Lou Von Thaer started a new chapter of his three-decade GovCon career in June 2013 as president of a business once part of Science Applications International Corp. that eventually became Leidos‘ national security sector.
Von Thaer now leads a team of 13,000 professionals in the sector after previously leading 7,000 employees at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, where he served as president for eight years before joining Leidos.
In this conversation with ExecutiveBiz, Von Thaer discusses his role in helping carry out that split and overviews some emerging trends in cybersecurity. He also traces his career back to where it all started — the famed Bell Labs — and how he also draws on that experience now.
Lou Von Thaer: The big thing for us was getting through the separation of SAIC, which was a big deal and an arduous process. I came into the separation midstream, and the team had already completed much of the work to establish two viable companies. Getting the separation completed, doing the employee and investor road shows, and helping investors and customers understand what we’re doing was a main focus for me when I first joined the company. We’re happy to get that behind us. Now we’re focused on developing and enacting a strategy to grow our business, as well as how to deal with this difficult market.
ExecutiveBiz: What are your responsibilities in that effort?
Lou Von Thaer: I run the National Security Sector, which is about 65‑70 percent of the company. To do something on that broad of a scale, you have to depend on a great team up and down through the organization. We have a really solid team. As far as my time, I would say the late part of 2013 was a little more internally focused than I would like it typically to be. As I look at how we’re trying to position the company going forward, I plan on spending about a third of my time with customers, about a third of my time with employees, and about a third of my time with the corporate office and Board of Directors. I’ve found in these type of leadership roles, that is a pretty good split to keep an eye on what’s going on.
ExecutiveBiz: What have been some emerging trends that you’re seeing come to fruition in the cyber space and how is Leidos addressing those concerns?
Lou Von Thaer: This is an area I’ve worked in for a long time, even before I came here, and clearly Leidos has a strong position and a high interest in cybersecurity. Over the last three or four years, there’s been a lot of effort in the senior levels of the customer and even the commercial communities to start to understand the risk of cybersecurity. As this trend becomes increasingly apparent, more executives are paying attention and more customers are increasingly knowledgeable about cyber threats. Now people are starting to wonder why after all this time and all this hard work, we still find most of our cyber attacks through defensive means after attacks have entered our networks, by recognizing signatures that we’ve seen before.
Leidos is investing and working very hard on developing capabilities and algorithms that would let us actually predict or find clues to attacks not related to known signatures that would supplement the commercial tools that exist today.
I firmly believe cyber will evolve into a more integrated overall solution for the customers over time, and that’s where Leidos is setting our sights. We have a philosophy as we look at how we spend our investment dollars that reminds me of the early days of the PC world, where you would by a PC that had limited capabilities and if you wanted to pick up a printer, you had to go out and buy an interface board, and then you’d buy the separate printer. Then, if you wanted to play a game, you went out and bought another board, and all these things had quirks of how they hooked together and how they operated. That’s how, as a community, we attack cyber today. We sell lots of boxes and lots of software and IT organizations go kind of crazy trying to implement and architect all of them into their solutions.
Lou Von Thaer: I think it’s the same as anywhere else. If you look at our customers today, they’re really struggling. They’re under budget constraints and there are political aspects that prevent people from being able to put together long‑term strategies that they probably would like to have. So, I think it’s especially important for government contractors to be very close to our customers today, because their needs are changing on a rapid basis. While the mission may be somewhat similar, if you look back at the 90s during the last downturn, there was a universal belief then that the world had become a safer place. With this downturn, you don’t see that same belief. In fact, very few people, I think, would believe that the world’s become a safe place.
So, if you’re in the intelligence or cyber business, the threats continue to increase while the budgets are going through significant realignments. The only way our customers can really deal with that is by adding efficiencies, and the only way we can help them with that is by understanding that their requirements are changing and being able to rapidly evolve.
ExecutiveBiz: Tell us about your Bell Labs background and how it impacts your work today.
Lou Von Thaer: It was a really remarkable place. I was lucky enough to get hired right before Judge Greene split AT&T up. So I was a young engineer who didn’t know a whole lot, and went into Bell Labs and suddenly I’m meeting Nobel laureates and PhDs from MIT and everywhere else. My first job there was as a fiber optic receiver designer for undersea systems, back in the very early days of fiber optics, and it was an environment that was pretty unique because it was still a monopoly at the time.
You could go up and ask anything to people that were just incredible engineers with long careers, and they would sit down, spend half a day with you, and help teach you. So it was a good learning environment. I learned a lot of those things that I think most design engineers learn. It’s really hard to put together schedules and cost and deliver the systems of things that hadn’t been done before. The one thing that I’ve learned back in my design and system engineering days that still apply to almost everything I see in my current job, is that no matter what you’re doing in life, almost all the problems happen at the interfaces. So when you’re designing an organization or a system it’s always worth paying extra attention to those interfaces and hand offs, because that’s usually where the problems come out. It’s still true in pretty much everything I do today.
I came to Leidos after a long career at Bell Labs and GD, and a lot of people have asked me why I came here. I think this company’s trying to build something very unique. I’ve spent most of my career in the defense industry, and defense companies always try to go and do commercial things when markets get tough, but it’s really hard to do because we don’t have the marketing and the channel expertise. As a result, we’re almost universally unblemished by success.
In this company, we’ve actually laid out a strategy of using big data and cyber, and some of the things that the governments taught us to do, to address commercial markets, such as engineering and healthcare. I think it’s a really interesting business model, and we’re in the early stages of making this work, but it’s something that I find very exciting about the company and something that’s probably not obvious to most people who look at us and how we’ve set ourselves up.