Robert Powell: A Valuable Asset to Both SRA and the Mankind Project

Robert Powell is employed by the IT service provider SRA and is involved in a men’s self-discovery organization called The Mankind Project (MKP). Robert Powell’s duo involvement with SRA and The Mankind Project not only influences his managerial style positively, but complements his service to the community as a whole. Robert Powell currently serves as a Project Manager in SRA’s Civil Government Sector and has achieved Full Leader status for the Mankind Project, whose weekend retreats are known as The New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA, a.k.a. “The Weekend”). SRA, which is based in Fairfax, Virginia, has been chosen every year since 2000 as one of the “Best 100 Companies to Work For” by Fortune Magazine. Its clients include many government and healthcare entities. MKP has been conducting male mentoring training programs since 1985. The organization currently has 38 centers throughout the world that span four continents.

Q: How did you become interested in the technology field? Did any of your childhood experiences play a role?

A: Not Really. “Techies” didn’t exist in those days (Powell was born in 1945, in Brooklyn, New York). Computers only began to emerge in the 1960’s, and they were huge things that the average person never heard about.

Q: Did your military experience directly or indirectly lead you to the technology field?

A: I served in the US Army from July 1969 until February 1972. I was an E-5 (Sergeant) in Military Intelligence, and I served in Berlin, Germany, from June 1970 until an “early out” in February 1972. I stayed on in Germany as a philosophy instructor for the University of Maryland, first in Berlin and then in Stuttgart. Really, that service had nothing to do with my getting into the computer services industry. At the time, I was “ABD” (all but dissertation) and had every intention of becoming a college professor. It was only after I got my doctorate and discovered that there were few, if any, opportunities in the field due to the curriculum “revolution” in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Moreover, I was getting married to a woman who had a government career in Washington and when I moved there, I had to find a job. Fortunately, my degree got me an interview with Burroughs Corporation (one of the major computer producers back then) for their customer education program. I gradually began to get involved in the technical side of things. I found I had a strong aptitude for programming and after three years made the switch to IT professional. During the 80’s and 90’s, I progressed from Programmer to Tech Lead to Task Manager and then Project Manager. Today, I don’t do that much actual programming, but oversee the work of others who do. My background and skills continue to serve me well in my management of technical projects.

Q: Describe your last three job titles and functions prior to joining SRA.

A: Well, I’ve held the title “project manager” since the mid-1980’s. I spent 12 years (1980-1992) with the Planning Research Corporation (PRC) and managed a large number of projects for various federal agencies under a General Services Administration (GSA) contract. Then, I moved to DynCorp (1992-1999) where I managed a services contract for the Department of Transportation. I spent two very exciting years with Logicon (now Northrop Grumman) from 1999-2001 on a very unusual project for the State Department. I oversaw a visa program for bringing young men and women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to the United States for three years of work experience. Finally, in 2001, I moved to the Morosco Newton Group. [It] was acquired within six months by SRA International Inc., where I still currently work. I was hired to be Project Manager for a task supporting the IT security office of a federal agency.

Q: In all these projects, my work has been to manage a team of analysts, programmers and support personnel in the analysis, development, and deployment of IT-based solutions to government requirements. Besides the technical direction and review, I have had responsibility for the administrative, financial, and contractual sides of the projects.

A: So in effect, these jobs prepared you for what you are doing today?

One of the great delights of the IT field for me is that I have had the opportunity to work in so many different areas of both government and commercial life. I have managed projects ranging from olive oil importing to commercial real estate management to pension benefits regulations to visa issuance and management. In one sense, my whole career has been preparation for my current work in Information Assurance (IA). With my extensive background, I have always been aware of the inherent sensitivity of computers to outside attack – intentional or accidental. With the rise of the Internet and the wired society, these risks have multiplied. Today, we live in dense forest of invisible connections that are both lifelines and threats to life. On the other hand, I had no direct training or experience in the (sometimes) arcane aspects of IA until I stepped into my current position in 2001.

Q: How did you get involved with MKP, and what was the first major career change, if any, that you undertook after completing your first New Warrior Training Adventure (“The Weekend”)?

A: I did the NWTA in November 1992 at the suggestion of a fellow volunteer in a community mental health center where we facilitated group work for male batterers. The NWTA experience intensified my interest in personal work, which had originally led me to volunteer at the center. I actually began moving toward a second career in counseling. I completed both my masters and postmasters training, with an emphasis in family and marriage therapy between 1993 and 1998. I had every intention of switch careers until events in my personal life made it financially impossible to make the switch.

Q: What distinguishes the New Warrior Training Adventure from other self-discovery retreats?

A: First of all, it’s far more intensive and transformational than anything I’ve encountered. Therapists, for instance, frequently equate it with six to eighteen months of individual sessions. Second of all, it’s not an end in itself, but only the beginning of a process of self-discovery and growth. Central to the MKP curriculum is the on-going Integration Groups (I-Groups) that most men join after “The Weekend”. This is a facilitated ten-week program, but for the most part, the groups are self-led and men can go as deep as they wish. Some men stay for a year or two, [but] many have been in an I-Group for ten years or more. I’ve been in my I-Group since my “Weekend” in 1992.

