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Austin Yamada of QinetiQ North America: ‘Maintaining your personal integrity is critical to success’

When Austin Yamada graduated from Montana State University, he had his mind set on working as a ski instructor at the nearby resort. But after spending a year in the snow, making very little money, he had had enough and abandoned his instructor role for a position at what today is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. He arrived there at the time the agency was transitioning its production system from analog to digital, which to him was an exciting time. Eventually, Yamada ended up at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary Defense, working for the assistant secretary for command, control, communications and intelligence. After several stints with OSD, Yamada retired from the federal service in 2003 to work in business development at Lockheed Martin and then at ManTech International. After three years at Lockheed and three more at ManTech, he ended up at QinetiQ North America, where he has been since last December.

GCE: What are your main responsibilities at QinetiQ?

Yamada: Here at QinetiQ, I’m the senior vice president for strategy and business development. I have kind of a broad set of responsibilities. One, I’m responsible for developing and implementing corporate strategies for growth across our business units here. I’m also responsible for business development, business intelligence, proposal management and marketing and communications. Our business areas include defense, intelligence and security, space (mostly NASA), and it also includes homeland security and other federal civilian agencies.

GCE: You’re considered an expert in counterterrorism and counterintelligence, what drew you to that field?

Yamada: I guess a variety of things. My father was one of the Japanese-American internees during World War II. He was recruited out of the internment camp by the Army military intelligence where he served in the Army military intelligence branch during the war and was later assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, then joined the CIA after its inception and was a career intelligence officer at CIA, retiring in 1972. I guess I was kind of drawn toward that field. As far as counterterrorism goes, I probably got involved in it before it came into vogue. At the time, I was wondering if there really was much of a future in counterterrorism. This was back in 2000 when I was asked to become deputy assistant secretary for special operations and combating terrorism. At the time, I wasn’t sure there would be much of a future in it. Unfortunately, there was quite a future in it. That’s how I got involved. Last year, I authored a chapter in a book that was published by Georgetown University Press titled Vaults, Mirrors, and Masks: Rediscovering U.S. Counterintelligence. It was edited by Jennifer E. Sims and Burton Gerber and published in 2009. It has to do with the evolution of counterintelligence and recommendations for restructuring and redirecting the counterintelligence community throughout the U.S. government, not just the military.

GCE: Going back to your current position, what challenges have you met so far?

Yamada: Among the challenges–and they’re many–here at QinetiQ is how to develop a common culture out of many different subcultures due to the fact that the company is largely the result of acquisitions. The Missions Solutions Group is really a conglomeration of about six or seven smaller companies that were acquired and bundled together. And QinetiQ North America is really about 17 different acquisitions bundled into three different groups. One is the Technology Solutions Group, which does a lot of product development, and R&D. They build the TALON and Dragon Runner robots used in the theater right now mostly for IED missions, and they also develop many other products ranging from sniper detection systems, armor netting for vehicle protection, small satellites and various other cutting edge products. We have another group that focuses mainly on systems engineering, and they’re located in Huntsville, Ala. They have Army as primary customer and work with MDA and other parts of the federal government that require a broad range of systems engineering work. Here, at the Missions Solutions Group, we focus mainly on three different markets: aerospace, intelligence, defense and security, and information systems solutions. One of the challenges is how do you leverage the capabilities across the corporation and take advantage of all the different and various capabilities we have and focus them on a particular area of interest. Right now, the market we’re in, primarily the federal government market, is not growing at the same rate it had historically in the past. It’s a crowded market, it’s relatively flat, so the challenge there is how to keep our business growing. Another aspect about the challenge is learning the culture of industry versus government. I spent 25 years in government, and it’s quite a different culture from mission oriented to profit oriented.

GCE: How does industry compare to working in government?

