS. Instead of being beaten down and distraught, she looked for an opportunity for her and her subordinates to stay relevant. She craftily obtained key information she needed from the instruction manual and the FORTRAN book, then strategically studied and armed her subordinates with the knowledge. Also note that she didn’t just barge in and take over the IBM, she waited for the right opportunity to act.
This example captures one of the differences I noticed about being an officer. While I was enlisted there was always ‘that guy’ who always tried to do the things to get ahead, but for the most part everyone just did their jobs and advanced as they were placed. As an officer it seems like everyone is always trying to look for an opportunity to get ahead, and at first I found it really exhausting. After I realized it was happening, I was able to get a better feel for how it truly worked.
First of all, none of this should be a major concern to you. Your attitude should truly be that you just want to be really good at your job and you want to do what’s best for the mission and the unit. If something isn’t working right or something needs to be fixed because it is negatively impacting the unit, THAT is when you should act. How you execute is key:
- First, figure out who’s responsibility this thing is and give them the opportunity to make it right. If they don’t that is on them and it really isn’t your place to do anything about it. If it is something which is serious or dangerous, of course you can go to their supervisor but that is not likely the case.
- If it is no-one else’s responsibility or no-one else wants the task, that is when you can step up and seize the opportunity.
NASA.gov Text Transcript: https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm
Demand the Resources Necessary to Do Your JobI don’t know if it is because I am older now or what, but I have become more demanding with getting what I need to do my job. When Katherine couldn’t do her job because the information was redacted, she used the math to read through the lines and solve the problems anyway. When she is told she cannot attend the briefings to get the latest data, she persistently demands it from Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). When Paul continues to unfairly hold her back, she appeals to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and is eventually allowed to attend the briefings.As commissioned officers we swear to faithfully discharge the duties of the offices we enter, NOT to just obey the orders of the officers appointed over us. Discharging the duties of your office (which can also be said as doing your job) means not only executing the mission, but ensuring you have what you need to execute your mission. When I was enlisted I was expected to execute the mission with whatever resources I was given. As an officer, it is my job to get my guys whatever they need to do their job. I have to fight for my people to have what they need. A good officer will ensure his or her people have an abundance of resources available so the only things holding them back are themselves.Make a Stand Against Unfair Treatment and Childish Games
Throughout the entire movie Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) tries to hold Katherine back. Perhaps he is jealous of her talents, or perhaps he is just trying to find security in his own position. Regardless of the reason, it is petty and unfair. Katherine is respectful and allows him to unfairly impede her success and contribution, but only up to a point. When it started to severely impede the success of the mission, she put her foot down and wouldn’t stand down.
Believe it or not I have seen this many times in my career. The competition between CGOs can be fierce so some people think that the smallest things determine the difference between a #1 stratification vs. no stratification. If you are ever treated like Katherine was in the movie, here are some things to try to remember:
As a new officer we are all extremely focused on what career field we will get, where we will be stationed, what is weapons school, how to promote, what opportunities we are missing out on, the list is literally endless. If you have just graduated, chill out. Allow the euphoria of OTS to linger while you assess your new surroundings of the operational Air Force and get to know the people around you. When you are ready for game time again, put your nose back in the books and get good at your job. Regardless of where you end up, this is all that really matters. Being good at your job will give you the credibility to stand against injustice.
Katherine’s Core Values
In the movie Katherine uses some potentially questionable methods such as using the light to read the redacted info and losing her temper. It is important to realize that there are times when the decisions we make are not black and white. I am by no means saying we should take shortcuts or sacrifice our integrity, but we need to be grounded and establish in advance what is important to us as leaders. I think the two most important things to Katherine were:
- Success of the Mission (Service Before Self)
- Dedication to Doing Her Job Well (Excellence in All We Do)
Leading Your People
My final notes are about the leadership of Katherine’s boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). I could have probably spent this entire post focusing on him alone, but instead here are the two which stood out to me from the end of the movie.
Reward Your People – Katherine worked hard for the mission under Al Harrison’s leadership, and Al knew it. At the end of the movie after Katherine had made the final calculations to essentially save the mission, Al could have plugged in the numbers and proceeded with the mission. Instead, he took time to get Katherine the clearance she needed to join them on the ops floor. By doing this Al both recognized her contribution and knew that her being there to personally experience the mission would be a tremendous reward.
