Faces of the Force: Lessons about change from Project Management Officer Natasha Owens

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COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Project Director for Joint Services, Program Executive Office for Ammunition
TITLE: Project management officer
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in program management and engineering
EDUCATION: M.S. in engineering management and B.S. in mechanical engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology
AWARDS: Commander’s Award for Civilian Service (2015 and 2017); Achievement Medal for Civilian Service

Planning for success? Be prepared for change.

Ms. Susan l. Follett

Natasha Owens is a planner: “If it is a trip, a dinner or a surprise party, I want to plan out all the details, develop the budget and list all the tasks needed for completion.” Fortunately, that dovetails perfectly with her work as a project management (PM) officer for the Project Director for Joint Services within the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Ammunition at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. “In PM shops, we manage program cost, schedule and performance. Planning things is what I enjoy doing. It’s a strange and challenging puzzle to me, because just when you think have all the pieces in order, something happens—budget cuts shift program activities or unforeseen issues [arise] during testing that may require additional testing—and the puzzle is never as easy as it seems.”

The Project Director for Joint Services oversees the industrial base facilities and installations that develop, produce, store, distribute and demilitarize munitions for DOD. “When I describe my work to others, they are always amazed at the opportunity I have to work with and provide weapon systems, weapon accessories or ammunition to our Soldiers,” Owens said. “They are also equally amazed at some of the opportunities for career development that I have been given.”

It’s a long list. In 2011, she was accepted into the Excellence in Government Fellows Program, a yearlong leadership development opportunity provided to federal government employees by the Partnership for Public Service. The following year, she served as a DA system coordinator in support of the Product Manager for Crew Served Weapons, working on a full-rate production decision for the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station. The product office comes under the PM for Soldier Weapons, assigned to the PEO for Soldier and co-located with PEO Ammunition at Picatinny Arsenal.

In 2014, Owens was selected for a six-month developmental assignment as the staff action officer for the Executive Operations Group in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (OASA(ALT)). As staff action officer, Owens attended meetings for ASA(ALT) leadership, which at the time was the Hon. Heidi Shyu, ASA(ALT); Lt. Gen. Michael E. Williamson, principal military deputy to the ASA(ALT); and Gabriel Camarillo, principal deputy to the ASA(ALT). “We were tasked with taking notes and identifying action items, and then tracking action items to completion,” Owens said. “We also handled special projects: I worked with Mr. Camarillo on an arsenal workload realignment project and with Ms. Shyu on coordinating and planning the senior leader discussion on the Joint Acquisition and Sustainment Review and Force 2025 and Beyond,” she said.

“A lot of folks thought I was crazy when they heard I applied to the [Executive Operations Group] program because they considered it grunt work,” Owens said. “But I saw it as an opportunity to see strategic-level leadership firsthand. What better opportunity for someone who desires to be a member of the Senior Executive Service than to be a fly on the wall in a room of strategic leaders?” The Executive Operations Group assignment also broadened her understanding of the acquisition process. “Sometimes at the PM level, we do not understand what is going on at the ASA(ALT) level. But my time in [the Executive Operations Group] helped to open my eyes and change my perspective.”

Owens’ acquisition career started at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in June 2000, just two weeks after she graduated from college. She was hired as a mechanical engineer for the Light Armored Vehicle – Assault Gun program and supported engineering development of fire control systems. She moved to PM Soldier Weapons in 2003 and worked on several weapon system programs through 2015.

That year, she joined the ranks of PEO Ammunition, working for its PM for Maneuver Ammunition Systems as an assistant product manager for lightweight ammunition, overseeing the early-stage development of 7.62 mm and 5.56 mm ammunition and working with the U.S. Marine Corps on its .50-caliber ammunition development. In 2017, she began working as the DA systems coordinator for the Gator Landmine Replacement Program under the PM for Close Combat Systems, then completed a brief assignment as the special assistant to the PEO for Ammunition before his retirement. “Each assignment brought a different level of challenge and excitement and further helped to build my skill set.”

For the past three years, she also took part in the Competitive Development Group, a three-year developmental program that provides members of the Army Acquisition Workforce with expanded training through a series of educational, leader development and broadening assignments. “I came into the program expecting so many things but quickly realized the program expected so many things from me,” Owens said. “It’s not that the people leading the program don’t help—they definitely do. But the expectation is for you to have ownership of your career and your goals, and to know the things you need to do in order to accomplish those goals.”

She has passed on that lesson to nearly a dozen co-workers at Picatinny Arsenal who are interested in the program. “The very first thing I explain to them is that this program is not for the weary. You really have to be focused and determined to do the work necessary to move toward your goals.” She also suggests thinking big and taking risks. “If I could do it again, I would take more of a ‘it doesn’t hurt to ask’ approach. My mentor was from Fort Belvoir, [Virginia,] and I probably should have asked for some assignments at PM shops there. I didn’t, figuring it would be hard to find an organization that would fund my travel. Looking back, I should have at least asked the question: You really never know until you ask.”

The Competitive Development Group “was a catalyst for taking me out of my comfort zone. Before I started, I worked in PM Soldier Weapons for over 12 years, and I admit I became comfortable; I neglected pursuing my career goals, and the work became somewhat routine. But routine is not something I want. Instead, I want to ensure that whatever the assignment, I am giving 100 percent toward providing the best product or service to our Soldiers.”

“Faces of the Force” is an online series highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce through the power of individual stories. Profiles are produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication and Support Branch, working closely with public affairs officers to feature Soldiers and civilians serving in various AL&T disciplines. For more information, or to nominate someone, please contact 703-664-5635.

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