From Apprentice to Master: Maximizing Junior Enlisted Talent in the Army Cyber Corps


Battlefield commissions in the U.S. military were commonplace during World War II. Recognizing talent within enlisted ranks, the U.S. Army elevated individuals to higher ranks. Draftees, such as J. Glenn Gray, who entered the Army the same day he earned his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia, found themselves leading as lieutenants following their performance in combat. More recently, the Army authorized battlefield promotions by empowering commanders to elevate select servicemembers to staff sergeant (E-6) based on the individual’s contribution in zones of conflict. Despite these limited promotion opportunities, the prevailing view within the military, according to Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel, is that “the armed forces don’t tap this stunningly diverse population by offering them early opportunities to use their unique skills.” Based in part on a talk at the recent Defense Entrepreneurship Forum by John Gillis, Barno and Bensahel believe the military does not manage junior enlisted talent nearly well enough. Yet there are some positive signs. The experiences of Army’s cyber and electronic warfare force feature the recognition, placement, and use of talent at all ranks, especially junior enlisted soldiers and the unique skillsets they provide the force. The integrated teams, diverse senior leader experiences, and emphasis on mentorship set an example that the rest of the Army and joint force ought to follow.

Apprenticing Talent Management

Talent management reform is not a new issue for the U.S. military, as highlighted by B.J. Armstrong. The Navy used multiple means to promote — from “plucking” to actual selection — and learned that short-term solutions must account for strategic visions of the force. In the Army, the process of talent management begins at the lowest levels and in theory continues throughout careers. The Army’s Talent Management Strategy discusses the service’s four objectives: to acquire, develop, employ, and retain talent. The Army clearly prioritizes the recruitment of talent along with the education and employment of individuals in positions that align with their skills in an attempt to increase retention.

As with many and perhaps most of the problems in the Army, this priority does not translate into sound execution. Stories about the military’s failure to manage officer talent abound. Lt. Joseph Riley’s tale of missed promotions despite his commissioning as the top Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet in 2013 as a Rhodes Scholar was featured in another installment of the “Strategic Outpost” series by Barno and Bensahel. They found that the rigid structure of officer professional development and career management causes a “brain drain.” Strict timeline requirements and career standardization causes problems for many officers who deviate from the mean, according to Capt. Jim Perkins. Moreover, even those promoted early face struggles in their development, as explained by Cory Wallace. The urgency to complete key development positions coupled with an inability to speed promotions creates frustrations, causing many to consider leaving at various points in their career.

Much of the commentary on the Army’s talent failures focuses on officers. For Barno, Bensahel, and Gillis, this data makes sense for their argument, and the Pentagon’s Force of the Future initiative supports their view. This initiative looks at reforming the officer promotion system to allow for specialization and career path variety, but the only focus on enlisted ranks is in recruiting. Once placed within a military occupational specialty (MOS), many assume that talent management ends for junior enlisted. Movement throughout the force is based only on your MOS and a timeline, rather than on your actual skills and desires. The Army is looking to change this process by implementing additional talent opportunities for its enlisted ranks.

A New Branch for New Talent

The Army’s newest branch, cyber, is working to improve upon the inattention traditionally given to managing junior enlisted. Recognizing a need to manage skills learned by soldiers conducting offensive and defensive cyber operations under a single Army MOS, then-Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno approved a cyber branch on September 1, 2014. Instead of falling into standard Army personnel traps, this branch was designed to manage both cyber and electronic warfare personnel carefully, from the most junior enlisted soldier to senior officers. Cyber soldiers now move from job to job based on required skills and knowledge while still meeting the requirements of their peers in uniform.

Much of the flexibility in managing cyber soldiers results from a creative approach to staffing positions on teams. In the Army, creating an agile talent management structure is easier in the cyber branch due to its smaller scale. A “small group of technical professionals” can conduct operations within the cyberspace domain, according to Gen. Daniel B. Allyn. To overcome struggles faced by other branches, all cohorts — enlisted, officer, and civilian — share the responsibility of doing similar work. Cyber officers are on keyboard doing the same work as their enlisted counterparts and sitting next to one another until they move into a managerial role. The nascent role of officers as operators provides them the opportunity to both understand what their enlisted troops do and to conduct similar actions. This technical understanding gives officers a keen insight into the requirements to maneuver within fiber (as in fiber optic cables). Thousands of lines of code or script rarely come with a map and grid lines. Unless a leader can visualize where they are at any given keystroke, they will struggle to interpret the environment. From a tactical perspective, sitting next to junior soldiers gives leaders an appreciation of the skills required to operate within cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. Leaders recognize, appreciate, and place unique talents better when they know the requirements of each work role and these operators themselves. Operationally, this understanding and management of junior enlisted personnel ultimately improves outcomes by fostering continuous problem-solving, further development of skills, and mentorship of junior enlisted — something all branches ought to do. Eventually, this will lead to strategic talent management efforts that look at the force structure holistically after identifying the right mix of skills.

The specific expertise required in cyberspace sometimes gives junior enlisted the opportunity to affect the strategic direction of the force, such as developing courses for the Cyber School. After working for nearly a month straight of operations, one soldier sought other avenues to contribute to the nation’s security. As the operations and his enlistment concluded, it became apparent that this soldier would not stay for money. Even moving closer to his family would not be enough. He wanted novel and complex challenges that required learning new techniques. Though this soldier almost became a casualty of the system, his leadership instead worked directly with Human Resources Command to coordinate a change of station. Beyond the move, the Cyber branch used this soldier as adjunct faculty to develop instruction on routers. This soldier not only learned new techniques as adjunct faculty, but he also valued his direct contribution to growing his branch while the force now appreciates and optimizes his skillset to support the strategic focus.

