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Peraton CEO Stu Shea, who will speak at Mason's Commencement May 20, discusses success, life, careers, and how Mason prepares graduates for the world ahead in this Q&A.
Q: Your career as a leader in the security, intelligence, business and technology industries incorporates some of Mason’s many programmatic strengths. How does one carve out a distinguished career that encompasses all of those areas?
A: I believe careers are really built from a combination of hard work, luck, and serendipity. At the beginning of my own career, I sought out opportunities to pursue my passions. There is far less value in living someone else’s dream than in living your own. As a young person just starting my career, I felt that life was too short to follow predetermined paths. The confluence of security, intelligence, business, and technology was both a passion and a way of life for me. I was curious about the world and convinced that technology was foundational to having a global perspective and a competitive advantage, so I dove in headfirst believing that one day my family, community, nation, and our very way of life would depend on the results of the work I was undertaking. I took that responsibility seriously, knowing there were real lives and missions of consequence that depended on me doing my job well.
Looking back on the dots connecting my past to my present, I have been very fortunate to support our national security for the past 40 years. However, describing what I have done as a “distinguished” career is a moniker others place on what I have been honored to do. In fact, I would characterize my career as “blessed”; I got to do what I loved and was entrusted, through my work and service, to protect the freedoms of so many people.
Q: Peraton has hired more than 450 Mason alumni among its 6,000 employees in the region, so you must be pleased with the talent that Mason produces. What qualities do you and your team look for in the people you hire and promote, and how do Mason grads exhibit these qualities?
A: We always look for the smartest people, the most motivated, and the most diverse, but all those qualities pale in comparison to finding the person who best exemplifies our corporate values. Anyone who truly internalizes and exhibits our core values—to honor those we serve; maintain selflessness for the team; operate with integrity and trust; treat others with respect; constantly innovate; deliver excellence in value and capability—has the potential to be a valued contributor and high performer for Peraton.
Education can be taught. Experience can be gained. But honor, integrity, and respect must be embodied in the soul of a person. We look for people who have grit and aren’t afraid of the impossible, who push the envelope to achieve innovation that benefits the greater good. Graduates who bring these qualities, along with a desire to impact the world, have everything we’re looking for. I look forward to hiring hundreds more of your alumni.
Q: One of Mason’s defining pillars is diversity in its many forms—diversity of origin, identity, circumstance, thought, and so on. How important is diversity to innovation and performance and how might students coming out of Mason, Virginia’s most diverse public university, have a leg up on the competition?
A: There is incredible value in the diversity of thought, experience, culture, education, etc. that is personified by George Mason University. The work Dr. Washington has done to lead a university that extends diversity beyond race and ethnicity, and invites people, of all backgrounds and cultures, to become such an impactful force is both palpable in its focus and impressive in its outcomes.
Diversity fuels the determination and courage of both Mason and Peraton to accomplish the impossible. It is noteworthy that about a quarter of Mason graduates are the first in their family to go to college. These students overcame bias and barriers to chart an unmarked course in pursuit of a better future than the one they were born into.
Diversity is the summation of our strengths and allows an individual to see a door where others see a wall. As graduates of Virginia’s most diverse public university, armed with incredible academic offerings like the nation’s first cybersecurity engineering program, the sky’s the limit for what Mason graduates can and will achieve in the future.
Q: Fifty-eight percent of Mason undergrads say they completed an internship while at Mason, so there is a lot of room for growth in that area. Internships help students clarify their career goals, build relevant skills, develop contacts, and land jobs. Should area employers invest more resources in internships and apprenticeships to reap the benefits later on?
A: Absolutely. Investments in internships should be a critical element in a company’s talent acquisition strategy. It certainly is at Peraton. Our University Recruiting and Relations (UR&R) program is growing and expanding in line with our overall company growth. We are excited to provide internships and full-time opportunities to students and graduates from Mason, as well as other leading universities around the country.
Peraton engages with students and faculty throughout the year, partnering with universities to work with students on capstone projects, research symposia, poster sessions, hack-a-thons, and other events. We recruit a large pool of college students each year for experiential learning opportunities through our Cooperative Education and Internship Program (CEIP) and our formal summer internship program. Both allow students to learn valuable engineering and analytical skills, apply them to real world problems, and better prepare them to start their career at Peraton.
Q: Mason is the educational, economic, and cultural hub of Northern Virginia. You’ve served on Mason’s College of Science Advisory Board and have many other connections to the university. How would you characterize Mason’s role in regard to innovation and the economic health and future of Northern Virginia?
A: As one of the nation’s top research universities, Mason is influencing change in our world. Having overcome funding hardships and its fair share of naysayers, Mason was built on the backbone of people who wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Mason graduates are impatient to tackle the greatest challenges this world has to offer and, thus, don’t wait for permission to act.
