Kim Crider is a decorated, retired Major General in the US Air Force with 35 years of service and a flexible military-private sector career. She most recently served as the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for the US Space Force. Kim joins J.R. Lowry to discuss an impressive career she describes as unscripted. She details the series of events that led to her retiring under the US Space Force. Kim also talks about how her military experience allowed her to excel as a leader while having a parallel career in the private sector. Be inspired by Kim's journey and discover how she made the most of her career by taking on new opportunities and challenges with open arms.
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Kim Crider, Major General, US Air Force (Retired)
On Leadership, The Formation Of US Space Force, And A Flexible Military-Private Sector Career
I'm delighted to welcome Kim Crider, who I have known since we were both undergraduates at Duke way back in the day. She is a retired Major General, a two-star General in the US Space Force and was previously with the US Air Force. Thank you, Kim, for your distinguished several years of a military career, both on active duty and as a Reservist. While a Reservist, she also had a parallel private sector career for many years. She is married and a mother of two adult children. Welcome, Kim.
Thank you, JR. It's a real pleasure to be here.
I appreciate you doing this. This is episode two. You're one of the early victims of this concoction I've come up with to do a show, so thank you.
I guess I don't have a big of a bar to hurdle over yet.
My prior guests said the same thing. I doubt that's going to be an issue for you. Anyway, let's jump right into it. You and I were both Air Force ROTC at Duke. When did you first decide that you wanted to go into the military and do the ROTC route?
When I was applying to colleges, and that was pretty much it. I didn't come from a military background. My dad was in the Army briefly, but it wasn't a significant part of my growing up having any real familiarity with the military. When I was applying for colleges, I was growing up in Florida. I thought I wanted to venture out of Florida and try something different new, and ROTC was a great option for me to get a scholarship and go to Duke. Duke was a fabulous university. I knew nothing about ROTC. I knew nothing about the Air Force going into that arrangement, but it worked out.
I'm very similar in that. I hadn't even thought about it until my father proposed it and went through the process. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew, I was in Air Force ROTC with you. You were an Electrical Engineering major. How did you pick that as your course of study?
I was interested in any Science or Math degree. Engineering was not necessarily something that I knew a lot about coming out of high school, but I took an affinity to it, particularly because I enjoy thinking about how things work. Electrical Engineering was always interesting to me because you got down to the nitty-gritty of how a lot of things were. I found that very interesting. I enjoyed the classes, the labs, putting things together, testing theories, figuring out designs and figuring out that you could create something by putting a bunch of principles together.
[bctt tweet="The more senior you become and the more experienced you are, the more confident you are in your ability to solve a problem or make a decision." username=""]
What did you do when you left Duke and had your first Air Force assignment? Where did you go? What was your role as a brand new Second Lieutenant?
When I left Duke, I thought that I was going to do the four years. ROTC commitment was four years on active duty. My first assignment was at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. I had never been that far north. I instantly fell in love with New England. That was a real treat because being in the four seasons and experiencing things that I'd never experienced growing up in Florida was neat for me.
I made a lot of great friends right off the bat. I was in acquisition. My first jobs involved purchasing, acquiring, designing, and delivering large-scale systems for different parts of the Air Force. What was interesting about my first assignment was that there were many young lieutenants and captains assigned to the same base that I was at.
It was almost like we had our own little culture club. We had great bosses. They gave us a lot of responsibility early on. Some of the friends that I still have now that I had in my whole career I met those first few years at Hanscom. The day that I arrived at Hanscom was when I met the man who became my husband. Those are great years. The fact that I had so much responsibility foisted upon me so quickly.
I was in charge of $25 million programs right off the bat. I was running teams of 20 to 30 people. Most of them were twice my age and my years of experience. I learned about leadership early on. I was excited about the fact that bosses put a lot of trust in me and were willing to give me opportunities to excel and prove myself. That caused me to think about the Air Force as a career. I was hooked and had a lot of ability to make a difference, which inspired me.
Six years at Hanscom is a relatively long time to be in one place when you’re in the military. Where did you go after that?
