After spending 17 years of her career in national security, Sarah Frances found a new way to work toward keeping the world a little bit safer — while having some fun.
Simply put: “We get paid to play with drones!”
Even the more nuanced description of Frances’ work at SkySafe makes the appeal of her work as a reverse engineer clear. “We get to be part of an effort to bring new technology to market, a technology that can have a far-reaching and immediate impact,” she said.
And Frances keeps the larger mission in mind, whether that means SkySafe customers are intercepting narcotics, neutralizing a drone without shutting down an airport or even using unmanned aerial vehicles on the battlefield.
“I believe the tools and technology we are building at SkySafe are fulfilling an obligation to make the world better and safer for those in it,” she said.
“The tools and technology we are building at SkySafe are fulfilling an obligation to make the world better and safer for those in it.”
Frances’ vision for her work at SkySafe is more than just hardware, though — she also has a transparent leadership vision, one that evolves alongside her team. “There isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to culture,” she said. “In order to build an environment where everyone can do their best work, we need to make sure we feel that we’re working as a cohesive unit while responding to individual needs.”
Built In heard more from Frances about how she supports growth for all her team members while embracing a spirit of mission-driven fun.
What’s your vision for leading your team?
My vision for the SkySafe reverse engineering and forensics teams is to create an environment with clear, focused objectives for enabling our mission of comprehensive drone detection and UAV forensics capabilities.
The team consists of a group of extremely talented engineers, and I strive to ensure they are excited about the work they’re doing while also feeling challenged to expand their skill sets and step out of their comfort zones. My expectations and standards for the team are high, and I expect them to have high standards for me in return. I also expect them to let me know when I fall short and can be doing better.
Leading a successful team also means fostering a healthy environment for information sharing and knowledge transfer. This can be difficult when egos come into play, but a healthy ego gives an engineer the audacity to be confident that they will solve a problem, no matter how difficult the task. It drives a person to be relentless in their pursuit of a solution while simultaneously appreciating and learning from the difficulties in the journey along the way. But there is no place for egos that need to find superiority to others. The best engineers I have worked with are those who can clearly communicate with people of all backgrounds and who can respectfully impart their knowledge to those around them.
How do you build team culture? What does that look like at SkySafe?
It’s my job to get to know my teammates as individuals and to understand their experience, interests, career goals, personalities and communication style. When we foster an environment where people feel like they can do their best work and be excited about that, then I think the team culture builds itself. The enjoyment and shared interests can become contagious. I model the behavior I want to see on the team, as well — I need to ask questions and learn from my coworkers and ensure I can laugh at myself.
This can be particularly challenging when a team is working remotely. But communication is the key to success. We need to communicate about our progress, roadblocks and challenges, help each other by making suggestions for things to try and celebrate the small victories we all achieve.
How do you help your team grow their careers?
Part of being an effective leader is being a good steward of your employees’ careers. We must listen to our employees and understand how they envision their own careers progressing. The more subtle aspect of that is looking for opportunities where you might push them a bit outside of their comfort zone; to grow in ways that they might not have realized they could; to allow them to fail safely and learn from it in the process.
“Part of being an effective leader is being a good steward of your employees’ careers.”
What are you most excited about accomplishing with your team in the next year?
I am most excited about the momentum we have right now, and the many ways in which the team is working together and challenging each other. The senior team members are mentoring the junior team members who are in turn amassing their own incredible skill sets. Our hardware-focused reverse engineers are expanding into new areas of research for SkySafe and blazing some trails there. Our senior forensic specialist is getting ready to kick-off SkySafe’s new UAS Forensics Training Curriculum. 2023 is going to be a wild and fun ride.