Force of nature
Maybe it was the cows. Ernst Volgenau, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of SRA International Inc., spent his earliest years on a farm in western New York, milking cows and caring for livestock, which instilled in him a sense of duty and responsibility that has marked his life ever since. Those qualities were further strengthened by a lengthy military career before he founded the systems integration company in 1978.
Since its beginnings in Volgenau's basement, SRA has grown into a 3,100-person firm with a range of defense and intelligence customers, as well as public health, environmental science and bioinformatics operations.
Colleagues say SRA is a tree that reflects the seed Volgenau planted nearly 30 years ago.
"This is a very intelligent guy," said Edward "Ted" Legasey, who joined SRA when it was still in Volgenau's basement.
"He has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, especially about technology and how technology is used in society," said Legasey, formerly executive vice president and chief operating officer and now a member of SRA's board of directors. "He has an abiding intellectual interest in the business we're in. It's not just a business for him."
Volgenau credits the company's accomplishments to the intelligence and drive of the workers, those he brought in and those who came after the early years.
"We have fundamentally good technology here," he said. "We're not a software firm, we're a services firm. But we have people well versed in technology."
He credits his Air Force career with reinforcing his commitment to hard work.
Military officials have "always focused on the importance of leadership, the importance of ethics," he said. "Those things have stayed with me through my career. The military imbues people with a sense of service. No one goes into the military to make money. I didn't start SRA to make money."
Volgenau founded SRA soon after retiring from the Air Force. He had a particular vision for the company: a firm that would approach its work as a means to solve problems in society.
Since its early days, SRA has added counterterrorism, health care, public health, environmental science, and command, control, communications and intelligence to its specialties.
Volgenau, with a long year career behind him, is now exploring ways to pass along what he's learned. Years ago, he co-authored an engineering text; now, he is working on books of his own.
"I haven't published yet, but every weekend and every evening, I write," he said. "Right now, I'm interested in a history — a prospectus — of information technology that looks for patterns that repeat again and again."
In pursuing that research, Volgenau said he has found patterns, some dating back to the 1940s. His challenge now is making the information useful and interesting.
"You've got all this stuff — it's more than a mile wide and more than a mile deep," he said. As an observer and an author, "you wonder if you can bring some perspective to it."