Being a no person is just as bad as being a yes person. We all know someone that is a yes person, they agree at all costs, regardless of whether the agreement is warranted or not. Equally, but oppositely harmful, is the no person. The person who’s default answer is disagreement. While I appreciate individuals that have a healthy amount of skepticism, the operative words here are “healthy amount”. There have been many individuals that I’ve come across in my time, who’s default answer to an idea is no, or where the immediate opinion of a situation is negative. These individuals are exhausting and impede progress. Don’t be a yes person, but also, don’t be a no person. People in either of these camps lack the ability to think critically.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Bustamante, an active duty First Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, with over 17 years of experience. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Park University and his Master’s degree in Cybersecurity from the University of Maryland. In 2018, Lieutenant Bustamante was chosen to exercise a new authority granted to his service by Congress which allows highly skilled technicians with operational experience and advanced degrees to the commission at a higher rank. He was an Instructor for the Air Forces Cyber Warfare Operations technical school and has since found his passion as an educator. He is a self-professed nerd and enjoys conducting security research and programming in his free time. Currently, he works at the 390th Cyberspace Operations Squadron on a development team, designing training for advanced cyber warfare operations. In addition, he is an adjunct faculty member for Tulane University’s School of Professional Advancementonline Cybersecurity Management program.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I am the youngest of four siblings with two older brothers and one sister. I had an interesting childhood, as I was taken in by my aunt and uncle when I was only a year old; however, I didn’t find out until I was about fourteen. Whenever I explain this to people, they often ask if I was upset. While there were obviously a lot of emotions that day, I grew up in a very loving household, and my brothers and sister never treated me like anything other than a blood family member. Our parents moved us around a lot, and I can’t remember being in the same house for more than a few years. Because of this, it was an easy transition into the military, where moving around is a routine part of the job.
I was a terrible student growing up. This was not for a lack of aptitude, but a lack of application and focus. Most of my time was spent playing video games, and when the first home computer came out in 1995, I was hooked. I took that computer apart dozens of times trying to understand all the different elements, and I’d download computer viruses to figure out how they worked. Needless to say, my parents were not too happy when the computer wouldn’t boot, but I always managed to fix it. When I graduated high school, I didn’t have many options due to my poor grades, so college was off the table. I started work as a prep cook with my brother, who is an executive chef. To this day, I joke with him that his hours were so grueling that I decided it would be better to join the military, and I’m only half kidding.
Sometime in July of 2002, I walked into an Army recruiting office, but even though I had graduated high school, because of how my birthday falls, I was still only 17. Before I could sign anything, the recruiter had me call my parents. I vividly remember my dad yelling at me over the phone to, “get the hell out of there!” and I remember the army recruiters getting a good laugh out of that. At the time, I didn’t really understand the difference between the branches of service, but when I got home my dad told me that the only paperwork he’d sign would be for the United States Air Force. A couple of months later, I was in the Air Force delayed entry program, scheduled to ship off to basic training just before Thanksgiving and the rest is history.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Today I am helping to build the training path for Airmen to become the next generation of tactical cyber warriors that are capable of addressing any modern threat and provide strategic options for our combatant commanders. It’s hard to give any specifics in my line of work, but we are continually involved in missions that receive notoriety and attention at the highest levels of government.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I entered the Air Force as a Computer Systems Operations troop, responsible for maintaining the many functions of a base computer network. As a young airman, this was exciting because it meant I could be stationed anywhere with a computer, and my first duty assignment was RAF Lakenheath, England.
That assignment was the first and only time I would ever work what is considered a traditional base comm job. After England, I was assigned to work with Compass Call, an EC-130H flying unit that employs counter-information and electronic attack capabilities. My job was to load cryptographic keys for secure communications and maintain the weapon system software. Being able to directly interface with the planes was great, and made me feel closer to the fight. We deployed regularly to Kuwait and Afghanistan, and those deployments were some of the most rewarding times of my career.
My next assignment was to be a tech school Instructor, where I helped to start up the Cyber Warfare Operations tech school. It was there that I discovered that I was good at being an instructor, and found my second passion as an educator.
After serving as an instructor for four years I was next assigned to do defensive cyber operations, and since our career field is so small, everywhere I went was a giant homecoming with all of my former students. Many of them had come into the schoolhouse not knowing even the basics about computer systems, but now many of them are leading teams of cyber defenders through complex mission sets.