Q: How does “The Weekend” change a lifetime of ineffective living and/or add more to someone who is pretty much, for lack of a better term, “all together”?

A: Each man’s journey is his own path to discovery. Our goal is to activate his personal mission in life and to support him in pursuing it. Men who judge themselves to have been ineffectual before “The Weekend” often report a major change in their life after their New Warrior Training Adventure. Men who come to the training with awareness of their mission usually deepen their commitment and find their energies and drive magnified.

Q: Does MKP offer programs and retreats for corporations?

A: The ManKind Project (MKP) has often discussed the possibility of bringing the training into the corporate setting. Nothing official has developed, though many individual NWTA graduates work in the Organizational Development (OD) and corporate training fields. The lessons taught in the NWTA have found their way into such programs. And, of course, as individuals, many men, including me, have incorporated its basic teachings of personal integrity and direct communications in our management practices.

Q: How does the corporate philosophy of SRA complement what you have done with MKP; that is, are you able to apply the things you’ve learned through MKP into the way you manage your staff and approach your projects?

A: SRA International has proven to be an ideal culture for what I’ve learned and teach in MKP. It is a company whose motto is “Honesty in Service” and whose corporate culture is built on the axiom that caring for its clients, its personnel, and (since going public) its shareholders are its core business, and that everything else will follow. Every new employee attends a half-day training on culture and ethics, and every performance evaluation includes explicit ratings on ethics and caring for others. While the terms of our contracts set the parameters for what we are expected to do and what we must and can do, there is an ethos that we do whatever it takes to support our clients and our staffs in their professional and relevant personal goals.

As a manager, I have always considered the long range goals of my staff as one of the key elements in my planning. Mentoring and coaching the men and women who work with me is integral to my approach. So, I’m always looking for ways in which I can assist staff in getting the training and the opportunities they need to advance their careers. At the same time, I view my work with my clients as a collaboration in which their success is essential to mine.

Q: Are your employees given a lot of latitude to be as creative as possible in the projects they undertake, within the framework of your clients’ needs?

A: They are encouraged to be creative, usually, and I certainly depend on these younger men and women to bring innovation and new stuff that I haven’t even heard about [to the projects]. My role is now mostly administrative and managerial and not technical, though I do still know enough to discern whether the technical approach makes sense. Also, I’ve become enough of a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on several aspects of IA to be able to bring value to the project.

Q: What’s the difference between Information Assurance and Information Security?

A: As I understand it, IA is about verifying and validating that the security already in place works and is sufficient. So, Information Security is about making systems safe; IA is about testing the security. So, we test the perimeters and try to break in. We also review the documentation and processes to make sure they conform to standards. In short, we assure our clients that their security program is adequate and is working as intended.

Q: For Information Security and Assurance, what are the major challenges that companies who provide this service have to be focused on in light of September 11; that is, what new demands, if any, have clients expected more of a focus upon since September 11?

A: Well, first of all, it’s still mostly the hackers and the criminals who pose the biggest problems. Terrorists are certainly a potential problem, especially on Government sites. As for 9/11, the issue became what information was legitimate to publish and what needed to be held close. At [my current project], for instance, there used to be a policy of open sharing of information. Now, they realize that some of the data are potentially of value to terrorists.

Q: Elaborate on some of the breakthroughs in the Information Assurance field that will make your clients more satisfied.

A: Most of the advances are small and incremental and many are procedural rather than real breakthroughs. Figuring what techniques produce more secure sites and then applying those practices in a systemic manner. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is directing that a standardized set of controls and practices be adopted by all Federal agencies. This gives OMB the ability to measure effectiveness across the Government. The process is about halfway done and is already having a beneficial effect.

Q: How can a corporation like SRA, who generated close to 900 million dollars in revenue for Fiscal Year 2005, be one that is responsive to the social concerns of society; that is, can a large corporate entity be focused on increasing revenue and profits while addressing social responsibility issues in a balanced way?

A: SRA’s philosophy is that if we take care of our clients, our staff, and our stockholders, the profits will follow. And, for over twenty-five years, they have. Employees are encouraged to find ways to serve the communities in which we live and, as managers, we’re expected to be conduits for our staff’s professional development, even when it would be easier to hold them back for the sake of our comfort.

Q: Are you thinking about where you want to see yourself in the next five to ten years, now that you have reached your 60th birthday?

A: I am beginning to think about how I [will] wind down my career and approach retirement. I don’t see myself simply stopping and doing nothing. I can, however, see a slowing down where I might work part-time, mostly in the role as a mentor and coach to new project managers or as a consultant to projects that can use my expertise. As for my work with MKP, I expect to continue leading “Weekends” for five years or so, then to step into the role of Elder, where I can support younger men as they step into leadership.

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