Breaking the mold

Maj. Charles Wells, developer of two online knowledge-sharing projects for the Army, is not your typical Army computer expert.

Wells' background, career, motivations and avocations quickly prove that few people, even in the Army, fit into a stereotype. For example, one of the musical instruments he plays, the sleek and melodious oboe, does not match the tough-guy, recruiting poster image of an Army officer.

"Your average Army officer does not play the oboe," Wells said.

Wells, who works in the Army's Strategic and Advanced Computing center in the Pentagon, graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree not in computer science, but in political science. As an air defense officer after commissioning, Wells' first assignment in the late 1980s was with a Hawk missile battery, which relied on computers that would seem like museum pieces today, but were enough to kindle Wells' interest in the field.

His tour was followed by a stint at the military intelligence school in Arizona and then an assignment to the intelligence shop at U.S. Army, Europe, where he continued to pursue what he calls his computer "hobby." There, he said, he worked on the Atlantic Resolve exercise in 1994, "the largest [computer] simulation exercise ever held."

Wells then had the opportunity to combine his computer passion with his career. He attended a six-month senior automation officer course at Fort Gordon, Ga., where he said, he gained "a lot of hands-on experience" and refined his Microsoft Corp. Visual Basic programming skills.

"I'm now able to combine my hobby with my work," Wells said, whose house contains the aforementioned oboe as well as a local-area network, which he installed by hooking up PCs he built.

When Wells arrived at his current job from the Army's information analysis center in Fairfax, Va., he said he found himself "in the right place at the right time."

Developing the Army Web Portal and Army Knowledge Online site, he said, provides the opportunity to help manage the Army's use of online information, which top commanders say differentiates U.S. forces from potential adversaries. Army Knowledge

Online has grown to 27,000 users and eventually will serve all 480,000 active-duty and 565,000 reserve and Army National Guard personnel.

Wells' father - who served in the Signal Corps in Vietnam - provided an early stimulus to consider the Army as a career, Wells said. His father, who worked at the Chicago Tribune before starting his own printing company in Oak Park, Ill., also instilled in him a respect for journalists and journalism not often found in the officer corps. Journalists, Wells said, serve the public's "right to know."

Although many Pentagon staff members live in remote suburbs, Wells, his wife Martha, 6-year-old daughter Mary and 2-year-old son Charles live in Alexandria, Va., to better access the cultural and entertainment riches of Washington, D.C., Wells said.

He said he fully engages his computer skills at work but also said he likes to spend his off hours dipping into the issues that fascinated him as a political science undergraduate. He is currently reading The 500 Year Delta by Watts Walker, which Wells described as Alvin Toffler's Future Shock for the current decade.

Wells said he believes that his Army job provides him with the kind of experience and insights that he could not gain in the commercial world. Not only does he get to work with the "latest and greatest" technology, but his work has an impact.

"I have an exciting job, and in the Army, I believe I am making a real contribution.... I have a good feeling about what I do, and I don't know anything in the commercial world that would produce such a feeling."

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