TITLE: Deputy product manager
COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Program Executive Office for Aviation, Cargo Helicopters Program Management Office
ACQUISITION CAREER FIELD: Program management
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 17
MILITARY OR CIVILIAN: Civilian
YEARS OF MILITARY SERVICE: 7
AAW/DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in program management and engineering, Level II in international acquisition
EDUCATION: M.A. in human resources development, Webster University; B.S. in management, concentration in systems engineering, U.S. Military Academy at West Point
AWARDS: Civilian Service Commendation Medal, 2020; Civilian Service Achievement Medal, 2014; Army Aviation Association of America Order of St. Michael Bronze Award, 2019; Association of the U.S. Army Redstone-Huntsville Chapter Technical Management Department of the Army Civilian of the Year, 2020
HOMETOWN: Castro Valley, California
by Ellen Summey
Remember that scene from the holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” where Ralphie daydreams that his schoolteacher, Miss Shields, is so enraptured with his writing assignment that she turns to the blackboard and writes ‘A+++++,’ all the way across? That’s actually a more apt description of Mike Cowperthwait’s personality type, according to his colleagues. “Yeah, some of the guys on my team like to joke that I’m A+++,” he laughed. Cowperthwait is the deputy product manager for the CH-47F Block I Cargo Helicopter at the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Aviation, a job he relishes. As a former Chinook pilot himself, he is most at home in the military aviation community. “I just can’t imagine being anywhere else,” he said.
He describes himself as driven and goal-oriented, and as someone who always tries to finish what he starts. “I get a great deal of satisfaction from continuing what I started in the Army almost a quarter-century ago when I served as an aviation officer and CH-47D pilot,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire adult life in and around Army aviation and it’s a tremendous honor to work with the finest workforce in the world on the premier heavy lift cargo helicopter in existence.” As the deputy product manager, he works with a 55-person cross-functional organization responsible for the production, delivery, new equipment training and foreign military sales activity for the Chinook and CH-47F Block I Training Aids, Devices, Simulators and Simulations (TADSS).
Through his professional experiences, Cowperthwait has learned the importance of the ancient Greek aphorism, “know thyself.” After struggling to achieve work-life balance earlier in his career, he is now open about having a “results-driven, borderline obsessive work ethic,” and he asks his supervisors to hold him accountable. “I’m getting better about delegating tasks and scheduling down time,” he said. He recalls the advice of his uncle, another former military pilot, who imparted some wisdom to Cowperthwait at the very beginning of his Army career. “You’re going to want to do heroic things, but you have to remember, it’s not just you.” The crew and all the passengers onboard the aircraft are “someone’s son, daughter, father, mother.” In every decision, his uncle urged him, “Mike, just remember that you’re taking all those people with you.” He now understands how that advice applies outside the cockpit, as well—not just as a matter of their immediate physical safety, but their professional development and wellbeing, too.
As he is mindful of setting boundaries for himself, he encourages others to take an active role. “Now, it’s much less about me being the hero,” he said. “Now, it’s about setting the conditions so that my organization, the members of my team, can be the hero.”
What advice does he give to junior acquisition workforce members? “Be patient,” he said. “My take on career progression now is that it occurs at the perfect intersection of opportunity and preparedness. You can only directly impact one of those, so make yourself as ready as possible for when an opportunity presents itself.” And then, when presented with that perfect opportunity, he says to jump. “The majority of the opportunities that my supervisors and mentors have steered me towards were ones that I wasn’t necessarily looking for and honestly, a few were ones that didn’t really appeal to me at first,” Cowperthwait said. “I was content in my comfort zone and not looking to move, but in hindsight that’s exactly what I needed to do.” He had to learn to welcome change—to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. “When you’re comfortable, you’re not growing,” he said.
“I’ve been extremely blessed to have worked for supervisors and mentors who have all made a practice of plucking me out of my comfort zone to expose me to progressively challenging opportunities.” One such experience came in 2012, when he had the opportunity to take on a high-visibility, high-priority foreign military sales (FMS) effort involving the United Arab Emirates. “That opened the door to some truly remarkable FMS assignments in another PEO Aviation program office a few years later,” he said.
Because of those experiences, he now recommends the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) international acquisition certification to others in the Army Acquisition Workforce. “ ‘Standard’ acquisition is hard enough, and the international acquisition program introduces the added complexities of the security assistance operation,” he said. “I would absolutely recommend the program to anyone in the workforce, not just those directly working FMS programs. Through the course of their careers, everyone is eventually going to touch or work in support of an FMS program, and I think it would help build the awareness and context of what those programs are and how they fit into the big picture.” In other words, embrace the challenge, learn new skills and get comfortable being a little uncomfortable. Sage advice from someone who walks the walk.
“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/.
Subscribe to Army AL&T News – the premier online news source for the Army Acquisition Workforce. Subscribe