The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 13, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Dec. 8.
Next is Artificial Intelligence Industry Executive of the Year (Public Company) finalist Marshall Thames, who’s senior vice president of mission solutions at ECS. Here, he talks taking professional risks, career advice, learning from failures and more.
What key achievements did you have in 2020/2021?
In the AI space, we’ve had a number of key achievements over the last two years, but there are two that really stand out for me:
First, we hit the $1 billion mark in AI awards in the national security and intelligence space. Given that we started at zero in 2017, I’d call that significant growth. Second, we delivered the first production AI models in the Defense Department. There are a lot of companies doing research and development in AI across DOD, but we were the first to put models into production and integrate them into standard operating procedures.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
I’m incredibly proud of our culture at ECS. Our motto is “Meet the Challenge. Make a Difference.” It’s more than just a slogan hanging on a wall or dropped onto a web page. It really reflects how we pursue work, recruit and develop talent and execute programs.
Meeting the challenge is about commitment and capability. We have the drive to take on the hardest problems, the expertise and experience to excel and the grit to persevere — especially when it’s hard — until we’re successful.
Making a difference is about who we work for and how we give back. We take our responsibility to our country and fellow citizens very seriously. The work we do isn’t just challenging, it’s important. It matters. It’s the kind of responsibility that makes you feel good about going to work every day.
The great thing about culture is that it drives mutual expectations and sets unspoken standards of behavior. People who are driven to be their best and hit the hardest problems head on, those are ECS people. People who care about what they’re doing and see how it could impact their children and grandchildren, those are ECS people. People who, even running at the pace we do, find a way to give back to their communities, those are the people I get to work with every day.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
Back in 2001, I joined a small consulting firm called InfoReliance. I was the ninth employee hired, I think, and we were still running out of our CEO’s basement. I was in my mid-30s with two young children. A lot of people told me I was crazy to take a risk like that, but I really liked the people and I had a lot of confidence in them. I was excited by the opportunity to get into the federal space, so I jumped.
Over the next 16 years, I became president of InfoReliance. We grew to almost $170 million in revenue and were acquired by a great company — ECS. For four years since the acquisition, I’ve had the great honor of leading the mission solutions business unit, including our industry-leading AI work.
Yes, it was a risk, but it worked out well in the end.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
The best career advice I can give is this: Do something you love, or at least like a lot. Otherwise, you’ll never give the energy and focus to be really good at it and you won’t stick with it long enough to be successful.
Once you find your field, you’ll need to learn the business side, too. As long as you start with something you enjoy, the rest will come easier.
What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?
In the early days of InfoReliance, we were chasing a significant deal with one of our major customers and we thought were well positioned. We’d invested a lot of presales consulting hours, really understood the customers’ needs and helped them envision a realistic and impactful solution that they seemed genuinely excited about. We submitted the best proposal we could at what we thought was a very aggressive price.
I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that sales is always a numbers game, in which you have to take several swings to get a hit. I learned that the person you’re working with may not be the decision-maker after all. I learned that “investment hours” aren’t really an investment, but a wager. They may pay off and they may not.
But I’d say the key thing I took away from that experience was resilience. There will always be setbacks and unpleasant surprises. Things will not go as planned. The most successful people are those who can quickly put failure behind them and move on to the next one.