Government jobs offer solid careers for African American techies
Some are senior-level, some in the middle ranks, but all these professionals have put their skills to work in years of top-notch service
“Our hiring programs have begun to attract a superb cadre of professionals with no letup in sight.” – Rick Stradford, Department of State
Angela M. Hutchinson
Corporate jobs in technology can pay very handsomely, but many companies are downsizing these days. While
a government post may not offer the same salary as private industry, it usually offers much better job security. Many folks consider this the really big benefit
of working in government, especially the Federal government.
“I believe that one of the main reasons why technology professionals choose to work for the Federal government is the stability it offers, says Noemi Pizarro-Hyman, senior diversity recruitment advisor for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). “In an unstable and uncertain job market, job security offers the peace of mind most people seek.”
In addition, government agencies welcome diversity.
The DIA, says Pizarro-Hyman, “recognizes that valuing diversity raises employees’ level of comfort and enhances personal and working relations.”
Differences among people, she says, “can be an
asset to the agency.”
WorkforAmerica.com, a federal government jobsite, reports that in 2004 about 17.6 percent of federal government employees in all categories were African American, 7.6 percent Hispanic, 5.2 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 1.9 percent Native American. The site also notes that minority employment with the feds has increased by better than 3 percent in the past decade.
The African American techies featured in this article are long-term professionals. They opted for work with the government, and have excelled at their jobs for many years.
At DIA/MSIC, Davie E. Smith is chief of the office for analytical systems
“Working in intelligence has an aura about it,” explains Davie E. Smith, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s office for analytical missile and space intelligence center systems (DIA/MSIC, Redstone Arsenal, AL). “Whether you’re working to analyze foreign weapons systems or to create power tools, it’s a thrill and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support the secretary
Smith took on the role of chief in 2002. His work is to provide scientific and technical, IT and multimedia support to the DIA/MSIC workforce in applications, software, modeling and simulation, computer systems and information services. “I manage more than seventy government folks and about forty contractors,” he notes.
Smith has worked at the DIA for twenty-six years. He was first attracted to the agency by its mission to provide timely and objective military intelligence to warfighters, defense planners and national security policymakers.
“It wasn’t a salary issue for me,” he says. “It was the fact that I would be able to use my engineering skills and knowledge to serve the nation.”
Smith defines his management style as “empowering.” “If you give people a reasonable amount of freedom, they’ll have the environment to be innovative,” he says. “We need to be innovative in our area because technology is changing so fast. We can’t afford to fall behind.”
Besides his duties as a manger, Smith identifies functional and budgetary requirements for
all MSIC IT and multi-media systems and equipment. He’s also responsible for overseeing
the day-to-day functions of the Department of Defense (DOD) high-performance computer system, and supports the broad defense intelligence community by monitoring a key international program.
Smith received his BSEE from the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 1982. In 1996 he was selected to represent the DIA at the Air War College of the U.S. Air Force at Maxwell Air Force Base (Montgomery, AL), a government Senior Service school. “It was a real honor,” he says.
Eunice R. Young is a manager at Sandia
Eunice R. Young has worked for Sandia National Labs (Sandia, NM) for
twenty-eight years. Right now she’s involved in architecting ground information systems for space-based remote-sensing applications.
“My department is responsible for designing and implementing ground segment architectures in support of treaty verification,” she explains. “We provide a secondary data downlink. It’s up to us to acquire the data, process it and disseminate it to the end users.”
There are challenging aspects to every technical job, Young says. “The bureaucracy of how systems are acquired by the end user can be very trying, especially for a group that does R&D.” On the other hand, she finds her colleagues “phenomenal. Each day is a new
Young loves her job. She went to work for Sandia because the organization values learning
and education. In fact, with financial support from Sandia, Young completed her MSCE at
the University of California-Berkeley in 1981. She received her BSCE from the University
of Kansas in 1980.
Born in Columbus, OH, Young comes from a military family and lived in Germany for
At Sandia, Young has held complex positions like deputy program manager and software developer for refined safety analysis, and project lead and process molder for demand-activated manufacturing architecture.
“When I first started at the labs, I was part of a transitional generation,” she reflects. “At college I was often the only female and the only black in my technical classes. When I joined the labs, I was the youngest in the group.
