Editorial Note: ‘Trailblazers’ is a four-part feature series celebrating the incredible innovation and highly technical accomplishments of NIWC Atlantic’s female workforce. During this special Women’s History Month tribute, readers are encouraged to learn from the personal experiences of those spotlighted and the unique ways their contributions are blazing new trails for future generations to come. This story is the fourth installment of NIWC Atlantic’s Trailblazers Campaign.
As an electrical engineer in her early thirties, you might be surprised to hear that Sarah Monk is leading a high priority program designed to deliver a more digital Navy. A trailblazer in the engineering field, she’s outpaced seasoned colleagues with decades more experience since the pilot of her Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I) Interactive Test Procedure (ITP) project stood up in 2015 – when Monk was just 25 years old.
The project, based in Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic’s Fleet C4I and Readiness department, focused on the development of a new tool used to digitize test procedures and enable the warfighter to have full understanding and operational control of the systems and equipment NIWC Atlantic delivers to the fleet.
“This is a digital environment for the warfighter – for the first time – to have the capability to look inside of a system,” Monk said. “In the past, they’ve had binders of paper – like you would a tech manual or an owner’s manual – we’re just digitizing that for them so it’s at their fingertips. They’re not having to look through drawers or look through past archived files. It’s right there with them on the ship or at that shore site so they understand any trouble-shooting mechanisms that they might need to reference later on or, really, the inner workings of that system that we have provided to them. So it’s real-time data surrounding what they are operating every single day.”
Monk’s pilot program garnered acclaim when it was recognized as the way forward for a quick transition to a modernized testing environment as part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ “go digital mandate,” in Monk’s words.
In 2017, Rear Adm. Carl Chebi, who at the time was serving as the Program Executive Officer C4I, issued a memorandum that directed all entities to utilize C4I ITP in the development and execution of all systems operational verification tests (SOVT).
“From there, C4I ITP really gained speed and became a very high visibility program,” said Monk. “It also led to what I would consider my greatest accomplishment in my career thus far – being named Aspiring Tester of the Year in the Department of the Navy Test and Evaluation Awards. It’s an incredible accolade and was such an honor to be recognized at that level.”
A NIWC Atlantic employee for 13 years, Monk was recruited to the command when she was just a senior at Hanahan High School here in Hanahan, South Carolina, where she was born and raised. A science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) scouting team from the organization attended an engineering project presentation Monk and a group of her classmates were making and recognized her talent and potential. Monk remembers that experience and credits the interaction with fueling her drive as she completed her Electrical Engineering degree at the University of South Carolina. After graduating in 2011 and beginning work full time with NIWC Atlantic, she quickly began volunteering in STEM outreach at local schools to inspire other young engineers in the same way she had been.
“I love engaging the younger generation and inspiring them about what engineering is,” she said. “I know for me, as a young female, not a lot of people were recruiting girls. So for me to see young women come in and talk about engineering was exciting to me. I enjoy being able to give back and encourage folks about STEM.”
The encounter with NIWC Atlantic’s STEM team came at a pivotal time for Monk as she was making important decisions regarding her future. She realized that a career in the engineering field could put her on a path to the kind of self-reliance and success as an independent female that she had not seen modeled in her family as a child.
“To be perfectly frank, the choice stemmed from a certain amount of brokenness in my family due to divorces,” Monk said. “As a woman, I wanted to be financially independent and I knew I could find that in this field. I choose engineering for resiliency. I knew there was power in being a woman in STEM and I made that choice very consciously so I could support myself and make my own way.”
Monk has leaned into her role as a professional female – viewing it as a unique strength – and encourages others in the field to do the same.
“I think it’s so important to truly root your identity in being female and being proud of that,” she said. “We are being seen and heard in the workplace in a way we never have before and succeeding, for me, is a way to honor those women who cleared the path before us. The differences in what we bring to the table is being celebrated.”
For those coming up after her and others looking to keep their edge, Monk suggests finding trusted mentors in three categories: a personal mentor; a career mentor who will be looking out for your best interest six months, twelve months or even years down the road; and a technical mentor who may be more experienced in the procedural aspects of the job.
“My mentors have been highly impactful in my life,” she said. “I can’t recommend it enough. They make you better all around.”
In part due to her early success and the organization’s support of diverse populations, Monk has found her workplace home. She plans to round out her career right where it started – at NIWC Atlantic.
“I intend to spend the rest of my career here because I believe in the mission that we stand behind,” she said. “I understand that the warfighters are out there executing the mission and it’s our job, if they need anything, to answer that call – that need. It’s us on the ground supplying what they need to do their job. And it’s a joy and an honor to do that every day.”
As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.