From the DIAC to the Board Room - One Analyst’s journey from intelligence officer to technology entrepreneur
I joined DIA in the spring of 1998 after several years in the Army Military Intelligence Corps and later INSCOM. My initial assignment was as an Intelligence Officer in what was then the Threat Analysis Division of the Office of Transnational Warfare, DI. My final assignment was Division Chief of the Media Exploitation Division, DH. In between that time I deployed to the former Yugoslavia, earned a graduate degree, was promoted to Supervisory Intelligence Officer and was awarded the DIA Meritorious Civilian Service Medal.
All of the above would have served me well had I decided to finish my career in federal service, but after nearly 20 years in government I decided that I needed a change and I left to take a position in the financial industry. I was successful in my new environment, but something was still missing. Like the government, there is challenging and unique work to be done, but also like the government there were things you wanted to do, and things you had to do, and increasingly those two things were not the same.
So in 2009 I joined forces with several former colleagues and started a computer security company. Ours was the stereotypical start-up experience you hear about: five guys in a garage – or in our case a former dentist’s office – working non-stop to get their big break. Fast forward to the start of 2014 we are over 30 people who are doing work for both federal agencies as well as commercial clients. We currently have two subsidiaries, and a third – a product company we spun off in 2012 – recently merged with another firm. We also invest in and incubate promising new technologies. We are not exactly change-your-life rich, but we are doing the work we want to do with people we enjoy working with and for customers who appreciate what we’re doing. Basically, everything you want out of a job but might not always get for myriad reasons.
Now this success did not occur overnight. The rash of “entrepreneurial porn” that takes up so much space on bookstore shelves and in business blogs focus on the wild successes of the technology industry, but those are rare situations: most start-ups don’t last very long; most entrepreneurs work start several companies before they find their groove. Luck played a good part in our success, but a number of lessons I learned in federal service helped as well. I’ll start with the negative ones first because - let’s be fair - a start-up is pretty much the antithesis of a government agency:
You can think too much. In an intelligence agency the preference is for contemplation, not action. In business the time you can dedicate to thinking is limited because if you do not act, opportunities will pass you by. Our company is named Kyrus (an attempt to make Caerus easier to pronounce). Caerus was the god of opportunity. He raced by on winged feat, long locks of hair flowing from the front of his head, but bald in the back. You get the analog: opportunities come at you quickly and if you don’t grab hold as they come it’ll be too late once they pass.
The goal is to get to “yes.” It is all too easy in a bureaucracy to simply say “no” to everything that does not fit neatly into a risk-free box. To an extent the reward system helps reinforce this; if you’re given kudos and step increases based X, you’re not going to respond well to an idea that results in Y. Success in business is about getting to “yes.” Not just in the context of a sale but in all aspects of the work.
There are no lanes in the road. In my old job everyone was very protective of their lane-in-the-road. Any time someone got out of their lane there was a firestorm that destroyed all meaningful activity while people stopped to defend their turf. When you’re a handful of people trying to get 100 things done at the same time, you can’t afford to get parochial. No, things won’t be done the way you would have done them, but the point is to get them done – period – because if you don’t you’ve failed.
My service at DIA also taught me that there are a lot of good ideas and practices that do transition well to the business world. These specific ones have contributed greatly to our success:
There is value in process. “Bureaucracy” is not something that is usually associated with an entrepreneurial environment, but establishing and following protocols for handling certain issues is important for success. It is all well and good to be nimble and dynamic, but that can also lead to disorganization, confusion, wasted effort and lost opportunity.
Do not be afraid to collaborate. Coordinating products was arguably the least favorite part of my old job. Everyone in the IC everyone thinks their opinion is the best. The fact of the matter is that business – like intelligence – is done without perfect information. The more people you talk to, the more sources you exploit, the better informed your opinions and consequently your decisions. When you’re the boss there is no one to blame for a bad call but yourself. If you choose to ignore the input of others that’s fine, but you can’t complain if you didn’t even bother to seek out external inputs.
It is OK to be broad and vague. Decision-makers often decry the “wishy washy” language in intelligence assessments. But there is a reason why assessments are peppered with words like “possibly” and “reportedly:” the quality and validity of your information is always in question. Viewing the world through a broad framework and not a clear plan mean you can more easily transition from one course of action to another. Today the keyword is “pivot” but the general idea of flexibility is critical to success in an environment where no one company or strategy holds a dominant position for very long.
My time at DIA is something I will always value. Almost ten years after I left, as I type these very words, I can look up at the wall above my desk and see the symbols of my service. I would not trade any of that for the world, and while I no longer walk the halls of the DIAC, I still appreciate and apply the lessons learned from my mentors and peers that still do.
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