In Episode 18 of “5 Questions with the CEO,” General Joe Votel, USA (Ret.) talks with BENS member Tom Noonan about keys to successful entrepreneurship, failure’s key role in building confidence, and why it’s important to remember where you came from. Don’t miss the two explore their shared belief that success is not the key to happiness, happiness is the key to success.
Tom Noonan is a founding partner of TechOperators LLC, an early-stage technology investment firm in Atlanta. Noonan is also Chairman of TEN Holdings, LLC, a diversified family office investment company.
Most recently, he was the General Manager of the Energy Management business of Cisco, following the acquisition of JouleX in 2013, where he was co-founder and CEO.
A serial entrepreneur, he has founded or co-founded nearly a dozen companies. To name just a few:
- Actuation Electronics and Leapfrog Technologies,
- Endgame Security – a leading provider of software solutions to the U.S. Intelligence Community and Department of Defense, and
- Internet Security Systems, Inc., which was acquired by IBM for $1.9B. in 2006
Tom earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology where he is a diehard Yellow Jacket fan.
Tom Noonan is a founding partner of TechOperators LLC, an early-stage technology investment firm in Atlanta. Noonan is also Chairman of TEN Holdings, LLC, a diversified family office investment company. Most recently, he was the General Manager of the Energy Management business of Cisco Systems, following the acquisition of his company JouleX in 2013, where he was co-founder and CEO. A serial entrepreneur, Noonan also co-founded Endgame Security which was acquired by Elastic N.V. in 2019. He is also the former chairman, president and chief executive officer of Internet Security Systems, Inc., which was acquired by IBM for $1.8B in 2006.
Prior to co-founding ISS, Noonan held senior management positions at Dun and Bradstreet Software, where he was vice president, worldwide marketing. He began his career as a product manager and engineer for Rockwell Automation, specializing in real-time, automated control systems for computer-integrated manufacturing. Noonan founded two successful technology companies while residing in Boston: Actuation Electronics, a precision motion-control company and Leapfrog Technologies, a software development company designed for networked control system applications.
Noonan’s management style and vision have been widely recognized by industry-leading publications including Forbes, Business Week and Fortune. In 1999, Ernst and Young recognized him as “Entrepreneur of the Year.” In 2002, President Bush appointed Noonan to serve on the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), a White House homeland defense initiative that protects information systems critical to the nation’s infrastructure, where he served under President Obama and President Trump.
Noonan holds a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech and a business degree from Harvard University. He was elected to the Georgia Technology Hall of Fame in 2006. He is a frequent speaker at leading industry events and serves on numerous company, industry and civic boards including Intercontinental Exchange (ICE/NYSE), Manhattan Associates (NASDAQ: MANH), Bakkt, Inc., SalesLoft, Automox, Grayshift, Caveonix and Polarity. Noonan also serves on committees and/or boards of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Georgia Tech Foundation and the Georgia Tech Athletic Association. He is an active technology investor and is a leading philanthropist through the work of the Thomas Noonan Family Foundation that supports education, environmental and healthcare causes locally and nationally.
Business Executives for National Security welcomes you to Five Questions with the CEO, where BENS CEO, General Joe Votel, former commander of All United States Special Forces, and forces in 21 countries in the Middle East and Asia, interviews top business leaders focusing on their stories, strategies, and real-world experiences. Here we want to know why they are passionate about sharing their talents and insights to assist senior leaders in the national security enterprise as they solve some of our nation’s most pressing challenges and why they are part of a growing number of executives who understand that national security is everyone’s business.
General Joe Votel (00:45):
Welcome to another episode of Five Questions with the CEO a BENS podcast, where we talk with our BENS members from across the nation about their journey and their involvement with BENS. And joining us today is Atlanta member Tom Noonan. Tom brings cybersecurity and risk expertise as well as a successful entrepreneurial background to our discussion today. He is the founding partner of TechOperators and chairman of TEN Holdings. Most recently, Tom was the general manager of the energy management business of Cisco following the acquisition of JouleX in 2013 where he was a co-founder and c e o Thomas, a serial entrepreneur. He is founded or co-founded nearly a dozen companies to, to name just a few actuation, electronics and Leapfrog technologies, Endgame Security, a leading provider of software solutions to the US intelligence community in the Department of Defense and Internet Security Systems, ISS Incorporated which was acquired by IBM for nearly 2 billion back in 2006.
