Missile Defense Agency Innovation, Science and Technology Director Shari Feth shared her story Sept. 26 with members of a mentoring group.
The Team Redstone Female Mentorship and Morale Program is a personal and professional development program that provides a platform for military and civilian personnel to share opinions and concerns. Leadership forums, panels and mentoring sessions are offered during monthly meetings.
Feth has more than three decades of experience in program, product and systems engineering, and missile and sensor systems, test, research and development.
Feth said her interest in science and technology began between the ages of 10 and 12 when she watched Star Trek in the ‘70s.
“I was absolutely fascinated by Mr. Spock,” she said, adding that she found it exciting that Spock’s knowledge of science made him “sort of that superhuman type” in the view of others.
In about the sixth grade, Feth said she found herself bored in a standard math class. Her class shared an open wall with an advanced math class.
“I could see the stuff they were doing – which looked way more exciting than things that we were doing – and so I asked if I could go to that class,” Feth recounted. “I was essentially told that I couldn’t – that I wouldn’t be successful.”
But she convinced the powers that be to allow a two-week trial period.
“And if it didn’t work out, I promised to go back and behave in the middle-level class,” she said.
Turns out, all she needed was an opportunity.
Feth admittedly struggled with some aspects of math and later learned she was good at integrals and electromagnetics. She also thought she’d be an architect – that is, until she learned that most architects didn’t design houses.
Around the time she graduated high school, computers had piqued her interest and led her to attending Virginia Tech.
“At the time, they ranked number three in electrical engineering,” Feth said. “There wasn’t such a thing as computer engineering, so electrical engineering was what you went into if you wanted to work with computers.”
Though Feth was accepted at the number one and two schools, she said Virginia Tech was the one she could afford.
“And, as it turns out, it was a good decision because I actually really stink at programming,” she said with a chuckle. “Somewhere along like sophomore year (or) junior year, I discovered that computer programming was not for me or my future.”
Feth ultimately earned a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering and doctorate in materials engineering from Virginia Tech.
“Generally, there’s sort of a rule of thumb that says you should not necessarily get all three degrees from the same school,” she acknowledged. “But what I chose to mitigate that was to switch fields completely.”
Since Virginia Tech was a very large engineering school, moving into materials engineering was likened to moving to another school.
“I didn’t have any of the same professors – which is really the reason that they want you to move, so that you have some variety of instruction,” she said. “I will tell you (that) diversity in your instructors and your mentors is as important as diversity on your team.”
Feth’s choices have obviously served her well. She has been with the MDA since 2004 and joined the ranks of Senior Technical Executives in 2017 and Senior Executive Service in 2018.
She fielded questions on moving through the ranks to the SES level and spoke about qualifications, the need for strong communication across the board, and work-life balance – which she said remains a challenge.
Feth also talked to the group about how to gracefully accept criticism and learning the value of direct confrontation.
“Our director had a phrase: ‘Assume noble intent,’” Feth said. “If you can assume that people intended things to do or be better than they came across, then you can usually avoid a lot of challenges and issues. But don’t be afraid to confront somebody.”
“Make sure you have mentors,” she said. “Mentors come in all shapes and sizes and I like to think of it as up/down, left/right, informal and formal…”
She reminded the group that mentors can be both positive and negative.
“I would say there’s always something to learn from someone,” she said. “Sometimes what you learn is what not to do – and that is as important as learning what to do. So, it’s worth paying attention.”
Team Redstone’s FMMP chapter convened its first session in March.
The first FMMP was started in 2019 by Col. Clydea Prichard-Brown when she was a brigade commander at Fort Lee, Virginia, in response to Soldiers’ request for mentorship. Prichard-Brown is now executive officer to the Army Materiel Command deputy commanding general.