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Celebrating Black History Month: Chris Thompson
Over his thirteen-year career at APL, Chris Thompson, an assistant program manager in the Homeland Protection Mission Area, has learned that many lessons from the basketball court can be applied to the workplace. (Thompson stands 6’6”, and a basketball displayed prominently on his office bookshelf makes it easy for visitors to guess his favorite sport.) Perhaps some of the most important are team-related skills, which he’s been able to bring to positions as a group supervisor and a program manager. “Just like on the basketball court, the technical team thrives when its members take on roles that play to their strengths,” says Thompson.
Thompson attended University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) on a Meyerhoff Scholarship, a program focused on increasing diversity among future leaders in science, technology, engineering, and related fields. As he worked to complete his degree in mechanical engineering (and eventually a master’s degree from Drexel University), he played center and forward on UMBC’s basketball team. Through those experiences and his work at APL, he’s learned a lot about teamwork and leadership—on and off the court. Thompson’s first projects when he joined APL were in testing and evaluation (T&E) efforts for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet, where he quickly gained a better understanding of all of the factors that go into successful field testing. “I just barely fit,” he says of his stature and those early days spent in close quarters onboard submarines.
The Navy programs became a proving ground for Thompson—a place where he quickly increased his T&E experience and honed his knowledge of systems engineering. He eventually became part of a team working on an exciting Navy project developing a new class of submarines—the SSGN. He counts his work helping to bring the Ohio class SSGN guided missile submarines to the Navy as some of the most interesting of his career.
“At that time, it had been a number of years since the Navy had a large-scale submarine development effort. SSGN afforded me the rare opportunity to really see the big picture—how large acquisition programs come together—but it also helped me understand how the pieces of APL projects I had worked on prior to it fit together,” says Thompson. The new class of sub was developed with an unprecedented combination of strike and special operations force mission capabilities.
Thompson pursued growth and leadership opportunities where he could, moving into positions as assistant section supervisor, acting assistant program manager, and then on to group supervisor of the Operational Systems Evaluation Group. “I continued to take new roles because I saw it as a chance to grow and I liked that, as a supervisor, I had the opportunity to have a positive influence on staff’s professional development.”
Thompson also became a contributor to Laboratory and department-wide diversity initiatives. He was an original member of APL’s Women and Minority Advisory Council (WMAC) and helped to found the former Global Engagement Department’s Diversity Committee. He continues to be an advocate for cultural, ethnic, and age diversity improvements at APL. “The Lab has made progress in the areas of ethnic and cultural diversity since I joined in 2000 and it continues to improve,” he says.
In 2011, the opportunity to develop a new team and enhance his own professional growth prompted him to take on his current role, in a totally different area of the Laboratory. Thompson joined the Asymmetric Operations Department as an assistant program manager of the Transportation Security Systems program. Today, he works on programs that make critical contributions to the safety and security of the nation’s transportation system. This includes working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and local authorities to evaluate and implement cutting-edge technologies to protect venues such as airports, mass transit systems, and pipelines. “What has been great about my career at APL is that I have been able to take on diverse challenges and evolve over time.”
Thompson credits his parents with influencing his career choice and his drive to succeed. “My dad was a postal worker, and I appreciate the sacrifices he made for us. My mom was a math educator in Baltimore City for many years, and she helped foster my interests in math and science,” he says. “She tutored me in math, but I learned more about the value of hard work and how practice helps you hone your abilities. She carefully created practice problems for me whenever I needed help with a skill. In fact, she does the same for my two sons today.”