General Joe Votel (01:50):
Tom is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering. He is a diehard yellow jacket fan which we’ll probably get into at some point in the discussion here today. Tom, it is a pleasure to have you with us today.
Tom Noonan (02:04):
General, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
General Joe Votel (02:08):
Your management style and your vision have been widely recognized by industry leaders including Forbes business Week and Fortune. Back in 1999, Ernst and Young recognized you as Entrepreneur of the year and the Atlanta Magazine names you as one of the most powerful business leaders, certainly in this region, if not across the nation. Those who know you would likely say that you’re a very thoughtful person and a visionary leader who repeatedly generates good ideas that result in great success. And I think we know you’re a person who values the team around you gives back to the community, isn’t afraid to take risks. So in the world of startups only a third of the good ideas are triumphant and yet you founded nearly a dozen successful companies. Can you start off by sharing with us some of what gives you the drive and indeed the courage to repeatedly seek out good ideas, create a vision, build a team, and then put that idea into action?
Tom Noonan (03:06):
That’s a great opening question. I think as entrepreneurs, we are just wired differently. The rest of the world thinks we’re taking on insane amounts of risk with ridiculously low chances of success, and certainly zero work life balance. But being an entrepreneur you know, a startup is an irrational passion. Entrepreneurship is like a calling for most of us. It’s like a virus that’s gotten into our head. We’re hardwired, and I think we just chase the things that set our souls on fire. And I find that as a common trait in successful entrepreneurs. They’re driven by this authentic type purpose that north star that kind of pins down why they do what they do. And I think when their work has meaning, it fulfills your soul. And that’s certainly true of me. You know, if you love what you’re doing, you have a high probability I think, of being successful. And so I kind of flip the equation around. I say success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. And you know, when you believe in something, the force of your conviction kind of sparks other people’s interests. And you mentioned the team and it motivates them, you know, to help you achieve the vision of the future. And so that passion is a real force multiplier. I think it inspires those that join you for the journey. You know, it creates the energy to believe in a different vision of the future. To me, it’s like a drug. I mean, it’s why I keep doing it. My wife has forbidden me to start another company, <laugh>. So now I invest rather aggressively in early stage founding teams and I live vicariously through them. But you know, looking back over my career, it’s the journey and the battles you fought with the men and women you fought them with, that you always remember. And they’re the things, you know, they’re the things that bring back the fun memories. It’s ironic, but when there’s an exit, nobody ever remembers what went into their bank account, but they will always remember challenges that they faced and the people that fought those challenges with them. And to me, that’s just what keeps me going.
General Joe Votel (05:51):
I actually was listening to a podcast that you did with a good friend of mine, Admiral Sandy Winnefeld. And one of the things that you mentioned in there, I think in kind of a response to a similar type question was that you know, you had a need to keep the child inside alive, right? And I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on that.
Tom Noonan (06:12):
First of all, I come from a big family, five boys and a girl. You know, I had a fantastic childhood growing up in America in the sixties and the seventies, but I was always the curious one. You know, my dad would, you know, get so upset with me cuz whatever he brought home, a new lawnmower, a new blender, I would take it apart because I was always curious about how things worked. And I didn’t always get them together. And I think that’s just the way my genome is sequenced. You know, it’s why I went to Georgia Tech and became a mechanical engineer cuz I figured if I ever wanted to know how things worked, I should become an engineer. And so that’s what keeps the child alive in me. The idea always doesn’t come from me. General, I interact with so many brilliant people and many of the companies I’ve founded, were because I ran into a dreamer and thought their dream was so compelling, but they had no way to bring it to life. And I think one of the things I’ve been blessed with as an individual is not just the courage, but the confidence that I know how to bring that to life. It’s a formula that I’ve relied on my entire career and it’s why I’ve had so much fulfillment in this line of business as opposed to pursuing a career in corporate America or with a large company as an executive, as part of a team.
General Joe Votel (07:57):
And I think you kind of may be anticipating the next question that I might ask you. You’ve experienced great success, but I’m sure along the way, failure as as well. And I wonder what you would describe as kind of the key ingredients of projects that end up really taking flight and moving off. And then conversely, are there some ingredients or some elements that you see in efforts that don’t materialize and actually fail or don’t achieve the desired end state?
