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Changing courses leads to fulfilling career

Changing courses leads to fulfilling career

Denise Williams, senior program support advisor in the Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., Acquisition Center of Excellence, has an informal meeting with a colleague in her office, Nov. 21. Williams, who will retire in February after 42 years of service, has held a myriad of rewarding jobs developing state-of-the-art weapon systems for warfighters. Her retirement ceremony will be Dec. 10 at 10:30 a.m. in the O’Neill Auditorium. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jerry Saslav)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – As one of Hanscom’s senior program support advisors gets ready to retire after 42 years of service, a look back at her career truly shows her belief of “bloom where you’re planted.”

Denise Williams entered the Army right out of high school in 1977, in order to fund her college education through the GI Bill. Although she wanted to enter the medical field, nothing was available at the time, so she ended up spending her four-plus years of enlisted service in intelligence and electronics maintenance, a field where she was often was the only woman.

“If leadership puts you in a particular position, often it’s a great opportunity that you may not recognize at the time,” she said. “Usually it’s a great learning experience to expand the depth and breadth of your knowledge. Look for those and be open to them.”

And she should know. After a brief stint in industry teaching electronics when she left the Army, Williams began her civilian career in 1982 at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, as an electronics training instructor, and in 1989 was hired at Hanscom as an integrated logistics support manager for the Tower Restoral Vehicle/Surveillance Restoral Vehicle, New Mobile Radar Approach Control and National Airspace System. The TRV/SRV program had some significant performance and financial challenges, so it was a trial by fire on her first acquisition program.

“It was a small, young team and we learned a lot,” Williams said. “I still keep in touch with people from that team to this day.”

She then worked on the Joint Service Imaging Processing System and in various positions on logistics staffs, and following a rebalancing of positions, as an Inspector General specialist, because the IG needed someone with an acquisition background.

“I worked the first operational readiness inspection the base had had in approximately 10 years,” Williams said. “And I helped create and incorporate the first wartime materiel support scenarios in order to exercise the acquisition mission.”

Following an Education With Industry assignment with General Dynamics in Needham, Mass., she transitioned to program management on the plans and programs staff. Shortly thereafter, Williams was promoted to be the foreign military sales PM for a program she still mentions with passion, the Australian Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control system.

“It was a big deal, a big direct commercial sale, but there needed to be a small foreign military sales case for crypto, GPS and a broadcast intelligence terminal. The terminal ended up being something we needed to develop for them because the variant they wanted wasn’t ready for airborne use yet.”

She worked on that program for five years and then was promoted to become the deputy for international AWACS, working on a more than $4 billion portfolio for the U.K., France, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, Korea and Turkey for 11 years total. According to Williams, personnel who work AWACS tend to either stay a long time or come back to the program office because of the impact they feel they are making.

“They’re able to see right in front of them what they’re doing for the warfighter every day,” she said.

From there she worked on the $750 million Global Aircrew Strategic Network Terminal program, first as deputy PM and then as PM, ensuring survivable nuclear command and control communications. In 2017, she moved into her current position in Hanscom’s Acquisition Center of Excellence.

“I’d been working in the bowels of programs for 16 years, and you kind of lose perspective of the big picture,” she said. Going to the ACE allowed her to not only share her expertise, but also learn about and guide program personnel on rapid acquisition.

Throughout her career, Williams has acted as a formal and informal mentor to personnel she worked with and trainees.

“I’ve always prided myself on trying to excel in the role of supervisor and mentor,” she said. “Make the time to spend with your people to help develop their goals; they’re the future. Giving back and developing the next generation of acquisition professionals is the most important thing you can do.”

Williams said she has garnered so much from a career in federal civil service.

“I was able to fulfill my goal to complete my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at night using the GI bill and tuition assistance, and I also got to travel extensively all over the U.S. and the world,” she said. “Most importantly, I was privileged to hold a myriad of rewarding jobs developing state-of-the-art weapon systems for our warfighters.”

Although her ceremony will take place Dec. 10, Williams’ official retirement date is Feb. 1. For the future, she hopes to do some volunteer work, continue horseback riding lessons and spend time with her grandchildren.