The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile Series is focused on the individuals who are driving the Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Elizabeth Buske, Vice President with global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, is responsible for running the company's Charleston Digital Hub, formerly SPARC. Booz Allen acquired SPARC in late 2015. The firm's Charleston Digital Hub has nearly 400 employees. Buske joined SPARC shortly after it was founded.
Where did you grow up? What was life like there?
I grew up in Virginia Beach. I honestly had one of those childhoods that everybody wants – family is very close, parents been together over 50 years, two sisters, and we're all close friends. We would spend a lot of time together on the weekends, living on the beach. It was similar to Charleston in lifestyle.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
After college, I did AmeriCorps, which is the national service, in Columbia. I joined an organization called City Year. I did a year of direct community service. After that, they asked me to stay on as service director. I was networking all of the nonprofits that were supporting City Year. Also, I was doing youth ministry on the side at a church in Columbia. I burned out pretty quickly.
It was right when the tech boom was starting to happen. I knew I had an interest in tech and an aptitude. Blackbaud was actually testing anybody that had the aptitude – they were looking for anybody, because not everybody came out of school with the degree – so they were willing to train anybody. That was in '98, when I got an offer from Blackbaud and came to Charleston. Columbia is a great town, but you're halfway between the mountains and the sea. I was like, I don't want to be halfway between, I want to be in one or the other. So Charleston worked out.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job?
In Virginia Beach, I sold snow cones on the boardwalk. I pushed a snow cone cart up and down the boardwalk all day long in the middle of the summer. We worked in the tourism industry pretty much every summer, whether it was doing that or working in the tourist shops. I worked every summer, starting in ninth grade.
What did you learn from it?
I love structure, and I have a really strong work ethic, and I think it comes from how I was brought up. But also, just working with people – I love working with different types of people. I've kind of seen that throughout my career. Just really understanding where people are, the interactions. Customer service is vital everywhere.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on?
I've always said this, and I even said this in the beginning days of SPARC – I'm not the one that comes up with the vision, but I'm the type of person that will grab hold of the vision. I want to make sure that it happens, that it comes to fruition. I've always had an interest in never just wanting to come in and check a box, or just go through the motions with anything. But I'm not the creator. I'm really the one that runs and makes it happen.
In your own words, what does your company do?
Booz Allen is a 103-year-old company that focuses on technology and management consulting. They do everything from cyber to digital solutions – 23,000 people, plus.
What drew you to your current business?
I just have a heart for solving problems and for technology especially, and for leading broad groups of people to find those solutions.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
We ask people, every day when they come in our door, don't just come in and do your job, but come in and be part of this world, part of your work. They are the culture. It's the people and how they spend their days, the attitude that they bring, the interactions that they have.
We are very much into work-life balance, so it's not coming in here and being the last one here. We want people to really come in and participate. There are no walls, so there's nowhere to hide. It's just being really interactive, but at the same time respecting that we have a job to get done.
What is your management style?
I trust people to lead and to grow and become who they are. So my management style is more about helping lift people up. It's not about me, the kingdom builder. It's about helping people understand that other people's way can be even better. I am high communication. Very transparent. I don't even have a desk, much less an office.
You don't have a desk?
No. We literally have no walls in here. If you want to see what a team area looks like, there's a standing high-top table. I leave my stuff there and I kind of wander around.
I had a desk, a table, and then we hired a new recruiter, and she needed to sit in that area. So, I was like, "Well, I need somewhere to put my stuff every day. I need a landing spot." I just moved up to a high-top table. There's a laptop stand and keyboard and stuff, so if I'm not in meetings all the time, people know where to find me. But so much of the time, I'm in conference rooms and meetings.
It works for us. We also change the floor up. In September, we're moving all the teams around. One critical thing is you need to change your collision pattern. Even though I'm kind of around everywhere, I don't go to this side of the building, and I don't go to that far wall on this side of the building. So we're going to be moving people around so that they've got to cross who they see and who they talk to.
We're almost 400 people now. I don't know everybody anymore. Everybody has a place that they come to every day. But we don't want them to feel like that's the only place they're going to come to for five years. They can come to that place for six months, and then we're going to shift them around. People do well with it.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
The reason why I have a spirit of helping people truly become their own is because people let me grow and develop what were really my core strengths, and then refine the things that I needed to be refining.
A lot of my bosses and leaders over the years have been really hands-off. That's not necessarily a fantastic thing, but it's allowed me to know that, OK, they would've done things differently, but because I did this, I was still successful. And I draw that out to people that I now lead.
