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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Aug. 26, 2022

How the SFLC’s Lisa Parks advanced from GS-1 to GS-15  

By Kathy Murray.

Lisa Parks has huge responsibilities. As the chief of the Information Services Branch at the Surface Forces Logistics Center (SFLC), she’s tasked with authorizing the platform information technology (PIT) used on every cutter and boat in the Coast Guard. That means not only knowing what computer equipment is on which ship but overseeing assessments to ensure adequate security controls protect these systems from cyber incidents and attacks.  

It’s a critically important role, and one that Parks insists she could not have foreseen when she came to the Coast Guard Yard in 1989 as a high school intern. “Never in a million years did I imagine I’d be here,” she said.  

To her supervisors and coworkers, however, Park’s steady rise from GS-1 to GS-15, while rare in government work, is hardly a surprise.  

“The first time I met her years ago, I felt like here’s someone who is going to be one of our rock stars,” said Jim Lane SFLC executive director and Park’s current boss. “She was all-in on supporting the fleet, attention to detail, and superior customer support from day one.” Adds Capt. Paul Stukus, current SFLC commander, who worked with Parks as a product line manager from 2013 to 2016: “If I could clone her, I certainly would. Her enthusiasm is remarkable.”   

How did Parks get to where she is today? And what lessons can other civilians working for the Coast Guard learn from her? With military members regularly rotating positions, these are critical questions.  “We’re the ones who provide the continuity,” said Dawn Thornton, a civilian who started shortly after Parks and now oversees SFLC’s budget spending as chief of financial execution at the Assets Logistics Division, Financial Operations Branch (ALD-FOB). “Plus, we have the historical knowledge, too.” In practical terms, that translates into things getting done, notes, Jonathan Heineman, who has worked with Parks since 2006. “The joke on our team is that if you tell someone who you work for, the answer is always, ‘if this is for Lisa, no problem.’”   

Here’s Park’s story and some lessons she learned along the way.  

Be open to trying something new  

The Coast Guard has been building and repairing ships at its legendary Baltimore Yard for more than a century. Parks grew up 15 minutes away, though she acknowledges that back then, as a junior at Chesapeake High School and a typical teenager: “I never knew the place existed until I started to work there.”  

But the opportunity was too good to pass up. At the time, Chesapeake and other area high schools took part in a work study program that placed students with the Coast Guard, National Security Agency, and other federal employers to get work experience. Parks accepted a GS-1 position, working part-time, and soon found herself typing up memos and purchase requests at what was then the Supply Center at Curtis Bay (SCCB) Maryland.  

“It was a whole different world from what I was used to,” she said. “People were so nice and polite, saying ‘good morning, how are you?’ It was like the twilight zone.”  

The Coast Guard liked Parks, too, promoting her to a full-time GS-3, pull clerk, in July 1990, right after graduation. She’d earn an annual salary of $12,982 a year and was assigned to what would later become the Business Operations Division.  

Work hard and ask for more to do  

When Parks started, most employees didn’t have a computer at their desk. Instead, everything was typed on a typewriter, recorded in logbooks, and inserted into folders that would be passed around for processing and signatures. There was also a big mainframe computer that housed the command’s supply systems.  

Parks liked her job because her bosses could move her around as needed. “I wanted to keep busy,” she said. “When I finished my work, I used to go around the whole branch, asking if anyone needed help.  That’s how I’d learn new stuff.”   

Even today, she maintains that attitude. “Someone said to me recently, ‘you're so approachable and you don’t ever act like something is beneath you.‘  I took that as a big compliment.”   

Become an expert  

In the early 1990s, the Coast Guard started issuing the first workstations, which were Unisys computers. They were large by today’s standards but could still fit on a desktop. Along with the computers came reems of paper and documents. These turned out to be instruction books on how to use new technology.   

Bored, Parks volunteered to punch holes in the pages and put the books in binders.  

And then she read every single one.  

She learned to use all the applications. How to do office graphics. How to design documents. Soon, she was teaching colleagues. “I didn’t set out to become an expert,” she says. “But I probably taught everyone at the Yard how to use something. Back then, people didn’t know how to use a mouse.”  

Over the next couple of years, she became a trainer on all the apps and systems administration. She was the go-to person to set up users, do back-ups, restore lost files. “We did everything, installed computers, pulled cables, put networks together,” she says. “A woman once came out of her office and said I shouldn’t be pulling cables through the ceiling because it wasn’t in my position description. But it needed to be done so I did it.”  

Track your progress and don’t be afraid to take chances 

While Parks was seemingly volunteering to do anything, she also carefully tracked her progress. It’s a practice she continues today. An excel spreadsheet shows every promotion, pay increase, performance award, and career move she’s made at the Coast Guard from her first day to the present.  

