Member of the Week: Sterling Whitehead
Organization: Strategic Systems Programs, Department of the Navy
Email: [email protected] (home)
Supporting Links: http://youngacq.weebly.com; http://ssp.navy.mil
1. What was your path to public service/current job?
My father served as a US Marine for 30 years, so I grew up with the public service attitude, the greater good, all that. I wanted to serve, but I knew I wouldn’t do well in the military. (Read: walking balls of creative energy clash with the hierarchical structures). Anyways, my time at Hampden-Sydney College instilled an even greater desire for service. In the meantime I did a few internships including one in the Office of now-retired Senator John Warner.
After college, I found selling toilets wasn’t fulfilling (seriously), so I managed (and won) a political campaign and ran own grant writing company. By this time, I knew I was going to end back up in the Washington, DC area – it was just a matter of when.
Oddly enough, it was grant writing that brought me full-time in public service. My writing and organizational skills (along with a portfolio and business cards) helped me land a job in the federal acquisition workforce. Since then, I’ve been working my geek magic to study Web 2.0 tech, trying to get the acquisition workforce up to speed on it.
2. What awesome projects are you working on now?
I actually have a few going right now, but my main thing is Young Acquisition Professionals (YAP). While it’s an informal group of people, I think it has real potential. It’s focus is on transitioning new acquisition, contracting, and procurement professionals into the workforce with the help of more experienced professionals.
One of the things I’m really excited about is the Mentor-Mentee Program for YAP. Basically, people just talk for a few months by phone and email, so it’s not a big time commitment. The thing that comes out of it is the tacit knowledge, learning the kinds of things you normally only learn from first-hand experience. We’re trying to accelerate that first-hand learning through the storytelling of experienced professionals to new professionals.
3. What have been some of your most memorable experiences in public service?
In 2006, I was working as a lowly Senate Intern. I got a phone call claiming to be a guy from Iraq. He said his brother was detained, and he wanted the Senator’s office to help get him out. I honestly don’t know if the guy was sincere, lying or just crazy. Regardless, there was a sadness to his voice, and that’s stuck with me since.
During the 2006 debate to get a US-Mexican border fence built, some advocacy group kept sending us bricks to build a brick wall along the border – but each one was engraved with a different constituent’s name. There were 7 of us in a small mailroom, but we weren’t allowed to throw out the bricks. So many came that I think they eventually dominated an entire corner of the room.
4. What advice do you have for people who are new to the public sector?
Entrepreneurial bureaucrats are needed. Most entrepreneurially-minded people aren’t patient. In bureaucracies, you have to be patient…to an extent. Consistently come up with new ideas, but don’t waste peoples’ time. Test out the ideas yourself and take the most promising ones to your boss and co-workers.
Also, you’re there to do a job, not make friends; your job is a lot easier if you have friends. My life would’ve been a lot easier had I applied that earlier in life.