Derek Padden had always admired it, but he perhaps most cultivated it in himself through his time in the Air Force. At the Pentagon, he worked with a colonel who went on to be a commander in Japan, inviting Derek to come work with him.
When the commander had meetings with higher-ranking officials, he would invite Derek to stay and observe. “He was quiet, yet full of life,” Derek remembers. “He had this presence about him. He never yelled, but instead chose his words carefully, and people really listened. He was patient before answering tough questions. Every solution was acutely reasoned, and when he didn’t have the answer, he knew how to ask the right questions.” Now the founder, President, and CEO of Blue Glacier Management Group Inc., a cybersecurity company addressing threats to the federal government, defense, intelligence, and commercial sectors, Derek has since honed and continues to improve in the science and art of asking those questions himself.
In early 2002, Derek found himself on a stage perfectly set for those kinds of questions. He had just reconnected with a girl he had met in Germany in the ninth grade, and the two would marry several years later. And, having honed an arsenal of leadership expertise and technical savvy from which to draw, he had just gotten out of the Air Force and was experiencing the private sector for the first time. Despite his wealth of previous experience around the world, Derek was in full-fledged learning mode. “I’ve always been one to watch, observe, and ask as many questions as possible when I see someone doing something successfully,” he reflects. “When they’re not, I ask why they aren’t doing things differently. I wanted to learn about business in general.”
At that time, he was employed by a company called Veridian doing work for the VA and the DOD. The company was growing fast but remained nimble and exciting, characterized by a hunger for success and innovation that left Derek and his employees constantly pushing for the next horizon. “I would look for the best program managers—the people receiving the best accolades,” he remembers. “I would go to lunch with them and ask them questions.”
Derek continued this pattern of learning from those who knew best until Viridian was bought by General Dynamics, a larger company that sacrificed flexibility for increased regulations. “I wanted to help the clients quickly and efficiently, and I had ideas for how I felt I could deliver better service,” he remembers. “By keeping that flexible mentality and by keeping an eye on the client’s needs and preferences, I knew I could offer something different.” Thus, Blue Glacier was born.
Launched in October of 2003, the company earned its name for its mission to persevere and to shape the terrain as it advances. Its analysts identify malicious activities, both failed and successful, aimed at breaching a system, and can help bring a network back to its feet if it has been compromised. Furthermore, they help clients build cybersecurity programs to safeguard against future attacks. “We’re product and service agnostic,” Derek points out. “Hackers are a dime a dozen, and we’re the guys who stop them. We also do the infrastructure and engineering that’s geared toward keeping your system secure. There are a lot of unknowns in the IT world, and we’re the ones trying to get to them first.”
While Blue Glacier is working to service businesses across the size spectrum in the commercial sector, it is also focused heavily in the federal government space, and is working to get back into the Department of Defense. Through this avenue, Derek and his team aren’t just aiming to serve a single client—they’re seeing the big picture. “All federal agencies are here to provide a service to the taxpaying U.S. citizens,” he points out. “In order to best serve those citizens, they have to make sure their data is true and that their websites are up and running. We are dedicated to making sure they can do that.”
Today, Blue Glacier employs just over twenty individuals and earns between $3 and $4 million in annual revenue. “We’ve taken a slow and steady growth path to avoid overcommitment,” Derek explains. “Whatever we promise to deliver, we focus on that first. If we do that better than anyone else, we know those clients will look to us first in the future.” He also has visions to set up a scholarship fund through the company, which would aim to help young and passionate IT-minded individuals pay for college. “Education is a top priority for us,” he affirms, “and I’m committed to seeing more women and minorities in leadership positions in the workplace. Having traveled so much in my military career, I firmly believe that diversity is a key pathway to the excellence we strive for at Blue Glacier.”
This commitment to excellence stems from his childhood and most notably from the observation of his own parents. Derek’s father was in the Air Force, and his mother was a teacher. She always focused on principles and the mission of her profession and was thoroughly dedicated to the success of each child. At the same time, his father, who retired as a colonel in the Air Force, always prided himself on doing his very best by “out learning” his peers. “Both of them excelled at what they did, and that left a big impact on me,” Derek remembers. “Even as they taught us the value of competition, they emphasized the value of sportsmanship. Today, my ideas are formed by talking to people, asking a lot of questions, formulating a well-supported thought, and then posing it against other ideas so that the best idea wins. I’m not afraid of competition; I thrive in it and understand it as a vital component to innovation and success. I love the idea of working with folks and bringing the best out of them.”
Derek was born the youngest of three boys in California, but the family moved every three years or so throughout his childhood. From Texas, to Alabama, to Germany, to Africa, to Virginia, the transitory lifestyle contributed to the strength of his character much more than it detracted. “Moving that often was all I knew, and I was raised amongst families where that was the norm,” he remarks. “My brothers and I loved sports, and since we’d sign up for teams wherever we moved, it was easy for us to make friends quickly. No matter where we went, we always had soccer.” He was also afforded the opportunity, at age three, to be the youngest participant on record for the Gymkhana horse racing competition, when his family resided in Ethiopia, Africa—an experience he can still remember today.