Be Honest – Paul showed his true colors in this movie and it became blatantly obvious that he was trying to impede Katherine’s success at a large cost to effective mission accomplishment. As a leader, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) knew very well what was going on because he watched it happen. Instead of ignoring his behavior or subtly punishing him by not promoting him, he provides short and concise counseling in the moment. At the end of the movie he reminded Paul:
“Do you know what your job is, Paul? Find the genius among those geniuses to pull us all up. We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” -Al Harrison, Hidden Figures (2016)
It may have been easier for Al to not say anything at all. There will be times during our career when our guys mess up and we need to mentor or correct them. Have the courage to say what you need to say. It isn’t always about punishment, sometimes we need to let reality be the teacher. But during these times we as leaders need to have that conversation, sometimes a one-way conversation, letting our subordinate know that 1) they messed up and 2) we know they messed up. And sometimes, those few words can be as powerful as any other method of discipline. Sometimes even more powerful.
Links About Historical Accuracy
- Cnet: https://www.cnet.com/news/hidden-figures-nasa-true-stories-octavia-spencer-janelle-monae-taraji-henson-kevin-costner/
- Popular Mechanics: http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa-women-computers
- Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-story-of-nasas-real-ldquo-hidden-figures-rdquo/
- Katherine Johnson Biography (NASA): https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography
- National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/12/hidden-figures-nasa-computers-women-katherine-johnson-space-science/
- Collectspace.com: http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-010517a-hidden-figures-john-glenn-mystery.html
Choosing a master’s program was one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life. As some of you may have read in my more personal posts, many of the major decisions I have made over the years have been based on a series of opened or closed doors. I would sometimes make a career decision such as to separate from the Air Force, but that door would close and would soon be followed by an opportunity such as retraining or commissioning. In this way it seemed to me that I just followed the path of life which was laid out in front of me. For choosing a master’s program I felt like I was supposed to make a well informed decision for myself. It was sort of like I was being told now that I am an adult and I have 10+ years of wisdom and professional experience, the decision was up to me alone.
The Air Force Answer – If and When
After asking this question of others and of myself hundreds of times, I realized there is an Air Force answer and a personal answer to the question of whether or not to get a master’s degree. The Air Force answer is fairly straight-forward: although getting a master’s degree isn’t mandatory at this time, you should probably “check the block.” A few years ago having a master’s degree was required for promotion to Lt Col. Prior to that it may not have been required in writing, but if you didn’t have a master’s degree you wouldn’t promote to Maj or above. Now I think Air Force leadership has recognized the fault in mandating a master’s degree at any level so they removed the “requirement.” However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to add it again later.
Since having a master’s degree isn’t a hard Air Force requirement right now, when and whether or not you do your degree is largely up to you. Here are some points to think about when considering the ‘if and when’ to the Air Force answer:
- Being Competitive. Don’t give a promotion or assignment board a reason to pick your peer over you. Almost every other Lieutenant I am working with has already started their master’s. When it comes time to PCS and our records are otherwise identical, having his master’s degree box checked already will set them above me.
- Ops Tempo. As a Lieutenant we will be the least busiest of our career now vs. later. Now we work at the tactical level so we are the do-ers of the mission. As we are promoted to leadership positions we will have more responsibility, and thus less free time for school. Additionally, more officers start to have families the further into their career they go.
- Cost – Tuition Assistance. Officers are eligible for tuition assistance for master’s degrees, but the rate caps are the same. For example the cap is still $250 per semester hour even though graduate classes are often twice as expensive. Take advantage of the assistance while you still can (while you are active duty).
- Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC)- Tuition Assistance. Officers incur a 2-3 year ADSC for using TA (I can’t remember if it is 2 or 3.) Since this can be paid concurrently with any other ADSC you owe, you should definitely consider this if you are only planning on doing one assignment as an officer then separating.
- Tuition Assistance. There are web sites out there which can help you find schools who will match our TA rate even for master’s degrees. For example, Tuition Assistance only covers $250 per semester hour but there are schools out there which will lower their cost to $250 per semester hour for active duty military, allowing you to go to school with 100% of tuition paid by the government.
- Type of Degree. I have attended many mentorship briefings, and someone always asks this question. ‘Do I need to get a degree in a space field because I am in the space career field?’ Many Field Grade Officers are asked this, and their answer is the same. The Air Force does not care what field their degree is in, or if it aligns with that officer’s current career field. I completely agree. I literally feel like at this time or for this season, the Air Force literally looks at the master’s degree as a yes/no block to check. Choosing a degree program is more of a personal decision, and I will talk more about that below.
