Defense Finance and Accounting Internship: Columbus, OH

For my STEP signature project, I decided to do an internship at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to continue my professional development and hone my skills in a workplace setting. I believed it would clarify what I want to do in the future. I always wanted to work for the government and try out public service, so this was the perfect opportunity.

The internship did not disappoint; over the course of my 12 weeks, I worked on 3 projects for my department and collaborated with other interns and full-time coworkers from around my floor. I was challenged to work autonomously with little direction, which was frustrating at times but also rewarding. Normally, I am the type of person to shy away from ambiguous and lofty projects, but I had no choice in the matter. My supervisor had devised and divided a lengthy project for us interns that took about a month and a half to complete. While I have done group work and presentations in the classroom setting, I have never tackled such a time consuming endeavor. I was challenged to manage my time well day to day. Although my supervisor made sure we were equipped with contacts, we were entirely responsible for creating our own deadlines, collaborating, and reporting back with updates. Me, not being the most timely or organized person, had to apply self-discipline to get all of my tasks done—amidst all of our departmental work, we also had internship meetings and projects on top of our other responsibilities.

Another huge part of the internship was collaborating and working with other students as well as employees to achieve my goals. I gained prior experience with collaborating through my student organizations and on–campus. This differed in that I was not familiar with they types of accounting the technicians or the analysts did. In fact, I have little working knowledge around accounting that I felt lost at times. This was a big challenge to overcome because I usually feel confident in my knowledge and use it to apply to what I do. Without it I had to learn to be resourceful and learn as I do. I much prefer to see the big picture and then understand my role, but that was not the case. I had to learn each individual piece and then create a picture of the larger process because others did not know either.

The iControl project that other interns and myself worked on was given to us by our supervisor, Asia. While Asia was enthusiastic and supportive during the project, she allowed us free reign. She described the project as an analysis of processes used by the department, and we were to simplify, consolidate, and eliminate processes where we saw fit. We were also supposed to create a deployment plan to implement the changes and help rectify the communication gap among the department constituent groups. To start, we began by reaching out to staff related to our processes. We individually took on about six to seven, and came back to share with the group. Some employees were eager to speak with us about what they did, while others took much prodding to get any response. Unfortunately, all types of work involve engaging and disengaging folks. What was difficult was trying to understand each process from just a twenty to thirty minute meeting. Seasoned employees would whip through the process quickly with little to no explanation. Often they did not even understand how the department functioned as a whole and how they contributed to the bigger picture.

This was challenging for me because I was not used to interacting with people who did not have the answer. I could only learn as much as I could from the staff, and ask questions, but often no one knew the full and complete details. In school, your goal is often to find an answer, one that exists and is known. In this case, there is a problem that is known—disengagement from work and DFAS’s mission—but there is not a solution to changing the culture around the office, nor can you force people to understand. After getting a sense of the complicated processes and nature of the department, I initiated a meeting with the five of the interns to debrief. We focused on each process and what could be done to simplify them, but too tackle such a large issue with communication we had to consider things longer. We determined that the disenchantment was from many places: lack of consistent training and resources, reluctance or inability to transition to newer and more intuitive systems, or lack of purpose and drive. All these factors contributed to individuals’ frustration or apathy to work. Without a culture that nurtures the person, you cannot promote creativity, collaboration, and well-being.

We thought of ways to improve each of these pitfalls. To help, we uploaded documents into a never-used-before repository so everyone had free access to their job aids: documents that outline the duties and step-by-step process. We also created unique summary documents to simply and ease everyone’s understanding of their job. This way, employees may find it easier to connect their job back to the bigger mission of serving our country’s military. The process outlines provided guidance to navigating the otherwise complicated and antiquated systems, some from the 80s. While these resources would be a great help to those looking for more information, we could do nothing to inspire the apathetic ones. Even with more resources some people would just not care. This was hard to see, because short of hiring all new employees, changing something as entrenched as “workplace culture” is impossible. This really gives credence to companies that have good workplace cultures that encourage and motivate their employees. Having a purpose and drive to accomplish something is essential to any firm’s success in meeting their goals.

I also had another project where I pulled reports from an Oracle based database to find useful information for others to use. While it seemed easy—find all relevant information, and filter based on needs—it was not that simple. The system was finicky at best, and would often result in an error. This was probably the most infuriating part of my internship because no one knew how to navigate this system. No one knew what kind of information was inside the database or how the information was put into it. Though there was someone assigned the title “Subject Matter Expert,” the truth was everyone was faking it until they made it. With little to no help from anyone, we interns were left to our own devices of trial and error. I personally do not enjoy trial and error. I like having a methodical approach to solving a problem. But at the end of the day, there is not always a straightforward solution. Often a solution only arises from a steady mix of different approaches, and eventually one emerges. With time and much effort, my report worked. When I delivered the product to the other employees, they were ecstatic that there was a solution to solve their complicated workload. It was rewarding to see that I made an impact on those around me, whether the impact was big or small. Sometimes projects will be more complicated than any one person can explain, and it takes collaborative effort to clarify and realize results.

I had a third project that was finding customer information from other organizations under the Department of Defense. We coalesced our research into a PowerPoint for training purposes for other new employees. Being so busy, there were days I would have a full schedule from the morning to the afternoon, and then days where I had no meetings. With the cyclic flow of work and appointments, I had to look into the future to see when I would need to work on iControl or Oracle while leaving time to work on my internship project. To do this, I kept track of a checklist for the day, and managed my calendar via Outlook Calendar. It was my first time using this application, but it proved helpful and easy to use. I can take away that ease of use and apply it to the busy schedule I have here at school and in my future career. I also used checklists to prioritize my day and to be productive during my time there.

Outside of just the work, I also made close ties with other interns. I did not particularly think I would meet lasting relationships, but I met really great people. These individuals challenged me to get out of my comfort zone, and to converse in new and thoughtful ways. At my time at OSU, I have engaged with many diversity initiatives and programs. Going from Ohio State to DFAS, the number of people of color I saw day to day dramatically decreased. Many of the other interns had limited experience with issues, and I helped provide a new perspective and new information to the conversation. I embrace diversity and try to foster it wherever I am, so I did just that. I challenged the status quo, spoke to colleagues about issues, and did not shy from difficult conversations. Surprisingly I engaged with many people I would consider friends, whose thoughtfulness I can appreciate.

This internship has helped me develop professionally and socially in a number of ways. It has provided me with the practice of professional networking. Through talking with my supervisor, coworkers, and other interns, I have gained many useful relationships. I learned how to have workplace conversations that vary in the breadth of topic. Working for DFAS, I realized how much workplace culture matters. As I said before, the culture drives motivations, which drives results. To have a successful team, you have to create a place where everyone can contribute. Becoming more organized will help me in whatever I choose to do, both in my immediate future as well as my long-term future. With these newfound skills, I will be more productive and aware of the priorities. Generally, my exposure to public service shows me the necessity of such an establishment. Although stereotypes of government are out there, I truly believe the government offers a unique position to help others. Although there are absolutely inefficiencies—I saw many— the government benefits the people in the long run. After this internship I have clarified my goals. I now know that I must have a job where I feel like what I do matters. I want to see the impact of the work I do, and meet the folks I am contributing to. I believe the public service will help me accomplish these goals. I know I would like to pursue more education, possibly in public policy and later a PhD. I am still not sure how much longer I will be in school, but I will make sure my time is utilized maximally for the most positive impact.