The technological legacy of this institution has fueled progress at a highly accelerated rate; innovations originating from Mason have the capacity to change the world. As the world struggles to recover from the past two years, Mason is paving a better path forward for our economy, our communities, and our nation through its Mason Virginia Promise program.
Having only been established in the last 50 years, the Mason legacy was built by doers who persevered to bring about change and become America’s top university. Mason’s culture of curiosity allowed it to become the youngest university to receive R1 research status in the country, bolstering its case as Virginia’s most innovative institution. Changing the world doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with a refusal to accept the status quo and progresses through small steps fueled by steadfast work.
Q: Many Mason students have overcome obstacles to attend college and more than 1 in 4 are the first in their family to do so. What should Mason students—regardless of their major or area of interest—be doing now to prepare for successful careers?
A: My framework for achieving career success is the following: Think it. Believe it. Live it. Achieve it. Always follow your gut instinct, create, and believe in the vision of what the world could be in the future. You must reverse engineer that end goal and live it every day, in every way through words and actions to, ultimately, be successful at it.
The education you are receiving at Mason is world-class. Dr. Washington and the faculty have prepared you to repair the world you’re about to enter while simultaneously empowering you with the tools to build the world of tomorrow. The only thing left to do is to act. Dive headfirst into the things in life that set your soul ablaze and get your neurons firing into the realm of possibility. That’s a fair indicator you’re on the right path.
Qualifications and competency can be taught but the future needs more people who embody honor, integrity, and respect and believe they have the power to affect change. At Peraton, we challenge our employees to “do the can’t be done,” which is a mindset that turns obstacles into opportunities. We encourage employees to think differently and look at all problems with fresh eyes. We look past the obvious to bring the best talent, tech, and ideas together to completely transform how things are done.
Q: Mason graduates would like to know: What is the best piece of advice you ever received, personally or professionally, and how has that advice helped shape your life and career?
A: One of my most valued mentors was Walt Havenstein, the former CEO of SAIC, who taught me an invaluable lesson in what I considered to be a rich learning experience. One day at work, I became quite emotional telling Walt how he was “missing the point” on an important topic, and the choices I was comparing for him “were clearly different.” In fact, I was so focused on convincing him how different they were that I got up and drew a picture of the differences on a whiteboard. Walt calmly asked me to follow him, and led me 100 feet down the hallway, where he asked me to turn around and look at the whiteboard. He told me, “Now look at them. Are they really all that different now?” As I squinted down at the 100-foot hallway, all I saw was a single black blob on whiteboard. At that distance, my original two items were indistinguishable. “It all depends on your perspective,” said Walt. “Always keep things in perspective.”
While that sticks with me the most, I also recall advice from my thesis advisor, Dr. George Jenks, who gave me an article to read. He told me that it was relevant to my master's thesis—but as I read it, and I reread it, these two pages, probably for a month and a half—I couldn't begin to understand how it was relevant. It had nothing to do with my thesis! I was practically ready to hold it up to a blacklight to search for clues or hidden meanings. I was so frustrated.
And Dr. Jenks said, “Have you read every word on it?” In the article there was a picture. There was a little circle and a big circle. The little circle said: what one knows. The big circle said: “what one does not know”. Then it had the following expression: “the value of what one knows is doubled if one confesses to not knowing what one does not know.”
What he was saying was that as soon as you realize how much you still have to learn, you're a whole lot smarter. For me, this lesson drove my thirst for knowledge. I became a voracious reader, reading widely across all types of subjects. Have a desire to learn. Your curiosity will be rewarded.
Collectively, guidance like this has led me toward a life of learning and self-awareness, and a willingness to try new things every day. It also gave rise to my own advice to others, which is to “be unafraid of the impossible.”
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: There was one point from Dr. Washington’s 50th anniversary celebration speech in April that really stood out to me. He said, “you don’t come this far this fast by being like the others. You actually have to be just a little different.”
Peraton, like Mason, is a young organization. You are 50 years old, we are five years old. Like Mason, Peraton was created to respond to a changing world. Our people are hungry for innovation and walking the tightrope between the impossible and the capacity of human potential in every major industry.
As two Northern Virginia-based organizations, George Mason is in Peraton’s backyard, and we are in Mason’s backyard. Mason’s tenets – research, innovation, diversity – closely align with Peraton. For a Mason graduate, we consider it a natural progression to work with a company like Peraton. We create the jobs that you study and train for, and serve missions that support our national security. But there are many organizations that could benefit from your talents and reward your efforts. Ultimately, I hope you have the opportunity to drive change, to be yourself, and to become what makes you happy. If you keep this guidance in mind, the rest of the pieces will fall into place along the way.