Thank you, Julie.
It is truly a pleasure to be with you in Honolulu this afternoon and for this great SWE conference. I attended Pam Chambers’ “How to Give a Presentation Tomorrow and Sleep Well Tonight” this morning. I certainly wish I had attended yesterday, but I picked up some great tips.
Programs like Pam’s are great examples of why SWE is such a great forum for our professional growth and networking.
I was asked to share the story of my career path -- and I readily accepted the invitation to speak because I believe in SWE and am proud of the hard work and leadership roles that women engineers at Booz Allen are taking on here. Besides, who in their right mind would turn down a speaking engagement in paradise, at a conference with the theme of “Riding the Wave?”
Rather than narrate my resume, I’ve tried to think about what I’ve learned along the way… what I’d do differently with the benefit of hindsight… and what advice I’d offer others who are pursuing a career in engineering, or trying to balance motherhood with a challenging job.
When I look back – to college where my career first took shape… on my work experience, which evolved over the years from hands-on engineering to technical management… to my family and life outside of work, I see a common thread in the success and enjoyment I’ve had riding my wave.
The attributes are risk and trust. The opportunities and achievements I’ve enjoyed, in all dimensions of my life, have come (1) from taking risks – new challenges, or as my mentor says “stretch opportunities,” and (2) from trust – trusting in my own ability and determination, and trusting those above, beside, and below me.
Risk and trust has played out in each major stage of my life. As is the case for many of us, my career – or perhaps I should say ‘pre-career’ -- began in college. I was accepted at the University of Virginia, with intent to major in math. My hall mate and future best friend was an engineering major. In working through calculus problems together, I noticed that her engineering calculus class seemed much more interesting and practical than the theoretical math I was taking in the College of Arts and Sciences. So, I took a risk, and trusted both in my ability to succeed at something new and with my friend’s support and encouragement – changed my major to engineering.
I didn’t know enough about engineering to land on the right discipline right away and bounced around from electrical (too hard) to mechanical (too applied – my junior project was designing a professor’s air conditioning system)…until some great courses in operations research steered me to systems engineering. I had found the perfect major, and as it turned out, a great academic background for technology consulting upon which I would build my career.
In transitioning from college to the work force, I moved to the DC area, taking somewhat of a personal risk not returning to my home, friends and family in Mississippi, but minimal risk with regard to professional opportunities. My first job was working as a subcontractor for Lockheed, who was the prime contractor and builder of a complex military satellite communications systems, called Milstar. I was very fortunate that my first boss, a retired Air Force colonel, was a great mentor who took me under his wing and taught me about the military and how important satellite communications was to the mission. This was in the days before the internet and cell phones, and satellite communications were critical connections for the military when deployed overseas. He taught me to work hard, communicate clearly, and take pride and enjoyment in my work. While I was working for Lockheed, Booz Allen was also supporting the Milstar program as its ground system engineers – defining the interface specifications between the ground terminals and the satellites. I became friends with several of the Booz Allen consultants and was impressed with their professionalism, teamwork, and camaraderie (both at work and socializing after hours). When they offered me a job, it didn’t seem like a risk, because I knew them and trusted them as professionals and colleagues. Twenty-three years later, I still find the work and the people to be challenging, fun, and rewarding.
As in my prior job, I had the good fortune to have a boss at Booz Allen who was a great mentor – someone who believed in me, encouraged me to take risks – the “stretch opportunities” --and who supported me during good times and hard times.
During my first lunch with him, he said that I had “partner potential”. I don’t know what exactly he saw in me, and at the time I didn’t aspire to make partner. I was focused on enjoying my time as a young professional in DC, doing a good job then and there – not on where that would take me. Working with my new boss helped me change my view of myself – he encouraged me take on the challenges and risks that gave me more opportunity and responsibility.
He also taught me to trust in the future, in our team, and in the firm – to have the confidence to lead and persevere in hard times. We were challenged when our major client, the US Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Center, moved from Crystal City, Virginia near the Pentagon, to San Diego – and we had to build a whole new client base in Washington. We went through another hard time together during the dot-com boom. Government consulting was not ‘sexy’ at that time, and we had trouble keeping and hiring talented people who were going off to chase their pot of gold with Internet start-ups. I didn’t see how we were going to make it if we couldn’t attract and keep the best engineers. Again, I was taught to trust in Booz Allen’s value proposition. We had to “let it bleed.”, but still survive. We did, and with a skeleton staff, built an even stronger team with deep commitment to serving the mission of our military clients.
