Tom Alfaro has over 27 years of military experience in the Army, Navy and Air Force operating a variety of vehicles and systems on land, at sea and in the air. From 2009 to 3013, he helped develop and promote new concepts at DARPA, as an operations analyst and creating CG models and animations – and hired other Industrial Designers to do similar work. After several years of researching and implementing innovation methodologies for other government clients (i.e. Design Thinking), he recently formed a small company to make functional concept design a more integral element of technology development, and interactive game development.
I was enlisted in the Army Reserve throughout college. I was an aviation turbine engine mechanic and aircrew; I literally learned the nut-and-bolts of helicopter technology and flight operations. Also for several years I was a CBRNE decontamination Sergeant, planning and training large-scale decontamination operations of personnel and equipment; spending several days living and working in MOPP 4 teaches you what kinds of equipment and behaviors work in harsh environments.
After college, I went to Naval Officer Candidate School and flight training. I completed primary pilot training, but then switched to jet bombardier/navigator training, which I completed and was winged as a Naval Flight Officer. After winging, I trained as an Electronic Countermeasures Officer in the EA-6B. Even though I loved flying, I struggled to do it well so the Navy grounded me. Because I neither crashed a plane nor quit, I got to keep my wings, but I never deployed in a flying squadron and I never flew in the military again. However, my 340 hours of flight experience including aerobatic solos, formation flight, precision low-level navigation, air combat maneuvering, instrument flight, and airborne electronic warfare gives me immediate insight into the technical and operational merit of emerging aviation concepts.
After flying, I served for two years on the USS Enterprise (CVN-65, not NCC-1701) as a C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers & Information) officer, Radar Navigation Officer and Force Protection Officer. In those capacities at sea, I learned the priorities and complexities of navigating and operating as a multi-ship battlegroup in crowded, contested waters. I also spent a year as a project officer during an extended dry-dock maintenance period - where I learned that putting a 50 year old nuclear aircraft carrier up on blocks, and then trying to guess the best way to fix it on a paperclip budget does not bring out the best in most sailors. But overall, my tour aboard the Enterprise was an amazing, tedious, dangerous, complex, rewarding, epic experience I would not trade for anything. I can also attest that except for being in outer space instead of the high seas, most of what is depicted aboard the Nostromo, the Discovery, and the Heart of Gold is pretty realistic.
My next (and last) tour in the Navy was a segue into the realm of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and unmanned systems. I became and AGM-109 Tomahawk Cruise Missile mission planner and targeteer. Without getting too specific, I learned a lot about how to integrate and coordinate systems in space, at sea, in the air, and in cyberspace down to the sixth decimal… to blow things up and kill people on the other side of this planet. It isn’t quite as easy as Tom Clancy’s writing staff make it out to be – but the results are quite a bit more horrible.
For ten years in the Air Force Reserve I have helped research and shape programs that improve how the military performs ISR and Targeting. I also earned a Master of Military Operational Art and Science degree. None of my Air Force experience would make a short, riveting adventure novel - but understanding the bureaucratic mechanisms that either elevate or kill ideas (present and throughout history) has given me tremendous insight about what needs to be baked into a concept from the start, in order for it make it through the Pentagon sausage factory and fulfill it’s potential.
*Note: My military experience is unique but not very special - Most people in the military pack a lifetime of amazing, interesting, heroic, sacrificial, surprising experiences even in a few short years of service. I’m just a little better at making it seem interesting.
At the same time that I left active duty Navy and entered the Air Force Reserve, I embarked on my journey to merge my Industrial Design skills with my technical and military background – to essentially create a career I could love. First, I got a job as a military contractor training future Tomahawk Mission Planners. Second, I bought myself a new computer (and software) and at night started working on a digital portfolio of spaceships and airplanes. Two years later I managed to wedge myself into a new (contractor) position supporting Marine Corps concept development.
One year after that I was selected to for a better (contractor) position DARPA helping get new ideas off of cocktail napkins and into the budget. My job was to help scientists and engineers turn data and arm waving into text, graphs, and digital models in order to secure initial funding from the agency to prove his or her concept. For programs that did succeed within DARPA, I helped generate different information and strategy to transition (sell) DARPA programs to potential military or commercial customers. Over time, I also hired two other junior Industrial Designers to do similar work. It really sounds more glamorous than it really was, but I learned a tremendous amount about how to generate original ideas, and how powerful concept design can and should be used to shape the future. ?
Going forward, I think concept design can and should be more effective for commercial (not government) entities; that means companies developing and selling new technology, well as companies creating and selling movies and games. So I formed a small LLC to do just that. Right now, I have secured one small contract, and if I don’t mess that up too badly, the best is yet to come!