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Making the Leap from Technologist to Leader

From his first job with a computer software retail company to his current role as a systems engineer and program director in KeyW’s Defense Mission sector, technology has always played an important role in David Furman’s career. What happened, though, when this technologist wanted to transition to a leadership role? In this interview, David shares his experiences developing into a leader, provides guidance for those looking to do the same and details the lessons and advice that’ve shaped his career. 

How did you know you wanted to take on a leadership role?

I got my first taste of leadership when I worked for SRA as an active directory engineer supporting the Army National Guard. I was working for a program manager who really set an example of what a leader should be. He was compassionate and had a good understanding of the business. One of his biggest strengths was his ability to relate to people. He always looked out for employees’ best interests and wanted to help folks grow. Many managers claim to have an open-door policy, but with this one, it was true. He’d welcome you to his office to talk about your program or career development questions. I knew this was something I wanted to learn and model my own leadership approach after.

How did you transition into leadership at KeyW?

I came to KeyW as a systems engineer focused on cloud adoption in the intelligence community. The team leaders at the time took a very directive approach to leading people. They didn’t seek to build consensus or buy-in. They didn’t explain why we were doing certain things, which wasn’t something I was used to.

After a couple of months, I decided talked to my program manager and expressed my concerns about losing smart people who were motivated but who weren’t getting the kind of leadership they needed. Ultimately, a leadership role opened up, and I took it. 

I then branched out into the personnel management side when KeyW stood up its supervisor program. I noticed a couple of colleagues in other divisions started taking on front-line supervisor roles, and I wanted to do the same. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to go from a front-line supervisor to program director, which exposed me to additional aspects of the business. I enjoy this type of work and also believe in KeyW’s mission and the customer missions we support. It’s part of the reason why I got in to this industry.

What advice would you give a technologist wanting to pursue a leadership role?

The first question I would ask is, “Why do you want become a leader?” Aspiring leaders should consider what appeals to them about leadership. Is it the ability to effect positive change, take on new challenges or something else? There are many reasons to become a leader. Understanding what the motivators are can serve as a guide toward that goal. There are also many types of leadership roles to consider, and I recommend being flexible as you evaluate the opportunities. They may not always be exactly what you’re looking for, but each is a chance to gain valuable experience. Being a leader is an iterative development process strengthened by the knowledge you gain from each role and responsibility.

Volunteering to support an independent research and development effort by providing guidance to junior team members is one way to practice and demonstrate leadership skills while sharpening your technical expertise. Taking on team leadership, supervisory or project manager roles are also good ways to enhance leadership skills. 

The transition from technical to leadership roles is usually a gradual one. Initially, most of your time will be spent in a technical capacity with some leadership responsibilities added. Over time, as you volunteer or accept additional responsibilities, you may spend less time on technical tasks—and you have to be comfortable with that mix. The percentage of technical versus leadership activities will vary based on your interests and the organization’s needs.

What leadership skill do you find most valuable today?

Establishing relationships built on trust is an extremely valuable leadership skill. I always try to communicate in a straightforward way, including providing as much background information as possible. I believe people appreciate communication that’s to the point and timely. This is what I’d expect from my own leadership.

Can one simultaneously be a good technologist and leader?

Being a technologist and leader aren’t exclusive things. Leadership is a broad term, so being a technology leader can mean you’re seen as a subject matter expert in a technical field. Technology leaders also can help guide independent research and development activities or help business leaders identify technologies for investment.

One of my roles is the Amazon Web Services (AWS) partner manager for KeyW, managing our relationship with AWS. For the last three years, I’ve gone to Amazon’s cloud conference in Las Vegas, re:Invent, which offers technical sessions on how to leverage their cloud platform, including use cases from industry and government partners. It also offers breakout sessions focused on how the intelligence community uses AWS, and it’s a great networking opportunity.

Finally, transparency, from the top of a company down to the individual employees, is one of the most important things a company can do to keep employees engaged and feel like their voices are heard. At home, my kids ask me “why” all the time—and I’ve never stopped asking “why” in my career. I always want to know more about a company’s motivations and the goals we’re driving toward. Technical and non-technical leaders alike should value transparency as a fundamental element of effectiveness.