- Online vs. In-Residence. While I don’t regret that decision, pursuing a master’s degree gave me the opportunity to do it over again. I didn’t want to go to the most convenient school this time, I wanted to do research and make a deliberate decision. I knew I wanted to do my degree online (mostly because I didn’t like the local options) so that helped me narrow down my options.
- GRE/GMAT Scores. I never took the SAT/ACT in high school because I immediately joined the Air Force, so the thought of taking the GMAT or GRE slightly terrified me. I of course took the ASVAB and AFOQT, but those are different, they are ‘military.’ I looked at these tests as legitimate placement tests, and to be honest I was really nervous how I would stack up against other college grads. Additionally, I finished my bachelor’s in 2012 and my last math class was in 2010, so I really would have had to dust off the cobwebs. I told myself over and over again for about 14 months that I needed to man up and take one of these tests, but in the end I chickened out. Instead, I used this as a discriminating factor and only considered schools who did not require these test scores.
- Prestige. This was really important to me. I picked the easiest option for my bachelor’s degree, and my education laid an outstanding foundation which I have drawn upon professionally for the past 5-6 years. But despite how much I learned, the fact remained that virtually no-one has ever heard of my school. I suppose this brought out the pride in me because it personally irked me. I told myself that I am better than that, and I am capable of so much more. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? No. But does it matter to me? Apparently it does. I’ll talk more about this later.
Choosing a Major – Information Technology
Now that I started to narrow down the direction I wanted to go, I really needed to nail down a major. It probably took me a solid three or four years to actually make this decision. When I started making this decision I was still in the IT field as an enlisted 3D so my decision leaned toward cyber. I knew I wanted to go to one of the best schools so I Google’d “best computer science schools” and eventually found a US News Report. My method was much more complicated than this, but I basically found 4-5 different “best of” lists and cross referenced them with each other before I actually started going down the list of programs. I wanted to learn from one of the best programs, so this is how I found what I wanted.
Here are some of the lists I referenced. At this point I decided to pursue a Master’s of Science in Information Technology (Heinz) through Carnegie Mellon University. I debated the IT Management track vs. the Information Security and Assurance track for a long time, but chose Information Security and Assurance in the end (until I decided to go an entirely different direction.)
Useful links I frequented at this time:
- US News Best Computer Science Graduate Programs
- NSA/DHS National Centers of Academic Excellence in IA
- The 100 Best Universities in the World
- What are Ivy League Universities and Why Should I Care
- Master’s of Science in Information Technology Management (Carnegie Mellon)
- 100 Best Online Colleges for 2017 (thebestschools.org)
- US News Best Online Graduate Information Technology Programs
- Webster University – M.S. Space Systems Operations Management – This program is available online and I believe you do not need GMAT or GRE scores for admission. My assessment was that it is less prestigious (although General Mark Welsh (retired) is an alumni), but still a decent program. The cost was lower than the top universities in the nation, which was a plus.
- University of Colorado Colorado Springs – Master of Engineering in Space Operations – Almost everyone I talked to spoke highly of this program, including retired 13S’s. I think a lot of people retire from the Air Force and teach with this program so it is drawing upon some solid experience. My assessment was that it is a solid program and if I wanted to do a space degree I would probably pursue this program.
- Air Force Institute of Technology – AFIT has some extremely good programs to include a Master’s in Space Systems, Aeronautical Engineering, and Astronautical Engineering. The Air Force will often fund your education here but you have to apply and there are generally TOS requirements at your first “ops tour” before you can apply. My assessment was I didn’t really want a degree with “Air Force” in the name. I know this is wrong but it felt the same as CCAF feels as an enlisted guy. It can check the block but I personally wanted something different, mostly a different perception for jobs I try to get after the Air Force. There is a general stereotype in the private sector that people in the military only know military things, so for me personally, getting a degree from AFIT didn’t help me counter that stereotype.
Needless to say I decided not to pursue a degree in Space Operations. A different mentor who is a retired 13S Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) told me although UCCS had a great program, she advised against getting a degree in Space Ops. I expressed my concern about feeling out of my comfort zone and she said she recommended self-study and that it was something I could easily overcome without the degree. She told me that as an officer I wouldn’t be operational for long so a more beneficial master’s degree would be a management masters with a business or language minor, or even a government or international studies program. Her advice was to think about what would be most beneficial after the Air Force.
