AUSTIN, Texas – William “Willie” Nelson knew he wanted to be a pilot when he joined the ROTC program at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1980s. His father had been a fighter pilot, and his grandfather had served in the Army Air Corps. Nelson was eager to serve his country in the same capacity.
When he commissioned into the Air Force upon graduation, however, the military wasn’t looking to fill multiple pilot slots. Instead, they needed space and missile officers. Nelson quickly reoriented his focus, embarking on what would become a rewarding and multi-faceted career within the Department of Defense – one that includes 20 years as an officer and 18 years and counting as a civilian.
“I have a love to serve,” Nelson said. “I enjoy being part of the government. I enjoy being part of something bigger than we are individually.”
Now a member of the Army’s Senior Executive Service, Nelson serves as Deputy to the Commanding General of Army Futures Command (AFC), lending direction and technical expertise to command strategy and program activities. He is the command’s most senior civilian advisor and works closely with general officers to execute AFC’s mission of transforming the Army to ensure war-winning future readiness.
Leaning on an extensive background in science, technology and engineering, Nelson specifically provides oversight to technology-oriented downtrace organizations, including the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, Army Applications Laboratory, Army Artificial Intelligence Integration Center and Army Software Factory. He regularly fields requests for support, information and direction, ensuring the Army’s leading research labs and centers have what they need to forge the future.
“We have an awesome responsibility in the command: to provide a function and a capability for the Army,” Nelson said. “We’re responsible to transform the Army, and how we fight, and what we fight with, in order to make the Army the most capable warfighting military in the world.”
Nelson additionally guides AFC civilian policies and talent management initiatives, seeking to “advance, train and ensure that our civilians are growing in the right areas” and that “they’re contributing in a way that they feel is meaningful.” The work frequently involves resolving challenges, rolling out new procedures and integrating more modern systems for the civilian staff who make up more than 90% of the AFC staffing footprint.
“It’s an incredibly talented, incredibly diverse group of folks,” Nelson said, noting that civilian roles include but are not limited to resource managers, STEM experts, requirement writers, engineers, and operations and research analysts.
“I feel my measure of success in this job is how well we’ve prioritized the development of our workforce and helped them achieve what they’re trying to achieve,” he added.
The opportunity to work across disciplines and on so many pressing topics – from analysis of the future operating environment to future force requirements to prototype experimentation – is something Nelson greatly enjoys. While it can be challenging at times to quickly switch gears from one issue to another of an entirely different nature, he always aims to be as present as possible and finds the work to be highly intellectually stimulating.
“I really thrive, I think, in that ever-changing environment,” Nelson said. “I enjoy working on teams that solve hard problems.”
He is also driven to help the Army fulfill its goal of delivering the Army of 2030 and designing the Army of 2040.
“We must deliver the capability we’ve promised this country and the Americans that we would deliver; our warfighters are counting on it,” Nelson said.
“My hope is that we get 2040 right, or as close to right, as we can, and that in that process we’re able to help change the Army to an Army that can be more agile and embrace change.”
In reflecting on his own career in the military, Nelson understands the value of embracing flexibility and adaptability – and the opportunity that can come with it.
After commissioning as a space and missile officer, Nelson served as a space launch director and later led groundbreaking engineering projects at the Missile Defense Agency and the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, where he helped facilitate the first successful hypersonic flight test for the U.S. military.
As a DoD civilian, he received advanced leadership, management and policy training at Harvard and Oxford, served as Director of AFC’s Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing/Space Cross-Functional Team, and was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology and Chief Scientist at the Office of the United States Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Nelson said. “I’ve enjoyed a wonderful career. I’ve had the best leadership I could have ever imagined.”
He also sees how young people can benefit from the education, training, team support and sense of purpose a career in the military offers.
“I think today’s Army – both in uniform and as a civilian – is everything you want to make it,” Nelson said.
“I think you can be as successful as you want to be.”