During the last assignment of his seventeen years of service in the U.S. Army, Craig Cummings ran into trouble completing a project with a subcontractor. Some of his coworkers in the government were quick to lay blame on their contact person at the subcontracting group, but Craig recognized the importance of eschewing negativity in favor of teamwork. “I said, ‘I think you’re doing a great job, and here are some additional things we can work on,’” he remembers. “I very much focused on the subcontractor and us being successful together,” Craig explains today.
About a year later, Craig left the Army and helped launch a private business called Berico Tailored Systems, which later became Battlefield Telecommunications Systems (BTS). The fledgling company’s first opportunity to bid on a contract arose, and as luck would have it, the point of contact with the company leading the contract was the same man Craig had defended earlier in their careers. “He was eager to pay back the kind treatment he’d received,” Craig recalls. “It’s such a lesson in life when you realize how quickly tides can turn.” Craig’s emphasis on building personal relationships and looking out for those around him has served him well throughout his career.
Today, Craig is the COO of BTS, a company that, since its inception in October 2008, has grown from 2 employees to nearly 100 across three businesses. Spun off from Berico Technologies, BTS is militarizing cellular technology to bring a much-needed tactical 3G wireless network to troops in Afghanistan. “We’re able to collapse all the functionality of a cellular network into a small box,” explains Craig. “That box is mobile and creates a network, or “cellular bubble,” around it. You put the box inside a military vehicle or up on military blimps—anything that flies, drives, or floats.” Before long, individual soldiers may be able to pack the capability as well. The current range of the boxes in Afghanistan is about 1 to 3 kilometers, and the system currently being built by BTS would significantly expand that. Theoretically, the cellular networks could extend as far as 50 kilometers.
Aside from the game-changing cellular technology BTS has brought to Afghanistan, additional technological advances have been made at APX Labs, the company based in Herndon, Virginia that was spun out of BTS in early 2011. At APX, the company is developing software that enables augmented reality vision inside eyeglasses. The glasses boast the ability to identify faces, recognize voices, display video, and other features that have long been the territory of science fiction. “It’s like a wearable computer screen,” says Craig. “That’s where this technology is going. And you’ll be seeing this in the mainstream, I’d say, in about 3 to 5 years.”
Along with BTS and APX Labs, the third company spun out of BTS is BTS Software Solutions. This arm of the business upgrades and maintains the software BTS develops and sells to the government, and arose out of a desire to separate products from services. “The idea was that the services company and the product company were two different cultures,” explains Craig. “In the services company, the majority of the workforce is embedded in government spaces or working directly for the government customer, whereas in the product company, you generally have a team working in close proximity to one another and building something that will later be presented to the customer.” After the government purchased the software that BTS had built in the summer of 2011, Craig and his partners decided to spin out the engineering team who built that software into its own company, BTS Software Solutions, which now focuses on maintaining and upgrading that software for the government.
As with most of the turning points in Craig’s life, his decision to leave the Army to help create BTS stemmed from close personal and professional relationships. In fact, a friend of Craig’s brother first planted the seed of the idea that would become BTS. The friend was working on extending cellular networks in the Midwest, and Craig wondered whether the technology could be implemented in U.S. war zones. He set up a dinner with Guy Filippelli, a fellow West Point graduate and NSA employee, who in turn brought another key player, Sean Lane, on board. An unbelievable visionary when it comes to technology, Sean launched BTS, and when Craig finished out his remaining time in the Army about six months later, he came onboard.
While Craig didn’t take his decision to leave the Army lightly, he knew he could make a greater impact outside of the military, which was somewhat bureaucratic and too seniority-based for his taste. “I never questioned my decision to get out,” he details. “I definitely felt like I was in my element when I joined BTS, working with and leading a small team.” Additionally, he felt that further deployments after his stint in Afghanistan would place too much strain on his wife and young children. Still, the lessons he learned and the relationships he built during his 17-year career in the Army have since proved invaluable.
Born into a military family himself, Craig had planned to go to West Point from an early age. His father served in the Air Force for 26 years while his mother worked for Army Materiel Command for nearly 30 years, and both his older brothers went through West Point and on to careers in the Army. A natural leader who excelled in sports and served as President of his senior class, Craig was drawn to West Point and considered it the premiere leadership institution in the country. “I’m very comfortable leading people,” says Craig. “I enjoy being with people and working with other people, and just generally taking a step forward from the rest of the group.” His admiration for his brothers and his desire to pursue leadership opportunities brought him to West Point, and his successes there brought him an Army career which included a Ph.D. from Columbia, a chance to teach in the revered Social Sciences Department back at West Point, a Top Secret Government Clearance, and a Bronze Star.
