PURSUIT OF STEM: Charneta Samms encourages female students to study STEM sciences. (Photo courtesy of DEVCOM)
Creating a more diverse workforce, one person at a time.
by Argie Sarantinos
Being the first person to occupy a newly created position may intimidate some people, but not Charneta Samms. Samms recently became the first permanent chief technology officer (CTO) at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), which is the Army’s largest technology developer. As CTO, Samms is responsible for strengthening the integration of DEVCOM’s multibillion dollar research and technology mission.
“It’s an exciting mission, and I encourage women to not shy away from the fact that it is a male-dominated environment because the only way it will change is if more women join us. We’re breaking down barriers and bringing a perspective that is unique,” Samms said. “If you think about diversity of thought and women working on modernization from their perspective and experience, you’re going to get a whole new generation of amazing ideas and technologies that we can develop.”
Samms began her government career in engineering at DEVCOM’s Army Research Laboratory (ARL) 26 years ago. ARL is one of DEVCOM’s eight reporting units. During her tenure there, Samms designed and evaluated military equipment and systems.
Her most recent role at ARL, which was chief of plans and programs, included planning, programming, reprogramming, budgeting, execution and documentation of ARL’s research program. Samms also led ARL’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach program and educational activities.
Samms shares her love of science and technology with students, particularly women, by encouraging them to study and pursue careers in STEM. Science and math were Samms’s favorite subjects in school, and engineering was at the top of her list as a college major. She chose industrial engineering when she learned that it involves people and systems and how they work together.
“I like the idea of having to understand the technical side of systems and also understand people. To me, understanding people and understanding systems and marrying those two together seemed like a perfect fit, which is why I chose industrial engineering, specifically human factors engineering in college,” Samms said.
Samms, and those like her who love math and science, represent the STEM talent the U.S. Army needs to acquire if it is to meet its modernization priorities. Hiring top STEM talent, as well as building a more diverse workforce, is a key part of DEVCOM’s Future of Work Concept, which the command is spearheading for Army Futures Command (AFC). DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of AFC.
DEVCOM recently moved into phase two of its Future of Work model. The model includes hiring people from different geographic locations, backgrounds and educational experiences to create a more diverse culture. The Future of Work Concept also serves as part of the natural progression of DEVCOM’s competency-based talent management strategy, which includes a shift from reactively filling vacancies, to proactively building the talent needed to execute the mission now and in the future. It also enables the command to be more competitive in the global race for top STEM talent.
Samms is a strong advocate for mentoring and sponsoring peers, a key component to proactively building the workforce. She notes that there is a distinct difference between a mentor and a sponsor—a mentor knows strengths and weaknesses, whereas a sponsor only knows strengths.
“A mentor will discuss your challenges and problems, and they will know the chinks in your armor, whereas a sponsor will know what you are capable of and be your advocate,” Samms said. “I love to share this, especially with women early in their careers, to make sure they understand the difference. We need people to advocate for us, so we need to build that network.”
Samms believes the key to success is finding a career that you are passionate about, then developing a plan to achieve your goals, while still maintaining authenticity.
She discovered the concept of authenticity when she attended the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), Maryland, Senior Leadership Cohort. Established in 2009, the cohort is for GS-14 to GS-15 or equivalent employees to develop higher levels of leadership skills and knowledge. The cohort program begins each year in April and ends in February of the following year, and includes 26 sessions that are three-to-four days long with one-on-one executive coaching for each participant and team coaching for a community-based project.
“I learned about being your authentic self when I attended the APG leadership cohort. Whenever I am struggling, I stop and ask myself, ‘Am I being my authentic self in this moment?’ If I’m not, then that is probably why I am struggling,” Samms said. “If I am being the best version of myself, then there isn’t anything I can’t accomplish.”
Samms was recently installed as a Fellow Emeritus in the ARL Fellows, an honorary organization that consists of a select group of ARL’s most prominent current and former leaders who serve as senior advisors and leaders for the organization.
She is also a lifetime member of the National Society of Black Engineers, where she has served in various leadership roles. Samms has won numerous awards and was featured in the US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine winter 2011 feature, ‘Spotlight on Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ Distinguished Alumni.
When Samms is not working, she may be perfecting her shooting skills at a firing range. She is a certified firearms instructor who teaches the principles of safe firearm ownership and marksmanship, and she competes in multigun competitions, in which competitors use varieties of two or three weapons.
“I’ve always had an interest in firearms, especially with my role at ARL working with Soldiers and understanding the systems they use. Many times I am the only woman at the range or in a training class. It is such a fun, empowering activity that could potentially save your life. Why aren’t there more women engaged?” Samms said.
To change that landscape, Samms plans to continue teaching women how to use firearms safely and effectively as a means to gain more self-confidence. At the same time, she is changing the landscape at DEVCOM in her new role as CTO.
“I am hoping we can shape and grow a more diverse command leadership. There won’t be a ton of us to start, but there will never be a ton of us if we don’t work together to move forward,” Samms said.
ARGIE SARANTINOS is a public affairs specialist for Patricio Enterprises providing contract support to DEVCOM. She holds an M.S. in professional writing and a B.A. in mass communications from Towson University. She has 17 years of public affairs experience supporting DOD. A frequent contributor to Army AL&T, her most recent article “Quick Pivot” appeared in the Winter 2021 issue.