Improbable Defence

#IBelong: Mike Raker, Chief Technology Officer

#IBelong Mike Raker

Mike Raker, Chief Technology Officer, Improbable Defence

Q: What’s your role at IO?

I’m the CTO for Defence. My role focuses on ensuring that our technology leads the market and differentiates us as a business, from research to product development, and is delivered flawlessly through customer engineering teams. This includes all the people, processes and tools to deliver that technology to users to drive mission outcomes.

Q: How did you get here?

I spent many years inside a large defence company in the US. In that capacity, I had the opportunity to span a variety of roles from a software engineer on modelling and simulation programs to leading a worldwide software practice and many steps in between. I was always on a technology development path, cutting new ground in national security markets and proving that commercial technology and approaches could significantly alter the defence business. For example, I led one of the first (known to me) applications of agile into highly regulated mission software over a decade ago, proving it wasn’t only valid, but game changing. More at the pub…

The higher I went in the organisation, the more I realised I didn’t quite fit in a large systems integrator – I wanted to move too fast and be too disruptive.  So I started looking, and here I am, and I love where we’re headed!

Q: What is the most important piece of career advice you have been given?

Work hard, trust yourself and do the right thing.  For those who do, things tend to work out.

Q: What’s been the toughest moment of your career?

I led a very large proposal earlier in my career. It was a game changer for the company I was with at the time. I’ve never been scared by hard work, but this was a new level.  The proposal spanned about 18 months.  I’ve joked before that a colleague and his wife had two children during the proposal and they weren’t twins nor adopted – and it’s true!

I poured everything I had into it, and so did the team. We didn’t win, and it was crushing. After a decade in the business, it was the first time I’d truly lost anything important. It took me a while to recover and reflect. I now know that the experience was one of the best in my career for what it taught me. It was the beginning of the beginning for me and launched a major revolution in me personally as well as my career.  More focus on work-life balance, learning how to focus on the important stuff inside and outside the office, and many other things. It spawned a new direction for me that was responsible for a significant new phase that landed me here!

Q: How do you unplug from work?

Two things, 1) my wife and daughter.  Nothing is better than escaping to the world of a 5 year old and just being “dada” and a good partner, and 2) literally anything physical – the gym on a day-to-day basis, or preferably longer term outdoor activities when time allows. I’ve solved some of the hardest problems I’ve ever solved while hiking or driving a tractor.

Q: How do you balance work and life responsibilities?

I think this is a challenge for all of us, and I continue to work on improving in this area. I’m far better at this now than I have been in the past.  It takes steady work, and I don’t always get it right. 

I have a great partner in my wife, Jen.  I couldn’t do what I do without her, and I believe she feels the same. I try to continue to remind myself that there’s always going to be more to do – more tasks, be it personal or professional – and ask myself if “X” doesn’t get done until tomorrow, what’s the bad thing that happens?

I try to maintain an even keel continuously and use different mechanisms to keep myself in check. Jen is a great partner in this too – reminding me to unplug, and I try to reciprocate. I do certain things like going to the gym to clear my head. Nobody is in balance all the time, so it’s important to recognise the warning signs personally as to when you are out of balance. Then to understand how you get back to balance. This is different for everyone, but over time I’ve become better and better at realising and anticipating my own needs before I get too far out of balance. I think it’s a responsibility for all of us at IO to keep each other in check too, so let’s help remind each other to take breaks.

Q: What book or podcast would you recommend to anyone thinking about a career in tech?

There are so many. In our field, I’d recommend “Genius Makers” by Cade Metz.  It’s an excellent history of the AI field and how it was brought to market. It’s also quite interesting as it delves into the personalities behind the market.

Q. What does a supportive work environment look like to you?

Put simply – assuming good intentions and trusting in others to do the right thing. If we can trust and support others, they should support and trust us.

Q: Have you faced any barriers in your career? If so, how did you overcome them?

I grew up in Iowa – if you pointed your finger at the middle of the US map, you probably aren’t far from my childhood home. It’s a highly agricultural part of the US.  Lots of corn and beans, not much software. I went to public schools which were very good, but the most advanced computer/software class offered was typing.  Yes – typing.  This wasn’t the era where you could learn to code yourself, but before I date myself, it was after the advent of the abacus, so I’m not that old, right? 

When I arrived at UVA, most of my classmates from east coast schools had 3+ years of software engineering at that point. So the demographics of where I came from put me significantly behind the curve. I had to work hard to catch up, and I did. I was also more competent at other subjects, like maths than my classmates, so I had things to offer. Given that I’ve made a career in software, I think I did okay getting over that barrier. I realise this is a very small barrier in the grand scheme of things, but even small ones can have impacts on life.

As a side note, I did have some fun with it.  Coming from Iowa, I got lots of cornfield and farmer jokes told at my expense. So I leaned into it, and why not  Own who you are; never apologise for it. I often convinced people that I got my first pair of shoes to come to college, or that my mom called and we were about to get the first traffic light in town. It made it that much more fun when I whooped up on them on a test! As I tell my daughter, there’s always going to be someone that is bigger, stronger, faster, or smarter than you, but that doesn’t matter.  Own who you are and use it to get to where you want to go, and do it your way, not theirs.

Q: What advice would you give to women trying to break into engineering and technology fields?

Don’t let anyone tell you no. When you succeed in this field, pass it on. We all need to do our part in encouraging more diverse participation in STEM fields as early as we can. The world will be a better place for it.

Q: What woman inspires you and why?

My mother. She had my brother when she was very young, and me a few years later.  It prevented her from being able to complete college. Not too much later in life she was a single mother and had to support my brother and I, largely on her own. So, she went to work. She was also tremendously involved in our lives, from coaching baseball teams to ensuring our education was a priority. She also somehow found the time to become a marathoner and ran the Boston marathon a few times to boot! 

She grew her career, including being an executive at a large firm and then started, grew and sold a very successful business. She also found a wonderful partner in my step father. They/she’s had a wonderful life, as full of success on the personal, family, and career fronts as anyone I know, but to think back to where it started is unfathomable to me. She’s passionate about all she does and spends her time today trying to improve the world through volunteering in various causes, with many focused on giving opportunities and assistance to the less fortunate. She worked her tail off to get where she is today, and she continues to. Not because she needs to, but because she wants to and feels the obligation to pay it back. I still lean on her for advice frequently. I still have no idea how she did it. I’m quite sure I couldn’t have.

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