COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Joint Program Executive Office for Armaments and Ammunition, Project Director Joint Bombs
TITLE: Program analyst
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 13 years
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in business – cost estimating and in business – financial management; Level I in program management
EDUCATION: B.A. in general studies, Temple University
HOMETOWN: Sparta, New Jersey
James Vanatta doesn’t use a pipe wrench at work anymore, but he still uses the life lessons he learned years ago as a plumber’s apprentice in northeast Pennsylvania. Show up on time, be honest, help out your team, take responsibility and understand your role in the larger project. If the plumbing isn’t finished on time, then the entire project suffers—a surprisingly accurate parallel to Army acquisition.
As a newly minted college graduate, Vanatta found himself at an unexpected crossroads. He had planned to attend law school after finishing his bachelor’s degree, but the job market was not favorable and he didn’t think it was the right time to take on such a large amount of debt. So he went back to what he knew—construction. It was the family business, after all. His grandfather had moved from New York to Pennsylvania to start his home building business decades earlier. Vanatta worked as a plumber’s apprentice for about two years before he decided to explore job opportunities at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. “My neighbor worked at Picatinny, and my mother-in-law as well. I didn’t know anything about government jobs until I sat down and spoke with my neighbor and he told me what he did. I’ve always been interested in business, so I decided to give it a shot. I put my resume in, interviewed, and I got lucky, honestly.”
Today, Vanatta is a program analyst for the Joint Bombs project office within the Joint Program Executive Office for Armaments and Ammunition—an office that was just starting out when he joined the team on a rotational assignment. “I went over there, not knowing that they were literally 12 months into inception. They were a brand new organization and I got thrown into the fire immediately. There were only four or five of us—it was kind of like a new startup company, that’s the best way I can describe it.” Vanatta said the experience of joining a brand new organization was unique in many ways. “When you’re starting an organization from the ground up, you have to be involved in all the facets of daily operations. With such a small staff, if somebody’s out, the task is going to fall to you. You had to come in with a self-starter attitude. You had to come in wanting to learn, to accept pressure and responsibility, or the organization would suffer.”
If you think that scenario sounds a bit like working in residential construction, you’re not alone. “There are definitely some similarities,” Vanatta said. “If your material doesn’t show up on the job one day, you can miss your inspection and then the whole house is going to sit for a month. Our team is that small, where if one group doesn’t show up, we could be set back for a month.”
The team at the Joint Bombs project office has grown since the early days, and now includes 20 full-time personnel dedicated to Army, Navy and Air Force products. “We’re part of the SMCA, the Single Manager for Conventional Ammunition. We provide acquisition management of transitioned bombs and Navy gun ammunition and focus on industrial base planning and integration. We have the responsibility of coordinating with the military services and OSD in matters relating to their requirements, planning, programming, budgeting and funding for conventional ammunition programs that relate to the SMCA mission. It’s really advantageous for the other services, as they don’t have to allocate additional funding to support the SMCA and they get all their products successfully built.”
And though the work can be challenging, Vanatta said it’s a job he truly enjoys. “In the beginning, I would say that the best part of my job was getting the responsibility and the challenge that I was looking for. That’s the environment where I thrive. Today, the best part is when I see, all the hard work that we did in the beginning, and it starts to come to fruition.”
Working on a joint team involves a lot of coordination, and Vanatta said effective communication is the key to success in that environment. “Besides being hardworking and devoted, I’m looking for honesty. We’re all under different commands, we all have different stresses, different management, different expectations,” so it’s important to be honest about the environment that you’re in. “The more honest we can be about our workload and our stresses, the more easily we can navigate those waters and work together effectively to achieve our common goal,” he said.
Vanatta is happy to give advice to others who are just beginning their careers in acquisition. “Never stop asking questions, and never feel you can’t ask questions. Coming into an organization is a brand new adventure and there will always be aspects of the position that are challenging. No one expects you to know everything on day one,” he said. “Another piece of advice is to take advantage of every opportunity that interests you. If the plan is to have a long career, you don’t want to retire with regrets.”
Over the course of his career, Vanatta said he has learned the importance of looking out for his teammates. “People over programs,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have supervisors and managers who have taught me that no matter how hard people work, if they aren’t happy and fulfilled, the programs will never be as successful as they could be.” He encourages others to pay attention to their coworkers, make time for conversations, ensure workloads are manageable and tell everyone how much they are appreciated. In construction and in acquisition, those so-called “soft skills” are the tools of the trade.
“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/.