The Army will fail quickly in the cyberspace domain if it does not appreciate and use the unique talent of its cyber and electronic warfare soldiers in its conventional combined-arms formations, where they can meet new challenges. Enlisted cyber soldiers work hard to gain niche skills, from coding to understanding routers, and they must be balanced across offensive and defensive teams. The development of these skills takes years of education, experience, and practice. Time away from the keyboard leads quickly to skill atrophy since the pace of change is so great within this domain. Instead of financial incentives, many cyber soldiers want new problems to solve. For example, one young sergeant we know, who trained as a cyberspace operator and built up experience on hundreds of offensive operations, faced a choice: continue solving the same problems in the military or seek new challenges elsewhere. While other units might have accepted the soldier’s departure from the Army, his unit appreciated his specific technical skillset and instead gave him time to support a project in industry. In this program, he worked to identify and repair vulnerabilities in a car manufacturer’s proprietary software. Relying on his technical skills and the problems he learned to solve supporting industry, this junior enlisted soldier soon became the expert at a particular methodology, identifying and addressing similar vulnerabilities in military programs. New problems continue to challenge this soldier and he sees how his efforts contribute to the larger Army mission. Moreover, the Army gained this soldier’s expertise for four more years instead of losing his talent.

Providing the right schooling for a specific skill helps develop junior enlisted talent at the tactical level. Time spent with young soldiers allows leaders to identify those best poised to gain value from additional education, which can then improve operational outcomes. Moreover, recognition of new skillsets mandates looking past standard roles of junior enlisted, instead using them to lead change across various units and in Army classrooms. Fighting near-peer adversaries through cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum requires that innovation occur faster than the current doctrine and acquisition process allows. Identifying those who like to “tinker” and giving them space to make new equipment can lead to technological success on the battlefield, just as the Army Cyber Institute accomplished with its cyber rifle. This same process occurred with much less fanfare at the 3rd Infantry Division. Offering a course on tactical reconnaissance methods and technologies to all units, the division provides its “dog-faced soldiers” a real chance to build their own equipment. One electronic warfare soldier attended the course after his unit leadership learned of his weekend hobbies. Believing certain equipment used by his organization was too large, this young sergeant programmed two Raspberry Pis and replicated the same results. Instead of requiring a vehicle-mounted system to collect the required data, this soldier provided his unit the same outcomes with something that fits within an ammo pouch for less than $50.

Mastering Talent Mentorship

The cyber branch, with its unique skills and small scale, makes recognition and appreciation of talent easier than larger branches. Branch size, however, should not be an excuse for failing to manage talent well. Battlefield promotions in both world wars and the post-9/11 wars came from the identification of strong leadership performance within a variety of branches. John Gillis’ concern about junior enlisted personnel comes from what appears to be a lack of understanding of who those individuals are and what they want to be, not necessarily what they provide. The process of leaders identifying special skills within cyber illuminates what the remainder of the force needs: mentorship. Just as Fox Conner demonstrated in his concern for Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, the relationships built on close teams can lead to long-term retention and talent maximization. For example, a recently promoted sergeant first class (E-7) in the cyber branch recognized her leadership for their mentorship through her career. The guidance from mentors began as a young soldier who stood out as intelligent, possessing leadership qualities that needed development, and yearning for more responsibility over others and operations. During her initial counseling session, her leadership discovered she possessed two doctoral degrees unrelated to typical hacking skills. She hinted that her main reason for serving was a desire to lead her peers through the enlisted ranks. Instead of pushing her to other forms of service or narrow specialization within the branch as had occurred with others of similar background, her leadership used her to plan operations and oversee teams of subordinates, peers, and civilians. Engagement early in her career was key, and the only way to keep her serving was to offer mentorship and a 20-year career path, instead of short-term re-enlistment bonuses. Moreover, her unique desires to grow through leadership provided a talent more generalizable across the Army than the specific examples cited earlier. This particular cyber leader grew quickly because her enlisted leadership pushed her growth technically and also along lines similar to NCOs throughout the Army: Audie Murphy club leadership, boards, and time in the institutional force. Throughout all of these experiences, one critical key was guidance from her mentors, which should be standard across the force.

Talent management for junior enlisted is the same for all cohorts and branches, just on a larger scale. It is focused, intentional, and requires energy. The effort taken is personal and professional on both the soldier and those who seek to maximize their talent. Accomplished at a large scale during other wars and now in cyber, junior enlisted talent optimization will lead to achieving the vision of the future force.


Will Rinehart is the Regimental Command Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army Cyber Corps. He has spent the past six years building the Army’s Cyber formations.

Ronald Krause is a Cyberspace Operations professional in the United States Army.  His 21-year career ranges from intelligence support to ground commanders to cyberspace operations at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.  He is a graduate from the University of Texas, El Paso, with a master’s degree in defense and strategic studies and currently serves as the Cyber Training Battalion Command Sergeant Major at Fort Gordon, Georgia. 

Charlie Lewis is a Cyber Operations Officer in the U.S. Army. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the Harvard Kennedy School, he currently serves as the Cyber Training Battalion’s Executive Officer at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army