Choosing a Major – Engineering
My search for the right major was becoming exhausting, but I was dedicated to finding the perfect program which would help me achieve my goals. I put everything on hold for a few months and focused most of my efforts on my Air Force training. After I finished training I restarted my search basically from scratch, and I reconsidered my personal career goals.
- Two or three years later, I still had not taken the GRE or GMAT, so it probably wasn’t going to happen.
- Going to a prestigious school was still important to me.
- I wanted to complete my degree 100% online.
- Cost was not an issue, or rather, I did not want to let it become an issue for me or prevent me from obtaining the education I wanted.
My personal goals hadn’t really changed, so I eventually realized the only thing I really needed to decide was what type of program I wanted to go for. Although I thought IT was a wise choice it never really felt right. I already explained my thoughts on a space ops degree so I essentially had to go back to the drawing board and really ask myself what I wanted out of my education. The advice I received in the past still resonated inside of me, so I began internalizing it:
- “At this point in your career, it is time for you to specialize. You need to have a field of expertise and be an expert in that field.”
- Your education is your foundation of intellect from which you draw upon to make decisions in the future. – Paraphrase, Lt Gen Gina M. Grosso
In my opinion a lot of personal thought and reflection should go into deciding what you want to major in. I would love to be able to put advice on here that applies to everyone, but it is such a personal decision that it is essentially impossible to provide general advice which can be applicable to your own personal situation. This is why I have chosen to walk through my entire decision-making process for my own personal decision, in hopes that you can pull out what is helpful to you and meditate on your own answers. I am of course always open to helping you pursue your own career or educational goals if you need it (my email address is at the top of the blog.)
I understand people’s reasoning with simply “checking the block” for your master’s degree but in my opinion if this is where it stops for you, you are missing out on a huge opportunity. Here are my closing thoughts on how to think about education.
- Building a foundation of intellect. The valuable part of learning is not in what you learn, but how you practically apply it in the future. Once you build a “foundation of intellect” through your education and experience, as you progress through your career you will find yourself drawing from this foundation more and more. The more you build this foundation when you are young, the farther you can go in the advanced years of your career without having to ‘touch up’ your knowledge with self-study or additional education.
- You are learning more than you think you are. It has been five years since I completed my bachelor’s degree, and I recently realized that I use the knowledge I obtained from earning my degree on an almost daily basis. I built an Microsoft Access database the other day to make things easier at work. My management classes have helped me see how my squadron could be reorganized to work more effectively. My two basic accounting classes help me manage my rental property… I have so many more examples.
- Education vs. experience. Education and experience have a truly symbiotic relationship. You will be better armed to tackle professional duties if you have a foundation of education, while having experience will help you to better understand the importance of education. Being a “lifelong learner” means spending your entire career constantly developing both.
- Security Experience. I started in Security Forces, so as an Airman I gained a lot of security related experience.
- Management/Information Technology Education. I started my education in Management and Information Technology. Management closely related to what I already did as an Airman leader in Security Forces, Information Technology is where I wanted to go.
- Management Experience. As a Security Forces Airman and NCO I gained management level experience leading my Airmen on post.
- Information Technology Education + Management Experience. As a Security Forces NCO I was hired for a program/project management position which helped me apply my Information Technology education while gaining additional program/project management experience.
- Information Technology Experience. Retraining to comm allowed me to gain Information Technology experience.
- Space Operations Experience. Now that I am a space officer, I have been gaining space operations experience.
As you can see, I have been able to apply my Management/Information Technology education to every professional position I have been asked to fill so far. Even now as a space officer, I have found having a background of education and experience in Information Technology has been extremely helpful in understanding the more technical aspects of my career. In this case, I still have a foundation of educational intellect available to pull from. The question is how much more do I have left, and what should I augment it with in the future?
As an officer there is more to promotion than just rank. Regardless of who you are there is an unwritten and sometimes unknown hierarchy that you will fall into within your peer group. This is more clearly defined in OTS or tech school because everyone knows there will be a DG at the end of the course, but how does this look in the operational Air Force? If you are one of eight vehicle operators, are you the best one or middle of the pack? Out of all of the Lieutenants in your squadron, does the commander know your name? I should remind you all that I am a 13S so I am sure this looks very different in my career field vs. others.
