If not for the ankle he broke during the summer before the start of his junior year in high school, Steven Roberts Jr. would probably be playing professional basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers and following in the footsteps of his all-time favorite player, Magic Johnson.
Instead of playing varsity basketball and getting an athletic scholarship for college, he got a job as a draftsman in an engineering office during his junior year at J. M. Hanks High School in El Paso, Texas, and learned to draw electrical overlays on architectural plans.
When he graduated from high school, there was no money for college and no scholarship. His parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother struggled to feed a house full of kids. To pay for his books and tuition at El Paso Community College, he worked full time as a draftsman.
When he got serious about his education, Roberts transferred to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, majoring in electrical engineering. He took out loans and delivered pizza five nights a week to pay for school. One of his community college professors had shared that on average, only one person in his class would graduate with a four-year degree. He was intent on being that one person. [MLRMCUA1]
While attending the university, he entered into a cooperative education program at the White Sands Test Center (WSTC), which gave him valuable hands-on experience outside of the classroom. A stipulation of the program was that he had to be an engineering student, and if he wanted to keep the job, he had to graduate with an engineering degree.
In 2005, he graduated from the university with honors and a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. He went from being a student trainee to an intern and then to an electronics engineer. He progressed from operating test equipment and collecting manual data to leading a small team of operators and data collectors to being the test conductor who led all field activity for a test.
When he was given the opportunity to be a test officer and lead an entire program, he jumped on it. Over the next couple years, he went from being the test officer for one short range air defense system to the test officer for almost all of the short range air defense systems at the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range.
When his former branch chief retired three years ago, Roberts applied for the position. He didn’t think he was ready, and he certainly never thought he would get it—he said he only applied to get the practice. But he got it, and today he is the chief of the Tactical Systems Branch in the Materiel Test Directorate at WSTC. As chief, he leads a team of 20 test officers and test conductors, four technicians and 15 contractors in planning and executing a variety of test missions related to open air missile testing.
The mission of the Tactical Systems Branch is to test weapon systems before they are fielded to the Army to ensure they will work as intended, are safe for Soldiers to operate, and are reliable. Each week, without fail, his team performs open air missile testing on long range precision fire weapons, such as field artillery and short range air defense systems that defend against threats from cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, rockets, artillery, and mortars. According to Roberts, an open air laboratory is a much better place to find limitations in a new capability than in theater when a Soldier’s life may depend on it.
For Roberts, the biggest accomplishment of his career has been becoming a branch chief. Oftentimes during his career progression, he started with no experience and left as the subject matter expert. But he doesn’t believe he got the branch chief position because he’s particularly brilliant—just dedicated, determined, hardworking, and incredibly lucky. His grandparents once told him, “If you have to be a ditch digger, then you be the best damn ditch digger there ever was.” Whatever he did, he was determined to be good at it and to do it well. He believes he got the job because people pay attention when you’re putting forth your best efforts to get the job done. He put in the extra effort and the right people noticed.
His extra efforts have also earned him special recognition. In 2021, he received the Civilian Service Commendation Medal for exceptional performance while supporting Project Convergence 21 and special recognition for exceptional customer service in 2016 for his support of the Indirect Fire Protection Capability Test.
Not bad for a young man who grew up on the rough side of El Paso and once dreamed of becoming a hoops superstar.