In her 14 years of working for the federal government, Tara Clark’s career has taken her from one service to another, across Europe and back to Alabama. Along the way, she’s learned about the challenges of working overseas, the benefits of professional certification and the importance of learning from one’s mistakes.
She started her career with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) in 2002, and developed solid footing in both engineering and acquisition. “NAVFAC pushed hard to make sure I achieved each facilities engineering certification level as it became available,” said Clark. While with NAVFAC she also obtained her professional engineer certification and earned an MBA. “I think it was critical that I had a good foundation in my mechanical discipline before jumping over to the program and project management side,” she said.
In early 2009, she was offered two positions outside the continental United States, one with NAVFAC Europe Africa Southwest Asia in Naples, Italy, and one with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Europe District in Wiesbaden, Germany. The Europe District offer was as the mechanical engineer for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) European Interceptor Site, “an exciting and groundbreaking project,” Clark noted. After careful consideration, she took the Europe District job, spending five years there as a mechanical engineer on Army, Air Force, humanitarian aid and other foreign projects.
“One of my most interesting mechanical projects was preparing the planning and design RFP (request for proposal) for telemedicine centers in Albania,” she said. “Linking rural facilities to the main hospital in Tirana (Albania’s capital) as well as stateside facilities gave rural doctors a chance to consult with specialists to solve challenging cases.”
In early 2011, she transitioned to a project manager (PM) post in the Missile Defense Branch. “At that time, we were just beginning work on the presidentially mandated European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), designed to deal with the threat posed by Iranian short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to U.S. assets, personnel and allies in Europe,” she said.
Clark was the PM for the Phase I implementation of the EPAA program, a radar component of the land-based Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System, which was successfully brought on line in December 2011. The Aegis Ashore BMD System is the first operational land-based version of the Aegis Combat System, which combines phased-array radars, fire control directors, computers and missiles.
She considers the position an important one in her career development. “It was a unique opportunity that allowed me to work at an extreme pace on a very unusual project with a presidential mandate.” She worked on a handful of different projects for the program until 2014, when she accepted a job offer at Huntsville Center.
Now, as a ballistic missile defense PM, she manages MDA-authorized projects from cradle to grave and leads product delivery teams in developing solutions to provide the MDA with facilities and infrastructure that meets its needs. “The systems are constantly being improved to better protect the U.S. homeland, its territories and allies,” she said. “The projects I work on are vital to the protection of our nation, and in my little way I am making a difference.” At Huntsville Center, with prior agreement by the host USACE district, she has been overseeing small MDA construction and repair projects at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California; Clear Air Force Base, Alaska; and some other locations.
“As a PM, I’m a facilitator, translator and link,” said Clark. “A PM needs to be able to listen and translate unusual customer needs into something that can be accomplished through your program office.” A positive attitude helps with the challenges that the position presents. “I try to look for the positive, and challenges are just opportunities to exceed expectations,” she said. “Since Huntsville Center can only take projects that have been turned down by the geographical district, we always are given projects that give us opportunities to exceed expectations.”
Looking back on her career, Clark noted that she has had some exceptional supervisors and mentors. “An early PM supervisor at NAVFAC Mid-Atlantic had so much faith in my ability that he tasked me with repairing the fractured relationship between Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (North Carolina) and my branch. I was so successful that I was named the PM lead for this base,” she said. “When I was in Europe, my supervisor pretty much let me handle the work and trusted that I would brief him as needed. And Huntsville Center gave me the opportunity to temporarily act as manager over the BMD program when the program manager had to take off for emergency medical leave.”
Those experiences have taught her wisdom she offers as advice for others: “Learn your strengths and maximize these areas. Understand and forgive your weaknesses. Take training when it is offered and participate in the classes. And if you make a mistake, learn from it and move on.”
Editor’s Note: This profile was originally published in the April – June issue of Army AL&T Magazine, posted at http://asc.army.mil/web/magazine/alt-magazine-archive/ as part of the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center's Faces of the Force initiative.