Born in Tripoli, Libya, Science Applications International Corp. CEO Nazzic Keene came to the U.S. after the North African nation was rocked by a revolution in the late 1960s. Her mother saw the writing on the wall ahead of the 1969 coup d’état and decided to take her daughters to the U.S. to provide a better life for them.
“She tells us if she’d had three boys, she might’ve made a different decision, but of course, girls had less opportunity and certainly were more controlled by their family,” Keene told WashingtonExec.
An Arizona native, Keene’s mother had met her husband at the University of Arizona. He was a Libyan national who had come to the States to pursue his degree.
“They met, they fell in love, they married at the mosque in Washington, D.C., on the way to Libya,” Keene said.
Her mother lived in Libya for 10 years, and Keene and her two sisters were born there. But in 1969, Libya experienced a coup d’état, or its al-Fateh Revolution. The Free Officers Movement, a group of military officers led by Col. Muammar Gaddafi, overthrew the country’s King Idris I, and Gaddafi was in the process of taking power.
Keene’s mother knew it wasn’t going to be an environment she wanted to raise her children in, so she decided to leave her husband behind and come to the U.S. with her daughters.
Keene has very few memories of her early years in Libya. She spent most of her adolescence in her mother’s hometown of Tucson, Arizona, where they ended up after Libya. And because Keene grew up with modest means, she didn’t realize people went away for college.
“I just happened to live in Tucson, there was a school there, I thought that’s what you did,” Keene said.
She attended the University of Arizona in Tucson and studied what was then a new field called management information systems, largely because she liked the idea of a new industry and it paired well with her interests.
“It felt to me like there would be greater opportunity in something that was newer,” Keene said. “And it complemented things that I enjoyed. I enjoyed math, I enjoyed the analytical side, but I also knew I wanted to be in business in some form or fashion.”
While Keene didn’t know what exactly she wanted to do, management information systems covered both the business and technical side.
She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in 1984 and had three major priorities when entering the workforce: leave Tucson, get more experience and be a part of something new.
“It was a great town, but I wanted to spread my wings,” Keene said of Tucson. “I tend to gravitate towards change, towards transformation.”
When she was ready for that change, Keene looked for job advertisements in newspapers from cities she wanted to live in, including San Francisco, Dallas, Boston and Washington, D.C. She noticed a company called Electronic Data Systems was hiring in Dallas.
“It was intriguing,” Keene recalled. “It was a big ad and said they were hiring nationally. And they talked about the competencies and skills which were similar to the degree of management information systems, and so I applied.”
That’s how Keene got her first job after college.
The Start of 30+ Years
Keene joined EDS in 1984, when it was led by Ross Perot.
“It was a very entrepreneurial company. It was high growth. It really was one of the pioneers in the IT services space,” Keene said.
For Keene, that meant opportunity, uncertainty and the ability for upward advancement.
She learned about the evolving world of IT in the mid-1980s, and about business and profit and loss.
Keene stayed with EDS until 1996, departing as regional vice president of EDS’ Global Telecommunications Business. After a brief period as a partner with Ernst and Young’s consulting practice and then as chief information officer at a telecom startup, she joined American Management Systems, eventually serving as senior vice president and managing executive director until her transition to CGI through acquisition in 2004.
She attributes her career choices on her willingness to step into uncertain situations and accept risk. She had decided to join a company in the process of starting up a new practice around the deregulation happening in the telecommunications industry at that time. At that point, Keene’s domain expertise was in telecommunications.
Keene was attracted to the opportunity and excited to help transform a business. When AMS was purchased by CGI in 2004, she remained on board, serving as senior vice president and general manager. Because CGI was a Canadian company, this merger also provided Keene with the opportunity to help CGI expand its U.S. business, and drive growth in a changing, dynamic company across the U.S. market in the commercial space.
In 2012, Keene left CGI and joined SAIC as senior vice president of strategy to help drive the company’s year-long split into two companies, SAIC and Leidos, which it completed in 2013.
Keene had never been a part of anything like that.