In my career field or in my unit there are general things people who are considered successful have done, and some people may say that a successful person would need to do this or that. Some examples could be if someone said you have to be a space operator, then mission planner, then flight commander, the mission commander, or perhaps someone said you have to be an exec or instructor at some point in your career before you can get the best job. Graduating from weapons school is another common thing which people associate with success. I will do a later post specifically on weapons school.
The Key to Success
So how do you navigate through your career with this subtle pressure or within this unknown hierarchy of success? The key to success is this: none of it matters. You need to know how it works, but you don’t need to play games to get to where you think you need to be. The more you worry about what you did and whether or not you are on the right path, the farther you get from focusing on your people and your mission. It may seem counter-intuitive, but focusing solely on how you can better accomplish your mission and fulfilling the needs of your people will give you the right perspective or visibility, and success will in turn find you, not the other way around.
Look at it this way. You are one of 20 vehicle operators at your unit and you are worried because it is hard to stand out. Instead of trying work yourself into a higher position or becoming best friends with the flight commander of mission planning, become the best vehicle operator you can be. Learn every aspect of your job and learn from your mistakes. Instead of just following the TO, learn why each step in the TO exists, then start thinking about how it could be improved. Ask the hard questions like ‘why do we do this’ and seek the regulatory requirements which drove the action.
Understanding How it Works
Part of being a great officer is being a great supervisor. It is tough as officers because immediately after commissioning you could be supervising one or 100 Airmen. It is a position we can be thrown into often without the experience or tools to be successful. The enlisted corps learns to follow and spends years maturing and developing as supervisors and leaders. When they reach the supervision ranks of SrA/SSgt they are further equipped with some of the best leadership training there is in (IMO) Airman Leadership School (ALS).
Enlisted Promotion Overview
- SKT (max 100 points) – Written test specific to AFSC (career field). Usually 100 questions.
- PFE (max 100 points) – Written test on general Air Force knowledge (from AF Handbook 1). Usually 100 questions.
- Time in Service (TIS) points (max 26 points) – This is rumored to go away.
- Time in Grade (TIG) points (max 40 points) – This is also rumored to go away.
- Decorations (max 25 points) – Points for certain medals. E.g., Air Force Achievement medal is worth 1 point, Medal of Honor is worth 15 points.
- Enlisted Promotion Report (EPR) points (max 250 points) – Points based on the Airman’s previous EPRs; Promote Now (PN), Must Promote (MP), and Promote (P) all earn the Airman different points.
Enlisted Promotions References Requirements Catalog (EPRRC) (Formerly WAPS Catalog
The Airman Handbook (AFHANDBOOK1) (formerly Promotion Fitness Exam (PFE) or Professional Development Guide (PDG))
The site also provides study apps for different platforms such as iPad, Kindle, Sony Reader, Kobo, or Nook. These were not available when I studied for promotion but I am sure there are tons of people out there who find them extremely useful.
4. Freepdg.com Quizzes
A reader recommended freepdg.com as well. I have not used it but it looks like they have quizzes broken down by chapter.
My Personal Study Technique
- PFE – Several months out I would begin outlining or targeting my study by using the MKTS survey results. I would highight the sections deemed “Extremely Important” and mark them in my paper PDG. I would then use my paper PDG to work my way through the tests in the PDG gold software. I memorized every question chapter by chapter, again working in MKTS priority. As I scored almost 100% on each chapter I would keep track in my paper PDG and repeat the process.
- PFE – If I ever came across a question I didn’t fully understand I would look up the applicable section in my PDG and read the entire paragraph or section. Understanding the big picture helped tremendously.
- SKT – I didn’t study the SKT as much as I studied the PDG, (65%/35%), but I did make an effort to do well on the tests. I would review my old CDC’s from when I did my skill level upgrade because my books were still highlighted. I used the questions in the back as context then would read the sections I had completely forgotten about.
- After my actual test I would go straight to my car and write down every question I could remember from the test. As I recalled them I would then highlight the applicable question in my books so I could try to remember as many of them as possible. I did not share this information with anyone because THAT WOULD BE CONSIDERED TEST COMPROMISE, but I would reference the book year to year as I began studying again. It provided a lot of insight into what the MKTS board liked to focus on and how it played out year to year.
