Chief Officer Awards Finalist Charles Onstott: ‘Focus On the Task at Hand’

Editor’s note: Charles Onstott of SAIC is the winner of the Chief Officer Awards Public Company CTO Award announced June 17.

On June 17, WashingtonExec will be virtually celebrating the most impactful and innovative C-suite executives in government and industry. These chief officers work in technology, security, data, operations, finance, business and more, excelling on both sides of the government contracting sector. Our team of judges have chosen the finalists for the inaugural Chief Officer Awards, so before we announce the winners during the event, we wanted to get to know the finalists a bit better. This Q&A series highlights their careers, successes, proud professional moments and notable risks.

Charles Onstott, SAIC

Charles Onstott, SAIC

Charles Onstott is a senior vice president and the chief technology officer for Science Applications International Corp. and a finalist in the Public Company CTO Award category.

What key achievements did you have in 2019?

We made a lot of great strides last year, but two major achievements stand out in particular. First is the development of our Innovation Factory. I’m so excited about this delivery model and what it can bring to our customers. By using teams composed of technical and mission experts, we deploy first iterations of solutions quickly for customers, and then organically enhance them in sprints. This mitigates risk in new technology adoption and helps customers make progress on modernization efforts even when they have limited budgets. 

Innovation Factory enables rapid delivery of app modernization and development, data analytics and training solutions leveraging our innovation hubs across the country.

We’re already seeing this approach work for several of our customers, and I believe this will be a game changer for us going forward.

The other is research and development work we have been performing in applying internet of things technologies to the tactical environment. Our Internet of Battlefield Things R&D team developed prototype vehicles that showcases capabilities that enable warfighters to have near real-time and multidomain situational awareness and communication capabilities, including the ability to function in a disconnected mode. These vehicles comprise a mobile lab environment for testing emerging technologies in a variety of tactical situations.

I’m extremely proud we had this work recognized by Washington Technology with the Best-in-Class Industry Innovator Award, and I’m encouraged by the possibilities of these technologies for other applications. For example, I think this could play a critical role in supporting border agents tasked with patrolling remote, isolated areas or be applied for any agency with personnel that have to operate at the edge.

What has made you successful in your current role?

Maintaining focus on people is the key to my success. This includes surrounding myself with great people and providing an environment that motivates them to innovate. Also, it is very easy to become completely absorbed in cool technologies and want to do things for technology’s sake, but ultimately people are the reason we want to keep innovating.  

So, understanding how technology can help people achieve their missions or how it can help improve the citizen’s experience of government is at the center of the work we do. And the human element demands a strong emphasis on ethics. It is equally important to talk about why we should do something as it is to talk about what we can do. People are the most motivated when they know that what they are doing aligns with their core values.  

What are your primary focuses areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?   

We’re seeing so many trends in technology — artificial intelligence, rapid advancements in space, quantum computing, biotechnology — that are going to shape our future. The convergence of technologies and techniques in digital, physical, biological and human domains are keys to solving the hardest problems our country faces. 

My focus is on creating an ecosystem at SAIC that fosters innovation by converging capabilities across these areas. That means investing not only in the R&D of the technologies, but finding ways to create those moments where people from different disciplines connect and come up with new ways to solve longstanding problems. 

What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?

When I reflect on the times where I haven’t been as successful as I would have liked to have been, it’s usually because I haven’t done a good enough job of articulating the rationale for a forward vision or plan for how to achieve it. When people don’t understand the reasons underlying their work, it’s hard to get them to rally to action. Just because something seems obvious or intuitive to me does not mean that it will be apparent to others. 

The lesson I’ve learned is that you must surround yourself with people who are strong in areas where you are weaker. I tend to be an intuitive thinker, so I definitely rely on people around me who are great at breaking things down into logical components and steps to find the flaws in my thinking. They complement my thinking with better ideas and clarity and out of that comes a better vision and plan to achieve it.  

Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?   

I take great pride in trying to develop that next wave of talent. Through my years at SAIC, I’ve been able to identify, recruit, mentor and advocate for people who are now playing major roles in our company — vice presidents, practice leads, heads of operations. Being able to play a role in helping someone realize their full potential is so rewarding.

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Focus on the task at hand and making the most of your current opportunity, not just your next move. Everyone should have an idea about where they want to go, but at times I’ve seen people become so focused on advancing to that next stage that they lose track of where they are.  The best leaders that I’ve worked with think about executing on the mission they’re tasked with, and figuring out how they can support the company’s goals and outcomes.  

It’s also important to build up that talent behind you. Sometimes, people become protective of their roles, and it actually ends up handcuffing them, because there’s no way to backfill if you want to advance them.  

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