As a kid growing up in rural Ohio, Dan Ackerman didn’t have much interest in school. The problem was not too much challenge, however, but too little. His teachers referred him to a psychiatrist, who promptly handed down that diagnosis common to gifted children everywhere.
“He’s bored,” the doctor informed Dan’s parents. Unchallenged by what was going on in the classroom, his attention would wander, in search of something that truly tested his abilities and appealed to his analytical, mathematic mind.
Fortunately, his days spent disengaged were numbered. When his older brother began taking a computer science class at a local college, young Dan’s interest was piqued. Although he was only in seventh grade at the time, he devoted himself to a single-minded pursuit of the subject with all the passion he had bottled up throughout his previous years of experience in the classroom. “When I got a calculator, I knew every function it did,” he remembers fondly. “I knew how to use every button that was included on that thing. The same thing happened when the Tandy TRS-80, or ‘Trash 80s’ as they were called, came out, which I would go to Radio Shack to play with. And the same thing happened when Commadore computers came out. I wanted to learn all about them, so I started reading books on how to program in BASIC. I didn’t even have a computer, but I wanted to learn how to do it.”
By the time he reached the eleventh grade, Dan’s high school introduced a computer class into its curriculum for the first time. When he arrived on the first day of class with a more extensive and nuanced knowledge base than even the teacher boasted, he knew he was in his element. Indeed, he excelled in the course and then spent his senior year working in the computer lab, where he wrote programs and created video games in his spare time. Now the cofounder and Executive Vice President of Guident, a business intelligence and systems engineering firm servicing the government and commercial markets, Dan has built solid success and a stellar company by remaining true to his element throughout his career.
First launched in 1996 by Dan and two partners, Guident set out to create a product and organically evolved into a business in the process. When he was initially approached by the two other founders, Suneet and Teddy, the concept was simple. Their goal was to design a toolkit around Oracle Forms software and then to sell that product, end of story. Suneet and Teddy even promised Dan that he could work on the project a mere ten hours a week. “That promise was their best sales job ever,” Dan laughs now.
After about six months of work, the product was finished and ready to sell. The buyers, however, weren’t interested in purchasing the software without the expertise. “The companies kept coming back and saying, ‘This is really nice, but I don’t see how you’re going to train our people on it, and the documentation’s not there yet,’” Dan explains today. “They told us they would, however, hire us as a consulting company if we brought our product along with the service, and that’s how we started getting our first customers.” Over the next few years, Guident acquired about thirty employees, along with office space and all the trappings of a full-fledged business. Unfortunately, the burst of the dot-com bubble set them back significantly, downsizing the enterprise by more than half. In order to survive, the partners made a bold, strategic move into the government market, landing some key contracts.
Today, Guident has around two hundred employees, and the company earned about $52 million in revenues in 2011. What’s their secret? Dan attributes their startling growth rate—over 30 percent for several years running—to their emphasis on the simple yet critical principle of keeping the customer happy. “Whether a company is profitable or not is merely secondary when it comes to predicting its success,” he affirms. “Rather, the central concern of any company should be whether the customer is happy, and whether you’ve delivered what you said you would deliver. Not only is this vital in the success of single, isolated scenarios, but the customer will also act as a reference for others, which has the potential to amplify that happiness or unhappiness infinitely. In the government world, your references are everything. If your customers are getting a particularly good or particularly bad experience, you can bet that others in the market will hear about it.”
Dan has never been one to preach without practicing, and the glowing reviews of his clients confirm the veracity of his philosophy. One customer—a woman he had worked with for five years—was asked once to recommend the business on a scale of one to ten. “She told me she had responded by saying that she couldn’t answer that question, and my heart dropped,” Dan recalls. “I was thinking she was disappointed by something, but then she said, ‘Yeah, I had to explain to them that a ten just wasn’t high enough for you guys.’ When I heard that, I knew we were doing something right.”
Dan’s professional success provides a stark contrast to the financial climate of his upbringing, during which time his family often found itself on the edge of poverty. His father worked in construction, while his mother was employed as a bookkeeper in a department store and later in the back office at a bank. Though they both worked hard and did what they could for their four children, neither of his parents had a college degree, and their options were limited. “I didn’t want to raise a family in that type of scenario,” Dan recalls. “Living paycheck to paycheck and relying on food stamps on and off throughout my childhood, I knew I wanted my future to be different. I wanted to never again be in the position of not knowing if we could make the house payment, or the position of needing to borrow money from relatives. I knew with very firm conviction that I wanted to be successful.”
Staying true to that conviction, Dan—and all three of his siblings—earned a four-year college degree. He studied computer science at the University of Mount Union and graduated in 1987, his fascination with the subject having only grown as the years passed and his natural affinity for it pursued. Jobs were scarce in Ohio, so he followed his brother out to the West Coast and spent the next few months job hunting in Los Angeles. That September, he landed his first job, although his methods of doing so were somewhat unconventional. Feeling frustrated by the repetitive interview cycle, Dan took a risk one day when asked about his greatest weakness.