Since commissioning, I have been working in offensive cyber operations on a development team that is building a post tech school training program that teaches advanced tactical concepts in cyber warfare.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
After serving as an enlisted member for 16 years, I was sitting at my desk on a random Thursday morning, when I received an odd email from a Chief Master Sergeant at the Pentagon. All it said was, “call me”. Now, there was no reason for me to, nor had I ever had any interaction with anyone from the Pentagon. So, my first thoughts were… this can’t be good. I gave the Chief a call and long story short, they offered me a commission with 2 years of constructive credit, meaning I’d start as a First Lieutenant. For some perspective, getting a phone call telling someone they are being given a commission without having first applied is not normal. Furthermore, the giving of constructive credit is usually reserved for Chaplains, Doctors, and Lawyers, needless to say, this was a big deal.
There are two big lessons that I learned…
“Lions don’t concern themselves with the opinions of sheep”.
After news of my promotion spread through the cyber community, I started to get phone calls and emails asking about the program, to which I had no answers. In an effort to stymie some of these questions, I decided to make a Youtube video for my friends, family and the community explaining what little I did know. The video eventually made its way to the popular internet forum known as Reddit, where I received overwhelmingly positive support. However, the internet being what it is, I also received a fair amount of hate as well. I posted the video where it was publicly accessible, and even though I should have known what to expect, reading through the vile comments was an awful experience. So, the lesson is this, over the many years of a career, you won’t be able to please everyone. Some people aren’t going to like you, and a few of those people will go on to anonymously say vile things about you. Thus the saying, lions don’t concern themselves with the opinion of sheep. If you know in your heart that the work you are doing is good, then keep on doing what you’re doing, and don’t mind the trolls.
“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”
The second lesson was that this promotion came after several years of what I considered failures. I had unsuccessfully applied for a commission twice before. I had applied twice to a special technical program, but never got picked up. And, I had to test three times before making Master Sergeant. Despite all this, I always kept my head up and focused on trying to give 100% to the tasks I was charged with. In the end, if I had achieved success with any of these other opportunities, I may not have gotten to where I am today, and it made me realize that what we think of as failures are not always related to our perceived inadequacies. I found out later that the programs I didn’t get picked up for were due to manning numbers and rank quotas, things that were out of my control.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
One year I was working as an instructor for cyber warfare operations when I crossed paths with a fellow instructor in the same career field that had a purple heart. Keep in mind, in our line of work, the distinction of a purple heart is extremely rare. In fact, he is the only one I’ve ever met.
I asked him about it, and he told me that he received it while on a deployment to the middle east doing computer support type work. It was his first day in the theater, and he hadn’t even been on the ground for 24hrs. One of the first things you do when arriving is to take inventory of the equipment you have on hand, pretty routine stuff. Much of our equipment sits inside of Conex boxes, giant steel trailers that you might see on the back of an 18-wheeler. He was on his way to one of these Conex boxes when a mortar came over the base perimeter fence, struck the ground in front of him, ricocheted and then buried itself in the side of the Conex…One second went by, then two seconds. There was hardly time to do anything, so, he shielded his face, and then it detonated. Disoriented, he looked down to discover that one of his arms and hands were bloody and mangled. He bent it at the elbow, and tucked into his chest, coddling it with his other hand. He explained to me that the doctors said that if he had extended his arm, the tendons and ligaments would have retracted into his arm, and that would have made the experience and recovery a lot worse. But somehow, he knew, on some primal level that he had to hold his arm that way.
To me, this is such a powerful story. I’ve heard of people getting in car accidents and never driving again due to the trauma of the incident. But that wasn’t this Airman, he is someone that I always saw smiling. Every conversation that I had with him seemed sincere and genuine, and he was actually a pretty funny guy. Even in the face of this awful experience, you could tell that he didn’t let it define who he was, and he didn’t let it cripple him. He gave you the sense that he was just doing his job without actually saying that cliché out loud.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I’d say a hero is someone that perseveres in the face of difficulty or misfortune. In that story, there is nothing really heroic about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it’s how he carries himself in the aftermath that makes him a role model and gives inspiration.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
I don’t think so. Think about Superman, the archetypal superhero, the icon of heroism. We don’t fall in love with these types of characters because of the danger they put themselves in, they are all but immortal. Instead, we fall in love with what they stand for, even in the face of great odds. Although Superman is fictional, I think that it reflects society’s perception of heroism. Heroism comes in many forms. When we see someone put themselves in harm’s way in order to save another, perhaps it’s the mortality of human life that amplifies the heroic nature but is certainly not a requirement.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned “? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Give your people the right tools
As a leader, you need to give your people the proper tools to do their job. There is nothing more infuriating than using the back of a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. Will it get the job done? Probably, but using the wrong tool leads to errors, accidents, and delays. This analogy goes beyond the literal tools and extends to using the right people for the job as well. Each of your team members has a different background and skillset, it’s important to use these to both your and their advantage.
