Here are some “career snapshots” of over 30 years in the Intelligence Community.  This time period saw the development of the internet and web browsers, the development of IT, networks, cyber, and so on.  At the beginning of my career, hardware was the most expensive system component by far. Today hardware is practically throw-away and software is the primary expense. Two things have not changed about working in the IC: interesting missions and great people.

College and Military life

Taking a computer course at college and the course is Cobol. You write a program and then you have to submit it as a batch job and wait for your time slot so that it can be run. If it doesn’t compile or does not run, you have to figure out why.

Leave college and go to the military instead. High ASVAB scores. USAF, anything to do with electronics. I’m not looking to go camping every other week, but a job in electronics sounds like my kind of gig and something that would translate to the outside world one day. Pro tip: electronic systems require air conditioning.  Don’t know what job, just surprise me. Get picked for electronic warfare (EW). No idea what that is, but it sounds cool.

Rubbing an almost bald head in basic training, right after the haircuts when you really have no idea what is going on, but you do know that you are getting yelled at.

Taking classes (one or two week segments) of basic and advanced electronics and electronic warfare systems. Keesler AFB.  Hughes Hall. Jones Hall. Marching to class in the Biloxi heat every day. Then get married and drive to class. Off-base, non-barracks living has its advantages.

Picked for some advanced, digital electronics training once EW training finished. Get stationed in Texas. Electronic Security Command, 6993 ESC. Work with great people, do fun things, play lots of sports, hone electronic systems and digital electronic skills. Learn how to really troubleshoot systems.

Win Comfy Olympics (a test of job/career specialty knowledge) each year at the squadron level, but end up near the bottom when testing against the rest of my career field, just about all of which actually do electronic warfare. On aircraft. Haha, good luck testing for rank against guys who do a job that you don’t do. Make sergeant in 3.5 years, but get out in 4.

a post-military Contracting career

Take what you have learned in the military (and the clearance) and become a contractor. Take a job doing basic electronics assembly and test while waiting for non-military clearance. Still remember the note I received from the front office: “Ford Arrow States called…”  Yeah, that would be Ford Aerospace, telling me that I and my family are good to go…PCS to England.

The adventure begins. Spend dollars on base and pounds “on the economy.”  Meet great people on base and out in the real world.  Lifelong friends. Work on a maintenance crew of 20+ technicians, some junior like myself, others with 30, even 40 years of experience. If it is broke, fix it. If it is not broke, don’t touch it. Everything from line printers to MicroVAX.

Salary not a lot, but okay, plus housing allowance, plus tax free.

Ford buys Jaguar. One of the guys has new sweatshirts made and we start going around as Jaguar Aerospace, LOL.  Then Loral buys Ford Aerospace.

The most expensive part of any system is the hardware. Spend hours replacing the heads on a crashed disk of an RM05 or RA60.  Align the heads with an oscilloscope. Learn to quickly isolate and resolve system problems. Take a DEC diagnostic and repair course and learn it so well that I end up teaching more classes.

Learn everything there is to know about a PDP 11/70 and all peripherals and can quickly isolate and resolve whatever comes up or goes down.

Take U of M classes at night.  For many of us on crew (really talented individuals), getting a degree and moving from technician to engineer is the plan.

Play baseball on the base team. Great fun…never thought I would be playing baseball as an adult. British Baseball Federation. Good times.

Vacation trips are back to the U.S. so that the young boys can see the rest of their extended family.

Contract loss. Decide to stay with current company and move back to the U.S. Buy a house in New Mexico and begin work on a new project. After nine months, decide to move back to the UK to more interesting work and the chance to complete my degree. As it turns out, this was a very good decision, ushering in five promotions over the next nine years.

First day back, resolve a long-standing system outage. Second day back, resolve the other long-standing system outage. Get assigned as a senior systems specialist rotating through all of the crews, helping to train them up on supporting site systems.

Back to school and complete degree.

