We all start from different places and carve a different path through an Intelligence Community (IC) career. Fast risers, slow burners, steady and consistent – wherever and however we end up in our current role, there are things to reflect on. I have benefited from those who went before me and have no problem sharing what I have learned to those who are willing to listen and take heed. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that an IC career always has a shadow that extends beyond the individual. After decades of government service, here are just a few thoughts worth considering.

ability has to meet Opportunity

It is easier to stay grounded when thinking about your promotions and the great leadership positions you have held if you realize that there are lots of smart people in this world with ability but who never received the opportunities that I received.  My opportunities were certainly not just handed to me. I had to take steps. I had to leave a small town in North Carolina and join the military. I had to work hard. I had to educate myself. I had to prove myself. I even had to start at the bottom. At some point, though, in order to achieve something worthwhile, ability has to meet with opportunity. Someone higher in the management chain has to see your ability and give you that opportunity. What it comes down to is this. I am a smart guy, but there are plenty of smart, hard-working people in this world who never have brilliant, fulfilling careers because they simply did not get the opportunity, or maybe an opportunity came, but they did not recognize it or seize it when it came their way. It is a good exercise in gratitude to think about where one would be if those opportunities had never come.

There are steps you should take to increase the likelihood of opportunities coming your way. They include:

  • Never letting your team, boss, customer, or mission down.
  • Always be dependable, and be on time.
  • Dress for the next level, contribute at the next level, go above and beyond.

You can set yourself apart by doing these things, but opportunity still has to come your way –  it is not guaranteed.

People make the mission worthwhile

A career is made memorable by the people you get to share the ride with. I have stayed at jobs because of the people I worked with and I have left positions for the same reason. People matter. If you have good people around you at work, then you are blessed.  Regardless of your circumstances, be the kind of person that sets a positive example. Give a brother a hand up. Show respect to all and demonstrate who you are by what you do. Be the kind of person who matters to others and makes their career more fulfilling and worthwhile.  Who have you helped along the way?  There is great satisfaction, and it is humbling to be able to help someone deserving and who cannot pay you back. Pass on what you have learned while you can.

Mission makes the work matter

Interesting missions make for great careers. We all like a challenge, to push ourselves and others to achieve results. Those working in the IC have the opportunity to overcome a technical challenge on behalf of your country. What’s not to love about that?  Do the impossible. Help a team achieve the unattainable. The mission provides just one more factor in making the intelligence career something to look back on with pride and gratefulness. I have been part of teams that I was glad to just be a part of. Sometimes I was able to step up and provide the solution that no one thought was possible. More frequently, I assisted. Team effort generates the wins within the IC, just as it does on the sports field. What other career gives you this much?

Technology Advancement shows how far we’ve come

It has been very interesting to watch technology change over the years. I think my generation (I came along right after the Baby Boomer generation) has seen incredible change and we are still working, so we will see even more in terms of technical advancements. My breadth of experience is even longer because I started working on older systems that were still deployed and in mission use when I started out – 1970s technology in some cases.  Mag tape units, paper tape, huge washtub-sized disk drives, 10” floppy disks, the first networks, the introduction of fiber, the internet and first-generation browsers, cell phones, and on and on – as technology advances, so do mission capabilities and targets.

Making a Difference

There are many ways to make a difference. Provide the technical solution, introduce an idea and build it out, help someone advance in their career. Have the best department, project or program. Do such a great job as a program manager that the customer gets promoted. Come up with the great idea. Win a recompete or a new program. Help the customer define their requirements and achieve them. Set the new standard for excellence.

The biggest difference you can make is in the lives of those around you. You can’t take anything with you when this life is over, but you can sure leave a lot behind when you go. There is perhaps no greater industry where this adage is true than within the IC. As you recount your abilities, don’t forget to consider the uniqueness of this opportunity.

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.