Riverside Research CEO Steven Omick on Encouraging New Crop of STEM Talent: ‘All You Really Need is Interest’

Steven Omick, Riverside Research

Steven Omick knows a thing or two about how seemingly chance encounters and opportunities can alter not only your career but your life.

As a college student feeling somewhat adrift, he wandered into his university’s electrical engineering building and sought counsel from a professor who ended up setting him on a path to getting his doctorate in computational electromagnetics.

Later, as an engineer for a small company that did work for the intelligence community, Omick helped secure a major contract and became the program manager for the effort — the first stepping stone to becoming the company’s CEO.

Now president and CEO of not-for-profit research organization Riverside Research — and one of WashingtonExec’s Top 25 Execs to Watch in 2019 — Omick is enthusiastic about the opportunity to encourage the next generation of STEM talent.

Riverside is the presenting sponsor for WashingtonExec’s upcoming annual K-12 STEM Symposiumto be held March 30 at the Nysmith School.

The theme of this year’ symposium is “The Power of Curiosity,” which resonates with Omick. He says he looks to encourage a sense of curiosity both in the young people he is counseling to enter into the STEM field — and in potential new recruits to Riverside.

In the following Q&A, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Omick talks more about the misconceptions young people have about entering the STEM field. Hint: You don’t have to be a math genius from birth, he says.

“I think the biggest misconception is that you need something more than just interest,” he says. “All you really need is interest, and an earnest intention to try to learn the things you need to learn.”

Omick also discusses the company’s plan for growing business this year after piloting a move from New York to Arlington, Virginia, in 2018. Riverside is planning a stronger pivot into the R&D market space in both the Defense Department and the intelligence community. Key to that effort is the company’s Open Innovation Center, a self-funded research organization committed to independent leading-edge R&D.

“That’s going to be a big focal point looking ahead,” Omick says.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you came to Riverside Research?

When I got my doctorate in computational electromagnetics, I went to work in the NASA community in New Mexico at White Sands Missile Range. There’s a very vibrant high-tech market in New Mexico, up and down the Rio Grande Valley, from Los Alamos to Sandia National Labs, to White Sands.

But I was working for a large company, and I got tired of that very quickly. As I looked around, there were two options: one was to go to Lockheed Martin, up in Denver, at a huge facility, and the other was to go to a company of 30 or so engineers in Tucson, Arizona. I decided I liked the idea of a small company much better.

So, I went there. I worked as an engineer for many years and grew with the company. It was a company that really valued self-starters.

I started out working as an individual contributor, but at some point, I started learning how to run programs and, as is common in our business, I progressed into roles of increasing responsibility. For the last five or six years I was there, I was the CEO. We had grown to several hundred employees. We had offices in Denver and D.C., but I got tired of traveling back and forth from Tucson to D.C. all the time.

Hold on. You went from engineer to CEO?

Yes. Opportunities come up, and if you capitalize on opportunities, that matters a lot. So, there was a contract that we decided to pursue and I volunteered to help run the proposal effort. We won the job, and I became the program manager. Over time, it became a big contract for the company. Because of that, I got a lot more exposure to customers, leadership and management, and grew from there.

I’m grateful for that. Because the opportunity was there, and I learned a ton over that period.

But at some point, that travel started getting to me, and I just decided I wanted to do something different. I came out to New Jersey to run a company that was a subsidiary of a much larger company. I ran that for a while and it was a really great company, actually. But I really wanted to get back to being a CEO.

I wanted to get back to being a CEO, because I enjoy all the different parts that I’m involved in every day. I’m involved in HR, IT, facilities, security, technology and customers. I love that about my job; I’m doing something different all the time.

When the Riverside opportunity came along, it looked like a great fit because the company had been around for a long time and had a great lineage. And as a high-tech not-for-profit, there’s a really distinct value proposition because we take the money that most companies take off the table as profit and put it back into technology development. We put significant money into our internal technology development.

I love this model. Our value proposition to our government customers and partners is, we’ve got this fantastic internal technology development program. And we pay for it ourselves. But we want to do what our customers and partners need, so we have an open dialogue them about what we are working on and how it can help them.

