Nelson Keeler

Mr. Nelson "Ned" Keeler, director of the U.S. Army Communication-Electronics Command's Software Engineering Center, moving on to a new assignment as the Deputy to the Command General of the U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon, Ga., after nearly five years with the command.

Keeler leaves his position November 30, 2012.

He has made a long career of federal service, most recently as a civilian with the US Army, but he began this journey many years ago as a Coast Guard cadet. Keeler, like many other high school students, researched his options on how to pay for college. He applied for and received full scholarships, including one to Yale University. It was the service academies which attracted him most and he credits his mother with encouraging him to seek educational opportunities. "She was very focused on me going to college, so I looked at the military academies as the ultimate scholarship… When you graduated four years later, you had a degree and you had a profession."

"I had an innate love of the sea," Keeler recalled, "and I thought about the Naval Academy." A visit to the school left him disheartened though. Coming from a small dairy farming town in Connecticut, he admitted "that as beautiful as it was, and as impressed as I was, it felt too big. So then I was kind of in a dilemma."

Luckily, not long after his visit to the Naval Academy, Keeler received an offer from the Coast Guard Academy, which is about one fifth the size of the Navy's campus in Annapolis, Md. "I had this fixation on going to an academy, so I accepted." Keeler spent four years at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., earning a degree in electrical engineering.
His first position as an officer was much farther from home. Stationed on a ship out of Seattle, Wash., Keeler said, "Of the 18 months I was on the ship, we were away from home port 13 of those months." While he enjoyed the service, he had gotten married right after graduation, and felt like he was a little too far away from home all the time. This led Keeler to rethink how he would spend his time as a Coast Guard Officer.

The Coast Guard had an aviation arm, so Keeler decided to shoot for that career path. He knew it would keep him home more as well as come with the opportunity for higher pay. "I thought flying would be a little more exciting than being on a ship. It turned out to be that, so I made a career of it."

During his tenure as a Coast Guard Officer, Keeler had a chance to broker international treaties, the most famous of which was signed at the 1988 Reagan-Gorbechev Summit in Moscow. The impetus for this treaty was the shooting down of Korean Air Flight 007 over the Sahkalin Islands for entering the restricted airspace of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The flight had gotten substantially off course. "One of the reasons that it had gotten so far off course," he recalled, "was that it was navigating only with inertial navigation which is a dead-reckoning system; so it had no active updates."

Keeler said that he was asked to negotiate and be the head of a U.S. delegation to negotiate a treaty with the Russians to inter-operate the American LORAN system with the Soviet CHAYKA system. LORAN, which stands for long range navigation, and CHAYKA, which is the Russian word for seagull, were similar terrestrial radio navigation systems. "Most of us suspected that the Russians had copied our LORAN technology to build their CHAYKA system because, actually, it did nothing but take a host nation agreement to learn how to operate them together." As the head of that delegation for all three years, he had the opportunity to attend the Moscow Summit and even initial the agreement. "Of course," he said, "it was the President and the Premier that signed it. But it was exciting to be there." The transmission of the Russian- American, LORAN-CHAYKA signals were terminated on August 1, 2010, after more than twenty years after the signing of the treaty.

He reminisced that when he was getting a degree in electrical engineering, it was the way you got into computers. In those days "there wasn't such a thing as computer science, computer engineering and that sort of stuff. I found that in my doctoral work, computers were the only way I could solve the equations that I was working on. So, as you look at my career after that, either as a systems engineer or computer engineer, those were the arenas I found myself working in once I left the service."

At both NASA and the Volpe National Transportation Center, as well as with private industry, Keeler continued to work in software and computer-based systems like he did during his tenure in the Coast Guard. Coming to Software Engineering Center was a goal for Keeler, but one that he wasn't sure he'd be able to achieve. When he saw the advertisement for the job as the Director of the Software Engineering Center and said "it felt like the perfect fit with my IT background and all my other experience." However, he also felt like the SEC position might be out of reach because he had never worked for the Department of Defense.

Looking back to when Keeler took the helm as director of the organization, it had a total direct and reimbursable budget of approximately $800 million per year. Contrasting that with last year's budget, Keeler said, "We exceeded $1.4 billion; almost a $600 million growth in four years. The only real reason behind it is we deliver a vital and necessary service. You don't get given that. You have to deliver excellence, you have to deliver on time, you have to deliver within budget. But that became the manifesto and it's worked." He credits a philosophy of customer service management, a people-focused workforce, and the formation of a strategic plan with long-term vision for the organization that supported this growth and success. Focusing the SEC on a future that included sustainment as well as immediate tactical needs, meant actively managing these objectives on a monthly and quarterly basis.

Keeler has a fairly specific management philosophy that has guided his career progression. "You go to a new job with an agenda of what you think you can accomplish, and at some juncture you accomplish that… you're either going to do it in three to five years or you're not going to do it." The real decision making begins when you have to determine whether you want to just "ride along, happy that everything is just like you like it, or you set a new goal for yourself and look for a new job. If you don't do it, then the organization ought to get rid of you. So either way you ought to move."

In his case, Keeler has always opted for new challenges. It explains his transition from Coast Guard officer to NASA employee; from private industry back to government work; and all the way to his current Senior Executive Service positions.
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Page last updated Wed December 12th, 2012 at 00:00