In February 1994, after Parks had worked at the Yard for almost 5 years, an entry on her spread sheet notes that she moved down a level to GS-5 from GS-6.  Essentially, she opted to take a down grade for placement into a career ladder position GS-5/7/9/11 in a different section within the branch, where she’d be a team leader. The payoff was she could be promoted from a GS-5 to a GS-11 in three years. “It was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make,” Parks said. “I loved where I was, but the eventual pay increase in this new job would benefit my growing family.” 

Parks threw herself into her new position, documenting business practices and beta testing new databases and applications, among other duties.  But something was off. Fortunately, her supervisor saw it, too, and opted to move her back before the year was over. “He knew my heart was in my old section,” she said. “I was very lucky to get back to where I really wanted to work. Lesson learned: It is not always about the money!” 

Address areas that need improvement  

Today, Parks has a reputation telling it like it is and not sugarcoating things.  But that wasn’t always the case.   

“When I was younger, I was more afraid to say something,” she says. “I might think it. Or tell someone on the side. But it probably took me four to five years to start speaking up and standing up for myself.”  

That’s part of the reason she dreaded becoming a supervisor. “I didn’t want to have to be mean to somebody,” she says, “or have uncomfortable conversations.” But since holding people accountable came with the territory, she didn’t have much choice.  

Fortunately, she found a mentor in her supervisor at the time. Lt. Bill Pickett taught her how to address people who weren’t performing. He also coached her on what to say and why it was important. “I was nervous, but I did it,” Parks said.  

These days Parks receives high marks as a boss. Heineman, for example, praises her leadership and how she shields her people from outside pressures and recognizes the good work they have done.   

Parks says her aim as a supervisor is to help build up the people who work for her. “I want to get them in higher positions,” she said. “I would love to have someone ready to take over my position when I retire.”  

Take on projects that challenge you 

Before Parks was tasked with getting the IT Systems for the Coast Guard’s entire surface fleet authorized to operate, she’d tackled other high visibility projects. For example, in 2015, Parks was requested as a by-name candidate to fill a critical position in support of OPERATION CYBER SHIELD. This was an emergent contingency and a mission critical need.  When Parks reported to Coast Guard Headquarters, she learned she would be assigned to assist a command in Chesapeake Virginia in obtaining an Authorization to Operate (ATO) for their General Support System.  

“I was going to be working on a system that I knew absolutely nothing about,” Parks said. “This was definitely out of my comfort zone.”  

As it turned out, she was able to motivate the team to complete all remaining tasks associated with finalizing the ATO process in two weeks.  So, she was promptly assigned to assist another command in the same manner. Two weeks later, that task was also complete.   

Two years later, Parks was put in charge of the Data Center Consolidation (DCC) project, essentially relocating the SFLC’s General Support system to the Coast Guard Operations Systems Center in West Virginia. It was a huge undertaking that involved coordinating with two commands to move 30 servers and time backups, restorations of files, and configurations changes, but Parks and her team still managed to finish ahead of schedule. 

Set ambitious goals, but don’t be afraid to revise them  

Amidst her impressive achievements, Parks has also learned how to change course when a goal isn’t working. Like many civilian and military employees at the Coast Guard, for example, Parks thought additional education might help her advance.  Initially, she tried to take classes that would benefit her work, like public speaking, which proved useful for teaching software applications. She also took calculus because she loved math. But at a certain point, she notes, juggling work and family just became too much.  

“I was working nights and weekends to minimize downtown for our users and was missing my children growing up,” she said.  “I realized my career had been advancing without a degree and throughout my career I had seen where my job experience proved more valuable than a degree,” she says. “So, I stopped the pursuit.”  

In 2021, Parks successfully met all requirements and was qualified as a Certified Information Security Manager.  This certification was instrumental in her being selected for the GS-15, Information Services Branch Chief and Authorizing Official’s Designated Representative. 

What’s next?  

Having reached the senior level at the SFLC, Parks doesn’t expect to go anywhere anytime soon. “We are just getting started on the platform IT and we have a long way to go,” she says. “We’re so busy, I’m doing 10 things at once.”   

She’s a huge Oriole’s fan and spends most of her free time with family, her husband, Joe, of 30 years, her two sons, two stepsons, and seven grandchildren. One thing she’d like to do is help reinstate the internship program that brought her to the Coast Guard.   

“It’s an incredible way to help people get started,” she said. “I was extremely lucky I got placed in the IT department. That’s grown more than anybody ever expected.”  

That’s true, or course. But Parks also believes any civilian employee can forge a successful path with the right strategy. It helps if you work hard, meet challenges, and develop expertise.  But don’t be afraid to address your weaknesses, take a step back to gain additional experience, or rethink ambitious goals if they’re not working.  

You can find more information about civilian careers at the Coast Guard here.