It’s a really clean model as a high-tech not-for-profit, because the customer really can be first and the employees really can be first. That agrees with me philosophically.

I run Riverside like a regular for-profit company. We care about being flexible, fast, efficient, high-tech — just like any company that we compete with. We just have this added advantage of having this thriving technology program. So, as a technology guy, obviously, that part resonates with me as well.

What does the importance of furthering STEM education mean to you?

When I was in my working career, I tried to take the best advantage of things I knew I was interested in and watch for opportunities. But when I started college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I hadn’t really paid much attention in high school. I wasn’t a very focused high school student. I was intimidated in college, because when you’re not prepared in high school, that’s a big jump. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

You didn’t have a dream job when you were a kid?

No. I knew I liked technology. I liked taking things apart. I liked figuring out how things worked. I liked biology. I liked animals. I knew I liked the sciences. But when I got to college, I had no idea about how to turn that into a career. I was just completely unprepared. For a semester or two, I really did just kind of drift along.

I was intimidated to go into the electrical engineering building — even just to go in and walk around, because I just didn’t think I deserved to be there. I didn’t feel prepared for it. But one day, I did.

I was walking around and I saw a professor sitting at his desk. I knocked on the door, and I said: “Do you have a couple of minutes? I just need to talk to you.” And he was the nicest person in the world.

I said, “I just feel really lost.” I just kind of told him my whole story. And he spent 45 minutes with me. He gave me encouragement and helped me devise a plan to go forward. I needed some remedial classes and some catch-up kind of things that I hadn’t gotten in high school. I listened to what he said, and then I felt like, “OK. Now, I’ve got a plan.”

That made all the difference in the world. I felt like I actually could belong there.

Ultimately, I worked my way through and I got a PhD. at that very same school and wound up teaching undergraduate classes. That really made a difference. I see the importance of STEM and mentoring.

For those of us who owe so much to our technical education to help give back, to help try and provide those opportunities to people — that really resonates with me. Then of course, Riverside itself benefits from more people in STEM. But for me, it goes a lot deeper than that as well.

I think whether it’s somebody in grade school, middle school, high school or college, they need people who have gone down the road a little farther, whom they can bounce ideas off. I try to be very open to that wherever I can. Not to say I’ve got all the answers, but to be able to say, “Here are some things to think about.” Just like that professor did for me.

He didn’t tell me what to do; he just told me what was possible, what was out there. And then I was able to go from there.

Do you have some sort of official setup here where you help cultivate those people who want to get into that field?

We try to provide as much training as possible. Many companies in our business have career ladders and things like that. What we try to do is make our career ladders very individually focused, to really sit down with them and say, “OK, if you want to do this, here are the things that we need to do.”

We need to provide some opportunity for training. Maybe it’s a deeper advancement in your technical field. Maybe it’s training on how to lead people, how to manage programs and things like that.

But we’re also trying to reach more outside the company as well. One of the things about our company is that it’s very spread out. We have employees in Dayton, Ohio, where we support activities at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. We have people up in Boston, where we support Hanscom Air Force Base. We have a group in New York, in part because that’s where we originated as an organization. We also have an engineering office in Centerville, where we support a variety of intelligence and defense programs.

What I wanted to do when I took over at Riverside was to bring our base of operations to the D.C. area. As a relatively new entity in the area — even though we’ve been doing engineering work up in Centreville for many, many years — I want to start reaching out within the community here and do more things to help us plug into the community.

It helps everybody if we support STEM from the earliest stages all the way through. It helps from a diversity standpoint. It helps from an inclusion standpoint. It helps from the standpoint of building a workforce. These are things Riverside should be doing as part of our role as a high-tech not-for-profit. We also want to be doing it.

We give about $50,000 a year in scholarships in a variety of different contexts. Some of them university focused. We do one in partnership with the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. But then in addition to giving money, we’re also trying to do more things that require a little elbow grease. For example, we’re the presenting sponsor for the 2019 STEM Symposium here in town. That’s really important to us.

