Before he accepts the 2021 Arthur C. Lundahl—Thomas C. Finnie Lifetime Achievement Award at the GEOGala on Friday, December 3, Stu Shea, chairman, president and CEO of Peraton, sat down with trajectory magazine to discuss his legendary career. The 17th recipient of the award and founder of the United States Geospatial Foundation (USGIF) shared what the beginning of the Foundation looked like, how the GEOINT community has changed over the years, and what this iconic award means to him.
trajectory: Tell us about why and how you founded USGIF.
Shea: I had been a participant in many different symposia and events over the years, and I always found that each community had its own sense of camaraderie and connectedness and a loving interest in what people were working on. Twenty years ago, the GEOINT world was still in its nascent stages. But finally, the government began putting some money behind the idea of bringing together the mapping, charting, and geodesy world and the imagery intelligence world. Many of us had been pushing for this for years because we had this very fractured community of government participants, industry participants, and academics who weren’t talking to each other, and the trade associations didn’t want to talk to government folks.
I was at an event in 2002 and I started talking with Dr. John Stopher, former professional staff member, U.S. House of Representatives, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). Together we lamented the fact that this emerging geospatial community was so fractured, so we left the event, grabbed a couple beers and put our heads together. We thought: Why don’t we throw a party so everyone in the field can join and begin to break down the walls between them? Instead of just a party, we organized an event with a social aspect to it. We thought that, between us, if we could reach into our Rolodex and contact everyone we knew, we could get a couple hundred people to come. But at the first symposium, called GEOINTEL 2003 in New Orleans, 1,218 people came. The conference exhibit hall was a Sheraton hotel where exhibitors pushed beds against the walls in rooms and would set up demonstrations on laptops on tables. People went from floor to floor to see each exhibitor, then afterward we did a bar crawl on Bourbon Street. It was a massive success, and our community truly began to form.
After that first symposium, we created a non-profit organization, USGIF, to take ownership of the event. I put together a board, then we went to six companies to ask for money to fund the next symposium. Within two days, each company had written us a check for $60,000. Since I was working full-time at Northrop Grumman at the time, I didn’t have the time to work and organize the event, but for the next decade that’s what I did with the help of many people. And every year, I tried to get out of it again. But it just took off. I think it’s because we created a community that really wanted to exist but didn’t. We broke down all the barriers to create this unified community between government, industry, academics, and professional trade associations.
Throughout your career, how has the GEOINT community changed?
When I started my career, there was no GEOINT community at all. The commercial imagery business didn’t really exist, and there were no real mapping or GIS companies. At the first symposium, we had about 100 exhibitors, and that number has tripled since. But it was at the 10-year mark that I realized 75% of the companies on the showroom floor didn’t even exist when we started. Google Maps didn’t exist, there was no Maxar and MapQuest was just getting traction. All of these companies were created as a result of the investment people made in this community and the fact that we finally brought visibility to these tools.
How do you see GEOINT’s role in securing the nation evolving?
A long time ago, I stated that GEOINT is the foundation for all security. All of the fancy technology we have now is irrelevant unless you could place its data on the ground, and give it a location. We, as a nation, have to understand what our adversaries are doing or might do to us. Most of those things end up in a place and time. They attack a network. Where is the network? Attack a border. Where is the border? A water supply? Where is it? A supply chain? Where is it and what does it lead to? Everything is foundational and goes to some specific place on the earth.
Now, extend the earth to space. We will fight a war in space one day, I promise you. Just think about the concept of battlegrounds and borders, for instance. We used to think about the Germans coming down through the Fulda Gap attacking western Europe, but cyber has no borders. Today, someone could attack you from the basement of their summer home. Our food supply, fresh water, natural resources, oil, and gas are all in a place and get moved to another place and prevented from being accessed. The GEOINT community has an incredible role in protecting our nation because it focuses on the thing that ties us all together: a place.
What advice do you have for new professionals entering the tradecraft?
Back in the day, you had to be very technical to enter the field. You had to understand how to program or use a certain tool. I did that as a software engineer, but I was more of a people-person, a strategist. It didn’t take me long to realize that there were plenty of people who were much better at software engineering than I was, but I was better at leading.
I believe the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better off you are. Not all of the tools have to be directly related to what you do. You could be a great technologist, but if you’re not able to interact with people, you could still be a failure. I think having a broad multi-disciplinary background is important.
I’ve always believed I was a dry sponge in a wet environment. There’s so much to learn, watch, and listen to, you have to stay open. Don’t just learn how to do one specific thing. Learn how to cook, learn another language, learn about our history and the history of our adversaries. Don’t assume that just because you’re a smart scientist you could be the chief scientist of some company one day.
I mean, I’m a geologist. That was my bachelor’s degree. What am I doing leading a $7 billion company as a geologist? Well, if you watch my career, it makes sense. I went from geology to geography to cartography to doing the early design work on computer mapping, which led me to writing software and articles that the government was reading because they were building computer mapping systems in classified programs at the time. The CIA reached out to me, gave me my clearance, and put me to work on their program. From there, I became an intelligence professional and found out that I liked leading more than anything. So, I went from the smart guy solving technical problems to leading a workforce of smart people implementing solutions all over the world. I simply had the desire to keep learning and nothing scared me. Nothing.
Professionally, what stands out as your greatest achievement?
I love it when someone looks back and says that I made a difference in their life. When someone tells me that I inspired their career or helped them do or achieve something big. Many people who have worked for me over the years have become CEOs of other companies—and that’s such a trip for me, such a humbling experience. That’s what I love about the opportunity I’ve been given and what I think I will look back on the most. I truly believe there are people whose lives were enriched by my interaction with them, and that is my greatest professional achievement.
What does this lifetime achievement award mean to you?
It feels like lifetime achievement awards often go to people who are old or done working. But I’m neither of those things. I say I’d like to retire one day, but I never actually will. I’ll probably stop working 80 hours a week at some point, but I’ll never retire.
But when I think about the people who have gotten this award, they are all people in my life that inspired me in some way. At some point, each of those people impacted me, a young engineer, and helped me chart my future. When I look at this award, I like to think that I made a positive impact on someone else’s life as well as the GEOINT community.
Learn more about USGIF’s Arthur C. Lundahl – Thomas C. Finnie Lifetime Achievement Award.