Kent Buchanan is chief technology officer and vice president of engineering for Harris Corp., where he works to integrate dual-purpose technologies for defense, national intelligence, and healthcare customers, among others.
Prior to joining Harris’ leadership team, he spent time at companies such as Motorola and General Electric and served as an Air Force officer, where he led production of a communications satellite program at the Space and Missile Command.
He recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz about his time spent with Harris, the challenges inherent in developing technologies for commercial and public sector customers and the way in which government is adapting its procurement processes.
ExecutiveBiz: Where does Harris expect to see growth and how will your business adapt to market changes in order to ensure contract wins and overall success?
Kent Buchanan: We are very well positioned for growth. Harris operates in areas that typically are in demand whether the U.S. is engaged in active conflict or not. We“™ve also been using a commercial approach for quite a while now, and that lets us move more quickly and efficiently into a position to be able to supply people with what they need at effective price points.
We“™ve been diversifying as well. For example, we entered the public safety market a few years ago and that“™s allowing us to leverage our broad range of of communication skills. The shift to broadband and the need for infrastructure that can interoperate with many different kinds of systems, both others and ours, looks very attractive. That business is doing very well.
We“™re excited about our healthcare business as well. We“™ve recently won a number of additional contracts there. We“™ve got a joint venture with Johns Hopkins, addressing the problem of effectively managing huge volumes of data associated with medical imaging. We certainly have a lot of capabilities in terms of how you manage very large image or video databases. We“™re finding that the world is moving toward the need for situational analysis in all different forms, whether it“™s police or healthcare or our more traditional markets. These demands are allowing us to draw on a lot of our existing expertise.
ExecutiveBiz: Harris“™ contracts are often for healthcare solutions and radios. Why has the company chosen these focuses and how will it work for success in those areas in years to come?
Kent Buchanan: You certainly hear about those two a lot. They“™re very exciting, and they“™re very public. On the other hand, we do a lot of work in other exciting markets as well, including energy, public safety, maritime, national intelligence, civilian government, transportation and utilities. For example, we do a lot of classified work for the government. About half of our 7,000 engineers have clearances of one type or another. We don“™t talk a lot about what we do there, although it“™s interesting, exciting and meaningful stuff. We“™re seeing good demand for these skills as well.
We also have a lot of activity in space, both commercial and military lately. We don“™t tend to talk about that work as much because it“™s not as familiar to the public and people don“™t quite relate to it as much as say healthcare, public safety or a radio you might wear on your vest if you“™re a solider. It“™s more a question of what we have chosen to talk about publicly.
ExecutiveBiz: How does the company work to provide its government customers with effective communications solutions and what are your specific tasks/challenges in that process?
Kent Buchanan: One thing that makes Harris unique is that we have both the traditional government contractor model and a commercial model for meeting our customers“™ needs. On the traditional side, the challenges to some degree come from the fact that we see ourselves as well positioned when mission requirements are particularly demanding. That means we need to maintain a workforce of wonderfully talented individuals with a really broad technical scope that can address opportunities quickly and cost effectively in the context of a traditional government purchasing process.
On the commercial side, which we do more and more of these days, the challenge is simply to out innovate our competitors cost effectively. In many ways, that is simply traditional commercial competition. The difference for us is that we are very, very deep technically because of other sets of skills and experiences. We were named one of the world“™s 100 most innovative companies because of the depth of capability and technology that we have.
ExecutiveBiz: What challenges and opportunities do you encounter when developing dual-use technologies and how does the company determine which solutions to make dual-purposed?
Kent Buchanan: There are significant portions of our business where that“™s not even a possibility. It“™s government focused and that“™s the way it is. On the other hand, because we do have a lot of commercial businesses like public safety and healthcare, we get to see what“™s going on in those commercial worlds and find ways to extrapolate that back into the government world. That gives us some very unique and interesting perspectives on the pace of technical change and opportunities to build on commercial trends.
When we can do that well, we get the benefits of fast technical evolution and commercial cost structures that we can apply in both worlds. We see a lot of that today, particularly in places like broadband or something we refer to as tactical cellular. Tactical cellular is essentially bringing cellular-like technologies into the government world and modifying them so that they work effectively while still using that same basic set of technical approaches.
ExecutiveBiz: What are the biggest technology challenges the government is facing and how should it handle those challenges/opportunities in order to increase efficiency and transparency?
Kent Buchanan: I“™ve spent much of my career in the commercial world and it“™s been interesting moving into the government space. One of the biggest challenges the government has is that the technology is moving very, very quickly. If you look at what“™s happening with social media, big data, collaborative computing or video and the billions of cameras in everyone“™s smart phones, the pace of technology is quickly outstripping the way the government traditionally buys. It“™s not unusual for a technology to go through two or even three generations in the time it would take to buy a product under a traditional program of record model.
It is sometimes difficult to fully utilize dual-purpose technology and that makes it hard for government vendors to ride those commercial cost curves as fully as they could. The government tends to be hard pressed to buy current technology at good commercial prices because the processes and rules are complex and sometimes just too slow. We“™re beginning to see positive changes in these processes though, and that“™s speeding up the way the government buys.
ExecutiveBiz: How has your Air Force experience benefitted you in your career?
Kent Buchanan: It“™s hard to say exactly. There is a professionalism and a dedication to the mission that you get when you“™re in the military. You know what it means to rely on mission critical equipment. There“™s a sense of purpose and contribution. You tend to have a sense of mission and dedication not only to your employer, but also to our nation and to a larger reality, if you will. I have spent a great deal of my career in commercial settings, but there“™s still a resonance with the traditions and meaning of being in the service. If you haven“™t been in the military, it“™s hard to really get that sense of mission that people who have been in the military feel every single day.
The military provides people with an unbelievable opportunity to not only observe good leadership, but to learn how to do it. People get responsibility very early in their careers, and there are great models of what good leadership looks like. In civilian life, these opportunities to lead or to observe truly outstanding leaders often take many years to achieve.
ExecutiveBiz: Is there anything else you“™d like to add?
Kent Buchanan: Harris is a great place to work. It“™s a very unusual company with a wonderful culture and a great group of people who are really talented. I“™ve been here seven years, which by Harris standards means I“™m a pup.
Harris employees tend to come here almost right out of college and stay for their entire careers. It“™s a very unusual company in that regard. There have been a number of people who have come in from the outside later in their careers, and I think we bring a certain perspective that you might not get if you were here all of your life. At the same time, there“™s camaraderie here and a sense of teamwork that is really hard to match.
Most importantly, we do important things. Engineers feel good when they“™re creating things of value. It“™s very easy to see how the things we create at Harris help complete missions and save lives.