“After all these years, I still find myself an ‘only’ in some situations. But I’ve learned there
are two things you must master early in your career: be confident in what you do, and find your own voice.”
Young found her voice in management. “My style is consultative and situational,” she says. “I am not afraid to make a decision, but I want the best set of information before I do.
“My people are fantastic; their input is invaluable. I find that the best decision, leading to the best result, comes from considering a variety of viewpoints and perspectives.”
Lt Commander Andre Lester is an engineering officer on the USS Toledo
Lt Commander Andre Lester has been a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy for nine years. He’s the chief engineering officer on the fast attack nuclear sub USS Toledo, where his primary duties are supervision and maintenance of the nuclear propulsion plant, and organizing and training personnel assigned to the engineering department.
“I manage between seventy-five and ninety people at a time,” he notes. He believes in encouraging and motivating his team and teaching them to think independently.
“Right now our submarine is at the Northrop Grumman Newport News, VA shipyard going through a major maintenance overhaul,” Lester says. “One of the most challenging things is coordinating with the shipyard to make sure that everything happens in a timely and efficient manner.”
He enjoys the dynamic work environment of the Navy and loves working with the sub’s high-tech equipment. “At the end of the day I can see what I have accomplished, and I like that.”
Lester comes from Fitzgerald, a small rural town in Georgia. He didn’t think about the Navy until he met a recruiter in college. In 1998 he received his BSME from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the same year he started at the Navy’s Officer Candidate School (OCS, Pensacola, FL). When he finished OCS he was assigned to the nuclear power training command (Charleston, SC). At the end of his training in 2000 he was assigned to the USS Maine, and held several different positions there before transferring to the Toledo.
In 2003 Lester completed an MS in engineering management at Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA). Two years later he obtained his MBA from the University of South Carolina. “My educational background prepared me for what I’m doing now,” he says.
On his dress uniform Lester wears the Navy and Marine Corps two-star commendation medal and several other U.S. Navy awards.
Eugene Cole is a project controller at NRAO
Eugene Cole has more than thirty-four years of experience in R&D, engineering and construction. He’s worked in areas from maintenance to electronics, and has managed both heavy processing plant and civil construction.
He’s been with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, Charlottesville, VA) for more than twenty years. He’s currently working at the observatory’s Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) radio telescope near Socorro, NM.
“The purpose of the project is to create an astronomical research instrument of unprecedented power and flexibility in the meter-to-millimeter wavelength bands,” Cole explains. The EVLA instrument will be used by scientists from around the world for cutting-edge research. It’s expected to provide new information about magnetic fields, cosmic sources in dusty regions, transient phenomena, even the formation of stars and galaxies.
EVLA is being built on the site of the mature Very Large Array (VLA) instrument, familiar to movie buffs as the radio telescopes in the film Contact. The current project will retain the antennas, array design and infrastructure of the VLA, but replace older systems with state-of-the-art electronics and software. This, says Cole, will increase its technical capacities by “at least an order of magnitude in every key observational area.”
Cole oversees the EVLA budget and schedule, and helps the project manager determine performance indices. He provides estimate support data, makes cost studies and monitors project activities. He also evaluates potential delays and looks for mitigation strategies.
The EVLA refurbishment is a long-term project. It began in 2001 and won’t be done for another few years. “In my mind that’s a long time on any project,” says Cole; “yet there is a wide palette of activity.”
His daily face-to-face involvement with senior management, engineers, scientists and technicians “helps make my job easier,” he says. “It’s rewarding to know that I am a part of the team.”
Cole’s mother was a nurse and his father served in the U.S. Air Force. After high school
Cole worked for a building contractor, then as an engineering clerk for a construction
company. While working, he earned his AA in business admin at the College of San Mateo
(San Mateo, CA).
He went on to a thirteen-year career in design and build, working for Sverdrup Corp on a design management project for the Arizona DOT, for Pacific Gas & Electric Co as a maintenance scheduler, for Kaiser Engineers as a cost/scheduling engineer and for Fluor Engineers and Constructors as a scheduler and cost estimator.
Then he joined NRAO. “I was hooked on what was being done at the observatory and haven’t looked back,” he says. “I like the New Mexico culture and its vast history. Just as the travel ads say, living here is somewhat enchanting.”