Tom Noonan (08:29):
Yeah. Well, I mean, you bring it up, so let’s talk about it. Failure, I mean, the lessons learned from failure I think are actually essential elements of success. Yeah. And entrepreneurship has taught me things about myself that I’m pretty sure I could have never been able to learn in a classroom or working for some large risk averse corporation. And while entrepreneurship has brought me success beyond my wildest dreams, it’s also given me the opportunity to fail. And failure, I think has helps develop an inner security and a self-confidence that you know, you don’t really experience in any other way in your life and society glorifies success and vilifies failure. But I think the many failures I’ve had through my entrepreneurial journey have taught me things about myself that I could have learned in no other way. I mean, there’s more to learn from mistakes than from successes. When you look back over it and understanding, you know, what went wrong, where instincts failed, what internal or external factors or assumptions were responsible for taking an enterprise off course. To me, they’re all vital lessons in business. When I think about the iterative journey of getting product market fit right, of getting the right management team in place of working through the right design customers and partners and all the things that to me are textbook today when I work with these young, brilliant entrepreneurs today, what I realized is that after doing this for 40 years and doing it across the entire spectrum from idea to start to pre-product funding, to getting the product market fit right, getting the user product fit right, getting the right team on board, scaling, building the right go-to-market approach, taking a company through IPO, ultimately dealing with mergers and acquisitions and or liquidating your own company, the lessons you learn through that are just extraordinary. And it’s so fulfilling for me as an old retired guy now, you know, to be able to walk in a room with a young, brilliant entrepreneur and just have his jaw hit the table. Because there’s so much wisdom that is developed and a lot of wisdom comes from what doesn’t work. I like to tell these young entrepreneurs, there are not too many hard lessons left for me to learn. And I love that about the whole innovation culture.
General Joe Votel (11:36):
Yes. That idea, how you develop leaders that allow people to learn. Fail and learn from that and move forward, I think is a really critical leadership skill. And it’s difficult in institutions like the military and others to really adopt that. I used to have a commander who worked for me and he used to say, Hey, we’re gonna test a little, learn a lot. We know we’re gonna fail on something, we’re gonna learn a lot from it. We’re gonna come back, it’s gonna be sharper the next time around. And that is such an important lesson to inculcate. I wanna switch. I wanna talk about a little bit of your government service here. In 2002, president Bush appointed you to serve on the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, the NAAC which is a White House Homeland Defense Initiative that protects information systems critical to the nation’s infrastructure. And you continued to serve in that capacity under, not only under President Bush, but under President Obama and then under President Trump. And it’s extraordinary to have an opportunity to use your talents and experience to inform and advise a president making decisions for the whole nation. I I know our listeners and I certainly would be really interested to learn more about your efforts as part of that council, but perhaps as importantly, how you manage to stay current in the tech, cybersecurity and digital forensics space. And then how you kind of see those areas moving forward.
Tom Noonan (13:00):
I mean, that’s a great question because staying current with anything in technological fields today requires a real discipline and commitment to stay on top of it because it’s changing so fast, making great, great leaps ahead as opposed to incremental leaps. You know, one of the things about cyber and digital security, I began my life as a control system engineer for Rockwell Automation. I was a newly minted Georgia Tech graduate and packed up my 1973 Vega, which made, made it to Paducah, Kentucky before it broke down. I was enroute to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to have my first full-time professional job at Rockwell Automation. But I became enamored at a very young age with using computers and computer intelligence to automate and control things. And so as I began to develop my career and the internet came about not as a DARPA research project, but as a real commercially viable technology to accelerate commerce and knowledge and all the things that the internet has accelerated, you know, I became infatuated with the fact that the internet was open and easy to access. But with so many new technologies, there’s an unintended double-edged sword or an unintended consequence, which is the fact that anything that’s open and easy to access, that’s being used to conduct commerce, banking, financial transactions, et cetera, is gonna draw the criminal element. And so to me, managing security on a network or a computer was no different than an automatic control system that could allow the good and deny the bad. And so from an early age, I’ve always been intrigued with this concept of thinking about cybersecurity as a cyber control system. No different than an automatic control system that you would use to control a robot an automated material handling system or an automated process control system. There are inputs, there’s program logic, and there are outputs. And if the input is bad, the program logic should say it’s bad and deny it. For the last 40 years, I have been intrigued with cybersecurity for that very reason. And I think as we look at the landscape, innovative technology is bringing wonderful benefits to mankind, but they’re also unintended consequences. I mean, just think of the unintended consequences of cyber. Cyber threats are getting more serious with greater potential to do serious long-term, expensive damage because our entire society’s depending on it, and now the bad guys are using AI generated malware and threat agents that are increasingly sophisticated and wreaking havoc on traditional security controls. Now the good guys are using AI generated control systems to combat their intelligent malware and threat agents. I see no natural ceiling to the size of the cyber. And it’s why it’s an area I continue to pursue.
General Joe Votel (16:58):
That’s a really interesting perspective on what is a critical problem. So like you, I grew up in a big family and I’m number six of six boys. And my oldest brother actually lived in Atlanta for a while. And one time, and this was the sixties, when he came back, he brought me a present and the present was a Georgia Tech sweatshirt. Of course I was a kid running around the block in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had no idea what Georgia Tech meant or what it was, as a young 10 year old old at the time. But I wore the t-shirt out until I grew out of it. You of course, are a graduate of Georgia Tech and I think there’s probably a number of Georgia Tech fans and alumn that are probably gonna be listening to us today. And you are a member of the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame and you were part of one of the most recent search committee to find a new president for Georgia Tech. And of course that’s strategically significant cause it’s driving the direction of the, the institution. I wonder if you can share with us why you believe it’s important to remain grounded and connected to where you came from, especially as you look at it in terms of your own professional success.
Tom Noonan (18:09):
I think it goes back to the way I was raised. My parents raised us as a family. They raised us to love each other despite the number of fights that occurred between me and my brothers. They were all body blows, <laugh>, no mortal wounds. But I know a lot of people that have achieved uncommon success that have remained pretty normal. I try to consider myself that way and I know that success ultimately changes people. My father took me to the Georgia Tech basketball and football games as a kid. I was a Cub Scout and a Boy scout. I actually worked to help people find their seats in the Georgia Tech stadium in the early seventies, by the way, that Georgia Tech sweatshirt, down here, we’d call that high fashion.
General Joe Votel (19:07):
Tom Noonan (19:09):
But I think it comes from just from inside, the way you’re raised. My mom used to always tell me, love God serve the king, and try like heck to get through every day. We had a very simple middle class upbringing. We went to church, we went to school. When we got in trouble, we got the belt and we learned that it was probably not a good idea to cross that line again or we’d get the belt again, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
General Joe Votel (19:38):
The last question, and this question we ask every one of our members we bring on the podcast series here is what brought you BENS and what made you decide to share your talents and insights to help address some of the nation’s most pressing national security issues.
Tom Noonan (19:53):
The first thing that brought me to BENS was because I love America and I strongly believe in the vision our founding fathers had for this great nation and the right to life, liberty and happiness and the freedoms that we enjoy here. We have our challenges, but I think we are still the greatest nation on the face of the earth. I felt like through the, you know, grace of God and the good fortune I had in being an early pioneer in the cyber business, I had a both a skill and a passion for something that I thought was going to be very, very important for not just national security, but for the nation. Because national security without economic security is a difficult equation to solve. And so being at the forefront of cyber threat and vulnerability intelligence and the innovation needed to address that threat and to set the foundation for the nation on a whole new horizon, this cyber horizon, I almost felt obligated. Even though it was natural for me when General Herney rung me up from Washington and said, you know, I would love to have a chat with you, this was back in the nineties, I would love to have a chat with you about, you know, contributing your time and talent to this worthwhile effort. So, you know, here I am 25 years later I still love America. I still strongly believe in her vision and I am still committed to contributing in any way I can on this unique dimension of cyber. That I’ve been blessed to have the good fortune to operate in that arena, you know, for most of my career. And I think that’s what drew me to BENS.
General Joe Votel (22:14):
That’s great, Tom. Thanks so much and we’re so lucky to count you among our extinguished members, so thank you very much. We really appreciate you taking the time to come on today and I’ve certainly enjoyed the discussion and I think we covered a pretty good array of topics here from your experience, to the cyber business, to a little bit on leadership, and a little bit on what kind of got you there. So I really appreciate you taking some time to talk with us today. Thanks. Thanks so much.
Tom Noonan (22:41):
My pleasure, general, thank you for having me. And please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can be of assistance.
General Joe Votel (22:47):
Thanks. And for our listeners, thanks for joining us today. We’ve been talking with Atlanta member Tom Noonan. Coming at you with another episode soon.
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