“I had done acquisitions . . . but I’d never ever been part of anything where you take an $11 billion company and form two strong, viable companies independent of each other,” she said. “And I liked the thought of that.”
SAIC also gave Keene the opportunity to work in the federal space. Already living in D.C., she jumped on the chance to learn another industry, step into the federal market and help shape two companies.
“For me, it was another intriguing opportunity to do something different. I was willing to take that risk to see where it ended up,” she said.
Eventually, that decision made Keene chief operating officer in 2017, and in August 2019, CEO.
But her road to CEO wasn’t deliberate, and it was never about the title.
“It was always about, for me, the ability to make an impact, the ability to help transform, change, grow, regardless of what the title was,” she said. “So that to me is the most intriguing part of whatever role I’ve been in.”
From Commercial to Government
Having spent most of her career in the commercial space prior to SAIC, Keene was excited to infuse innovation, transformation, modernization and technology into government for decades to come.
“Our folks are absolutely focused on bringing the right solutions to bear and engaging with the customers,” Keene said. “We can bring new solutions and really enable our government customers to modernize.”
Plus, Keene said there are many layers to what SAIC does, the larger buckets being in IT and engineering, and including robotics, data analytics, modeling and simulation and other leading technologies.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to bring innovation and thought leadership to support our customers’ journey in these areas,” she said.
And that’s been the drive behind SAIC’s acquisitions of government contractor Engility in 2018 and Unisys Federal in March — which Keene is still heavily focused on integrating throughout 2020.
She’s also prioritizing talent and driving profitable revenue growth for shareholders, customers and employees, as it provides employees with more opportunities for advancement and influences SAIC’s strategy.
“You can’t grow if you don’t have the right people. You can’t get the right people if you’re not a growing viable organization,” Keene said. “All of these priorities have to link together.”
It’s not just talent acquisition, but also ensuring SAIC invests in its people through development programs and having the right people do the right jobs.
And whether it’s people within SAIC or government customer agencies, Keene is driven by the passion around the mission. That’s something she finds unique to the government contracting industry.
“The sense of purpose and the excitement and the enthusiasm when I talk to colleagues in SAIC about not just the job they do, not just the technology that they might develop or implement, it really is around the impact that each individual can make in serving our nation’s missions,” she said. “And it is something that is inspiring.”
Motivated by People at Work and at Home
At this stage of Keene’s career, she’s most driven by how she can engage with people.
“I’m incredibly fortunate to sit in the seat that I sit in, and very humbled by it, but I think the bigger impact to me and how I do my job every day is the people I get a chance to work with,” she said.
She values learning from people, and having spirited conversations on important topics that lead to careful, smart solutions.
In Keene’s professional life, that means people on her team. She gets tremendous satisfaction out of watching them expand their careers, do what they love and get the opportunities they want.
“To the extent that I can play a role in guiding, coaching, mentoring, leading, I get energized by that,” she said.
The mentorship relationships have also been the most rewarding aspect of her career. She says she feels energized by watching her protégés grow and take on new things.
“At this particular moment, that’s a big part of how I give back and how I lead and part of what I can do for the next generation of leaders,” Keene said.
Keene knows firsthand the value of a mentor, too. Former SAIC CEO Tony Moraco is one of hers, and she said he showed her the ropes of how to navigate this particular market.
“His mentorship, his friendship, his guidance, was instrumental in certainly my attraction to SAIC over the course of the last several years, and influencing me on how I lead the company going forward,” Keene said.
In her personal life, Keene is a family person. Having spent most of her career as a working mom, she doesn’t have time to do much else except be a mom and work. Keene has two kids from her first marriage, and when she remarried in 2012, her husband had three kids from his previous marriage. Her five kids span the gamut, too, from adults with their own kids down to high school-age.
“We’re always, always busy,” she said. “And staying connected with family, being a leader of the family . . . and to help support my children when they need some advice and counsel and to also be their friend, as well as to engage with their children, to me is just so important.”
Whether Keene is engaging with her team at work, spending time with her family or traveling with her husband, she’s most satisfied when connecting with people — and it’s what binds her motivation and sense of importance at work and at home.