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From Med City to Washington D.C., Don Means Jr. reflects on a career of service

After graduating from John Marshall High School in 1985, Don Means Jr. went on to serve in the U.S. Navy and rise to a top position with the Defense Information Systems Agency.

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Don Means Jr.
Contributed / Department Information Systems Agency

ROCHESTER – Since graduating from John Marshall High School in 1985, Don Means Jr. has built his career, and his life, around serving his country.

After graduating, he enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Program, graduating as a commissioned officer in 1989 and with a degree in electrical engineering.

From there, his career took off, serving roughly 15 years – eight years active duty, seven years in the reserves – in the Navy before joining the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) in 2000. Twenty-two years, Means has risen to the role of Operations and Infrastructure Center Director, a position in the Department of Defense equivalent to a two-star general.

Means spoke with the Post Bulletin about his path from Rochester to Washington D.C.

Just starting off here, what does your role as the Operations and Infrastructure Center director entail at DISA?

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What I do now, as you can imagine, for communications, there's infrastructure required for 1000s of miles of fiber and switches and technical things. So for the Department of Defense, we provide that infrastructure, and we make sure that we get data wherever it needs to go for every user that we support. So make hundreds of 1000s of users, global in scale, 24/7 operations, and then all of the people that are required to manage that to include command and control, as things need to be changed or direct how are we attacking that problem, making sure that we're returning people to productive state as soon as possible.

And so we make sure that we're tied closely with them that we're delivering whatever communications capabilities they need, at the speed that they need them. And so it's a really far-reaching job to make sure that we're being proactive and preventative and providing capabilities that our warfighters and Department of Defense need.

What did it mean to you to receive this promotion after over 20 years with DISA?

Well, obviously, it's an honor to serve in this way. I've got a history as a naval officer, and so I continue to serve as a civil servant for the Department of Defense now. When you have such a large and important role it's always exciting, but it's always an honor to continue to help the Department of Defense and the warfighter accomplish its mission. And then, of course, it's great to work with such an incredible caliber of people. So people are dedicated to doing something that's more than just themself.

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Don Means Jr. John Marshall senior portrait in 1985.
Contributed / Defense Information Systems Agency

How old were you when you and your family moved from Detroit to Rochester?

I was five and went to preschool in Rochester. My first elementary school was Ben Franklin Elementary School in Southeast Rochester, so I lived right next to the baseball field and played baseball, tee-ball, golf. They had a track with Ben Franklin right there that had the pole vaulting pits and whatnot way back in the day. And so it was great to grow up in that area.

And so coming out of John Marshall, did you have an idea of the career path you wanted to take?

Yeah, I did. I knew I wanted to be in a technical field. One thing about Rochester Public Schools is they're fantastic. They're 100%, college prep. Even at John Adams (Middle School), they made math and science very interesting, even things like languages. I studied German at John Adams, went on to John Marshall and did community study languages there. But I already had an interest in engineering anyways. My dad is an engineer, very technical at IBM. And so a lot of ways that shaped my work, what I thought I was going to end up doing, as I was going through middle school in high school, and John Marshall just kind of helped sharpen that focus.

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After graduating from the Naval ROTC program at Illinois Institute of Technology, you immediately went into the Navy. What has your military career meant to you?

Honestly, there's nothing like serving in the military. From the history, the core and camaraderie to working on something that's far greater than themselves together. And then, more importantly, which is just fantastic, wearing the uniform and representing the nation, wherever you are, at all times was some of the proudest moments in my life.

What was the transition like for you from a long-time member of the service to then returning to civilian life and transitioning your career?

Fortunately, for me, it wasn't too difficult as I transitioned to a job where we just had patriots kind of serving in a different way. So there were a Department of Defense contracting when I got out of the Navy, so even though not all of them were military, we certainly understood the Department of Defense and the needs of the Department of Defense, and the importance of what they're delivering in Department of Defense. And so kind of had that unifying focus with regard to what we were trying to do and how we're trying to support. So fortunately, it was kind of a soft landing, where I didn't come out of the military and go straight into something that was 100% private sector, non-Department of Defense related.

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Don Means Jr. speaking with high school students at the Black Engineer of the Year Award mentoring event.
Contributed / Defense Information Systems Agency

What advice would you give to high school students here in Rochester that are in a similar position you once were in with about to graduate and figure out what careers they wish to pursue?

Well, so I guess the first piece of advice is you're not going to figure it all out by the time that you leave high school. Take the time to really take in all the resources that the school is providing, whether it be counselors, whether it be teachers, to get as much information as possible about all these different possibilities that are out there for you. And then once you pick one, really lean into it.

It may not work out for you, and then don't be afraid to change gears and maybe end up in a different career. It just happened for me that all the guidance that I've gotten, and all of the training I got turned out to work for me. I was persistent. I guess that's the other thing. Obviously, it's not easy. Persistence is as much of going to college as anything. I've known a lot of smart folks, but if you're not persistent, and really sticking to it. That's part of graduating college and getting through college. And so I think I was persistent and I pursued my goal of getting an engineering degree. And that's benefited me well now.

Erich is a digital content producer at the Post Bulletin where he creates content for the Post Bulletin's digital platforms. Before he moved to Rochester, Erich worked as a sports reporter for Rivals.com covering the University of Illinois' athletic programs in Champaign, Illinois. Readers can reach Erich at 507-285-7681 or efisher@postbulletin.com.
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