COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Product Realization Systems Engineering and Quality Directorate, C5ISR Center, U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command
POSITION AND OFFICIAL TITLE: Industrial engineer
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 11
YEARS OF MILITARY SERVICE: 3 years as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in systems engineering; Systems Supportability Engineering Certificate, Stevens Institute of Technology
EDUCATION: Currently pursuing a master’s of engineering in systems engineering, Stevens Institute of Technology; B.S. in industrial engineering, University of South Florida
AWARDS: Exceptional Civilian Service Award
Susan L. Follett
Make a difference every day—that’s one of the principles that guides Jon Starkell in his work as an industrial engineer with the Product Realization Systems Engineering and Quality Directorate (PRD) at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s C5ISR Center (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). “Sometimes the difference is small, like making a bit of progress on a project,” he said. “At other times, it is significant—like implementing a new process that saves thousands of dollars. It takes a long time to make a U-turn in an ocean liner, but if you don’t start, you’ll keep heading in the same direction.”
Starkell, who is currently assigned to the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) Integrated Logistic Support Center (ILSC),supports second-generation forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems. FLIR systems detect heat and use it to create images, allowing troops to “see” in adverse conditions, including darkness, smoke and fog. Starkell provides engineering support to the contracting and procurement processes needed to ensure that the right parts are purchased or repaired on the FLIR systems in support of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Abrams tanks, Strykers and the Long-Range Advanced Scout Surveillance Systems.
“The difference I try to make each day is not just letting something lie without trying to make it better—being a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “Sometimes that involves asking uncomfortable questions: Why is this broken and how can we fix it? How can we avoid doing work that doesn’t need to be done or spending money and time that we don’t need to spend? This also means holding vendors, partners and ourselves accountable.”
Starkell noted that the hardest part of his job is battling obsolescence. “The Army never throws anything away,” he said. “We’re sustaining a product that was first developed as a concept in 1986, and we’re working to keep it around until 2052. We address that with forecasting ahead as much as we can, monitoring system and subsystem obsolescence, and buying end-of-life stock of critical discontinued components as necessary to maintain a current design. We also incorporate systems thinking when it comes to redesigning and developing a new subcomponent so that it meets the form, fit and function of the part being replaced.”
If you’re trying to picture Starkell at work, think suitcases and airplanes instead of drafting tables and T squares. “People are generally surprised when they hear how much more my work involves than the old stereotype of an engineer sitting at a desk all day,” said Starkell. “Industrial engineering is the link between people and machines, ensuring that users are able to work with their systems. I’m out visiting depots, suppliers and military bases, verifying technical manuals, working with the components I support, providing technical assistance, testing and training. It’s always the next trip that’s the most exciting for me—the next opportunity to solve a problem.”
One such problem—one that gives him the most satisfaction to address—involved developing a public-private partnership between Moog Sensor and Surveillance Systems Inc., Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania and the CECOM ILSC to repair a pan-and-tilt module for the Driver Vision Enhancer system. “Before the partnership, Tobyhanna had to send the module to Moog, where its technicians would repair it and send it back to Tobyhanna,” Starkell explained. Under a recent agreement, Moog trained personnel at Tobyhanna and provided them with parts to repair the equipment at the depot. Turnaround time was reduced, Moog can use its personnel and facilities for other work, and its collaboration with the Army demonstrates the company’s willingness to develop mutually beneficial solutions and that it can be a good partner for future work.
Starkell got his start in defense acquisition in 2009, when he joined the Defense Management Contracting Agency (DCMA) in Owego, New York, as an industrial engineer. He supported the VH-71 Presidential Helicopter program until it was scrapped, and then worked on a sub-hunting helicopter for the Navy and the KMAX unmanned aerial vehicle, an autonomous helicopter used to transport materials to remote locations in Afghanistan. It was one of Popular Science magazine’s top aerospace inventions of 2012.
While with DCMA in 2010, Starkell was part of the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, and spent time in theater under the same conditions as U.S. forces. “That assignment definitely changed my perspective,” he said. “Suddenly my contribution became more about people rather than the products we used or the systems we supported. The impetus to succeed became greater: The human factor produced an urgency I’d been missing before.”
During his assignment in Afghanistan, he attended a memorial service for fallen Soldiers that “clarified for me that the work I was doing on products and systems can have a huge impact upon our Soldiers’ success on the battlefield as well as their very lives. These experiences solidified my goal to continue a career in acquisition,” and led to his current role at PRD, where he has been since 2012. “Working at Aberdeen Proving Ground was initially my way of fulfilling a desire to serve my country, and was also the continuation of being able to work with cool products in a great location.”
It has also given him the opportunity to continue his systems engineering education. In December 2018, he completed a PRD-sponsored certificate program in systems supportability engineering through Stevens Institute of Technology, where he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in systems engineering. That coursework “broadens my perspective to include secondary and tertiary perspectives of planning in advance and results much further down the road,” Starkell noted. “Systems engineering orients us to ask questions like, ‘What can I do to impact early development?’ or ‘How can we sustain down the road?’ ”
His studies have also helped him to plan for projects “in a different, more thoughtful way than I otherwise might have. I’m able to marry what we want and the feasibility of making that happen, considering capabilities, time and budget, for example, and looking further into the future for sustainability.”
Starkell noted that his position requires the ability to see a problem from a lot of different perspectives as well as a strong engineering toolkit. “It also takes a lot of tenacity. It takes a long time for things to happen in the government, and sometimes solving a problem requires you to talk to anyone who will listen. Don’t accept ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ as a solution to any problem. Come up with a better way, and keep telling people about it until you’re able to implement the change.”
Starkell, next to a 3D printer, says the hardest part of his job is battling obsolescence.
“Faces of the Force” is an online series highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce through the power of individual stories. Profiles are produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication and Support Branch, working closely with public affairs officers to feature Soldiers and civilians serving in various AL&T disciplines. For more information, or to nominate someone, please go to: