How KEYW conquers national security threats in island style

By Mike Unger
Photography by Rachel Smith

Len Moodispaw might be the only head of a multimillion-dollar corporation who quotes Jimmy Buffett as often as he quotes Warren Buffett.

Dozens of stuffed animal parrots are perched atop a bookshelf in his corner office on the fourth floor of the Hanover, MD, building that houses the headquarters of KEYW Corp., the cybersecurity and geospatial intelligence company (try shoehorning that into a song, Jimmy), for which he has served as president, CEO and chairman of the board of directors since it was born in August 2008.

Parrots, as it turns out, are everywhere around here. The company’s parrot logo (nicknamed “Mango”) greets visitors when they exit the elevators, and one adorns every employee’s business card.
As the driving force behind the company and a major player in Maryland’s intelligence and defense industry for decades, it seems appropriate that Moodispaw’s card is the only one on which Mango is sporting sunglasses.

Len Moodispaw is clearly KEYW’s biggest Parrothead.

“I’m a self-described commie, pinko, liberal ACLU guy in the intelligence business,” he says. “It sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but the whole company really believes we’re helping save lives. Our employees understand the challenges and rewards of preventing another 9/11, finding bad guys and helping our troops in the field.”

True calling

For the good of the people

KEYW president, CEO and chairman Len Moodispaw spends significant time and energy making decisions for the good of U.S. national security. But, when he’s not doing that, he’s figuring out ways to help the very people that help him.

“Len’s a very charismatic leader,” says Kim DeChello, the company’s chief administrative officer. “Yes, the customer is important, but family is also very important.”

Moodispaw started a sister organization called KEYW Community Connection, which will match employee contributions to their own charities. From 2009 through 2013, the organization donated $465,675 to charities including Make-A-Wish, Wounded Warriors and the American Cancer Society. All employees have to do is send KEYW Community Connection an email with the amount they intend to donate or raise, and the organization usually will match it, DeChello says.

Last year, Moodispaw says he gave roughly a third of his income to charities. One of his two daughters, Annapolis lawyer Michelle Moodispaw, takes on pro bono work funded by him.

“I handle some criminal cases, family law cases and immigration matters,” Michelle Moodispaw says. “The immigration cases have been particularly rewarding. I have represented women and children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some fled abusive husbands, some fled dangerous gangs and some clients were teenage girls targeted by dangerous older men. All came to the U.S. because they felt they had no choice, and we’ve been able to help almost all of them stay here in the safety of our country.”

 

Don’t let the calypso-tinged tunes of SiriusXM’s Margaritaville radio station that drift through the halls fool you: Moodispaw is a whip-smart, ultradedicated businessman whose focus is never far from KEYW’s

commercial customers, investors and employees. But above all, Moodispaw is a patriot, a former National Security Agency (NSA) senior manager who feels that KEYW is performing an important service not only for its clients in the intelligence and defense sectors of the U.S. government, but for the country’s citizenry as a whole.

KEYW’s cyber systems, Moodispaw says, are vital components to reducing threats to governmental networks. The company’s products — and its people — are a major reason that, despite sequestration and last year’s government shutdown, KEYW posted revenue of $298.7 million in 2013, up 23 percent from 2012. (The company did report a $10.6 million loss, however, which included a one-time $4.8 million after-tax litigation settlement charge.)

“His passion for the work and his expertise are really deep,” says Joe DeTrani, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), a nonprofit comprising senior leaders from the public, private and academic sectors. “He really is a hands-on professional who has great credibility not only in the intelligence community but also with other consumers.”

Moodispaw is fond of describing himself by citing Buffett’s song, “Growing Older But Not Up.” That may be true, but for a serious-minded 71-year-old who steadfastly declares that he never plans to retire, perhaps he should turn to the prior track, “It’s My Job,” on Buffett’s 1981 “Coconut Telegraph” album.

The foundation of a leader

Born in Washington, DC, and raised primarily in Maryland, Moodispaw earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at universities in Washington, DC. He ventured all the way north to Baltimore for his law degree, which he used in private practice in Annapolis. He’s truly a lifelong creature of the DMV, as the kids are calling it today.