I did a couple of years as an ROTC instructor at MIT. I've always been interested in higher education and teaching. I followed that passion in various ways throughout my career as well. I raised my hand early on and said I wanted to be an ROTC instructor. I went down to MIT. We had students from MIT and Harvard and Tufts. These kids were super bright. I was only a young captain at the time. I was living in Boston, taking classes at Harvard and teaching classes at MIT. I was having a ball. After a couple of years of that, I made a big decision at that point because my husband was getting ready to PCS to Hawaii.
We weren't quite yet married, but we decided we were going to get married. I decided that I was going to leave active duty and go in the Reserves so that I could go with him. We could get married and go to Hawaii. As much as I loved the Air Force and everything that I was doing, I wanted to be married and go to Hawaii, so I did that. I went into the Reserves and never looked back because of the opportunities that unfolded for me as a Reservist or much more than I think they ever would have been how I stayed on active duty.
When I got to Hawaii, I went into the communications career field. I went from acquisition, more engineering and design work into operations. More as in the field or the operational side of the Air Force. I was doing communication, so I was responsible for a support mission, but it was supporting ops. It was supporting all of the operations required to run the flight line and having all the communications on the flight line to run a base that was needed for any field operations. Those are the things that I did.
I did that all over the Pacific. While we were stationed at Hickam, I was on numerous exercises in Korea and Guam, different parts of the Pacific, and truly learned my job as an officer and taking on more leadership responsibilities along the way. Four years of that. I was keeping up with my colleagues who I had met at Hanscom who were still on active duty.
I'm eight years or so into the Air Force. I'm coming up on a Major. I'm a Reservist. In my off-duty time, interestingly, I took a job with the Hilton Hotels Corporation. I was the director of training for all the Hilton Hotels. That little stint that I had done in ROTC, teaching leadership to cadets, led me into a business consulting job when I was out in Hawaii. That led me to do some consulting with the Hilton Corporation. We were training some of their executives in leadership. That led to the Hilton offering me a job to run all of their training programs at their three resorts in the Hawaiian Islands, which is fun.
I did that for four years while we were there at Hickam. My daughter was born there in Hawaii. At the time, it was time for us to think about moving to a new assignment. My husband was up for a PCS. It was time for me and my career path to think about volunteering or applying to go to my mid-level professional military school, Air Command and Staff College. I applied as a Reservist. I was accepted to go to Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. I was one of about ten Reservists that went full-time. My husband was able to get an assignment at the Air War College in Montgomery. We're all together with our new baby.
We spent the next three years in Montgomery. One year, I was in school. I was a Reserve Officer at the Pentagon for two years but lived in Montgomery while my husband was finishing up his tour. While we were there in Montgomery, my son was born. Now we have two kids and I took a job with the MITRE Corporation that had a site there in Montgomery and was doing a lot of engineering or at one of the software factories there East of town at a place called Gunter Air Force Base.
My Reserve job was at the Pentagon. I would travel back and forth and we made it work. That led to my husband retiring. He retired after the assignment. He had 22 years in at that time. We decided to come back to New England. We bought a house and I kept going. I stayed in the Reserves. I stayed with MITRE for years. I did Reserve duty in Europe and I did Reserve duty down at Barksdale, Louisiana, supporting. At the time, the Air Force was trying to figure out about starting an Air Force Cyber Command. I was on the ground floor of thinking through how we were going to do that and what cyber operations would look like.
I had an opportunity to go to Europe and I worked at NATO for four years in The Hague in Holland. My job there was to work command and control systems and coordinate interfaces and interactions between US command and control and NATO command and control. I had an Engineering degree and understood how these command and control systems were built because I worked for MITRE. It was a big help in that role.
I found that throughout my career, my engineering background and the different jobs that I did always complimented each other. One thing always led to another. When the Air Force needed some new ideas or new areas that it was exploring, my ability to raise my hand and my willingness to try it out and to go to a new assignment in a different location.
I think it allowed me to expand my repertoire and create opportunities for myself that I wouldn't have otherwise created, which is how I ended up back down at Barksdale. When the Air Force was looking to figure out, “Are we going to have a cyber command? How are we going to figure out how to defend ourselves from a cyber-attack?” They needed people who would go down to Barksdale for weeks on end and create this new command. I was one of a small team that was able to do that. Meanwhile, I still have my MITRE job back home and a husband and two kids. I traveled back and forth and tried to make these things work. At one point, we thought we were going to have a cyber-command.