I have a lot of technical experience and a background in developing training programs. One of the units I arrived at had several technical positions, a need for a training program, and a non-technical management position. Due to the needs of the organization, I was slated to fill the non-technical management position. Reluctantly, I took the job, and it took about a year for me to convince leadership that my skill set would better suit the unit in a different position.
- Dissent is a requirement of leadership.
I was given this life lesson about a year ago from a senior leader in my organization, a person that I highly respect. He told me that it is my job as an officer to express dissent, that is, to express my disagreement with leadership even if it’s not the popular opinion.
- Being a no person is just as bad as being a yes person.We all know someone that is a yes person, they agree at all costs, regardless of whether the agreement is warranted or not. Equally but oppositely harmful is the no person, the person who’s default answer is disagreement. While I appreciate individuals that have a healthy amount of skepticism, the operative words here are “healthy amount”. There have been many individuals that I’ve come across in my time, who’s default answer to an idea is no, or where the immediate opinion of a situation is negative. These individuals are exhausting and impede progress. Don’t be a yes person, but also, don’t be a no person. People in either of these camps lack the ability to think critically.
- Times change, change with them and embrace it.
A great example of changing with the times is being able to adapt to how technology has changed the way in which we communicate. When I was a young Airman, you called your boss if you were going to be late to work. But in this generation, texting is without a doubt the primary mode of communication, and it’s not uncommon to receive a text instead of a phone call. Initially, this may seem off putting, but when you think about it, having to take a disruptive phone call instead of picking the time and place to have the conversation is actually more of a hindrance. Times are changing, change with them.
- Positivity is contagious
In reality, attitudes are contagious, good or bad. Often when we talk about bad attitudes spreading, we use the phrase poisoning the well. Unfortunately, we don’t have a turn of phrase for the opposite, the positive attitude. The impact that a positive attitude has on an organization, especially from higher levels of leadership, is profound. In particular, I remember one unit that I was at in which the hours were long and grueling, but the members of the unit were a tight knit group and morale was high because we all worked well as a team. However, as it often happens, our current commander’s time was up, and the new commander was on his way in. Of the dozens of changes of command I’ve witnessed, I remember this one vividly, because it was the first time that I realized the impact that a leader’s attitude can have on an entire organization. When the new boss came in, he was a real iron fist, my way or the highway type individual, with little room for negotiation. Within days, the entire atmosphere within the unit had changed, and the tension was so high you could cut it with a butter knife. The mission carried on, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the next year was rough.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
I’m not necessarily a businessman myself, so I’m not sure if I can adequately answer the question. But, what I will say, and what most people will agree with, is that nothing can beat experience, and the military is prepared to give you an endless amount of it. In fact, the military grooms its leader by deliberately moving them into positions that give them a breadth of experience rather than depth. I’m not sure if other Airman shares a similar experience as me, or if I’m the outlier, but with every new unit I’ve been assigned (which at this point is over a dozen), I have yet to do the same job more than once. I started off as a help desk technician, then a system administrator, then a third country national escort, then a communication security representative, then a cyber warfare instructor, then a defensive cyber operator, then a mission commander. The list goes on. I can only imagine that the breadth of experience the military has given me would translate positively to the business world.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
I am very lucky that my job in cybersecurity has, for the most part, never required me to go “outside the wire,” and although I’ve deployed to Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Qatar, it was all during my early career when I was just a junior enlisted member. When I think back to that time and try and recall the most jolting experiences, it was probably when the base sirens would go off and mortars would come over the fence, but I never remember being scared. I’d like to think that I was just focused on doing my job, but in reality, I think that perhaps I was too young and naïve to realize the gravity of the situation.
There’s a phrase you hear a lot in the military, it’s that you can only control what is in your sphere of influence. That’s to say, there’s a lot of evil in the world, much of which is outside of our control. So, it’s best to focus your efforts on the things that you can control, and be a counterbalance to evil by pushing as much good into the world as possible by giving back to your Airman and giving back to the community. We can use our experiences to educate, and if we’re lucky, maybe even inspire others.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am currently working with a military-run, non-profit organization named Ghostwire Academy. We are a volunteer group passionate about educating young adults in cybersecurity. We do this by running a weekend program where we teach classes in computer fundamentals, computer networking and computer security.
What sets us apart from similar programs is that our courses are designed so that students are given the opportunity to earn an industry recognized certification in the subject material, and the best part is that it’s all free. They don’t pay for the books or the certifications or even the pizza!
