Busy, Busy, Busy
It has been 18 months since I commissioned, and it has been a wild ride. I have been waiting for life to calm down and be “normal” again, but I am beginning to realize that being busy is the new normal. I think this is the nature of the game. I miss the comfort of enlisted life, but at the same time I know I am becoming a more seasoned leader and am being pushed past where my previous boundaries existed. I believe the degree of success you achieve as an officer will be measured by how well you can conquer the chaos, and how well you inspire the people around you to more effectively accomplish the mission. As of now I am still trying to conquer the chaos.
Over the past 18 months I have realized I am in a 24/7/365 battle of balance. When I was in training the Air Force asked a lot from me; I had to maintain my relationships with my family while fulfilling and exceeding my responsibilities as an Airman. My Airman responsibilities evolved from being a Cadet at OTS, to being a student in tech school, to becoming an expert in my space system (we call them weapon systems). Once I mastered one duty position I was asked to master another one. After I master the second one, I will be asked to master a third.
There is a “track” we are expected to follow and there is a constant pressure to be moving upward through this track. There is more of an emphasis on my career and whether or not I am staying on track, and less of an emphasis on the mission. I honestly think this is a fundamental flaw of the system. The flaw is not the existence of the track, but the emphasis. Instead of focusing on which officer is excelling most and who is ready for the next step, we should focus on which mission related positions needs to be filled and which officer would be the best fit.
I was chatting with one of the Lieutenants in my squadron and he was asking for my advice about the track he was on. There were rumors that he was being looked at to be promoted from the basic operator job to a more advanced/technical position. In the space ops world we all start with some version of satellite operator, which is the basic level certification. Some of us operate the bus of the satellite (the brain, power, and associated guts), and some of us work with a specific payload (component responsible for the mission). For our first duty position, it is crucially important that we understand the technical aspects of our job. As a brand new operator we aren’t expected to lead, we are expected to be “weapon system experts.” Once we know how to operate our system nominally (space lingo for normally), we are expected to know how we can leverage our system to more effectively deliver combat effects downrange. Later in our career we will transition to higher levels of leadership, but this is our ONE opportunity to have a technical-operator foundation. I can’t say this enough, it is crucial for us to have this depth of technical-operator experience. This experience will be our foundation as we advance to future leadership positions. In my opinion, truly outstanding officers will be able to have a depth of technical experience in multiple systems. Remind me and I will blog about the depth and breadth debate.
The fundamental flaw of many failed leaders in our Air Force is that they fake their way through the foundation phase of their career and fallback on the tag word of leadership. I’m not saying leadership isn’t important, because it is crucial. But in my opinion the core of a good leader in our Air Force is a person who can have a genuine connection with people. This leader has to truly understand the challenges that we as Airmen face, and should have spent the years prior to being designated as “leader” figuring out how to deal with and eliminate those challenges. The only way to do this as a 13S is to spend time on the system, i.e., “in the trenches,” dealing with the challenges of being a space operator. If you as a space operator ever feel like you are a second class citizen, or everything you do isn’t important to the rest of your squadron, your leadership has forgotten where they came from or has likely never spent an extended amount of time in the trenches. Don’t be this type of leader, and always remember that the squadron should be “ops focused.”
I attempted to explain this to the Lieutenant in my squadron and his response was, “Yeah but that is a more technical job, and isn’t really leadership based.” He was missing the point, and this is something I want you guys to get. He was succumbing to the upward pull of tag word “leadership.” He was allowing the political pull to draw him away from his technical contribution to the mission. In his defense, he was an academy grad and he had spent four years of his life living and breathing political Air Force leadership.
The other thing that I have learned over the past 18 months is what I have coined “locked in experience.” It has been difficult to find my place as an officer. As a MSgt select my peers were seasoned NCOs or SNCOs. Most had families but we had all been around a while. We knew how the Air Force game worked and we had figured out how to play it well but still have a life outside of the Air Force. Now, that peer group doesn’t look at me the same. I am an officer, someone who crossed over to the dark side and there is a level of mistrust behind their eyes. Some feel threatened by me or some just naturally put up a wall. It is minute, but it is there. I’m not saying it is everyone, but this is a subtle thing I have picked up by many. Heck, maybe it is all in my head. Even if it is in my head and it is a superficial barrier, doesn’t it still exist? It is something to think about as you start your own journey.
