In less than two years, Deborah Alderson’s lengthy career in defense contracting arguably hit both a low and a high.

In late 2011, she was removed from her position as a top executive at McLean-based Science Applications International Corp. as the company tried to recover from a contract scandal that ultimately required a roughly $500 million settlement.

Less than two years later, she has been named chief executive of McLean-based defense contractor Sotera Defense Solutions, moving her into a top position she said she has always wanted.

“I never look back, I always look forward,” Alderson said in an interview last week. “I consider that a speed bump instead of a barrier.”

She takes over Sotera as contractors struggle to grow in the face of government spending declines. Sotera, which used to be known as Global Defense Technology & Systems or GTEC, was bought by an affiliate of private-equity firm Ares Management in 2011.

Deborah Alderson. (CARL DANIEL COX/

Alderson becomes the latest woman to be named chief executive at a local defense company. Earlier this year, Marillyn A. Hewson and Phebe Novakovic took over at contracting giants Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, respectively.

Alderson assumed the reins from John Hillen, who had led Sotera since 2008.

Well-known in the industry, Alderson, who headed SAIC’s defense solutions group, said she found support following the SAIC dismissal. She was one of three executives removed in connection with the company’s troubled CityTime program with New York City. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York alleged that “a massive and elaborate scheme to defraud the city” corrupted the program.

“While we are aware of no evidence that these individuals had any personal involvement in the fraud uncovered in the CityTime program ... we must maintain the highest standards for all of our employees and for our industry, beginning with our management team,” Walter P. Havenstein, SAIC’s former chief executive, wrote in a memo at the time.

Contracting is “a very small world,” Alderson said last week. “I have some great colleagues who ... were there for me.”

Michael S. Lewis, managing director of the Silverline Group, a consulting firm, said he was not surprised that Alderson quickly recovered.

“There was a $500 million check that SAIC had to write. Some people within that organization ... had to take the fall,” he said. “She certainly paid the price ... but there were plenty of firms that knew her and knew her capabilities.”

Alderson quickly landed on her feet. She became an executive at Fairfax-based contractor SRA International, which is also private equity-owned, after departing SAIC.

At Sotera, she said she’ll spend her first month traveling the country to meet employees.

While she acknowledged that the shrinking market presents challenges, Alderson was bullish on her ability to expand the company, which had sales of nearly $356 million last year.

“We’re all going to have to do more with less,” she said. But “I don’t recall any good old days in this business, it’s a tough business.”