While the nature versus nurture debate rages on, Michael Alvarado has a love and affinity for technology that owes a fair amount to both. His father has always been early adopter of technology—the guy who is always first in line to buy the latest gadget.
“One of my earliest memories was when my father purchased a Commodore 64 with the cassette tape storage,” Alvarado says. “I was probably four or five years old, and he sat me down and showed me how to use the console display and navigate directory structure to access the games.”
In middle school, Alvarado immersed himself in Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). Many of Alvarado’s friends were also technologically inclined and gravitated to BBSes, soon discovering their knack for programming. A few started developing door games that were relatively successful. “I was just amazed that, at a young age, someone could create something that could have such positive impact on the world,” Alvarado says. Not mechanically gifted, Alvarado recognized that technology offered him an alternative means of creativity and creation.
Entering college, Alvarado wasn’t sure what he wanted to study. His father stepped in to influence him again by suggesting he try electrical engineering. “I took an introduction course to C programming, and it quickly sparked my interest in computer science,” Alvarado says. “I quickly transitioned my major and fell in love with the combination of analytical, imaginative, and creative forums that computer science allows.”
In 2006, Alvarado found the perfect place to pursue his interests when he started working for Jacobs Engineering, which provides professional and technical services to commercial, industrial, and government clients. After Alvarado had worked in many areas across Jacobs, a former client called him about an emerging project and encouraged him to pursue it.
“I called my supervisor, told him about the inquiry, and challenged him to let me bid on it. He said, ‘Hey, let’s take a stab at this. We can win it,’” Alvarado says. “I was young and had a little bit of swagger. Thankfully my supervisor recognized my passion, and he put me in touch with the local director of business development.”
Looking back on it, Alvarado says the project itself probably didn’t make a lot of sense, but he bet the director of business development that they could win it. “I think that bit of audacity, combined with some encouraging words from my supervisor, led me to be offered a place on the business development team after an aggressive interview process,” Alvarado says.
After six years of growing the business with a small, high-performance team, Alvarado’s boss and mentor assumed a new position, whereupon Alvarado was offered a new role, specifically focused on leading growth of the company’s portfolio of systems acquisition, logistics, and testing and training services. Quickly thereafter, he was asked to assume growth-strategy responsibilities for Jacobs’ burgeoning intelligence, IT, and cyber business.
Alvarado recently added yet another role to his résumé: delivering growth-strategy integration and orchestration across Jacobs’ diverse set of markets, clients, and geographies within its aerospace, technology, environmental, and nuclear lines of business.
A large part of Alvarado’s current role is focused helping clients through the digital transformation process, and he says it’s a surprisingly personal experience.
Alvarado compares it to multigenerational families, wherein, for some members, just turning on the computer to access email is a challenge. For others, technology is an integral part of their lives: they use social media to get their news, online platforms to date, and mobile technology to control and monitor their homes. Data saturation is an imperative, and the need for active information security behaviors is known.
“For Jacobs, it’s about truly understanding our client’s and their mission needs,” Alvarado says. “We apply our deep domain expertise, coupled with our robust digital solutions, to deliver appropriately tailored technology to those areas that are most opportune for transformation.”
For some clients, this might be as simple as moving from pen and paper to a basic digital document workflow. Others, however, are looking to use advanced analytics, visualization, and artificial intelligence. “Much of the challenge is cultural and focused on balancing the speed of transformation,” Alvarado says.
Maintaining a pipeline of skilled personnel to lead this transformation can be difficult in today’s hypercompetitive environment. “The war for talent is fierce,” Alvarado says. “Highly skilled individuals, particularly in technologically aligned fields, have a propensity for variety. Jacobs’ diverse client base and capability offering is a great strength in that regard. Opportunities abound for our employees to tackle new and interesting problems.”
Another challenge Alvarado has faced since rising within the ranks of Jacobs is defining his own leadership style. He ended up drawing on the examples of great leaders for whom he’s worked in the past.
“I espouse our culture of accountability and ownership. I set clear expectations and then provide folks the requisite autonomy and authority to achieve their visions,” Alvarado says. “I couple that with supplying our personnel with the tools and support network they need for success.”
Although Alvarado noted that the idea of accountability tends to connote isolation, he emphasized that it’s quite the opposite at Jacobs. “This is absolutely a team sport,” Alvarado says. “It requires a keen appreciation for people. Empathy, patience, and compassion are imperatives; you must serve those you work with.”