- http://www.wapscalc.com/ – This site helps you plan out how many points you will have going into the testing season and how many you are estimated to need on the PFE and SKT. I found it extremely valuable. As a supervisor it is a useful way to help an Airman calculate whether or not they are eligible to test for promotion.
- AFI 36-2502 – This AFI provides the AF guidance on enlisted promotion. It is the authoritative document on the entire WAPS program among other topics.
One of the random things which didn’t make very much sense to me both prior to commissioning and during the process was how the officer promotion system works. I have been around the enlisted system for years so understanding acronyms like ‘WAPS’ is second nature to me, but the officer side is more cryptic. There are a few different reasons for this. First and foremost, officers don’t like to talk about promotions. One of the worst things you can be tagged as if you are an officer is being a ‘careerist.’ The perception is that a careerist officer only does things to benefit his or her own career, commonly at the expense of others. While this may or may not be true, once you are tagged with this perception it can be hard to disassociate yourself with it. And as you will probably hear time and time again, perception is everything. Secondly, due to the competitive nature of the officer corps it seems like officers are generally expected to figure out a lot of this stuff on their own. This is one of the sometimes brutal facts about the officer corps. In order to succeed you will need to know how to find the sources to the information you will need, and use them to your benefit. The last thing you want is to find a board was pushed forward and a decoration wasn’t included in your board package because you were lazy and didn’t update it.
|Image source: http://airforcelive.dodlive.mil/files/2014/11/Capture.jpg|
- Second Lieutenant – This is the rank you will receive upon commissioning. The year you commission will be your ‘year group.’
- First Lieutenant – Two years after you pin on 2d Lt, you will pin on 1st Lt. There may be some variations for this but this is the general rule.
- Captain – Two years after you pin on 1st Lt, you will pin on Capt. Get used to being a Capt, you will be one for a while.
- Major – This is where things start to get interesting. I think technically you are boarded for Capt but it is essentially automatic for everyone. Major is the first rank which is actually boarded. The promotion rate varies, but I think in recent years it has been around 65%. From what I gather as long as you are good at your job you will likely make Major. It sounds like the ones who don’t make Major are the ones who are terrible officers who aren’t even really good at their job, let alone leading or inspiring Airmen.
- On the non-rated side officers are currently scheduled to be boarded for Major nine years after their year commissioned. For example, since I am a 2015 I will be boarded for Major “IPZ” in 2024. The actual pin on date if selected will be later, in 2025. I’ll explain IPZ at the end.
- Lieutenant Colonel – Since I am a 2015, the current schedule states I will be boarded for Lt Col in 2027 (2 BPZ), 2028 (1 BPZ), and 2029 (IPZ). Squadron command positions are also boarded (separately I think) and it happens to align with after you would pin on Lt Col. For a 2015 it would be 2030 – 2033 (1st – 4th look).
- Colonel – As a 2015 I will be boarded for Col in 2033 (2 BPZ), 2034 (1 BPZ) and 2035 (IPZ).
- 2d Lt – 2015
- 1st Lt – 2017
- Capt – 2019
- Maj – 2024 (pin on later)
- Lt Col – 2027 (pin on later)
- Col – 2033 (pin on later)
- IPZ – In-the-promotion zone. The general idea is that this is the generic on-time year because of course you wouldn’t promote late, just on time.
- BPZ – Below-the-promotion zone. This means that you are being boarded to promote below the promotion zone, whether it be 2 BPZ or 1 BPZ.
- APZ – Above-the-promotion zone. This isn’t in the current timing list but it would mean that you are past or above the promotion zone.
Officer Education – It’s Cool, (and Almost Expected) to Be Educated
“You are officers, you are grownups, you ought to know!” – Eugene Roe, Band of Brothers
Ever since I was selected for OTS I found myself spending more time with officers. I am not sure if this was a deliberate or unconscious decision on my part, but regardless I started to notice minute differences between the officer and enlisted culture. One of the first things I noticed is a clear difference in education between officers and enlisted. Of course officers have a bachelor’s degree but so do a lot of enlisted, so I thought it was just a nominal difference. The more time I spent with officers, the more I realized I was wrong. Officers don’t just have an education or bachelor’s degree, they use it. I alluded to this when I talked about spending time with my classmates, but this is something I noticed time and time again with almost every officer. It didn’t matter what their field was or what we were talking about, but their education boiled into every other aspect of their life. On the enlisted side, I found a lot of enlisted members just got the degree to check the block. To be honest, this may be the reason I ended up getting my degree. I may have only completed my degree because I thought it would be a good thing to do. I can honestly say I wasn’t 100% committed to making myself better or applying everything I learned in college to making myself a better person, I just knew the degree would help me later down the road.