And, again, communication, feedback. Not just for the stuff that you need to fix, but the positive feedback, as well.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
One of the best lessons is that it takes all of us to succeed. It is not about one person. There's no hero. Everybody needs to understand the mission, and you need to remind each other of the mission.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
Oh my gosh, yes. I'm the type of person who plans all my meals on the weekends. I get up about 6:15 in the morning, I work out. My conference calls start every day at 8 o'clock, but I take that first one while I'm eating breakfast, and then I'm in the car by 8:30, and then committed here until, really, not too terribly late. We really strive for work-life balance, so 5 or 5:30, we try to get out of here. Then my nights are just whatever needs to happen, or just relax.
I'm pretty structured. I'm definitely a routine-driven person.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?
Some of the biggest challenges have been as we scale, whether it was with SPARC or now currently. This year, we're going to be hiring approximately 75 people between April and December. We've done other growth periods where we've hired 50 to 75 to 100 people across a 12-month period. Bringing that into an environment that's still under 400 people – it's great change.
So we're trying to be more deliberate about staying ahead of it and communicating. We're now putting in processes to make sure, because you can't see everybody anymore, that the work flows and the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. Because in some ways, we still run real lean in Charleston, even though we're a much larger organization.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
We still hire culture first. It's something that was started at the beginning of time for SPARC. What that means is you really connect well with a person and that they can do well in this environment. This environment is not for everyone. We look to make sure that people want to come in and that the attitude is there, that they are interactive, that they're not the kind that just want to come in and stick their headphones on for eight hours a day.
Then, following culture first, is the technical aptitude. Especially if you are senior in your craft, you've got to have the technical skills that match the senior requirements we have for the work that we're hiring for. But really, after that, we can train and teach, and we do a lot of coaching and mentoring.
It's just really about growing the environment and community. Everybody in here participates in the interview process. It only takes one veto. If somebody's like, "No, I don't think they're a fit," no questions asked, we just move that person on.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?
Game playing. Just not being direct in how they articulate what they really want. Be transparent and be direct.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
It's OK to not know what you want to be in five years. Find a job and an environment that lets you get exposed to things that you might be interested in. And then if you find that you're not, be OK to change. Just really embrace the fact that this is such a peak time to grow and experiment. And, again, don't get into an environment for long that doesn't support that exploration.
Different than when I got out of school, students now almost have to make their career decisions when they're in high school. It's unfair. That's why we stopped asking, "Where do you want to be in five years?" I don't know if we've ever asked it in here. Let's figure out where you want to be this year, and then set your goals toward that.
What do you see as the future of your company?
Booz Allen, again, it's huge, but just focusing on the Charleston Digital Hub: Booz Allen's commitment to the Charleston community and to really grow the digital solutions environment is unending. We had a big grand opening in May, and the mayor was here, and they reiterated that they didn't buy SPARC just to have 300 resources. They didn't need that. They really are here to invest in Charleston.
There's another Booz Allen location in Charleston as well, they just do a different type of business, that has been in the Charleston community for a very long time. So it's going to be interesting as we diversify the projects and the clients that we support from Charleston, and just continue to invest and grow the digital footprint in Charleston.
Once we fill this building – we're probably about another 100 people away – they will find us another building, and continue to add. That's the great thing, that there's no end in sight, as long as we can support the customers, deliver great service and have the talent that wants to be in Charleston.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Grande black coffee with coconut milk.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
Working out. I love food. I have family in town. We don't have kids, but just really living the Charleston life. I'm a reader. I like to be outside.
What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?
We bring in a lot of our talent from outside of the area. We've got the ability to relocate and bring talent into Charleston, which has been pretty successful for us. The junior talent we pretty much find locally because the College of Charleston and the other schools produce great, great talent.
What do you see as some of the challenges recruiting tech talent to Charleston?
Our challenge is with finding people more senior in their career. Just as with anything, they are less likely to be more mobile. We are trying to figure more ways to identify and find senior talent. We can find the diverse types of talent. It's just the more senior you get, you're just not as transient.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
Oh my gosh. We have one now, right? Charleston's technical landscape has grown tremendously thanks to efforts of the Charleston Digital Corridor and more. I think that's huge.
But people who live outside of Charleston, they don't realize we have one. I think we continue to brand ourselves externally, and that'll draw even more people because a lot of people that don't know Charleston still think we're a city focused on tourism. There's just so much more here.
The Booz Allen people in D.C. thought that SPARC was a software company in Charleston just kind of out by itself. We were like, "No, it's a hotbed for technology." There were people that looked into buying us, and they still didn't realize there was more to this town than tourism.... over 400 tech companies.