Devise a scheme to ascertain the skills of all crews and staff relative to supported site systems. Made a questionnaire for everyone to fill out. With the results compiled, site managers were then able to identify where the “soft spots” were and could realign crew support to ensure more even coverage of site systems, identify trainers and those who needed training. End result was better support to site systems and customers.

from contractor to contract manager

Get picked to become the deputy ADP supervisor, an interesting position requiring the supervision of four crews of 24×7 computer operators and also support to mission system (primarily VAX and VAXclusters).  Why ADP – Automated Data Processing?  I think it was because the term “Systems Administrator” had not been invented or if it had, no one knew it.  Great fun and a chance to learn as well as implement ideas to transform site’s perception of the computer operators.

Get to work with a great boss who was very generous in sharing knowledge as well as allowing me to come up with solutions to transform the CO shop. This can be translated as opportunities to learn as well as opportunities to grow.

Learn a lot about how management should be done from Mitch, a near perfect model for management that provides direction, support, and management that actually cares about the people and their growth more than his own personal growth. This example of excellent leadership has been passed on to myself and I have passed it on to other leaders within the IC. You never really know how many you influence, but I can state that in this case, multiple leaders within the IC have benefited from Mitch’s example of leadership.

Transformation successful. CO’s are promoted to System Admins. Boss returns to the U.S. and I get to take over, thanks to his willingness to share information and encourage personal growth. Challenging and interesting days. Promoted.

Take over leadership of Infrastructure system admins as well as mission system admins. Lots of fun leading some very smart professionals who have my respect to this day. Did some awesome things, made site better, and had an absolute blast doing so. Promoted.

Play basketball on the base team. The only part of my game still at a high level is the three-point shot. Use it well and get to run with some outstanding athletes. We win it all. Great memories.

Now contributing at high levels, providing ideas to better maintain and support site systems. Get picked to be the next engineering manager (assuming we win the next contract, which we don’t!)

Senior Management/Executive

Back to the U.S., this time for one year. Work with an intel agency and institute improvements in response to outages and to allow tier-1 support to do more. Developed an outage process that would be used for the next 14+ years. Asked to stay and take over outage coordination for the agency, but my heart was still in the UK.

Wrote sections of a TTO proposal to provide IT field support in Europe. This ended up being a win and I was selected to lead this effort from Europe. Assembled a team and went back to England.

More working with some great people who made a difference for the mission and infrastructure. However, expected growth did not occur, so decide to return to the U.S. Get involved in capture management, program management and business development professionalization.  Provide ideas for the corporation on supervisor expectations and training. Work proposals and capture efforts.

Change was afoot. Decide to make my own destiny and switch companies. Start in capture management and move to program management and take over a large program with multiple TTOs. As this program winds down, work proposal efforts and lead TTOs on another win. Collaborate with staff and customers to meet mission needs. Great people (for the most part).

Watch my own children move into the professional world and observe with delight as they demonstrate the value-added tips and techniques that I made sure to pass on to them. Both boys receiving several promotions and new responsibilities beyond their years. They are adding value, stepping up to contribute and making their parents proud.

More change. The intel services division is sold and I leave to go to work for a small business, working with some guys I have known for a long time and trust to be honorable, full of integrity, and with a passion for the mission. No longer an engineer myself, I find the skill levels and capabilities of this group absolutely astounding.

Start in BD and pick up program management. Watch as a low SWaP, true DSP-based signal processing platform is developed. Observe the development of interesting cyber and reverse engineering capabilities. Take care of the people, take care of the mission, and get the word out on how talented our engineers are and what they have accomplished.

The Future

So, why this type of article? I recently had dinner with my old manager, Mitch. Having had very little contact with him over the years (22 of them), he was in town on business and we caught each other up on where our careers have taken us, what our families are doing and the status of old friends and co-workers. As for the future, I have no idea what is next. Unknown changes in technology are bound to take place. Artificial intelligence will continue to advance. Technology itself will advance. Big data will be stored and mined. More cybersecurity focus and capabilities. I would not be surprised to see an ICITE-II. However, no matter what else changes, you can bet that it will be mission and people first. The mission is what drives us and the great people we meet keep us engaged, focused, and appreciative, ever thankful for a wonderful career filled with accomplishments, great people and interesting events.

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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.