[bctt tweet="Never turn down an opportunity that’s in front of you." username=""]
There were some issues with some B-52s and nuclear weapons. We realized that we would probably have a global strike command and not a cyber command, which is okay because we needed to take care of our nuclear surety back in the 2000 timeframe. It was ironic because many of those B-52s and much of the nuclear capability from a B-52 standpoint were emanating out of Barksdale Air Force Base, which is ironic that we were down there. That took me to help the Air Force figure out how to integrate cyberspace operations with space operations, which took me out to Colorado Springs in the 2010 timeframe. That led to the standup of the 24th Air Force, which became the 16th Air Force, the first numbered Air Force.
The first military operation focused on cyber operations. It was a strong contributor to the standup of US Cyber Command back in the day. That led me to think about retiring, but one job has led to another. The Air Force asked me to come on full-time orders and be the first Air Force Chief Data Officer because I had had a background in not networks but computing systems and applications and data. I'd worked in the industry. It was for MITRE, then as an independent consultant for years in New England. I came on as the Air Force Chief Data Officer. I did that job for two years to help the force figure out how to make data more accessible and useful across all of its mission areas.
One of the critical mission areas for the use of data is now in the space mission area. General Raymond asked me to come back out to Colorado Springs and help him meet his data initiatives for space. I did that. I moved out to Colorado Springs for a couple of years. My family stayed back home in New England. I traveled back and forth and helped the Air Force ultimately stand up the Space Force and I became the Space Force First Chief Technology and Innovation Officer responsible, not for data and infrastructure for the Space Force but also all of the technology, the SMT, the innovation activities in the space force, which is the pinnacle of my career.
I finished that job in the year 2021. It was time for me to retire after several years in service, 27 as a Reservist. To clarify on the introduction there, I retired out of the Air Force Reserves, but my last assignment was with the United States Space Force. I never transitioned from the Air Force to the Space Force, but I was certainly a proud plank holder for the standup of the Space Force and was proud to retire and be retired by the Chief of Space Operations General, J. Raymond, under the United States Space Force flag, which was cool.
You had a couple of stints, so I understand where you are a Reservist. You have your civilian job, MITRE, some other things you were doing non-Air Force but typically, the Reservist is like a few weeks, a year, in the weekend, a month, that's the classic way it's advertised. You had some non-traditional Reservists’ stints. It sounds like if you were down in Barksdale and out in Colorado Springs, separated from family. How did that work for you? How did you make it work?
It was a unique career. I was once considered an individual mobilization augmentee, an IMA. Essentially, what that means is I was assigned to an active-duty unit. I had an active duty boss in each one of my Reserve assignments throughout my Reserve career. I was never a unit reservice. I was never traditional what you would think of a weekend Reservist. My assignments were always attached to the active duty organization. There are about 2,000 IMAs in the career field that I'm in communications. We fill in the gap. These are Reservists that pick up the slack when the active-duty counterpart has to be deployed or away on extended orders or gone away to school. The Reservist can step in, pick up the slack, and pick up the job. That's essentially what an IMA does.
The fact that I could go on and off orders and spend so much time doing these GC interesting kinds of jobs. First of all, my family was very supportive and willing to allow me to take these assignments and continue to progress in my career. My husband did a great job of taking care of the kids and holding down the home front. There were times when I was away for weeks or months. There would be times when I'd have assignments that took me away for months and almost up to a year at a time. Now, I would come home every weekend or every other weekend, but it was a rough time there for a period of time.
You were in a military environment, people and a regular private-sector job who consider commuting. I think people underestimate how hard it is to do that, to be on a plane either away from your family and going back to them on an irregular basis or seeing them on the weekends and getting on a plane on a Monday morning or even a Sunday night and coming back on Thursday night or Friday. Doing that again and again is a tough existence. I credit you for figuring out a way to make that work with your husband, the kids and work and all of that.