“I just said flat out, ‘I’m inherently lazy,’” Dan remembers. “The interviewer said, ‘What?’ He couldn’t believe I had told him that, so I explained, ‘I’m just saying that, if you give me a job and say there’s twenty steps to do it, I’m going to figure out how to do it in ten. If you give me something repetitive, I’m going to automate it. I’m a hard worker, but I don’t like doing menial tasks over and over again.’”
Dan’s gamble—and his honesty—paid off. He began working for the company, Trident Data Systems, and three months into his employment, his boss bemused, “You know Dan, I thought that was just a clever answer, but after working with you, I see it was factual.” When Dan glanced around him at the Operations Department of the company, he realized that he had, in fact, automated everything. “It took me about three months, but I got everything automated to the point where it was all just a matter of pushing a button,” he explains.
Dan’s inherent need to understand all technologies from the inside out continued to motivate him. “I was always taking home manuals,” he recalls. “I would dive into any operating manual I could get my hands on and read them from cover to cover. When Macintosh came out, I read everything about them. I knew everything about every piece of software they produced.”
During his tenure at Trident, Dan met his future wife, who proved instrumental in his decision to move on to bigger and better things in 1993. “I was a database administrator at the time, and I found myself bored with it, in much the same way I had been bored by the uninspiring environment of my early school years,” he explains. “I had pretty much learned everything I could learn in that capacity, and I had supported everything I could support. I wanted to move into development, but they didn’t want me to because they thought it would take too long to train me.”
Dan’s wife, vigilant of the reality that he was no longer feeling challenged or engaged, pushed him to consider leaving. “She was the one who said I had to leave because I wasn’t happy there and because they weren’t leveraging my abilities,” he remembers with a smile. “She was the one to insist that I could do so much better somewhere else.”
When she realized that reason wouldn’t work, Dan’s wife resorted to bribery. He had been quite the Foosball enthusiast in college, so one day she found herself saying, “You know what? You get a new job, and I’ll buy you a Foosball table.” It was the game that launched a thousand ships, and Dan still has that Foosball table today.
After setting out on his own, Dan came across an opportunity with a company called Talus to pursue the kind of development work he had always wanted to move into. Again, he found that his ability to learn independently, coupled with his need to research thoroughly, served him well. “That was when I started getting to know the front end of developing,” he says. “I was surprised to discover, however, that even from Day One, and even though I had a lot to learn, I actually found myself teaching their developers how to do things.” It was like his first high school computer class all over again, but this time, an entrepreneurial inclination had begun to take hold of him.
He still had a few life skills to hone, however, before he was ready to launch his own enterprise. Although Dan never needed anyone to help him understand computers, for example, the political side of business was another matter. A few years out of college, a coworker and mentor advised him on how to refine his manner of interaction with colleagues in order to communicate his ideas more effectively. Since then, he’s learned how to avoid the blunt shooting down of ideas from others, focusing instead on helping the originator figure out the problematic aspects of the thought. “I used to say, ‘No, that won’t work,’ and I’d be right, but the way I’d deliver the message was just negative,” he recalls. “Instead, I’ve learned how to switch that around to, ‘That’s interesting; how would we handle it when this happens?’ A shift in framing like that not only fosters better dynamics, but also encourages innovation and growth.”
Dan has also learned over the years that it’s the ideas he has, and not the credit he receives for them, that are most important. “One of the first steps in learning how to manage is the realization that your only goal is to move the team and the organization from here to there,” Dan explains. “When you learn that, you realize that you don’t necessarily care how it happens, and you don’t need to be the one to get the credit for it.” These early lessons have been vital in shaping his leadership style as he navigates the business world today, managing people without micromanaging and leading them to solutions without providing them directly himself.
In advising young people entering the business world today, Dan is quick to advocate for the kind of self-teaching that has always served him well. “In reality, your college experience is going to be what you make of it,” he emphasizes. “When given creative license like that and faced with that raw material, you can choose to make a little, or you can choose to make a lot out of it. I would urge you to make as much as you can. Join different organizations and experience how they operate and what they do, because that’s what business is going to be like.”
For Dan, the act of building something—anything—must follow from a thorough knowledge of that thing’s component parts. He’s lived with that conviction since the age of twelve, when he first became a voracious consumer of any and all technical literature related to programming. Running Guident is no exception, and with the decades of knowledge stores he has stocked through a lifetime of studying the component parts that make up his powerhouse of a business, it comes as no surprise that the enterprise serves its clients like a well-oiled, and well-analyzed, machine. Armed with his bulletproof technical background and infinite appetite for knowledge, Dan continues to demonstrate that true mastery of a skill, concept, material, or marketplace is not only earned—it’s learned.