In their spare time, the Padden boys would also find ways to supplement their modest allowances. Whether it was racing to see who could shovel the most sidewalks in the winters, or competing to see who could deliver the news the fastest on their paper routes, they had fun that was then rewarded on payday. In Germany, Derek signed up to deliver bread at five in the morning, learning the value of not only reliability and responsibility, but also improvement and efficiency. “I found out that, if I had the bag organized a certain way and if I memorized which houses had which orders, I could complete the job faster and go back to sleep another half hour afterward,” he reminisces.
At that time, Derek actually aspired to be a dentist, though he can’t put his finger on why. When computer science was introduced at his high school, however, his interest was captured. His teacher had moved overseas to Germany after working twenty years at Texas Instruments to teach programming and other technological skills to Derek’s tenth grade class. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he says. “One of my classmates was also an amazing programmer, and I knew from that point on that computers were the way to go.” His parents purchased the first 286 Zenith that came out—bigger than a typewriter but with a small 5 MB hard drive. And, while Derek found the hardware interesting, he knew it was the software that was most captivating to him.
With that, Derek got an ROTC scholarship to study computer information systems at Clemson University and would later earn a masters in Information Systems Management at George Washington University and another in Business Administration at UNC. “I’ve always been strategic about looking at the big picture of things. I knew I might not want to be in the military my whole life, but I knew that if I took the scholarship, I’d have a guaranteed job for four years,” he reasons. “I’d have less debt, I’d learn, and I’d also get further help paying for my first masters degree. Furthermore, I’d be given substantial responsibility right off the bat, and I’d have great leadership around me to learn from.”
He was right. While in the Air Force, Derek spent time living in Virginia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Texas, enjoying the learning and the work immensely. What began as a proficiency in leadership in high school was transformed into a passion through his years of service. By year six, however, he felt his patience for the slow and limited pace of upward mobility in the military waning as he saw the computer security industry grow. “I decided to leave and give it a try,” he says.
At Veridian and then General Dynamics, Derek had a contracting officer who helped answer all the questions that he, as a layman at that point, needed to ask in order to learn. He had also watched people take risks in life, coming to the key understanding of how short life can be when the daughter of his great military mentor in Japan died tragically at age sixteen of an aneurysm. “I knew Jennifer as the most amazing child. Her loss emphasized, more than anything else could have, that I didn’t want to have a regret in life, however long or short it might be,” he says. “Blue Glacier wouldn’t be as successful as it is today if I hadn’t observed those things or experienced the things I experienced.”
For Derek, leading his team at Blue Glacier is about allowing each team member the independence and freedom to do what they do best. “I like watching people succeed,” he affirms. “I tell them what I want from a strategic and tactical standpoint and then empower them to take control and achieve that vision in their own way.” Delegating in this manner frees up Derek’s time to focus on building connections and practices that will grow the enterprise. He and his managing directors have also recently undertaken a complete revision of their strategic plan, establishing a schedule for its periodic review so that they can best keep Blue Glacier on target as it continues its purposeful and sweeping advancement.
This orientation around the company’s goals and future direction is more than just an action plan on a piece of paper. Indeed, while Derek’s own professional path has been relatively direct and purposeful with few derailments, he is quick to acknowledge that the hardest part of the journey is actually staying on that perfect road. “I use alone time to clean out my thoughts and get organized so I can make sure I’m on track,” he affirms. “I like to go out to a nice dinner by myself to mentally houseclean.” As a strategic leader, he’s tasked with living up to those strategies amongst contracts and people that come and go. “The most difficult thing is running the business and balancing the requisite business-minded objectiveness with the more personal, human aspects that celebrate the personality and uniqueness of our company culture,” he affirms.
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world, Derek warns against the entitlement mentality that so often places a rift between the younger generation and its predecessors today. “Be aware of the workplace you’re trying to get into and learn about that culture,” he suggests. “There are generational gaps to be aware of, and an entitlement mentality will only hold you back. Work hard and be patient with the results. It’s a privilege to have a job, so focus on working hard, and the results will come.”
As his own example demonstrates, this diligence and patience will become especially important down the road. “It’s easy to go start a business,” he affirms. “You can do that in a day. The hard part comes later, in the details and the daily upkeep. Find mentors that can tell you what’s to come, so you don’t end up making the same mistakes they made.” Beyond this advice, he urges young people to remember that they’re working to live, not living to work. “My company is a means to help myself, my employees, and our clients live happier lives,” he avows. “Helping to provide for my wife and our children—who always keep us laughing—is why I do what I do.” By asking the right questions in all walks of life, and inspiring and empowering others to ask those questions too, the right answer is never far away.