I took on increasing responsibility for project management and business development, which led to my promotion to senior associate, Booz Allen’s first level of management. I continued to diversify my client base, establishing a new client account with the Defense Systems Information Agency and leveraging the technical capability of my SATCOM staff – was positioned for my next promotion. Significant growth in that account created the business case for my promotion to partner seven years ago. I have since handed off that business to my team members and now am responsible for the firm’s Defense Cyber Operations business.
Handing of my business was difficult, felt risky, but I had the utmost trust in my second team. A key element of the business cases for promotion at Booz Allen is developing the leadership skills needed to take on the next level of responsibility. Most critical is developing a second team – those to whom I could hand off responsibilities so I could pursue other roles – roles that the Firm needed me to take on. This is all about risk and trust -- taking the risk to let go of what you’ve built and already know you’re good at… to try something new, and trusting those behind you to pick up the ball and run with it. Courage and willingness to take on new roles is key to progressing at Booz Allen.
Making partner was obviously a major milestone in my career progression. Booz Allen is a $6B business – there are 88 partners – 16 of whom are women! Although I did not aspire to this level during that lunch 23 years ago, I couldn’t be more proud and grateful to serve as a Booz Allen partner. It is an incredibly rewarding and challenging position. My mentors, bosses, colleagues, and my husband provided the support I needed to rise to this senior position in a demanding profession, while taking on the rewarding challenge of raising children. My son David is now in his first year of college and my daughter Lauren is a junior in high school. Both are great kids, self assured, with bright futures in front of them. I don’t want to declare success too early – but all signs are good. I’m proud of them and proud of the fact that I work for a firm that has supported me throughout the years. I’ve tried to teach David and Lauren to take responsible risks and trust them to do the right thing. We baby-boomers have been accused of being ‘helicopter parents’ who hover too closely and as a result don’t let our children develop confidence and independence. I’m trying not to be like that, and I’ve found that the same keys to success that have worked for my career – risk and trust – have been important in my children’s life. As you know, with teenagers, it’s all about your circle of friends. I was so pleased when Lauren decided to take a school sponsored trip to Europe without any of her friends. It was a great cultural experience for her. One she wouldn’t have had without taking this risk, since her Dad and I, actually prefer beach, golf, and snow skiing vacations. In his junior year of high school, David broke away from his group to take network administration classes at a charter school. This led to his passion for computers and majoring in computer engineering at Clemson University.
So, what’s next?
As engineers, we’ve had a front-row seat for the most dramatic technological changes in industry and government – which center on Internet-based technologies. Reliance on the internet has created new challenges for cyber security – how to stay ahead of adversaries – protecting, identifying, and responding to attacks. Our clients in the government and defense industrial base are moving to the cloud for affordability, but that brings greater risk of cyber attack. Helping them get to a trusted environment in cyberspace is a daunting, but fascinating challenge from an engineering standpoint, management standpoint, policy standpoint, and operations standpoint. It is the ultimate job for a systems engineer.
Doing challenging, important, high-impact work is a privilege, and if you’re in a situation like this, you know what I’m saying. If not, I encourage you to seek out a job – or another dimension of your life, that will stretch you and challenge you to be your best.
Risk… and trust.
Take responsible risks to learn and grow. Trust, and be trustworthy. I think one of things that appeals to me so much about a consulting career is that we are trusted advisors to our clients. They need to trust in our expertise, and trust that we have their best interest and success always in mind. Our staff members need to trust in us to follow us, and our colleagues need to trust that we will play our role on the team, whatever that may be.
Whatever your future path, don’t let an opportunity pass you by for fear of taking a risk. Don’t underestimate your capacity to learn and grow – from failure as well as success. If you don’t achieve the intended goal, you will learn something valuable from the experience.
For example, I agreed to take on a proposal management role for a major client outside of my account. I sacrificed a whole summer – working nights and weekends. I led a team of over 50 people. We didn’t win the work, but through that effort I established a whole new set of trusted relationships at Booz Allen, gained visibility with a new set of leadership who ultimately approved my promotion to partner, and learned valuable business development lessons that I was able to bring to future winning proposals.
It’s been said that our “nation was built by people who took risks – pioneers who were not afraid of the wilderness, businessmen (and business women!) not afraid of failure, and dreamers not afraid of action.”
That’s the thought I’d like to leave you with -- Risk, and Trust. To me, that is the key to riding the wave of your dreams.