Covell has led programs for a variety of business areas during her time at Harris including wireless products, business development, human resources and IT solutions.
In her Q&A with ExecutiveBiz, she talked about the importance of STEM and fostering science programs for young women, the growth and success of Harris, and some of the exciting opportunities she has had as a result of her career achievements.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you tell us about your more than 30-year career and what positions you have held in that time?
Sherry Covell: I started my career in the early 1980s as a computer scientist working for The Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel Maryland. Much of my work at the APL was dedicated to Naval systems engineering, specifically for the Aegis shipboard system. After about 10 years in Maryland, my husband and I decided to transfer to Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.
At Ft. Huachuca, I supported the U.S. Army and Army Intelligence Center programs, primarily focused in information systems. Then in 1995, I joined Harris Corp. as a systems engineer in our government communications systems business, serving in a number of different roles during my tenure. My initial focus was on research and development projects in the intelligence and communications arena.
In the early 2000’s, I accepted an opportunity with the wireless products group, leading growth and development of wireless tools for several years as group director. After building that business, Harris asked me to take on a leadership role in business development and I eventually became the vice president of business development for all of what we call national programs, which includes our intelligence area, as well as programs for other customers. And then my career took a little bit of a turn.
I was asked by corporate headquarters to take on a role in human resources to lead our Talent Management group, which was something very different for me. The CEO requested that I take this role because he wanted an operations leader who understood business processes and procedures, in an effort to align our HR processes with our businesses.
Following a two-year focused effort, we successfully streamlined the connections between HR and the businesses, and at that point I was asked to come up to Northern Virginia to lead our intelligence programs for our IT Services business. I’ve been here for about two years now and the role has worked out very well for several reasons—I know many of our customers from the time I worked in our government business, and I also understandd the internal Harris business, enabling me to make the connection between the development side of Harris and the services side of Harris.
ExecutiveBiz: Your current role is vice president of intel programs at Harris IT Services. Can you explain how it’s different from some of the other roles that you have had that are not in the government sector.
Covell: In the services business we have about 30 programs that I oversee. It’s over 350 people and most work at government sites. So that’s a little different than working in our development business where a lot of the work is performed at headquarters or at the factory.
As IT experts, my employees make sure the systems and networks are up and running every day for our customers in support of their critical mission. Many hold security clearances and support the design of secure communications systems, and we manage the operations, maintenance, sustainment and technical support for our customers’ networks.
Another element of my business focuses on customized software products used for tracking, telemetry, and control of satellite systems. We recognized a need and now offer a COTS [Commercial Off-the-Shelf] product for the government as well as commercial satellite providers.
ExecutiveBiz : Can you give an overview of Harris and its IT Services business.
Covell: Harris IT Services is a business of Harris Corporation. We’re a leading systems integrator and prime contractor for multiple markets including intelligence, defense, homeland security, civil, and healthcare IT. Harris Corporation has been around since 1985 and is number 11 on Washington Ttechnology’s “Top 100 Government Contractor’s” list. Technology and innovation is our legacy. We provide assured communications, making it possible for our customers to share information reliably, securely and rapidly.
The thing that’s unique about Harris is that we’re able to connect our customers wherever they are with whatever kind of communications they have, and usually under very demanding and sometimes stressful environments. And this includes all types of communications—voice, data, and video.
We also are very well known for our handheld tactical radios for individual warfighters, and we provide radio solutions for the public safety market. We design, install, manage and support large mission-critical networks for multiple government and commercial customers, including the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]. Our IT Services business plays an important role in operating, maintaining and sustaining solutions from across Harris Corporation.
ExecutiveBiz: You’ve been in the business for quite a long time. Are there any guiding principles that you can communicate to other executives to help them be more successful?
Covell: I would say flexibility and agility are important. With uncertainty in the economy and ever-changing market landscape, leaders have to be prepared for the ebbs and valleys that will occur while ensuring that the customers’ critical mission needs are met.
I have experience in a number of business areas as you can tell from my career. I’ve never been afraid to take on any assignments that may be outside of my comfort zone. So I find that as a way to learn, and I usually have had to learn fairly quickly! I went into business development without officially being trained for business development. I went into HR without any training in HR. And I think what you find is that you figure out very quickly what you don’t know and then realize that there are people who can help you learn along the way. As long as you surround yourself with the right people, you can be successful.
The old guiding principle of ‘getting all the right people on the bus’ I have found to be absolutely true. You have to help people understand and ‘get on board’ with your vision, and then just work to closure.
ExecutiveBiz: Having been named one of the entrepreneur leaders in STEM, what projects or initiatives are you currently working on that promote women and science and technology?
Covell: There are several initiatives Harris has undertaken because we’re very involved in supporting women and supporting careers in science and technology in general. We have several relationships with a number of schools and I have personally supported a number of outreach programs.
I’ve was involved with the Society of Women Engineers for many years while working in Florida and I have continued to stay connected since moving to Virginia. We have WOW Engineering Day for girls in grades seven through ten, where they come to the local high school and we conduct all-day programs that show the fun side of science and engineering. We usually have 150 to 200 girls that participate and several Harris employees are involved. We talk about our career experiences and then lead projects and seminars for the girls. So that’s been a great way to showcase that science and engineering is for anybody and it can be a lot of fun.
One of the best ways to show that engineering and science can be fun is to highlight some of the really cool things that I have had the fortune to do. These opportunities range from being catapulted off aircraft carriers, to traveling all over the world, to search and rescue operations for 9/11. I think when you can share that kind of story with young women, itt helps them realize the many opportunities out there and that you’re not just some nerdy engineer sitting at a desk!