It takes a lot of communication and a lot of coordination and a lot of patients. We made it work. I have to also give a lot of credit to MITRE. MITRE was very flexible and supportive. MITRE is very supportive of the Reserves in general. There are a lot of Reservists that work for MITRE. They would give me time off to be able to do my Reserve duty. There were times when I took a leave of absence for a couple of different occasions from MITRE when I knew I had to be gone for extended periods of time that went beyond the normal military time off. Those two factors helped contribute to my ability to serve.
You have an interesting mix of military time and academia. We haven't gotten to your later time at Harvard, but I know you also worked at Harvard for a while in addition to your teaching work at MIT when you were an ROTC instructor. For those who don't know, MITRE is a government-focused research institution supporting the military and other forms of the US Government. There's a very close tie there, but it is a private sector organization and there's that true private sector, what you were doing at Hilton, for example. You had a lot of different environments. How do you compare and contrast what it was like to work and to lead in those different environments? What's similar? What's different?
The fact that I had all of those different experiences was a great benefit because the diversity of environments and problem sets that I got to work with and people that I got to work with, I think, allowed me to see things in different ways. I can bring new ideas into any environment that I am in because I have come from something different. That was very helpful.
At the same time, there are a lot of patterns that you see in any organization. You can appreciate the diversity and the differentness of different environments and areas where you work. You also tend to see similar patterns. Therefore, you can apply approaches in unique ways but also you can understand maybe how things could be unfolding because you've seen a little bit similar to that before, if that makes any sense.
I always found that it was a benefit to me to have many different activities going on and be able to float in and out of these different environments. I never felt too constrained by one environment or the other. I always felt like I could contribute something of value because of where I had been before. That was very beneficial, but I also think that my leadership experiences in the military were unsurpassed. It allowed me to apply leadership in my civilian career in ways that’s not necessarily cultivated as much or as early on in an individual's career.
As I mentioned, I was given a lot of leadership responsibilities very early on in my military career. I went on to lead large groups and squadrons and teams of folks throughout my military career. I could always bring those experiences into my civilian job and lead in ways that I would take advantage of leadership opportunities. Without those leadership opportunities necessarily being formally defined, I was aware of the role I could step into. I think that many organizations in a civilian environment don't necessarily cultivate their leaders as well as they could and miss an opportunity, especially early on, to build leaders. Organizations have gotten much better at this over the years. Leadership development has progressed significantly in the last 20 to 30 years.
It is a big part of many organizations now from day one when individuals come into the organization, but it wasn't so much that way when I was coming up. I felt very fortunate that my military leadership experiences had given me insight and inspiration to step into leadership roles when I saw them in my civilian capacity. That allowed me to excel there as well.
One of the questions I like to ask people is, how intentional and how opportunistic were you about your career? Listening to the conversation, there's been a lot of sounds like opportunism in your case.
Very much so. I often say that my career was very much unscripted. I was fortunate to have opportunities of put in front of me. I had the willingness and support of my family to take advantage of the opportunities. One opportunity led to another. Certainly, I looked for opportunities that I thought could maximize my impact or make a difference, but it was very much unscripted. I went for the jobs that I thought I could make an impact on and the ones that I thought I would enjoy. It would be fun that I could learn something new and different. I didn't want to do it because it seemed like the next job to do.
In fact, I never did that. I went after the jobs that I found interesting. I'll never forget when I went to take the job in Europe and work at NATO. I had come out of the next level of Professional Military education. I had gone to my Professional Military education full-time twice in my career. One is a mid-career major down in Montgomery. I went away for a year down to Washington DC for my senior service school, senior-level military education, keeping in line with what I thought I was important to do and what I wanted to do in my career in terms of my educational background and achievements. It turned out that I was very successful in that senior-level school.
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I graduated at the top of my class. It was mainly because I was away. It was almost like I was back in college. You’re batching it, very focused, going to class, having a good time and plans and doing everything that came my way. I ended up graduating at the top of the class. The job that I wanted to do after that was to go to Europe.
I'll never forget one of my mentors called me up and said, “Are you sure you want to take this job in Europe?” I said, “Yes, I want to take the job in Europe.” He said, “Why do you want to take the job in Europe?” I said, “I've never been to Europe. This is going to be a great opportunity for me to go to Europe. I've been about everywhere else in the world, but I have not yet done a job in Europe. I want to make a difference here and I want to work with NATO. I'm going to do it.”
