Thomas J. Burns
Position: President and chief executive of Ensco, a Falls Church-based defense, transportation, aerospace and intelligence company.
Thomas J. Burns joined the Air Force out of college. After receiving advanced degrees in electrical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology, he was assigned to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He left the military and founded two companies, Object Video and Science Engineering and Technology Corp. Burns became a senior vice president and manager at Science Applications International Corp. after it purchased SET in 2010.
You graduated with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a bachelor’s in philosophy from Ohio State University. That’s an interesting combination. Why those two subjects?
Philosophy is a lot more quantitative and analytical than people give it credit. I got very intrigued by the philosophy of logic, and deductive reasoning in particular, and that married nicely with all the mathematics that I had in the electrical engineering degree. Plus, philosophy really allows you to express yourself, to communicate. It gave me an outlet that I didn’t have in engineering.
Was philosophy a good foundation for your career path?
It’s been tremendously helpful. I would say it’s easily been as helpful as the electrical engineering degree. As I migrated into leadership and management, it was not just the fact that the liberal arts degree taught me how to communicate, but it taught me how to think on sort of a different plane than a very mathematical engineering plane. I was more comfortable dealing with more abstract concepts.
Why did you join the military after you left Ohio State?
I was an Air Force officer because I wanted advanced engineering degrees. At the time, I was married with a young child, and I couldn’t afford to pay for school, so the Air Force paid for a master’s degree and a PhD. Then they assigned me to DARPA, and it really got my entrepreneurial juices flowing.
DARPA is, I guess I would characterize it as the [Defense Department’s] venture capital arm. But rather than get a financial return on the investment, they get a technological return on the investment that they can use mainly for military purposes. The real venture capital nature of it lies in its willingness to take big risks. They teach you how to take risks and how to be comfortable with taking risks, and if you’re sort of inclined to be an entrepreneur, I think it really comes out in that type of environment.
After you left DARPA, you founded two companies before one of them was bought by SAIC. What lessons did you take from running a small company into running a larger one?
The first is to treat your employees with compassion and empathy, treat your employees as a part of something larger than just a business machine. When you get to be such a large scale enterprise, it’s hard for you to communicate with anyone of them on a daily basis. You just don’t have the appreciation for how hard they try and how much they care when you can’t see it from the top. Empathy and the ability to relate on a one-on-one level was a huge and important asset for me later on. It honed my interpersonal skills, which is an important thing for an engineer because we don’t necessarily have them.
How did your military career impact how you are as a leader?
I’m not going to say that it taught me how to be a great leader. I think it taught me how to teach myself how to be a leader. I think that was particularly important for me because I ended up leading in a world that is very different than a military world. A military world is very, very mission oriented and very hierarchical. My world, it’s all PhDs, very brilliant, innovative, independent employees who don’t want to be told what to do. You have to learn to influence them and they have to have your respect. You need to accomplish the mission but you have to do it in a very different way and I had to teach myself that way. The military taught me how to teach myself to be a great leader in the technology environment.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Successful people succeed by getting up after they fail and staying with it because you’re going to fail a lot, especially if you’re in the R&D world. I wouldn’t say I succeeded at Object Video. The company has succeeded but I myopically focused on the technology that I wanted to develop rather than opening my blinders and thinking about other things we could do when it became clear that technology wasn’t going to work the way we wanted it to do. It wasn’t until later that another leader came in and saw a different perspective and took the company in a different direction. If I had given up at that point, I would never have been successful. But I didn’t. The person who gave me the advice said, ‘Learn the lessons from your failure and apply them in your next start-up.’ That’s what I did, and as a result, SET was very successful. There’s this old cliche, and I’m not a Navy person, but great sailors are not made on calm seas. It’s absolutely true. You have to experience adversity and failure to become a great sailor and that’s great advice for anybody that’s trying something risky.
— Interview with Kathy Orton