But he saved more than $1 billion in energy costs last year, got the Air Force to become the Pentagon’s top green energy user and exceeded the branch’s goal of reducing fuel consumption by 10 percent by 2014.
For these efforts, he is one of four finalists for the 2013 Management Excellence Medal, one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals awarded every September to exemplary federal workers by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
Geiss is quick to credit others in his department, saying the “management excellence” category shows it’s not just him.
“This is a team effort,” Geiss said in an interview at the Pentagon last week. “I’m the policy guy; I help to lead.”
The savings his team achieved resulted from the use of more alternative fuels, the purchase of energy from renewable sources, a reduction in extra fuel borne by transport aircraft, and the certification of the entire Air Force fleet for use of jet fuel made of both traditional and biomass sources.
As a policy wonk, the 45-year-old Alexandria resident characterizes energy as an interdisciplinary topic that affects the entire military.
“Energy touches every single mission of the Air Force,” he said. “Energy touches maintenance, energy touches logistics, energy touches security forces, energy touches admin and secretaries, energy touches pilots, energy touches every single airman across the entire Air Force.”
He could be describing his own interdisciplinary résumé: He is a former Marine with multiple advanced science degrees who has worked in the White House, Army and Air Force, volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol, and coaches his younger son’s ice hockey team.
Ask him “why I did this, and why I did that,” he said, and the answer is rarely a “straight line.”
For instance, he holds a PhD in zoology from Miami University in Ohio — because he felt his research for the degree would best complement his work at the time as a defense contractor.
“I tend to rebuff folks who, in any way, tend to come up and say, ‘Oh well, you can’t do that because you’re this.’ Or, ‘You’re just a Marine. What do you know?’ ” he said. “I don’t let myself be limited by other people’s perceptions of what my limitations are.”
Geiss grew up in Schwenksville, Pa., near Valley Forge, in a family with a history of military service. He said he had wanted to be in the Marines “at the very beginning,” and at age 16, too young to join up, he would stop by the local recruiter’s office often, finally enlisting in 1986.
After active duty, he served in the reserves until 1994, through college and graduate school, spending time in field artillery, communications and military police units.
He transitioned into civilian life, working at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio as a defense contractor and scientist.
In 2006, Geiss came to Washington for a civilian Air Force post in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. As a senior policy analyst and later assistant director for national defense, he worked with agencies formulating national policy for science and technology programs.
“As a scientist, understanding that policy is not made simply on one data point,” he said, “it’s made upon consideration of economic factors, social factors, Big P political international factors. And my job was to be able to lay out all of those various aspects and hand them over to the policymakers to make their decisions.”
Geiss went on to work with the Army to develop its energy program and strategy from 2008 to 2010 before going to work for the Air Force in 2010.
He’s had to learn and strategize on the go — three of his past four jobs have been in newly created positions in energy policy.
“What has interested me has always been the challenges and interesting problems and being able to make a difference in areas where nobody has ploughed the field yet and where the challenges are big enough that you can have a real impact,” he said.
But Geiss says success at the upper reaches of the federal government should never be taken for granted.
“Often we see people who are successful, and maybe we have this fantasy in our minds of continuous success. How could they not be successful?” he said.
Geiss once applied for a job he thought was his. He had the right skills, knew the right people.
Someone else was hired.
It was a wake-up call. “Maybe if I’m trying too hard for something, maybe that’s not the right direction,” he said. “We sometimes get distracted by our aspirations.”
“There’s not going to be a next step if you don’t perform well in this step,” he said.
So now he focuses on the task at hand. Can he find another billion dollars in savings?