Now that I am an officer it is clear this method of thinking has to stop. It is not cool to be an uneducated officer. Sometimes I felt like as an enlisted member such thinking was accepted or even the norm. To take this to the next level, I now realize everything I do should be for the purpose of making myself smarter, more informed, and more educated. It doesn’t matter if it is to satisfy a mere curiosity or if it will help me with my job. I now have a desire to want to learn more and make myself better, which is something my public school education didn’t teach me in high school. It is a shame it took me almost thirty years to figure this out. Imagine how much more I would know if I would have adopted this attitude when I was a teenager.
Here is a real world observation which helped me formulate my opinion on this. After I commissioned I realized if I was in a group of 12 officers the group would likely have a solid foundation of education across almost every domain. While I was in tech school it was not abnormal to overhear conversations about Genghis Khan, engineering fundamentals, or geopolitics. I arrived at tech school with zero knowledge of orbital mechanics so I was struggling in the course, but it was review for the academy grads. I could go into detail about my major and how it related to my career field, or how my degree related to my classmates, but that is not my intent. My intent in telling you this is to emphasize that education is important. I am not saying it is important to have a degree, I am saying it is important to learn while you are completing your degree. Allow the knowledge to mold you as a person into someone who is smarter and better prepared to tackle the world of challenges ahead of you.
Another thing to think about as you prepare for your career as an officer is to focus on having a broad or diverse foundation of education. I would say my education is very focused on business and information technology. This knowledge does not necessarily help me as I start a career in Space Operations. While addressing MBA students at Carnegie Mellon University, Brig Gen Gina M. Grosso (now Lt Gen) talked about how she believed she had a foundation of intellect. At her level she often felt like she didn’t have enough time to make tough decisions but her education allowed her to have a stronger foundation to fall back on leading to better decisions. Here is the link, it is a great discussion.
Take some time to reflect on this. What is your current foundation of education or intellect? How diverse is this foundation? What type of knowledge will help you in the immediate future? As you advance through your career, what type of knowledge will likely help you a few steps down the road? Lt Gen Grosso’s advice really helped me with deciding which direction to go for my master’s.
The quote I opened with is a perfect summary of what I am trying to convey in this post. As officers, I believe we are expected to be educated on any subject we are confronted with. Eugene Roe chided Capt Winters and Lt Welsh because they did not know or adhere to the proper procedures for administering morphine. I think having a diverse foundation of education will help us all make the best decisions when confronted with any situation in the future. Our continuous challenge should be to prepare for the future by creating and building upon this foundation.
A lot of people also believe deployments are the be-all end-all to making the next rank. To be clear, I have never deployed. One of the things I believe deployments help you do is experience the operations side of the Air Force. When I was overseas my base was tasked with enforcing a no fly zone in another country. Fighter jets from all over the world used our base as a forward deployed location. We had representation from almost every branch and several different countries. When the fighters were ready to go MUNS would load them to the brim with munitions, they would drop their ordinance, and they would come back empty. During that time the only thing that mattered was getting bombs on target. Every squadron worked 24/7 and we all helped each other out so we could better support the mission. We asked comm for another SIPR computer and they brought us a computer, a switch, and two extra computers. Our guys were stuck on the flightline due to a structure vulnerability so FSS brought out a truckload of MREs. It was incredible. Based on my limited experience, deployments and contingencies are where it happens. Experiencing a deployment or contingency will teach you the importance of the mission, and will realign your perspective toward the joint or combatant command environment.
Tying it All Together – Documentation
Having a diverse career and being excellent in every aspect of your life is how you build your foundation, but it all means nothing if you can’t convey yourself to the board. How you do this will largely depend on the board you are competing in. For OTS, the OTS Applicant Profile is hands down, the most important Whole Person Concept document. The only other documents the board will see is your CC’s recommendation and the Letter of Recommendation. How much does that really tell the board about who you are as a person? Promotion and quarterly/annual award boards are much easier because everything is limited to specific forms and formats.
Here is my perception of diversity within my OTS Applicant Profile. Reference my blog post here.
– Decent AFOQT scores, above average GPA.
– Degrees in both IT and criminal justice.