NRAO is a small organization with about 600 employees spread over several facilities in Virginia, New Mexico and West Virginia in the U.S., plus one in Chile. “Gene was one of the first full-time African American professionals at the observatory. But in the last two years the contingent has seen a good increase,” says Roy Norville, NRAO employment manager.
Cole believes it’s very important for minorities “to enrich our understanding of the mechanisms of being technical professionals.” To that end, he volunteers his time to attend conferences of groups like NSBE, spreading the word about the technical opportunities in the field of radio astronomy.
In his off time, Cole sings, plays the bass guitar, goes skiing, hiking and bicycling, and works as a licensed emergency medical technician. In his remaining spare time he’s building a new home near Socorro, NM.
Meena Khanna is a tech assistant to a director at the NRC
Meena Khanna has worked for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, Rockville, MD) for more than fifteen years. Today she’s a technical assistant
in the division of new reactor licensing (DNRL), office of new reactors. She evaluates, coordinates, monitors and advises the director and deputy directors of DNRL on licensing and budgetary issues. She also develops presentation slides and talking points for the many meetings the NRC takes part in:
public meetings, division meetings, resource management board meetings
and many more.
She was the principal author of the NRC’s generic communication plan for review of combined license applications. The plan, she explains, provides detailed guidance on license review to project managers working with external stakeholders and the public. She has also authored a variety of other documents: regulatory information summaries, semi-annual updates on the status of new reactor activities, responses to Congress and more.
Khanna is part African American and part Indian. “My family instilled the importance of education in me at a very early age,” she says. “I was always reminded to strive for excellence in every aspect of my life.” In 1991 she graduated from Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) with a BS in materials and metallurgical engineering.
Khanna is pleased with her decision to join the office of new reactors because of the excitement and challenges involved in the licensing process. “This is such a great time to get involved because there’s a high demand by industry wanting to build new reactors.”
When she moved from technical reviewer to technical assistant, she found that a lot of opportunities opened up for her within the agency. “I am now pursuing a leadership-development program which I hope will lead to a management position,” she reports happily.
As a woman of color working for the government, Khanna says, “I always feel challenged, which drives me to want to work even harder to prove myself.”
She would like to see more minorities in the engineering field. “Diversity is very important to me because I believe that everyone deserves a chance to succeed,” she declares. “I’ve noticed that diversity is increasing in my organization. Talent is being recognized in many of the minorities at the NRC.”
Roderick Hairston is a deputy associate commissioner with the SSA
Roderick Hairston is a deputy associate commissioner in the office of telecommunications and systems operations (OTSO) for the Social Security Administration (SSA, Baltimore, MD). He has twenty-two years of experience in the IT field and has been with the SSA for thirteen years.
When he started there, the SSA was implementing new technology and systems in its field offices. He trained field and regional office managers, site LAN coordinators and office employees.
In 1991 he joined the OTSO helpdesk and twenty-four-hour operational support staff as a LAN engineer, and he’s moved up to become one of the two deputy associate commissioners for the local helpdesk. “I help to manage the day-to-day operations of a technical services support center for SSA,” he explains.
Hairston guides and directs his team, which keeps the field offices’ technology services stable, secure and available. “We support the hardware and software, mainframe and Web services infrastructure, and the client server environments for SSA offices worldwide,” he notes. He also works with the architecture, budgeting and planning of the agency’s enterprise infrastructure.
Hairston was born in Martinsville, VA. He began at Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA) majoring in MIS and decision sciences. He got his BS in business admin in 1991. “I was able to combine my interest in computer technology and my desire to work with people,” he says.
At the SSA Hairston has held a number of positions and received three commissioner’s citations, the agency’s highest award. He was a member of the SSA’s third senior executive service candidate development program class, and has been an executive for other parts of SSA and for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“I love public service,” says Hairston. He first joined SSA because he believes in the agency’s mission “to advance the economic security of the nation’s people through compassionate and vigilant leadership in shaping and managing America’s Social Security programs.
“The opportunity to make a difference, and the great people here, make this a great place to work,” he adds.
Calvin Lee is an engineering branch chief at the DLA
Calvin Lee is chief of the “should cost/price challenge” (SC/PC) branch in the engineering division of the aviation engineering directorate at the Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR) of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), part of the DOD.
The DSCR manages the aviation supply and demand chain for the DLA. It’s the primary source of supply for more than 1.2 million repair parts and supply items used by DOD branches.