If I can’t relate to who my peers were, maybe I can relate to who my peers are now. There are three categories of officers; academy graduates, ROTC graduates, and those who commissioned through OTS. 95% of the officers I work with are academy or ROTC graduates, which means almost all of the Lieutenants are in their mid 20’s. I am 30 so that alone creates a huge gap between us. They are just figuring out how to live life outside of college, and I have been earning stripes and fighting the fight for 11 years. They are dating or newly married, I have been married for a decade. We are in completely different stages of life.
When I first commissioned and started spending time around the other Lieutenants, it was difficult because I looked at other Lieutenants like kids. They acted similar to new A1Cs or Senior Airmen (from a NCO/SNCO perspective) but it threw me off because they were extremely intelligent and seemed better educated than I was. That may sound terrible, but remember that I started in Security Forces where the enlistment requirements were different and education wasn’t actively pursued by all. It took me a long time, probably almost 18 months, to learn that I indeed respected them. Learning how I respected them was revolutionary to my perspective as an officer. At first I thought I had to fit in with them, but over time I realized we are just on different paths. My path involved 11 years of Air Force experience, and their path provided them with surface level Air Force experience concurrent with outstanding educations. At the end of the day, we just bring different things to the table.
As we all began to traverse our paths through our new officer careers, I began to notice the very distinct differences between how we operated. Academy grads have a tendency to take an indifferent approach to tackling challenges. When faced with a task, their eyes glaze over and they try to find the easiest way to complete the task while still delivering most of what the boss is looking for. ROTC grads attack the task eagerly, but they don’t have a lot of experience so they tend to take a hands-off approach and let the NCOs do their thing. OTS grads are all over the place, it really depends on the person. Understanding an OTS graduates’ methods often requires analysis at the next level; prior and non-prior enlisted experience.
Locked in Experience
At first it was easy for me to lump myself in the OTS prior-enlisted category, but the more I did, the more I realized I didn’t fit into that category either. I am not just prior enlisted, I am a prior enlisted [essentially] SNCO. I had spent 11 years developing into the SNCO the Air Force wanted me to be. I know how to relate to Airmen “in the trenches,” I naturally try to mentor and mold young Lieutenants into outstanding future leaders, and I started playing the Air Force game while my peers were in high school (or earlier). When I commissioned, this experience was “locked in” for me and I started a new path as an officer. My experience didn’t go away, it shaped who I was when I started this officer journey. It is evident because I still try to take care of the Airmen, and try to help my fellow Lieutenants figure out the Air Force game.
There are other prior enlisted officers who crossed over as Senior Airmen or Staff Sergeants. They enjoy the Air Force life, and they have a more eager and optimistic view of the Air Force. They are good at their job and think they can change the world. When they crossed over, their SrA/SSgt experience was “locked in,” and they began their journey as officers. Their experience didn’t go away, but it is evident in how they lead their people and perform ops on the floor.
This theory can also be seen from officers who re-trained from different career fields like Misileers or prior maintainers. It also applies to ROTC and academy grads, except their “locked in” experience includes four years of Air Force academy BS or four years of civilian college with the Air Force sprinkled in. I believe this is why ROTC graduates are better rounded leaders as they begin their officer careers, because they already had to juggle life outside of the Air Force while doing the Air Force thing.
The fascinating thing is that we will never develop past where we were before. I will always be a SNCO at the heart. Prior SrA/SSgt’s will always be prior SrA/SSgt’s, and fresh ROTC/Academy graduates will have a more academic perspective. Regardless of where we started or what experience we had in the past, we all start our commissioned journey at the same time. We all commissioned at the same time, will promote at the same time, and will compete for the same jobs. As commissioned officers we will all develop together, and start being molded into the officers the Air Force wants us to be.
Tying it All Together
I bring this up in an attempt to illustrate the importance of experience. There is nothing we can do about our life prior to commissioning, but as brand new Lieutenants this is our one chance to build experience going forward. The officer track moves very quickly, probably 3-4 times faster than our enlisted counterparts. We are expected to hit the ground running and accelerate through the many years of our career. Due to the intensity of our tracks, it is crucial that we spend our time as operators developing into tactical, knowledgeable system experts. If we don’t do it now, we will never have a chance to go back and do it over again.
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
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).