After Active Duty: Blessed to Build
A retired Air Force colonel builds systems, relationships and a legacy.
The After Active Duty blog series examines the challenges, rewards and lessons learned for those who have transitioned from active duty to the private sector and the role AFCEA played in this progression.
Col. Dean Fox, USAF (Ret.), executive vice president for cybersecurity, AECOM, has done a lot of building of one sort or another throughout his active-duty career and afterward.
The colonel recalls serving as the communications officer for the 13th Air Force at the Pacific Air Operations Center when a massive tsunami hit the region during the winter holidays. The job required him to run all the communication programs in support of tsunami relief.
“We were not only saving lives, but we were helping rebuild nations, helping loved ones find other loved ones and building not only the security and safety, but also rebuilding families throughout all of Asia,” he says.
Col. Fox retired in 2011 and last served on active duty as the deputy J-6 with U.S. Pacific Command building both systems and relationships with international allies and partners. He spent eight years in the Asia-Pacific region—an unusually long time—which allowed him to help build, deploy, operate and maintain command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. “Usually, you get to design it and implement it, or you get to come in and operate and maintain it. I actually got to carry a lot of good programs across all of those areas,” he says.
As examples he cites a cybersecurity solution developed with Australia; information-sharing programs with Singapore and Malaysia; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems evaluation to support anti-piracy efforts; and systems supporting anti-terrorism activities in the Philippines. “I got to engage in the full spectrum, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the prosecution of offensive operations, whether against terrorism or combating weapons of mass destruction or proliferation activities,” Col. Fox says.
He recalls international relationship building as one of the highlights of his military career. He considered it rewarding to find “common ground where we could deliver solutions together to enhance security awareness and information security” and to “understand the technology boundaries that our international partners had and how we could help them solve that.”
After retiring five years ago, Col. Fox began working at URS, where he was tasked with building from scratch a cybersecurity business line that he estimates is now worth nearly $850 million. URS was subsequently purchased by AECOM, a company that’s all about building both structures and systems. The business designs, builds, finances and operates infrastructure assets around the world.
Col. Fox describes AECOM as one of the largest engineering construction companies in the world, with nearly 100,000 employees in 150 countries. “We do everything from building the world’s most important critical infrastructure, whether that’s bridges or towns. We build smart cities and smart grids. We build bridges, build transportation hubs, transportation systems and water purification systems,” he says. “We engage in all kinds of activities associated with that, whether it’s building some of the world’s largest sporting stadiums globally or ensuring the systems that support the infrastructure are secure from cyberthreats. We also help secure and deliver critical infrastructure protection for big data centers we build globally for some of the biggest companies in the world.”
Since transitioning to the private sector, the colonel also is building a legacy of mentorship. While in the military, he was mentored by a number of former service members who had transitioned before him, and now he is paying it forward. “Quite honestly, the reason I’ve been successful is that I’ve had some great mentors in the commercial world who taught me how to make that transition. Since they did that for me, I in turn need to do that for others,” he says.
He estimates that he has mentored 50 or 60 service members leaving active duty. Some of them are now executives at Fortune 500 companies. Others have helped their companies expand into other countries, including Singapore, the United Kingdom and Australia. Some have helped kick-start new businesses. And still others have found ways to continue government service.
He helps service members evaluate jobs that fit their skill sets and needs. Once they get hired, he finds ways to help their organizations flourish. “The mentorship is along the lines of helping them realize that they have some marketable and valuable skills. If they properly understand that, they could then have multiple offers, and the more offers they have, the more choices they can make on where they want to end up,” he says.
Col. Fox found his own mentors—and continues to find people to mentor—primarily through AFCEA International, a nonprofit organization that builds relationships. AFCEA enables professionals from the military, government, industry and academia to align technology and strategy to meet the needs of those who serve. “Almost 100 percent of the contacts I’ve leveraged were part of the AFCEA organization throughout the globe,” he says. “AFCEA gave me a definite head start and acceleration, that’s for sure. I can clearly state that I would not have been as successful in my transition … if it hadn’t been for AFCEA.”
Col. Fox has served with AFCEA in a number of ways, including as vice president for education and president of the Hawaii Chapter and a member of the board. He now is a regional vice president in Texas and a member of the Cyber Committee. The committee “examines some of the challenges that we as a nation face in the cyberspace arena and how AFCEA International can leverage its assets, resources and expertise to help solve those issues,” he explains.
Last but not least, the colonel may be building a family tradition and legacy. He followed in the footsteps of his own father, who also retired as an Air Force colonel. Now, his son serves as an AC-130 gunship pilot with Special Operations Command.
Col. Fox considers himself fortunate to have been in the military, where he was able build meaningful relationships. “I was blessed to have been a military officer and fortunate to have been surrounded by some really awesome people able to get the mission done. And we all went home happy and successful,” he says.