As chief of SC/PC, Lee supervises a team of engineers who make independent estimates of the cost of parts procured by the DLA aviation supply chain. Lee advises his team in reviewing contractor cost, engineering data and other technical and logistical elements. He also manages third-party price complaints in the DSCR price challenge program.
“I make sure everything is done in a timely manner,” Lee says. The idea, he explains, is to “provide best-value aviation, weapon systems and environmental logistics to support America’s armed forces on land, at sea and in the air.”
Lee has managed many millions of dollars worth of reliability and maintainability projects for U.S. Army aviation programs. He has also served as an independent evaluator for unmanned aerial vehicle programs, and has held several other engineering and management positions with the DLA.
Raised on Long Island, NY, Lee developed a passion for math and science at an early age. “I showed a good aptitude for technical things, so engineering was a natural for me to pursue,” he says. He graduated from Howard University (Washington, DC) with a BSChE in 1979 and entered the military in 1982. He became an officer in the Air Force, and in 1987 he received an MSIE from the University of Tennessee.
Before he joined the DLA he worked for the Pentagon. He led a team of technical experts making technical assessments of foreign threats to U.S. space, aircraft and missile systems.
Lee takes pride in his in-depth knowledge of military acquisition and management, which helps him “utilize my team as efficiently as I can.
“The overall work environment here is positive and folks are encouraged to flourish,” says Lee. “The technical African American professionals I know are excelling at their jobs in every aspect of the federal government.”
Rick A. Stradford is a security engineering officer with State
Rick A. Stradford, in the Department of State, thinks he has “a cool job!”
“I feel fortunate to be able to apply my firsthand experience, both overseas and here at home, to molding policies that will help us do business more efficiently while maintaining steadfast technical security vigilance,” he says.
Before he joined the U.S. Department of State he served for seven years as an electronics/cryptographic technician in the U.S. Navy, and did a brief stint in the commercial sector with RCA. He had an excellent career going as an E-6 first-class petty officer, but decided to leave the military in order to have a more balanced family life.
Twenty-two years later, Stradford is still with State. He’s currently working in the bureau of diplomatic security as chief of diplomatic security, security technology and the countermeasures programs policy group.
“We work to mold our existing policies, both overseas and domestic, into a form which can accommodate the ever-changing state of the art,” he explains. “But we still need to maintain the level of security the department needs, as well as other foreign affairs agencies.”
His most interesting work at State may have been his tour in Moscow in the then USSR. “I passed the hard-language training and had a very good tour.” While he can’t reveal his experiences, “If you read the history of our Moscow embassy, you’ll appreciate that anyone in technical security would be involved in very serious work on the cutting edge,” he says.
“I cut my teeth in Moscow, and it has helped me throughout my career.”
When it comes to managing his staff, Stradford’s style is very personal. “Diversity is paramount in this organization,” he says. “We are all diplomats in a sense. I’ve watched the number of African American and other minority engineers skyrocket here; our hiring programs have begun to attract a superb cadre of professionals with no letup in sight.”
Array of opportunities
Marianne Myles says it’s the government’s array of opportunities that attracts technical professionals. Myles has worked in the State Department for thirty-two years, and today she directs its office of recruitment, examination and employment.
The department offers both civil service and foreign service opportunities for technical specialists, Myles points out. Civil service techies usually spend their careers at home in the U.S., while “Our foreign-service colleagues work in IT, security engineering, security technology and other specialist areas at more than 265 U.S. embassies and consulates overseas.
“Whether it’s in the U.S. or overseas, our technical professionals help protect America’s technological interests and maintain our systems’ integrity and security. We offer more than just the opportunity to put technical skills to work. We offer a rewarding career that may even influence global change!”
Myles’ group looks for “individuals who possess the right skills and are adaptable, flexible, culturally aware and strategic-thinking problem-solvers.” She believes the government compensation package “is quite comparable with private industry,” and points out that State, for example, offers valuable continuing training and career development programs. Additional benefits accrue in overseas service.
Maintaining diversity is valued now more than ever before, Myles says. “When we refer to diversity, we don’t mean just ethnic or cultural background. We’re also talking skills, experience, education and perspectives.
“We need to represent America in its totality, so we can help to shape a freer, more secure and prosperous world.”
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