Yamada: There are a lot of similarities. I was surprised to see the amount of bureaucracy in industry that rivals that in government. I thought in government, we had a corner in the bureaucratic market–we do not! In industry, I find we’re equally, if not more, bureaucratic in the way we operate, so that was one surprise for me. And that was kind of a similarity in what I was used to working with in the Intelligence Community. Another similarity is the structure of QinetiQ, how it’s a set of acquisitions, and what we have are different centers of gravity, which remind me a lot of the way the Intelligence Community operates, and that it is not a single homogeneous entity. There’s a common purpose and there is a common set of imperatives, but there are individual centers of gravity that operate not all the time in a unified manner.

GCE: What are some of the valuable lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

Yamada: One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned is by and large, people make things work and people are the single most important ingredient of any  solution that  we can put together. Every time I work on something, it comes down to the people that make it work or are the most important factor. What goes hand in hand with that is how you must treat people with the respect and the attention they deserve, because it’s not only hours on the clock; it’s the intangible things that people bring to the job that really make the difference to making things work. People and more people are kind of on top of my list. Another thing I guess I’ve learned is to trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. And if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I usually tend to trust my gut when it comes to decisions or questions I have; it seems to have served me fairly well. Another thing I’ve tried to keep in mind or have learned is it’s always a good idea to have a plan about what you want to do and how you want to do it. A corollary to that is to know when it’s time to give up on that plan and get a new one. I do believe in the adage that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. But you also have to be able to adjust to things that are happening around you. Finally, another lesson I’ve learned is don’t compromise your personal integrity. If you give that up, you have nothing to bring to the table. Maintaining your personal integrity in everything you do is critical to success.

GCE: Do you have any role models or mentors in your professional life?

Yamada: As far as for role models, I think my father, who passed away many years ago, is clearly a role model for me–I mentioned his experience as an internee during World War II. Despite that, he dedicated his life and his career to the country in the Intelligence Community and never held or harbored a grudge for his personal suffering and his personal loss. He always felt that the greater good was being served. So, he was my inspiration.

GCE: Do you feel you have inherited certain traits from him?

Yamada: I definitely do. I kind of feel his presence sometimes when I’m a little bit unsure or I feel I’ve been taken advantage of sometimes. Then I think of what my father went through, and it provides a lot of inspiration. As far as mentors go, I’ve been extremely lucky in meeting people whom I admire, as individuals, as leaders. I’ll name some names here, because they’ve been very generous in their advice and in their sharing their own experiences. Gen. Jim Clapper is one whom I’ve known for many years and who’s always been there when I shared with him some of the decisions I was trying to make, and some of these are personal, some of them are professional. He always had time and always shared with me similar things that had happened to him, and that really helped me a lot. Gen. Greg Newbold also did the same thing for me. I worked with Greg Newbold more professionally, but he was also a role model and mentor for me, as was Gen. Pat Hughes. All three of them, I consider to be true patriots and smart and intelligent, yet humble and human. All three of these guys were military, but from different branches of service. What I thought was the common thread they all shared was their ability to remain apolitical and objective throughout their professional careers. I, being a career civil servant, felt the same way and shared that same belief that there was a greater good that we were serving. It was not a personal agenda, it was not a political agenda– it was a national security agenda that drove them. There are many roles models that I’ve had whom I admire for their professionalism, their selflessness and for their ability to do whatever it takes to get the job done. There are many, many civil servants and folks in uniform in all ranks and all grades whom I was very proud to say I was a colleague of. I had no shortage of role models along the way that I admired.

GCE: What’s something most people would be surprised to hear about you? Any unusual hobbies?

Yamada: One of the more unusual things, or something people would be surprised to hear, is that the school that I went to, Montana State University, I went there primarily because it had a very big ski resort very close to campus. When I was going to school, I was pretty sure that when I graduated I was going to be a ski instructor and ski for a living. And I did that for one year after I graduated and found out that being a ski instructor is one, hard work, two, it’s very cold, and three, it’s low paying. After a year of that, I accepted a job with the federal government, where I served for over twenty five years.

GCE: Did you ever regret your choice of switching careers?

Yamada: No, I really haven’t. I’ve been very fortunate, and good things seem to continue happening to me. I can’t say I made them happen, but I’ve enjoyed a very fortunate career, timing wise. I’ve been very lucky. And I still get to ski sometimes.

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