AFTC’s top civilian up for DOD award

A “diversity of experience” is what David K. Robertson attributes to his rise from a GS-07 entry-level engineer to a member of the U.S. Government’s Senior Executive Service.

He began his career at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., straight out of Fresno State University in 1986 and today he helps oversee a $31 billion test enterprise as the Air Force Test Center’s executive director.

For his dedication and service, the Air Force selected Robertson as this year’s nominee for the Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award, which is the highest award presented by the secretary of Defense to civilian employees whose careers reflect “exceptional devotion to duty and significant contributions of broad scope to the efficiency, economy or other improvements in the operation of the DOD.”

“I’ve always done what the Air Force has asked of me as a civilian,” said Robertson. “I’ve been both geographically and organizationally mobile, so wherever the Air Force told me to go, I packed my bags and went. My philosophy is never shut a door for you may be eliminating opportunities you don’t even know exist.”

This mobility Robertson refers to has taken him from Edwards to Hill Air Force Base, Utah; the Pentagon; Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.; Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.; and eventually back to Edwards. 

Mobility, career-broadening assignments, completing Professional Military Education and obtaining advanced degrees turned out to be the formula for becoming an SES member and the only one in the AFTC.

His duties are predominately focused on the development of the civilian workforce across the AFTC’s three main installations to include Edwards AFB, Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn.; Eglin AFB, and units at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. Robertson also works labor relations across the test enterprise, along with managing AFTC’s $7 billion service contracts, he said.

While he acknowledges that not everyone wants to become a member of the SES, Robertson’s advice to those who want to climb the ladder is to set career goals and develop a respective road map.

“Pick a destination and then develop a road map to get there,” said Robertson. “That road map or destination can, and most likely will, change over your career; and by destination I mean what grade level are you looking for? What location or organization are you looking for? Or what kind of job do you seek? Those things define in your mind what success is and where you want to end up. Once you do that, you need to develop a viable road map to get you to that point.”

Robertson also said civilian employees should find mentors beyond their unit’s immediate supervisors and/or leadership, such as people within their functional domain or at other centers, major commands or even at the Air Force level where they can ask career development questions.

“You can develop your road map on your end, but then run it by others that have been at that level or above who can pass down their lessons learned and/or experiences/opportunities,” Robertson said.

Other items for career-minded civilians to focus on should be Civilian Developmental Education opportunities that are announced in March each year. If there is something that interests an employee, they should understand how it fits into their road map and be willing to raise their hand to include vocalizing if they are willing to relocate geographically or organizationally.  

“You have to move around to get different experiences,” said Robertson. “That’s what the Air Force is looking for — diversity of experience. We don’t want you to sit in the same job for 40 years. It’s a plus to you as an individual because you’re learning something new and then it’s good for the organization because you’re bringing different experiences and ways of doing things to the organization.

“The longest I have ever stayed in a job was two years until I got to this job where I’ve been for four-and a-half-years…I’m not saying everyone has to do two years, but it’s what I did to optimize that diversity of experience.”

He said he understands the impacts on family if people are constantly geographically moving, but there are ways to develop diversity locally.

At his first stint at Edwards, Robertson said he started out at Edwards working F-16s then moved to the then F-15 Short Takeoff and Landing program. He later went to Test Safety for another two years and then to the Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile program where he eventually capitalized on an opportunity at Hill AFB.

“Even here at Edwards you can still move around the different (combined test forces) like I was doing. You can go over to Test Safety to make sure you understand that side of the house. There’s instrumentation, maintenance and the range; or you can career broaden to the Air Force Research Lab or Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, this strategy is however somewhat dependent on what your functional area is.”

The winners of the DOD level awards will be announced later this year. No matter what the outcome is, Robertson said he enjoys his position and commended the AFTC workforce for its enthusiasm and dedication to the mission.

“Whenever we have senior leaders visit the different AFTC sites they are marveled at how the personnel are really energized about the mission,” Robertson said. “You can’t beat the test mission, I can tell you that firsthand. I’ve been in logistics and acquisition, Headquarters Air Force career-broadening assignments, and you just can’t beat it.”

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