COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Joint Program Executive Office for Armaments and Ammunition, Program Manager Towed Artillery Systems
TITLE: Program 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 and Level I in production, quality and manufacturing
EDUCATION: M.S. in technology, B.S. in mechanical engineering technology and A.S. in mechanical engineering technology, all from Purdue University
HOMETOWN: Fountain City, Indiana
by Ellen Summey
John Burgess could talk for hours about a few things in particular—fishing, hunting, hiking and ballistics. An avid outdoorsman who grew up on a farm in Indiana, he would just as happily tell you about rafting in Maine or backpacking in the Alps, as about the M119A3 howitzer program he manages. He describes himself as a “backpacking, hiking, hunting, fishing, long-range marksman, ballistics expert.” Oh, and add “family man” to that list. These days, he’s learning to conquer “COVID, telework and a 2-year-old.” (Parents around the world nod in agreement.) “We’re pretty lucky. At this stage, my wife is able to stay home with [our daughter] and keep her busy, but sometimes we do have someone singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ in the background of a work call,” he chuckled.
Burgess is an engineer by trade, and his talents have landed him what seems to be his ideal job—product lead for the M119A3 howitzer. “I manage every aspect of the M119A3 howitzer program and lead a team of professionals that are responsible for engineering, logistics, contracting, finance, fielding and many other roles that are vital to modernizing the howitzer system and supporting the Soldiers who use it.” He also recently took on the additional role of modification integration lead at Program Manager Towed Artillery Systems (PM TAS), where he heads up a team of professionals that field products with the latest hardware and software upgrades, “making sure our Marines and Soldiers have decisive overmatch on the battlefield,” he said. “The team does an excellent job of getting these capabilities out to the field, even amid constantly changing travel requirements,” he said.
Burgess first entered the Army Acquisition Workforce (AAW) after taking a short-term developmental assignment from Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, to Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. “My initial rotation from Rock Island was into the M119A2 howitzer engineering and quality team,” he said. It was meant to be a six-month rotation, but he enjoyed it so much that he ended up relocating to Picatinny. While based there, he spent the next four years working on overhaul programs and howitzer engineering projects. It was a successive job, however, where he really hit his professional stride. “I had the opportunity to take a rotation with the enhanced sniper technology team,” he said. “That rotation was good for me, as it exposed me to ammunition testing, research and development.”
The assignment was exciting for Burgess, as a long-range shooting enthusiast, and allowed him to closely align his personal interests with his career. “I was able to engage with industry and immediately be effective in testing and development, because of my skills and the knowledge developed outside of my professional career,” he said. That is practical advice he often shares with others in the acquisition field. “Find something that fits your passions and interests, and pursue it. Work will always be work, but if you find a job where you are interested in the work, you will excel in that field.” He also encourages others to actively seek out opportunities, build professional networks and develop an understanding of how various programs work together to support Soldiers.
Burgess said he has also benefitted from a mentoring program at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) during the last two years. “The program was another great opportunity for me,” he said. “My mentor has selflessly given his time to help me with career growth, and has provided insight in challenging situations.” The mentorship came at a pivotal time for Burgess, as he was embarking on a new opportunity at PM TAS, leaving his prior role in the CCDC labs. The job change allowed him to broaden his experience and do more to influence the direction of acquisition programs, while relying on his technical background to recruit and retain top-notch team members to solve challenging problems. Workforce development is a complex task, but Burgess said there are a few key traits to be successful in acquisition.
First, he said it’s essential to work well on a team. “There’s almost no situation where that isn’t important. Even leaders are still part of a team,” he said. Second, he values an even temperament. “If you can’t keep it together in stressful situations, that is detrimental to the team.” Third, Burgess emphasizes aptitude. “Many people think a new hire should be able to walk into the job and perform immediately, but I don’t think that’s realistic due to the nature of many jobs. What you need is the aptitude to learn and then be able to perform,” he explained. And finally, he stresses the importance of communication skills. “It’s about being effective,” he said. “The best thing I’ve learned is how to communicate effectively, and I continue working on that. Communication is at least two-thirds of my job.”
If he were king for a day? “I would change the way the Army buys things,” he said. “Realistically, I understand why the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) is there—it mitigates risk to the U.S. government, and it also ensures fair and equal acquisition practices. I completely get that,” he said. But certain approaches and regulations may be unnecessarily cumbersome for lower-level acquisitions, he said. “Sometimes the ‘best value approach’ doesn’t actually provide the best value. We need to be able to apply the appropriate amount of rigor to those purchases, but also trust our frontline experts to exercise their own best judgment when possible.”
He said that a bit of autonomy is important to spur innovation, and it’s another facet of managing teams as well. “In a team, there’s nothing that kills motivation faster than taking a smart, competent person and putting lots of constraints on them. We often put government employees in these positions and have them navigate the FAR as opposed to innovating for Soldiers.” As any AAW member will attest, that is a perpetual point of discussion with few clear-cut solutions. “But hey, if I was king, that would be my goal.”
Meanwhile, Burgess will continue spending time outdoors whenever possible, and looking ahead to future adventures. Not only is it a hobby, he said, it also makes him better at his job. “My experience in the outdoors definitely enriches my work,” he said. “There have been many difficult or dangerous experiences I’ve encountered, which required teamwork to be successful.” In work and in the wilderness, it helps to have a solid crew. The only thing that would be better? “If they could relocate Picatinny to Montana, or something.” The ultimate dream for a work-from-home-family-man-outdoors-enthusiast-ballistics-expert.