COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Project Director Joint Bombs, Joint Program Executive Office for Armaments and Ammunition
TITLE: Project management engineer
ACQUISITION CAREER FIELD: Engineering
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 11
MILITARY OR CIVILIAN: Civilian
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in engineering, Level I in program management
EDUCATION: M.S. in chemical engineering and B.S. in chemical and biological engineering, New York University Tandon School of Engineering
HOMETOWN: Guangzhou, China
by Ellen Summey
It’s been 20 years since Ling Cheng and her family emigrated to the U.S. from China. They spent a year in Boston before eventually settling in Brooklyn, New York, Ling said. “My family is still there now. My dad took a job in New York and we’ve been in the area ever since.” As a high school student making the transition from China to the U.S., Cheng said her biggest challenge was not academics, but language. “We had studied English since elementary school, but we had very little practice outside of the classroom,” she said. Once she mastered the language, nothing would hold her back.
She attended the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, where she earned a B.S. in chemical and biological engineering, followed by an M.S. in chemical engineering. When it came time to start her career, Cheng struggled to find the right kinds of jobs on the East Coast—but she wanted to stay close to her family, rather than moving out of the area. On the advice of a friend, she began looking at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. “He told me they here hiring lots of engineers at Picatinny, and so I started applying there,” Cheng said. She was initially hired as a chemical engineer at the Explosives Production Programs Branch, in the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Armament Center—and she’s been working at Picatinny ever since.
Today, Cheng is a project management engineer at Project Director (PD) Joint Bombs, within the Joint Program Executive Office for Armaments and Ammunition (JPEO A&A). In this role, she manages the Holston Army Ammunition Plant (HSAAP) supply contract, which sets pricing for over 30 different explosives through the 2022 fiscal year, shortening the procurement timeline for explosives supporting various DOD programs. “There was a surge in explosives requirements in the past five years and the limited production capacity at HSAAP caused extended lead time for some explosives,” Cheng explained. “While the Army has funded modernization projects to increase the capacity at HSAAP, the backlogs won’t be cleared until those projects are completed.” In the meantime, JPEO A&A established a “prioritization inbox” to resolve conflicts among DOD programs with competing requirements, to minimize or eliminate the resulting operational impacts. In addition, she also manages the BSU-33 and MK-84 bomb fins programs, which are used in 500-pound and 2,000-pound bombs for the Air Force and Navy.
Cheng says that working for the federal government is not what she first expected—and that’s a good thing. “I was always under the impression that government employees were slow or not very motivated, but then after I came here and started working, I realized that is not true. People are very motivated, and there are so many opportunities here. You can pursue so many things, as long as you are willing to do it,” she said. Cheng echoed the advice she was given earlier in her career, to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” “That is very good advice,” she said. “We should always challenge ourselves, and make sure not to just be comfortable with our daily tasks. That motivates me a lot, to look at what opportunities are out there, and how I can improve myself.”
In her current position, Cheng said, the biggest challenge is creating consensus from the various stakeholders involved in her program. “I have to deal with people from different organizations, like JMC [Joint Munitions Command] or different service branches. The biggest challenge is to get everyone on the same page—to agree on the same path forward,” she said. “Each group has different concerns and everyone wants to propose a path forward that would, in their opinion, best benefit the program.” How does she handle that kind of situation? With an engineer’s thorough and methodical approach. “Listen to everyone. List out the pros and cons. Keep communication open. Discuss the challenges or benefits of different approaches, then compare them and help everyone to agree.”
And that isn’t just a one-time process. The solutions and approaches are as unique as the programs themselves, which requires continual learning, discovery and collaboration. “Every program is unique in itself, so it’s very important that the workforce is educated on all the options that are available before making a decision,” she said. “I started at Joint Bombs about two years ago, but before that I had minimal training on contracting. I felt I didn’t really need to know, before that, because I was in the engineering field. But now that I’m in program management, I realize how important it is for acquisition personnel to know the contracting terminology and processes.” She feels that she still has a lot to learn, herself, and she plans to pursue DAWIA Level III certification in program management, to better prepare herself for future opportunities.
In 2017, she was selected as the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) Munitions Engineering Technology Center executive fellow, something she credits with expanding her career horizons. “I found wonderful mentors through the process,” she said. “Being a fellow broadened my knowledge of the various centers within ARDEC; and most importantly, it made me realize that I had been missing out on many learning opportunities and leadership programs offered at Picatinny Arsenal.”
Last year, she attended the virtually-held 2020 Career Workshop and Officer Women Leadership Symposium, and she recommends it to other members of the Army Acquisition Workforce. “I found it very helpful and encouraging, because I heard challenges similar to mine that other women encountered in the acquisition workforce,” she said. “They offered their experienced advice on overcoming those challenges, as well as providing resources for self-improvement. I highly recommend this event for any woman or man in the acquisition workforce.”
Ultimately, Cheng said it’s important for junior acquisition personnel to do two things: 1) find a mentor and 2) ask lots of questions. “A new hire just joined my vanpool before the pandemic started. The advice I gave her was to join the mentoring program that’s offered at Picatinny.” She said a good mentor can share information about opportunities, supports and programs to help with career development—so don’t be shy about asking. “I used to be afraid of asking questions that might make me look incompetent,” she recalled. But then she started to notice that leaders and high-achieving employees in her organization didn’t hesitate to ask questions or seek clarification when needed. “I think realizing that there are no stupid questions is an important lesson learned on the job,” she said. She will continue to learn and grow, seeking guidance for self-improvement as she grows in her role at PD Joint Bombs, and beyond. The possibilities are explosive.
“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 go to https://asc.army.mil/web/publications/army-alt-submissions/.
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