Executive Spotlight: John Purvis, CEO of Edge Autonomy
John Purvis currently serves as CEO of Edge Autonomy, a provider of uncrewed and autonomous technologies for government, industry and academic clients. He holds a wealth of experience centering on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities, and throughout his career, he has worked extensively with the intelligence and special operations communities.
In a recent interview with the Potomac Officers Club, Purvis detailed his career background, shared his leadership strengths and reflected on the federal technology and contracting landscape.
Read the full interview below:
What can you tell us about your background and how you’ve been able to adapt to the ever-changing challenges of the federal landscape over the course of your career?
I come from an intelligence and special operations background, focused on airborne ISR. This is an insular community in which I have spent most of my career, and the challenges within this arena are unique as well. While most choose to broaden their horizons a bit more, my focus has been beneficial in honing my interests and insights into this part of our industry. I have always enjoyed learning more about the issues my customers face and what technology we can develop to solve those problems.
As a company, Edge Autonomy is equally as focused. That means that there are a lot of times when we have to say ‘no’ – to proposals, acquisition opportunities and even to changes in our strategy. We are not a ‘jack of all trades’ company. We choose to focus on the technology, innovations and growth within the tactical uncrewed systems world. This allows us to attract, retain and learn from the best and the brightest in our space.
What do you believe are your core strengths as a leader and what lessons taught you the most about driving success?
I have been extremely lucky to see some success in my career at a fairly young age. Now that I have a few more years and some scar tissue built up, I realize the overall success of the team has less to do with me and more to do with the intelligence, creativity and cohesiveness of our team as a whole. My goal is to hire people who are far more talented than I am and learn from them – and I do my best to stay out of their way! I believe the CEO of a company works for their employees, not the other way around. My job is to get my team the resources and structure they need to do their best work, removing any roadblocks to success that they may encounter.
Our employees’ efforts serve a greater purpose and are appreciated – the work we do here goes on to protect the warfighter in the field. I truly think the folks who make up our Edge Autonomy team care tremendously about each other and have a vested interest in seeing our customers succeed. That is our core strength.
How would you advise someone entering our industry to build their resume and advance their careers to be in the best position in the years to come?
Learn from those around you. This industry is full of unique perspectives and innovative thinking. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and push yourself to learn across a variety of disciplines. There are also tremendous networking opportunities in this community – a lot of people are eager to share what they know and meet new people who share the same passions and are pursuing the same goals. Make your voice heard. Even if you are young or just starting out in the industry I can guarantee that you have a unique perspective that others will find interesting. Our younger teammates don’t necessarily know what tradition says can or can’t be done – so they are often eager to try an innovative approach to our challenges.
If you were given free reign to enact changes in the federal landscape, what are the first three changes you would implement and why?
First, I would implement term limits of five years on all Department of Defense acquisition programs. After the five-year term expires, the program should be automatically recompeted. I believe this would allow the government to re-baseline and update the requirements and would force industry to ‘keep the program sold’ if they faced an automatic recompete.
In a similar fashion, if we gave an operational unit the go/no-go decision authority over what systems enter into full-rate production, I think we would see a substantial improvement in the quality and combat effectiveness of fielded weapon systems. Too often, systems that are still too developmental are pushed into service, making it the unit’s problem to figure things out. Build a little, test a lot, then – only when ready – build a lot more. We don’t do this very well in our industry.
After 9/11, a whole lot of governmental agencies got into the intelligence business. There is a significant amount of capability overlap, making things needlessly confusing and inefficient. If king for a day, I would go on a ‘consolidation crusade’ to improve this situation wherever possible.
With emerging technology influencing the federal government and industry more by the day, what are some of the challenges on the business side of innovation that aren’t always discussed as often as they should be?
One of the traps the U.S. defense ecosystem can find themselves in is technical innovation for its own sake. I can’t tell you how many investments I’ve seen in weapon systems and capabilities that had little or no actual utility to the warfighter.
At Edge Autonomy, we build tactical uncrewed systems that support deployed infantry and special operations forces almost exclusively. These warfighters are already carrying an enormous amount of weight into the field on their backs. When they have vehicles, they are similarly overloaded. Any piece of gear our wizards dream up will either increase this burden or displace something else they need. Looking at our offerings through this lens, any piece of Edge Autonomy equipment doesn’t just have to work – and work well – but has to offer greater utility than what was likely left behind to accommodate our inclusion in the loadout.
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