LOA’s “Legacy Logistics Ladies” Woman's History Month ’19 Interview Series
Interview with: Sara V. Keller, member of the Senior Executive Service, Deputy Director of Logistics, Civil Engineering, Force Protection and Nuclear Integration, Headquarters Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
By: Ms. Tiffany Cunningham
Exceptional Release: What’s your story? How did you get into logistics?
Ms. Sara Keller SES: I am not your traditional logistics person. I actually graduated from engineering school at the University of Texas in El Paso. When I was in engineering school I knew nothing about the Air Force. I lived next to an Army base and my father was in the Army. What drew me to becoming an Air Force employee was Tinker coming to recruit at our school. During that time, there wasn’t a lot of information about Tinker jobs, no website, no brochures, so I went into the interview blind. I told the recruiter that I wanted to be an engineer that worked in the middle of the shop floor and he described the process engineering job…I was hooked.
ER: When you began your career, did you ever imagine that you would be where you are today?
Keller: Not really. When I began my career, my goal was to really make a difference and to earn $50,000 a year. I started at the GS-7 making $23,000 and I thought double that salary was a good goal to have. At that time, I saw the GS-15 and we all admired him but I never personally thought I would ever be a GS-15. In maintenance, we didn’t see SESs in that area so that wasn’t something in my scope. And certainly at that time, all the leaders were men. I was one of the few female engineers at the Depot; that in itself was new. So I never thought I would be this high up, making a difference and mentoring people.
ER: So what was the turning point for you moving from your initial career goals to making it to where you are today?
Keller: I was able to become a GS-14 in propulsion engineering and by that time I had 15-16 years in civil service. And I thought to myself; “Is this really all I want to do? Where do I go next?” I knew that the next level was to either become a logistician or move out of maintenance to a different area of engineering, like the program office. So my mentor helped guide me and the stars aligned in a way that allowed me to career broaden into B-2 Logistics. That job really opened my eyes to the rest of the Air Force.
ER: What motivates you today and how has that changed from the past?
Keller: When I first started my career, it revolved around “stuff”; working with the shop, making sure the equipment was there, working with the infrastructure and technical aspects of warfighter support. My job today is more focused on mentoring people, guiding people, ensuring people are meeting their professional goals in concert with the organizational goals. At the end of the day, while we all like to make money, what keeps us engaged is a love of the work we do and a love of the mission.
ER: What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
Keller: That’s a tough one because when I look at my career, there were gradual steps. From starting out knowing nothing about the Air Force to now and performing as well as I have. Also, being lucky enough to be a part of depot activating the GE series fighter engines, in ACC & AMC being able to work so closely with the warfighter and working operational issues.
ER: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
Keller: The biggest thing for future leaders: you can be anything you want to be; having that mindset along with the training and experience. We live in a world today were there are no gender specific jobs. Also I really believe in mentorship because people tend to be over critical of themselves. They also may not know all the opportunities that are available to them. So a mentor can help open your eyes to your own capabilities and guide you to opportunities that you may not have thought of for yourself or opportunities that are outside your comfort zone. Another piece of advice is to not be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. If you only work in one career or one area you will get too comfortable. I always say that when you are uncomfortable, you are also thinking and driving change and innovation.
ER: Have you had any particular struggles or sacrifices with balancing work and family? Do you have any advice for maintaining that balance?
Keller: I don’t necessarily look at it as a balance. If you look at your career there will be times in your career when you will need to focus on your family and put your career aspirations on hold; while still being a top performer. Then there will be opportunities throughout your lifetime when you focus more on your career and your family can just be steady and tracking. I got married early and my husband already had kids so early in my career I focused on performance and learning my job because they were in school and I couldn’t move. I didn’t take a geographic move until I was a GS-14 and the kids were out of school. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t get the training and education that I needed. However, there were things that had to wait until the time was right with my family. Even still, early in my career, I missed a lot of birthdays due to TDY. You just have to be careful not to miss them all. At certain times you will have to make your career a priority and then other times your family will need to be a priority and it will go back and forth. I don’t think you will necessarily have them in balance at a given time.
ER: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Exceptional Release readers?
1. No matter where you are in your personal life or career, you own your career. You have to know what opportunities are out there for you and you have to make a decision about what is right for you.
2. Don’t sell yourself short.
3. Make sure you are always keeping up with your training and education. You need to have your credentials because you need to be ready whenever that opportunity comes up and you’re able to take it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ms. Tiffany Cunningham is currently assigned to the Logistics Support Office, 448 SCMW, Tinker AFB, OK.