Imagine a high school physics program where once a week they bring in Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson to explain the nature of the universe. What a rich experience those students would have. What Ghostwire provides is a weekend program where students learn computer and cybersecurity fundamentals, and their instructors are airmen who are experts in the field of cyber warfare operations, sharing their 60+ years of combined experience with the next generation. It may seem like a lofty comparison, but this is the environment we strive to provide.
You can learn more about the work we are doing at www.ghostwireacademy.org
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
The biggest impact on a team’s performance is a sense of purpose. There’s an anecdote that goes like this, give a person a reasonable wage and tell them to dig a hole, after a year, tell them you will double their salary by filling the hole back up, rinse and repeat this process, doubling their salary every year, but never tell them why they are doing the work, and eventually they will quit. There is no amount of money you can give a person that will make up for a lack of purpose. At the onset, this may seem like an absurd assumption, but think about why it is that extremely wealthy people continue to work. I believe that it is human nature to strive to have a purpose.
The purpose is the foundation to so many other critical aspects of a team. A team with purpose is more likely to work together to achieve the common goal… by working together, the goal is met more quickly… by exceeding expectations, the group is instilled with a sense of accomplishment… group accomplishment builds a sense of community. Purpose not only drives organizational success but also promotes individual well-being. If we look at Maslow hierarchy of needs, after a person’s basic needs are met, the next thing they strive for is belonging.
My advice to you as a leader is to give your people a sense of purpose. Any organization worth their weight in salt has a mission and a vision statement, which articulates what they’re doing and where they are going. It’s our job as leaders to reinforce these concepts and tie the team’s objectives and accomplishments to the organization’s mission.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
There is an art form to understanding the different personalities on a team. Each individual has a different set of experiences, values, and motivators. As leaders, we must take the time to understand these factors for each of our members, and by doing so, we show them that we genuinely care. By understanding the composition of our people, we are better prepared to integrate them into the organization in a way that makes them feel apart of the team. By taking the time to better understand your team’s dynamic, you are given the opportunity to be a leader that inspires them into action rather than just directing them. Managing personalities is important, the worth is important, the impact is important, different folks aspire for different things. It’s important to embrace and capitalize on this concept.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s really tough to pick just one person because there are so many people that have helped shape me into who I am today, but there is one unit in particular that changed my life and that was the 333 Training Squadron at Keelser Air Force Base. I owe the entire instructor cadre, most of whom I’m still friends with to this day, a debt of gratitude. But I would not be in the career field of cyber warfare operations today if it were not for Ret. MSgt Jason Roberts.
Typically, Airman gets selected to be instructors for the career field that they are in, which for me at that time was Cyber Computer Operations, but a new career field called Cyber Warfare Operations had just been created and they were in desperate need of instructors.
I’m not sure if it was a deliberate decision, luck of the draw, or perhaps a combination of both, but Jason gave me a phone call that changed the trajectory of my life. He asked me if I was willing to change career fields and come teach with him.
It’s hard to explain why this is so important. By taking this new job, I was introduced to one of the tightest knit groups of individuals I’ve met in my 17 years in the Air Force. I was given the opportunity to teach subjects like computer networking and offensive cyber, which I’m extremely passionate about. For four years, I was able to meet and impact the lives of every single cyber warfare operator that came into the Air Force, and most importantly, I met my amazing wife Sarah in no small part due to that phone call with Jason.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In retrospect thinking about my childhood, I recognize that there may have been missed opportunities in my education. I’d like to take the lessons from those missed opportunities and help others to not fall into the same trap. I love teaching my nephew to program, but even bigger than that, I love the idea of working with Ghostwire academy because it gives me the chance to give back to the community doing something that I’m passionate about.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my passion is in education. In this generation, with access to the internet readily available in most places, a free avenue to a degree should be a possibility within our lifetime.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Perfection is the enemy of progress”
I heard this in a meeting once, and it really stuck with me. I would not call myself a perfectionist by any means, but I would say that I am my own worst critic, and given a project, I often find myself spending unrealistic amounts of time trying to get every detail correct. The problem is that what is likely needed is a 90% today, rather than a 100% solution a year from now. I now start all of my projects with this phrase in bold across the top to remind myself to stay on track and meet my deadlines. I don’t always succeed, but I make a conscious effort to try.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy.
I have found so much inspiration from him. Many of his online videos have helped get me through years of college courses, and his book “One World Schoolhouse” has influenced the way I teach, and given me a different perspective on the American education system. Through the advancement of technology and the internet, he aims to provide free education around the world. While the nonprofit that I work with is small, our goal is very similar. The insights he would be able to provide would be invaluable.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.