Don Means Jr. ushers in new era of DISA operations

by Veronica Davison 
OIC Strategic Comm. Advisor/CE J9 Dir - Enterprise Comm. & External Affairs
January 31, 2022 

In 2021, the Defense Information Systems Agency experienced several leadership changes as a number of longstanding DISA senior leaders retired within the past year.

Among those significant changes was U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert J. Skinner assuming the role of agency director. Several months into his directorship, Skinner realigned DISA assets under four centers, all with new leadership at the helm: Digital Capabilities and Security Center, Enterprise Integration and Innovation Center, Hosting and Compute Center and Operations and Infrastructure Center.

Now serving as the Operations and Infrastructure Center Director, Don Means Jr. is an agency insider with a perspective heavily influenced by his time outside of DISA in academia, the U.S. Navy and industry.

"Last year, as I selected my senior leadership team to head each of the centers, I was looking for forward-leaning leaders who are bold thinkers, mission driven, customer centered and results oriented,” said Skinner. “I needed someone to take Ops to the next level and Don provided the best combination of expertise, leadership and bringing teams together in a true partnership to tackle the many challenges that we face now, and in the future."

Because of his experience in the key areas on which DISA depends to meet its mission, Means Jr. has a unique perspective and firmly believes that collective defense is the way forward to stay ahead of the adversary. He has an appreciation for the unique contributions that academia, industry and mission partners make toward helping the agency achieve the velocity of action to win that the current climate demands.

“Collective defense involves synchronizing with our mission partners and allies, as well as public-private sector partnerships to achieve shared goals,” said Means Jr. “We have to be hand in glove with them, sharing information back and forth about opportunities, risks and capabilities – and how to secure those capabilities for our mission partners, for the warfighter. It is also about tapping into the creativity and new perspectives that even college and university students bring to addressing some of our cybersecurity challenges.”

Means Jr. is not the stereotypical, overly ambitious executive who is singularly focused on his own career advancement. In fact, those who know Means Jr. would likely say he is understated, smart and effective. He is an advocate for cross-domain collaboration and typically not the first to offer his opinion in meetings. He likes to hear from and create opportunities for others and he believes his career success is within reach for anyone at DISA who aspires to serve in a leadership role.

When Means Jr. joined DISA in 2000, he was hired as a GS-13. During his tenure at DISA he earned a master’s degree in national resource strategy from the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University and completed the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

While maintaining his commitment to faith and family, Means Jr. advanced to the Senior Executive Service in 2017 through hard work and the support of multiple mentors who were internal and external to DISA. His mentors were not just those who were senior to him like his predecessor, former Operations Center Director Dave Bennett, they included his peers and staff.

“I believe in 360-degree mentoring, which means regularly seeking advice and feedback from people you work for, people you work with and people who work for you. Mentoring helps you make quality life decisions – not just professional decisions – with regard to objectives, prioritization, timing and opportunity cost. It isn’t just about professional development, it’s about the whole person,” stated Means Jr.

He sees mentoring as an intrinsic part of building the force from within. Just as his mentors invested in him, Means Jr. is invested in his personnel – to the point of supporting their career aspirations even when it means pursuing opportunities outside of DISA.

For Means Jr., cultivating his force is paramount. An investment in their professional development starts with ensuring they have the training and resources needed to do their job and develop the skills to grow into their next career opportunity.

To accelerate those efforts, Means Jr. has been working closely with the Workforce Services and Development Directorate to make sure that the types of training needed in the Operations and Infrastructure Center are available via the directorate’s offerings.

If you ask Means Jr., what makes his center successful is its personnel, who are working at all levels of the organization. “For the Operations and Infrastructure Center and the agency to be successful, we can’t be satisfied with the status quo. As a center we need to be laser focused on improving the customer experience,” and he has a dedicated team to help make that happen.

At the senior leadership level, Means Jr. works closely with his Vice Director Larry Klooster to evolve the Operations and Infrastructure Center and maintain readiness. Klooster is also acting as the director of the Endpoint Services and Customer Support Directorate. Means Jr.s’ executive team includes Senior Executive Joe Wassel and two scientific professionals, Christopher Paczkowski and Dr. Serena Chan.

Means Jr. has the responsibility for personnel who are located around the world and working 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

According to him, “Ops don’t stop because the adversary never stops. What we deliver in operations is foundational for all of the capabilities we deliver at DISA – whether they’re cloud, enterprise services or office automation – we provide command and control for those services and we’re the customer interface if there is an issue with those services.”

Under the Cyberspace Operations Directorate, led by Wassel, Means Jr. has field offices strategically co-located with combatant commands across the globe. Headed by experienced and highly capable Air Force, Army and Marine colonels and Navy captains, the field offices bear an important responsibility to ensure that DISA is on the front lines with customers, tracking their needs and delivering capabilities at what Means Jr. refers to as the speed of mission.

“Everyone in OIC is a customer advocate and our field commanders and their team of military, civilian and contractor personnel are critical to our ability to quickly address our customers’ needs and provide services that are fit for purpose,” said Means Jr. “In OIC, everyone’s contribution matters – it’s the culmination of all of our efforts that result in the center’s success. We are truly interdependent.”

He has charged his teams at headquarters and the field to “know before,” in an effort to eliminate the customer serving as the sensor.

“It’s important for us to be in a risk-managed operations environment, as opposed to a risk-averse environment or an unknown risk environment,” said Means Jr. “Industry has a myriad of lessons learned that we can apply to understanding what is happening in the environment before there is an operational impact. It’s our role to get the customer back to a productive state, to work with them and to understand the problem and then to take those lessons learned to avoid a recurrent situation.”

DISA’s Transport Services Directorate is also part of the center. Senior Technologist Chris Paczkowski is the senior leader responsible for providing global connectivity for all DISA capabilities.

Under his leadership, DISA designs, sustains and evolves the Defense Information Systems Network core, which consists of satellite gateways, optical and internet protocol-based transport, terrestrial and undersea infrastructure, the operational support system, and internet protocol services.

In addition, Paczkowski’s responsibilities include senior leadership communications, consolidated circuit provisioning, and U.S. Secret Service support.

With data being the center of gravity in the Operations and Infrastructure Center and DISA at large, Means Jr. is looking at how data can be used for proactive, preventative and predictive early action. In support of this effort, an addition Means Jr. made to the center’s team was bringing in Dr. Serena Chan to serve as his senior technical advisor.

Formerly the Cyber Development Directorate director, Chan now works across the center and is responsible for providing technical leadership and strategic direction for DISA’s C2 efforts. She focuses on refining integrated processes, operationalizing innovative capabilities and ensuring data are transformed into information that can be shared and used for enhanced decision making.

Coupled with Means Jr.s’ immediate focus on investing in his current workforce is his commitment to supporting the next generation of the DISA workforce and cyber defenders. He invests his time mentoring personnel at DISA, as well as externally through events like the Black Engineer of the Year Awards Stars and Stripes event and the American Society for Engineering Education’s Scholarship for Service Program, which focus on mentoring students at various education levels.

He is also a proponent of DISA’s internship program and meets with college and university administrators to promote DISA as an employer of choice and to support curriculum enhancements that can help their students gain the competitive edge needed to enter the job market upon graduation.

Means Jr.s’ effort to optimize the user experience, cultivate the force from within and create opportunities for recent graduates, as well as leverage industry is the bold, decisive action needed to ensure the Operations and Infrastructure Center is doing its part to support DISA’s ability to connect, protect and serve.

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