Innovating into the Wild Blue Yonder

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Perez
  • 319th Communications Squadron

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. published a letter to Airmen about innovation. He stated, “We value boldness and initiative”. If you read this and didn’t think you had the background or skills to help his effort, I’m here to tell you that’s not true. When LeBron James won his second championship in 2013, he emotionally stated, “I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here.” Let me begin by saying, I’m not LeBron James. I cannot claim I’m from the roughest neighborhood. For the record, I’m a product of my parents divorcing early, and I mainly grew up in south Fort Worth, Texas--and most definitely was supposed to be a depressing statistic you would see on the local news. I credit the Air Force and my initiative and sheer determination of saving me from that fate. Similar to “King” LeBron James though, I feel like I have won the championship this past year, in innovation. The moral of the story, for those who want it direct, is that innovation doesn’t always come from the smartest or those from prestigious backgrounds. This is the time for bold people: the pioneers, the connectors, the dreamers, the creators. This country, and our force, need you to rapidly bring us into the 22nd century. Shockingly, our “near-peers” have become our equals. Right now is the arms race nobody thought would occur. It’s time to shake up the bureaucracy. We are not only charged with accelerating change, we are overdue.

I have been around this amazing Air Force for 18 years, and much like others who have been in a while, I have witnessed "cycles." I have seen the military desperate for people, handing out bonuses. I have also observed the opposite and seen people fighting to stay in. I believe I'm seeing another cycle. I joined in 2003, and the Air Force was draconian. You didn't speak to anyone but a Senior Airman as an Airman; the rules were strictly black and white, and your uniform had better have a crease. When I first joined, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force wasn’t a person you often interfaced with.

One day though, that era ended abruptly -  A new chapter in our Air Force began. Electronic everything, the rise of social media, and a more recent generation started to take the reins. This new story brought a breath of fresh air and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright. He shook the foundations of what we knew, and now, even training managers can get an interview with the CMSAF (check out my podcast, the 3FUniverse, featuring an episode with CMSAF JoAnne Bass). This is our 'cycle'; "Accelerate change or lose" is now. Our Air Force leadership has transitioned from black and white to full spectrum. The idea is to move fast, solve problems, and make life better for Airmen.

Speaking of fossil fuels, I came from a very spirited and outspoken career field before I got pulled into being a 3F2X1, Education and Training. That former career field was POL (Petroleum, Oils, and Lubricants). Most Airmen know it as Fuels, 2F0X1. In that line of work, we set the bar for morale, swag, and showing our unit pride. When I retrained, morale was reduced to coins, there was less spirit, yet the people were vibrant. I started thinking, are there ways we can be more proud of what we do? What do we have in common? What connects us? Of course, what else can you do when a pandemic occurs, and it is discouraged to be together? I did what any good talker does and created a podcast. What I didn’t expect was how much I got out of it. The career field that I made it for, and beyond, received lessons on life and leadership. I used my inspiration to pump out podcasts like Post Malone pumps out hits. I cultivated culture and gave people something to talk about at the Microsoft Teams "Water Cooler." I credit my stubborn willpower for this, as I saw something that I felt added value and I made it happen. This “regular kid” from Fort Worth brought together Airmen in a geographically displaced career field.

One day, I sat staring at the walls of my windowless office, trying to make sense of Maintenance training. There are Air Force Instructions (AFIs) and Personnel Service Guides all over. There are multiple rules for simple processes; everything overlaps. I started considering how I would train the next new unit training manager. I was inspired to make a graphic to help them make sense of all of this. I searched the app store and found my weapon of choice for the job; an app that creates mind maps. I spent the next few days furiously charting out step by step instructions. I fused together all of the AFIs, PSDs, all the steps in order. Proud of my work, I shared it on Facebook one night, and people clamored to have it or to have an open version to modify for their use. To me, that’s innovation – something simple like visuals that reimagine how to do something.

Every day, CMSAF JoAnne Bass posts about a young Airman or noncommissioned officer who does something extraordinary at work, Young Airman identifies shortcut or creates excellent tool saving the Air Force bajillions over one year. It almost feels overwhelming to read something like that. Luckily, innovation isn't just a solo maneuver. There are “innovation cells” popping up all over the Air Force. These teams are meant to drive ideas and experiment to see what can help bring change that is needed. The 3F2 career field is no different. Chief Master Sgt. Kelly Herndon, chief enlisted manager of personnel, championed and initiated the “Iron Benders” innovation team for our field. The team’s name was born from the early years of the rail industry, when teams would “bend the iron” or tracks to forge new paths for locomotives. We are “Education and Training”, and the train is a play on words for training. I am one of two representatives from Air Combat Command. I am the communications manager for the team, and I have been enjoying the freedom of being encouraged to color outside the lines to inspire my peers and my career field. In October of 2021, we are unveiling our first project. If you are interested in working within an innovation cell, ask your leadership if any teams are out there that you can join.

In the Playstation gaming series Uncharted, the protagonist Nathan Drake is inspired by a quote from Sir Francis Drake, “Sic Parvis Magna”-- translated to English it means “Greatness from small beginnings”. We went from being part of the Army to innovating the world's most influential and lethal Air Force. CSAF Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. has charged our Airmen, NCOs, SNCOs, and Officers to innovate work processes and the culture within our units. Dream big. Embrace “Sic Parvis Magna”, be bold, and use your initiative. If a kid from Fort Worth can make waves in this incredible branch, any of you can.

Together, let's innovate into and beyond the wild blue yonder.