I don't think my mentor at the time thought that that was the next best job for me, particularly given that I had graduated at the top of my class, but I did it anyway. I had a blast. That job led to one thing after another and my career turned out okay. I feel like my career was intentional in the sense that I knew there were certain things that would certainly keep me competitive at the next level, but for the most part, it was opportunistic in that I went for the jobs that I thought I could make the most impact in and that I thought would be the most fun.
Back and forth, you had with your mentor. You’re describing it. It's great to have mentors, very helpful and to have those sources of input about what to do in your career, but at the same time, it's your career. You're going to make the decisions that you feel are right for you. That's where people get a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. They do things because other people tell them that they should. Not necessarily because they feel they should or want to.
I have a lot of passion for my job in Europe, so much so that I took my children with me. They were very little at the time and I had been away for a year going to school. When I graduated, I decided I was going to go over to Europe for the summer to get acclimated to the new job. They would know me. I would know them. I knew I would have to go back to work for MITRE, so I wouldn't be able to go to Europe and live in Europe for an extended period of time, but I wanted to go for the summer.
I convinced my husband to let me take the kids since I've been away from them for a year. They were, at the time, 6 and 4. We made it work. I put them in daycare during the day. I worked during the day and picked them up in the evening. We toured around. We went to Heidelberg, to Paris for a weekend and we had a blast. I think it was four weeks of their life that they'll never forget. They still talk about it now.
Having been an ex-pat, my kids weren't with us. They were already grown at that point, but we certainly have a lot of friends who have had kids here and the kids benefit from that international experience. It gives you a different world view than growing up in one place or in one country all through your childhood. It's great that your kids had that chance. When do you feel like you had yourself figured out or knew enough about yourself to know what you wanted to do? I think for most people, that doesn't happen when they're in college or even after they're in college.
No, I think I'm still figuring it out. Now, I'm onto the next phase of life and opportunity and fun. Certainly, as I became more senior in my military career and I'd had a lot of civilian experiences under my belt. As you mentioned, I worked for MITRE. I was a department head. I ran teams of about 200 people there. I left MITRE and started a consulting firm. I worked at Harvard and while I wasn't directly responsible for large groups of people, I helped accomplish some significant IT strategy changes there at Harvard, which opened up a lot of doors for my business and a lot of other higher ed institutions and businesses in New England.
As I became a general officer and was handed a lot of responsibilities to run teams, directorates and commands of tens of thousands of people, you started to get comfortable with your ability to make decisions and to take a lot of information in. You've seen enough of these problems come around, but then they start to look a little bit familiar and you feel pretty good about your ability to address the issue. I was always very pleased to have this realization that the more senior you become, the more experienced you are and the more confident you are in your ability to solve the problem or make a decision.
The more willing you are or should be to let somebody else do it to coach and mentor others coming up, to know that this is an opportunity to help others grow, help others learn and help others step outside their comfort zone. I've always been one to put myself in new places and new positions that I've never been in before. I'm always willing to stretch myself and try something different and new. When I see something that is very comfortable and familiar to me, I'm also one that is very willing to step back and give a hint to my deputy. I make sure that I'm delegating it down and helping others learn how to lead and grow, guiding and mentoring them and coaching them along the way.
I'm sure you had ample opportunities as a senior person in the military to speak to junior people, whether enlisted or officers. What are the big pieces of wisdom that you wanted them to take away from your leadership experience?
Never turn down an opportunity that's in front of you. Do the best job that you can do. You'll never have all the information that you'll want. Make the best decision you can with the information that you have and move on. When you get more information, make a new decision. Don't get stuck in paralysis but be willing to make decisions and move forward. Be willing to try new things. Don't be afraid to fail. Don't be afraid to stretch yourself. Don't be afraid to try something that you've never tried before. Recognize that everything you've done and everything you bring to the table adds value. Speak up. Don't worry about being the only young person, only female or whatever in the room.
Recognize that you're the only you in the room and nobody else in that room or at that table sees things the way you do. If you see something because of your experienced, your insight gives you the ability to offer something of value. Bring it forward because we need that. We need to hear that and be confident in what we have to offer and seek to learn and take insight from others to grow and build upon every experience we have.