– More PME complete than the bare minimum.
– Awards ranging from squadron to NAF-level consistently awarded over ten years.
– Volunteers for non-profits, county, church, and base in multiple capacities while also graduating college with honors.
– Personal interests ranging from church, athletic, recreational, educational, and mentorship.
– Career experience in QA/Stan/Eval, combatant command operations, security, supervision, Security Forces operations, and Command and Control.
– “Craftsman” of two AFSCs.
– Excessive speeding tickets in early life.
– Career choices ranging from ops, intelligence, and finance (acquisitions and contracting).
In my opinion, that is how the board perceived me when they reviewed the first four pages of my application. Page 5 (Page 6 of AF56) was my commander’s summary of my professional experience and how it could tie to the officer side, and Page 6 was my supervisor’s perspective of me from the whole person perspective (Letter of Recommendation).
More timeless advice posted by HiFlyer on 27 Mar 15 on the airforceots forum. I can’t find the original post otherwise I would link it.
Posted: Fri Mar 27, 2015 10:50 pm Post subject:
Found it: Here’s a post-board summary of the scoring process and some comments by one senior officer (from several years ago but still valid):
Board Score. A candidate’s board score, based on the Whole Person
Concept, was composed of three factors:
a. Education/Aptitude: Degree area of study, GPA, advanced degrees,
technical training, AFOQT score.
b. Experience: Employment, level of responsibility, letters of reference,
community and volunteer involvement, and athletics.
c. Potential/Adaptability: Evaluation of interviewing officer, personal
experiences, communication skills, and law violations/involvement.
3. Resume. Candidates need to ensure that all of their “goodness” is
captured in their resume. Board members scored around a hundred records per day; a member might have 5-7 minutes to consider a record. For Active Duty Airmen , include BTZ promotions, BMT Honor Graduate, technical training honors, and ALS and NCOA honors.
4. AF Form 56, Page 6, Section III, Interview.
a. Treat the Interview as if it is a promotion recommendation . As with the
resume, the interviewer should capture all key nuggets from LORs, record , etc.
b. Some white space in Block K is OK, but a lot is a negative indicator; it
is especially inconsistent if the candidate’s Evaluation Factors are
“firewalled .” For a quality applicant, Block K should have a minimum amount of white space.
c. Board members found stratification, even “negative” stratification, VERY
helpful (#3/13, #3 of 3 EE, middle third, top 25%, bottom 50%, etc.), as are
comments such as “do not recommend selection .” Stratification is OK for CGO interviewers (it is assumed that they are speaking for the RCS commander), but is better if documented in Section IV by the commander (removes any doubt).
d. If candidate is interviewed by other than RCS commander, recommend that
Section IV contain comments, even if interviewer is an FGO, especially if
interviewed by other than RCS personnel. Again, for a candidate interviewed by someone outside of a recruiting squadron, adding stratification comments in Section IV is very helpful to the board.
5. Letters of Reference.
a. Variety: A package is stronger if LORs are from a variety of sources
(e.g. school, employer, coach, former military member). If all are from college
professors/high school teachers, they generally fail to provide an adequate view of the applicant’s capabilities.
b. Quantity: Civilian packages with the minimum three LORs, unless they are
strong, paints a picture that the applicant didn’t try hard enough.
c. Active/Retired Veteran: One or more LORs from current or former service
members tend to be helpful.
d. Highlighting Accomplishments/Attributes: Letters where the author bolded
key words/phrases help paint a better picture for the board.
e. Active Duty Applicants: The one LOR allowed for an active duty applicant
is generally more compelling if from an 0-6 or FO/GO/SES. Also, there is little
value added if interviewer is also the LOR author.
f. Poor LORs: LORs are of little value if they do not cite any accomplishments or virtues or if they give a weak recommendation to select the applicant. LORs
where it is clear that the author does NOT know the applicant (e .g. U.S. Senator for one of his/her constituents) are likewise not helpful.
a. Applicant firewalled in Evaluation Factors, but Block K comments are
lackluster, and/or there is no stratification. Example of seemingly lackluster comments:”great potential” … “solid candidate” … “select”.
b. Strange: Block K comments with pen and ink changes (e.g. “Outstanding”
struck out, “Excellent” written over it); provides a negative image (perhaps
Hope this helps. This is the text from the feedback memo from the board.
This is GREAT feedback. All applicants should review this if you are considering submitting an application.