Sprinkled into stints as an attorney and in the business world, Moodispaw spent 13 years at the NSA, where his mother, Estelle, once worked.

“I was on the management side,” he says. “I’m not a technical guy. After I was there for a while, I would bug management, saying, ‘You’ve got engineers running the programs. They can’t find where the bathroom is. You need managers. Finally they said, ‘Shut up and go run this.’ My career ended up growing and growing.”

“The whole company really believes we’re helping save lives. Our employees understand the challenges and rewards of preventing another 9/11, finding bad guys and helping our troops in the field.”
Len Moodispaw, president, CEO and chairman, KEYW Corp.

After leaving the NSA, Moodispaw founded the Security Affairs Support Association (SASA), which is now the INSA.

“In 2004, Len and [former NSA director] Ken Minihan took the lead in establishing and creating the Intelligence and National Security Alliance,” DeTrani says. “After 9/11, I think the charge to the intelligence community was to expand its context and create a not-for-profit that’s reaching out to the corporate and academic and public sectors in a significant way. I think that was the impetus for saying, let’s be more holistic in [our] approach in looking at all national security issues, focusing on 16 agencies and really drilling down on those relevant national security issues. Len was central to all that. He continues to be very central.

“He’s known for being very efficient. When he says he’s going to get something done, he and his colleagues get it done. He’s a very dynamic fellow. He’s full of energy and ideas. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you get energy from sitting down with him hearing about all the different ways he’s going.”

Since serving as president of ManTech Advanced Systems International in the 1990s, Moodispaw has been situated squarely in the business world. When he took over as CEO and president of Essex Corp., in 2000, it was a small optics company struggling to eke out contracts from the government. His leadership there ultimately led to a successful 2004 stock offering that raised $113 million (and landed Moodispaw on the cover of this very magazine in February 2005).

Others took note as well. In 2007, industry giant Northrop Grumman acquired Essex for an estimated $580 million. Moodispaw was happy — but not content.

“We weren’t for sale, didn’t want to be bought and particularly didn’t want to be bought by a big company,” he says. “Nothing against Northrop Grumman, but they’re a big company. But as a public company, if somebody comes along and offers the right price, your duty to the shareholders is to take it. Northrop Grumman offered us an extraordinary price.”

Like Moodispaw, many of Essex’s customers were less than thrilled to be working with a behemoth, he says. After Essex fulfilled an 18-month agreement, more than 60 members of its workforce left to join KEYW.

New horizons

Moodispaw delights in his new company’s nimbleness and spirit of innovation.

“Big companies just aren’t agile enough,” he says. “We got a call about [eight] months ago from a customer who said, ‘We have a very difficult problem. We don’t think it can be solved. If you guys want to take a shot at it, you’ve got to get it done in three weeks.’ Our very sophisticated and talented high-priced engineers divided themselves up into three shifts [and] solved the problem in slightly less than three weeks. No big company would do that. They wouldn’t start without a contract; they wouldn’t start without lawyers looking at things. We do it; we have never failed to get paid for it, and it leads to more work. We get the reward of working on a wicked problem that helps this country. It was a significant terrorist threat that we were able to deal with.”

As systems attacks have grown more prevalent in the commercial world, KEYW has expanded its business to meet those threats. The company developed a product called HawkEye G, designed to allow commercial clients to continuously detect, investigate and remove advanced threats within the network before they can steal data, compromise intellectual property or cause process disruption. In May 2013, Moodispaw hired Chris Fedde, former CEO of Harford County-based SafeNet, to help create a subsidiary to market the product. In August, Hexis Cyber Solutions was born.

“Len is very clear in what his priorities are. They’ve always included, as long as I’ve known him, his people and national interests. Through good times and bad times, he hasn’t wavered from those.”
Chris Fedde, president, Hexis Cyber Solutions

A custom approach

KEYW helps protect some of the nation’s most high-profile security agencies, and it’s helping rethink the way cybersecurity is approached.

