SOUTHWEST ASIA – Air Force cyber communications officers have a challenging job, requiring them to possess a range of expertise from computerized, satellite and airborne communications to supporting communications operations at home and abroad, ensuring mission success.
Capt. Charneice McKenzie distinguished herself among her peers and was selected to receive a Science, Technology, Engineer and Math award sponsored by Women of Color Magazine. She will be recognized during their conference, Oct. 17-19, for her leadership at the U.S. European Command Information Technology Exercise Combined Endeavour, the world’s largest multinational communication exercise, overseeing operations for 42 NATO nations.
“[During the] combined endeavor, I was put in a strong leadership role,” McKenzie said. “Building a strong network from the ground up, for someone who didn’t fully understand what a network was five years ago, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.
In addition to her involvement in the communications exercise, the awards package was quite extensive, she explained, including a biography, resume and examples of works she’s done as a beginner in the IT career field.
McKenzie is currently serving as the 379th Expeditionary Communication Squadron plans and implementation flight commander here. But just a few years ago, the Lewisport, Ky., native, would’ve never dreamed she’d have such a bright future in cyber communications.
“On the first day of a semester in college, I accidentally sat in down in the wrong classroom,” McKenzie said.
“I instantly noticed the demographic makeup of the class was unusual for my predominantly energetic, sorority girl-filled female major. Instead of the incessant chatter of the latest AdAge Magazine, there was silence, but plenty of gadgets. Before I could correct my mistake, class started. I was too embarrassed to get up and leave so I stayed for the duration of a programing class and took notes. Little did I know at the time, this class foreshadowed my future as an Air Force cyber warrior.”
With bachelor’s degrees in Integrated Strategic Communications and History from the University of Kentucky and a Masters in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma, McKenzie joined the Air Force in May 2008, in pursuit of leadership opportunities and to be a part of something bigger than herself.
“I come from a big military family – I am a third generation military member,” she said.
But prior to her military career, she worked five years developing her skills as a different type of communications specialist.
“I worked with the University of Kentucky Appalachia Outreach Center and put together an advertising campaign for Philip's light bulbs,” she said. “It was a lot of fun, creative work.”
Though a far cry from the realm of communications as it relates to marketing public relations, McKenzie finds her skills to be helpful as it relates to technical communications.
“In a career field as diverse of Air Force Communications, there's going to be some areas where I'm less familiar with the topic,” she said. “But the process of learning and gathering information to properly position information to the target audience is entirely the same.”
She explained how her experiences in effective marketing directly correlate with her current cyber operations and how at times, it can be challenging.
“Marketing something that you take personnel interest in like, say, a favorite clothing brand, is of course is easy to do” she said. “What isn't easy is to be able to campaign a communications strategy in an area you are not entirely familiar with to an audience you're not familiar with. “
But in that same right, all facets of communications require the same elements of clarity to be effective, McKenzie explained.
“Seamless information exchanges are critical in both verbal, written and communications systems,” she said. “Whether you are working with network systems or people, it is important to understand and recognize the barriers that make communications incompatible and unable to work efficiently.”
McKenzie has embraced her role as a cyber-communications professional and coordinated a program encouraging youth to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and careers starting from a young age.
“In the program, students had the opportunity to graduate high school with two IT certifications and six college credit hours making them competitive to get jobs right out of school or advance them in college whichever path they chose,” she said.
The purpose of STEM education is to encourage Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education early on so there's more diversity in the work force later, she explained.
“Perhaps this creative interaction with young scholars opened technology to some who might not have been thinking about a career in computers before and later down the line we'll have more of a selection of cyber talent to utilize in the Air Force,” she said.
In her current role as the flight commander she’s been able to incorporate her written and verbal communication skills into her leadership of the Airmen here at the 379th AEW.
“Regardless of how advanced the technology evolves, if any organization in the Air Force is void of human interoperability, it cannot thrive.”