The major turning points in Craig’s career happened suddenly and unexpectedly, in what Craig terms “30-second moments.” These chance encounters changed his life significantly, but were not merely the work of luck. Rather, they also grew out of the trust and respect garnered through his exceptional skill and sincerity in connecting with others. After four years as an Armor Officer in Colorado, Craig knew he would soon have to leave the military so his wife could follow her dream of attending law school. There were very few good law schools located near Army bases, and there was no other apparent solution. However, a fateful visit to his brother—who was working back at West Point—intervened, and Craig’s trajectory shifted.
While driving back to the airport to leave West Point, he stopped to get gas and ran into a former professor of his, Mike Meese. While catching up, the nature of Craig’s problem came to light, and Mike was more than happy to help. “The next thing I know, I call him up and say, ‘Sir, Georgetown Law School is 18 miles from Fort Meade, Maryland; is there any way you can help me get to Fort Meade?’” Craig recounts. “It was by the grace of God there was one slot open there. There were fifteen in Korea, ten at Fort Hood, ten at Fort Bragg, and only one at Fort Meade, and the Colonel said he wanted me.” As a result, Craig became a Military Intelligence Officer at the NSA, and he learned a valuable lesson about the workings of the U.S. Army. “I didn’t realize the way the military worked,” he says. “You sort of just think you go where Big Brother tells you to go. But more than anything else, maintaining strong relationships and getting to know your coworkers dictates your future.”
After his time at Fort Meade, Craig spent three years as a full-time student earning a Ph.D. at Columbia. He credits his wife as the key player in the decision to push beyond a Master’s, as she came from a family of M.D.s and encouraged him to consider a doctorate. “I’m hugely grateful to have been pushed to go for that degree,” he says. Craig recalls meeting his wife with the same reverence for the workings of fate apparent when recounting his professional successes. Both Truman Scholars, she a student at Tulane University, the two met while at a conference for the scholarship winners as junior undergraduates. “I wore my uniform to try and get her attention actually,” he laughs today. “And it worked. We met and became fast friends. The next day I found out she had a boyfriend about the same time she found out I had a girlfriend, and we didn’t talk for the next 36 hours. And then it was midnight the night before the conference ended, and somehow our paths crossed. We started talking and literally didn’t stop until the sun came out the next day. It was love.” They were engaged a mere month later, married a year after that, and remain happily married after almost nineteen years.
Ph.D. in hand, Craig returned to West Point to teach in the Social Sciences Department, which was comprised of Political Science, Economics, and International Relations courses. Honored to be asked to teach at the institution, he was particularly thrilled to be a part of what is called the “Sosh” Department. “It has this reputation in the Army as a powerhouse, as sort of a rock star group of Officers who go back and teach there,” he explains today. As Craig then considered his next move after two years of teaching, fate once again brought the helping hand of an old friend. While on the phone with a good friend in Denver, a more senior officer walked in on the call. The officer happened to know Craig from a previous assignment and struck up a conversation, asking suddenly, “What do you think about coming out here to be my deputy next year?” Craig, surprised, considered it briefly and accepted the offer. The job was a promotion, and after moving the family to Denver where, fortuitously enough, his wife’s family lives, Craig was pulled onto a special job in Afghanistan, which in turn led to another high-level opportunity. “It all pivoted off of getting that job in Denver,” he avows. “That was the best opportunity I could have asked for in terms of my next assignment.”
Though leadership is certainly a recurrent theme throughout Craig’s career considering his leaps up the military chain of command and his co-founding of BTS, he sees his success more tied to his ability to connect with others than anything else. “I think what I do well, is I’m very good around people,” Craig acknowledges. “I can connect with people, and this engenders those 30-second moments down the road.” Craig’s career demonstrates how building those connections can serve to create greater leadership opportunities. “I don’t think I have all the right answers,” he continues. “I am one of those leaders that solicits a lot of input from others.”
When asked what advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Craig stresses the importance of finding one’s niche and settling in. “Don’t be afraid to pay your dues early on, and as your career progresses, try to find your wheelhouse,” he urges. “I’m a believer in establishing one’s self in that place where you’re just going to be successful. And I always knew that where I was going to be successful was in leading a group of people toward something we’re all passionate about.”
Ever valuing his personal relationships above all else, Craig doesn’t hesitate when asked about his biggest success. “I think without a doubt it’s my family life,” he explains. “I feel like I have this amazing family, this amazing honeymoon-like marriage, crazy good kids, super smart, super loving.” And while he certainly takes pride in the fact that BTS accrued over $70 million in revenue in just its first three years of existence, he mentions in the same breath the Washingtonian’s “Best Places to Work” Award. “It was a scale of 5 and we were at 4.89,” he says proudly. “I believe it confirms that businesses can be disciplined and successful while taking care of people at the same time. In fact, I believe we’re successful, not in spite of the fact that we take care of people, but because we take care of people.”