Like 80 percent of his employees, KEYW president, CEO and chairman Len Moodispaw has the highest security clearance attainable in the private sector. He’s necessarily vague when discussing the specifics of the company’s software systems and clients’ needs, but he does list the major intelligence agencies as KEYW’s biggest clients.

“Cybersecurity” has morphed into an all-encompassing term, so Moodispaw prefers using “active defense” in describing what KEYW’s systems are capable of.

“First thing we do with a customer is build up a behavior of their network,” he says. “We watch it. We’re telling customers more about their networks than they knew. We give them a diagram of everything touching their network. Then, once we know what normal behavior is, we can tell in real time that something is not normal. So if, all of a sudden, you see a thumb drive going from computer to computer to computer, you know that’s not right.

“It’s not like you lay out an algorithm and when you’re finished you can say, ‘I got that.’ Particularly in the counterterrorism world, bad guys pop up all the time, and while they may appear to be unsophisticated, they have some sophisticated tools. You have to be able to figure out where they’re going to go next in terms of communications. It’s a very complex set of problems that we’re trying to solve.”

 

“The government services business is substantially different than the commercial products business,” says Fedde, Hexis’ president. “It’s just a different DNA, and you don’t want to have to compromise one for the sake of the other. HawkEye G is about finding the advanced threat once it’s past the perimeter. There [are] lots of things people do and should do to try to stop the threats at the perimeter, but the targeted threat, the really advanced threat, will get past the perimeter, and once it does, it takes months to find it. Once you’ve found it, tremendous damage has been done. HawkEye G is about finding it within the network and automatically removing it at computer speed instead of human speed. You can get rid of it before damage to the network has been done.”

The product has been successful in beta testing, and Fedde credits Moodispaw — the two have been friends since the ’90s — with fostering an environment of innovation that’s allowed him the space to expand the business significantly in the near future.

“Innovation isn’t something you can demand by email. You need to bring in people that think that way,” Fedde says. “If you’ve got people that are prone to innovating, as long as they don’t have undue internal obstacles, that’s what really enables them to be successful.

“Len is very clear on what his priorities are. They’ve always included, as long as I’ve known him, his people and national interests. Through good times and bad times, he hasn’t wavered from those.”

A company unlike the rest

KEYW’s almost 1,100 employees are spread over nine states, but the majority of them work out of the Anne Arundel County headquarters. With snow blanketing the ground and a biting cold wind howling outside on a dark January afternoon, the setting is as far from tropical bliss as imaginable.

But inside, Moodispaw has created as Key West a vibe as a nondescript suburban office can have. The Key West catchphrase, “Close to perfect, far from normal,” greets visitors outside the company’s main entrance. The primary conference room is called Margaritaville, the dining spots are named for Key West restaurants (like the Chart Room) and the training rooms are named after various Florida Keys.

The Key West kick is one reason the company was recognized as the No. 1 large company to work for by The Baltimore Sun’s Top Workplaces 2013 survey and one of the 50 Great Places to Work by Washingtonian magazine, but it’s not the only reason. Each quarter, the company does something special for its employees, ranging from giving out gift certificates to the Sunglass Hut to mailing each person a KEYW and Key West-centric version of Monopoly.

For a guy who first went to Key West in 1985 and hasn’t stopped going back since, you’d think retirement to his dream island, where he could spend his “Floridays” under a lone palm with a margarita in his hand, would be a fitting end to a stellar career. But Moodispaw, who has the folksy charm and left-leaning politics of a character in a Carl Hiaasen novel, isn’t planning on going anywhere.

“As Warren Buffett says, ‘You can’t buy experience, so you’re really just getting started at age 65,’” he says. “I never intend to retire because I enjoy what I’m doing and I enjoy helping our team do what they do.”
Sounds like a certain 67-year-old singer/songwriter/rock star/businessman/lifestyle icon who last year released his 27th studio album. On it is a track Moodispaw has taken to quoting, called, appropriately for both the musician and one of his biggest fans, “Oldest Surfer on the Beach”:

“There’s nothing that I wanna do / No place I’m trying to reach / Only time is now more precious to / The oldest surfer on the beach.” CEO 

Mike Unger is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

 
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