Which misconceptions have you encountered about joining the STEM field?

I think the biggest misconception for people is that they think if they have an interest, somehow that’s not enough. That they have to have some sort of special math talent. It’s just not true. I am evidence of the fact, because I had to work so hard at developing my skills in math and in some of the basic foundational things. But I had an interest. I liked science. I liked engineering.

All you really need is interest and an earnest intention to try to learn the things you need to learn. But there’s no secret to learning those things; it’s just like anything. It’s step by step. I think a lot of people are easily intimidated by these things, or they’re influenced by what they hear, that you sort of have to be born understanding math at high levels. It’s not the case.

It is an approachable thing to do if you like biology, chemistry, math or engineering. That it really is approachable. That it really is something that people can do. It’s more about interest than talent.

What will you focus most on in 2019 from a STEM perspective and for the company overall?

One of the things that we are doing is a pivot into the R&D market space, in both Defense Department and intelligence. We’re doing more applied research and development. As part of that, we’re focusing more on the D.C. area. We have thriving business in many of the other cities I talked about, but we want to grow and be a more prominent member of the community here. That’s one reason this 2019 STEM Symposium is important to us.

As a company, our pivot to R&D — Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity or the DOD Research Labs and the intelligence community in general — with a focus on leading-edge technology is exciting for everyone and it complements our entire business. And what supports this pivot is our Open Innovation Center, which is our self-funded research organization within the company. The OIC is something that we’re all very proud of. We’ve spent a lot of money and we’ve brought a great staff of talented people into it. That’s going to be a big focal point looking ahead.

There’s a huge focus on machine learning, artificial intelligence and blockchain. How do you see the STEM field evolving? And which are the skills people will need in the future?

Foundational education is incredibly important — to come out of college understanding your chosen field well. It’s like the stock market: If you try to time when to jump in, you can make a lot of mistakes, right? So, if I’m entering school right now, should I be studying computer science, focusing on artificial intelligence? Maybe. But you don’t know what that field’s going to look like in five years.

What we’re doing with our Open Innovation Center is multi-disciplinary. Because our customers are in defense and intelligence, they want answers to problems. They don’t want technologies. They don’t care as much about AI as they care about solving a broader problem.

I’m a huge believer, all the way back from when I did my dissertation, in cross-disciplinary approaches. Bringing different ideas from different specializations together. That means, I don’t have to be an AI researcher. I just have to understand and be curious and interested about what AI is all about and know enough about it to be able to go to Jeff Clark, who leads our AI machine learning group, and be able to say: “Hey, I’m thinking about this problem and I think one of your third-generation algorithms might work. Can we talk about this?”

The key is not so much what technology to focus on but learning how to communicate across those boundaries. And that’s huge.

Being well-rounded and having that ability to communicate and to discuss ideas across technology language barriers — I can’t emphasize enough how important it is. I tend to tell people to go with where your interests are and understand your chosen field well. But also, be curious about what other people are doing. And go take some classes even after college. Maybe do a Coursera or that kind of thing. Because after you get your degree, employers don’t care as much about what you learned in college but how good you are at learning.

What are some of the biggest indicators for potential in a young person?

I have always looked for somebody who wants to jump in and figure things out for themselves. People who are ready to do whatever is necessary to get the whole job done. They have a sense of curiosity, a sense of eagerness to learn about things they don’t know about.

If I am interviewing somebody who comes across as knowing everything, that’s a red flag for me. If they ask a lot of questions about our technology and how the company works because they want to make sure it’s a good match for them, those things tell me that’s somebody who understands who they are, understands how they want to grow — and to me, that shows their potential.

That’s interesting, as the theme of this year’s STEM Symposium is the “power of curiosity.”

Exactly. In our strategic plan this year, we really focused our culture around this idea of nurturing curiosity. I want to build a company that has employees who are self-starters. They want to have autonomy and they want to have authority to do what needs to be done. But I also want to support a nurturing environment for curiosity. Being able to take risks to a point where we feel like we can try things without negative repercussions. It’s a tough line to walk, but that’s what we’re trying to do here at Riverside.

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