Speaking of growth, what was the consistent strength for you through the course of your career to date? What's an area that you worked on developing and how did you do that?
There's been several. One of the areas that I would always spend time and think about and be willing to volunteer at was public speaking. I think it's important to be able to put your thoughts together in front of a group. It's important to be able to engage an audience. It's important to convey a meaningful set of points and bring a room alive and have some interesting things to talk about. I would always raise my hand whenever there was a public speaking opportunity and I still do that now. I still look for those opportunities to share my thoughts, put together a talk or dive into a topic because it's important to be able to convey and communicate at a level of understanding and impact. That's one for sure.
I would say another one is their constantly wanting to lead and engage people in a direct, impactful and personable way, meeting people where they are, engaging people in a way that helps them know that you're there. You're authentic with them, where they are, what they're trying to do, and what we're trying to do together in the mission. You are continuously thinking about driving the organization forward and doing it in a way that is a direct engagement with people in your team.
Oftentimes, I think it's easy to get very focused and lost in your own set of goals and objectives, forgetting that a whole group of people is here trying to do this with us. Each one of them is trying to make a difference and we've got to be able to engage each other in the process. I still do it now. Still very much honing my ability to engage people and engage the team, define the vision, and move things forward in a personable way where everybody can get there together.
What's next for you in your post-military life?
I've been doing a lot of independent consulting since I retired, which has been a lot of fun. I worked with a lot of companies, large, medium and small. I consult on software development and innovation topics and how you bring innovation into the government. Consulted the areas of data and analytics and how do we think about better ways to use our data. Obviously, because of my position in the Air Force supporting the Space Force, I spent a lot of time talking about space and space operations. Also, what the space community needs and how space is trying to innovate and the criticality that we have to defend our assets and systems in space and who we bring technology to bear to do that. I'm enjoying all of that quite a bit. I'm spending a lot more time at home, which is great. It's long overdue.
Given the amount of time that you've been away over the years, it's got to be nice to have a clear home base. Are there any particular business books, career books or podcasts that you've read or listened to that you think are particularly good?
This is the thing that I need to start doing more of, is getting back to reading and picking up a lot more of those great business books and leadership books that I have not been able to get to over the years, but that's what I'm looking forward to.
It’s good to put some fiction in there too and not to make it all nonfiction. Any final thoughts you want to share that we haven't covered?
I'll tell you our careers go by so fast. I think that the parting thought that I would give here is to make the most out of every single day. You've got to lean-in in your jobs, try big, bold things, take on those big, bold new ideas and engage each other in the process because we only get these things done together and to have a lot of fun. Take advantage of all those opportunities, as we talked about before, and do the things that matter the most to you. Have passion in what you do. Do the things that you're going to be passionate about and everything else will fall into place.
There's a lot of truth to that. On that note, we'll wrap. Kim, thank you. I appreciate it. Lots of great advice that you've provided and guidance through the course of our conversation. Thank you again for being victim number two in my fledgling career-focused show. Going back to what we're up to in general, if you're ready to take control of your career, you can visit PathWise.io. If you want more regular insights, we have a newsletter that you can sign up for on the website or you can subscribe to follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Have a good rest of your day.
About Kim Crider
Major General Kim Crider (US Air Force, retired) is a 35-year veteran of the US military. Her distinguished military career was capped by her involvement in the formation of the US Space Force, acting as its first Chief Technology and Innovation Officer. She also served as the Chief Data Officer for the US Air Force, was involved in exploring the creation of a Cyber Command, worked with NATO, and acted as an ROTC instructor at MIT, among other military posts in the US and abroad. While acting as a military reservist, she also worked for a number of years at MITRE (a government-sponsored research firm) and spent time working with Harvard University as a CIO / Executive IT Consultant and as a partner with VelocityHUB. She is currently an independent consultant focused on helping clients with digital innovation initiatives. Kim is a graduate of Duke University, where she majored in Electrical Engineering and was part of the Air Force ROTC program. She has an MBA from Western New England College and a graduate certification in Organizational Behavior from Harvard University.