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Deb Alderson's greatest lesson: Never give up

For Deb Alderson, becoming a CEO was always a goal. Now, as the head of Sotera Defense Solutions, Alderson has achieved that goal, but only because she did not give up on herself despite the rocky path she had to follow to get there.

Speaking at a Women in Technology Connect event Thursday evening, Alderson shared her experiences and gave advice on how to persevere in your career even when the odds are stacked against you.

When Alderson began her tenure at Science Applications International Corp., the company’s lucrative CityTime project—designed to update and streamline municipal employees records for New York City—was already a few years underway. In two months, she became president of the group that handled that project. She knew what she was dealing with, she said. “What I didn’t know was that I had a criminal working for me.”

Alderson described how the company went into a public relations mode as the bad news about the project broke, including criminal charges against the project's leader. He was eventually convicted and sentenced for fraud.

Before she knew it, she was assigned a lawyer. “They’re going to fire you,” her mother, with whom Alderson is very close, said to her. It was then that she realized how the events were going to unfold. Her mother was right. She was fired by the company without being accused of wrongdoing.

After that, “I felt like I had nothing,” Alderson said. While she was reeling from what happened, she was able to find strength from not only her sons and her husband, but from the community around her, receiving flowers and enjoying more frequent visits from friends.

While this was going on, SRA International, a company which was already trying to catch Alderson’s eye, contacted her again. Within a month of leaving SAIC, Alderson was back in action as SRA’s chief operating officer. Eight months later, she was presented with the opportunity of her lifetime—to become the president and CEO of Sotera Defense Solutions.

Reflecting on her time at SAIC, Alderson said that she understood why SAIC fired her. “I would say that I was naïve because I didn’t understand the influence of the board and the necessity to protect the board,” she said.

However, Alderson does not believe she was treated fairly. “I also do not believe they had to sacrifice two other individuals,” she added. “Apparently this whole situation had been brought to their attention before I joined the company.”

But it was not just at SAIC where Alderson faced adversity. Years prior, working at Advanced Technology in business development, Alderson brought in a $25 million task order. At a meeting held to announce the win, a superior said that Alderson helped win the task order, “and we know how she did it.”

After the meeting, Alderson decided to call her mother for guidance. “You can either sue him, or you can prove him wrong,” her mother said, and recommended the latter. Alderson took her mother’s advice. Years later, that same superior came to her looking for a job—he was unsuccessful.

Times have changed over the years, Alderson said, who thinks that the government contracting industry has become less of a men’s club over the decades. “I really do think there’s an appreciation [for the insight that women bring to the table].” With women heading up some of the biggest companies in the industry, the trend is apparent.

Alderson advised others in the industry who might be looking for similar success to do what she did—always make an effort to reply to people when they reach out, as it both promotes good communication and also shows commitment.

Lastly, Alderson said, "I just love energy." In her mind, having a positive energy makes someone more valuable in their role. "If someone is energetic, then they're going to be confident" and more willing to collaborate, she said. And energy comes from people and the interactions you have with people.

"And you've got to be ready for that energy," Alderson said.

About the Author

Mark Hoover is a senior staff writer with Washington Technology. You can contact him at mhoover@washingtontechnology.com, or connect with him on Twitter at @mhooverWT.

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