Not many can lay claim to having a security clearance in high school. But then again, you have not met Lisa Finneran, a 1985 computer science alumna, who is the 2022 Department of Computer Science Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.

Finneran’s mother played a pivotal role in this claim as she worked for a defense contractor and saw a place where her daughter could put her math and science talents to good work during her 11th and 12th grade years. “It opened my eyes to good and bad things happening,” she said, tracing her passion for working in the mission-critical computing field back to this formative experience.

It also set her on a path forward to Virginia Tech, after also being accepted to the University of Virginia.

Finneran said she fell in love with computer software as it was becoming more prevalent in the mid-80s. She also started gravitating toward the computer science classes and recalls feeling like she was part of something special, with a growing and relatively new computer science department. 

Ut Prosim, That I May Serve

While at Virginia Tech, Finneran said she wanted to get involved with the department as much as she could. "If this is what I was going to base my career on, I wanted to challenge myself," she said, which included becoming an officer in the student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. She was introduced to fresh perspectives from faculty members Dennis Kafura, who later became the department head (1985-2008) , as well as Sally Henry, who served as adviser for the student chapter.

"I thought how can I serve and make this better," said Finneran of her role. "How can I help other students." 

This mindset for how she could serve others and her community has threaded the needle in her professional and personal careers. In her current role as vice president of engineering for General Dynamics Mission Systems, a business unit of General Dynamics, Finneran strives to be a servant leader to her employees.

And this is no easy task, as she is responsible for engineering execution across 60 General Dynamics Mission Systems locations and leading more than 7,000 employees.

"She is compassionate, motivating, and a tremendous advocate for her employees and her customers," said Carlo Zaffanella, vice president and general manager of maritime & strategic systems at General Dynamics Mission Systems. "One of Lisa’s many strengths is relationship building. In every position that she has advanced to within General Dynamics, Lisa has built a sense of community.

In her leadership role, Finneran often asks her team, "What can I do to remove obstacles so you can complete your job and tasks." This includes, at times, rolling up her sleeves and sitting on the floor with other engineers and listening to their challenges. 

From the Bottom of the Ocean and Into Deep Space

And everything in between, as Finneran likes to describe the scope of the products built by her team. "What we do matters," she said, and the longevity of the products is paramount. "The brain power is eye watering," she said of her team. "We need to be passionate about what we do and love what we do." 

Before arriving at General Dynamics, Finneran served as senior vice president and chief technical officer for the Software Productivity Consortium, a not-for-profit group dedicated to improving the productivity and quality of mission-critical software.

During this time, she also served as a community reader for the blind and volunteered with her children's activities. 

A Life-Changing Trajectory

Finneran had been asked to come work at General Dynamics twice during her career. She had declined, feeling very fulfilled in her role at the time.

And, then 9-11 happened. 

As did the rest of the world. Finneran and her husband, a federal government employee, felt and saw the impact of 9-11 firsthand in Washington, D.C. with the Pentagon being under siege.

"When General Dynamics came knocking a third time, I ran as fast as I could," Finneran said. "I wanted to put my skills to use for the safety and security of the nation. I did not care what I did. I was all about supporting the mission."

Now in her 19-year tenure at General Dynamics, Finneran said she has never looked back and is grateful every day for a phenomenal career to interact with customers and influence the engineering community. "It is an honor to be in this role."

Returning to Her Hokie Roots

Finneran will be honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award at the department's annual award ceremony on April 27. This award is given to a department alumnus or alumna who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the computing field in his/her career whether it has been in industry, government, or academia.  It also recognizes outstanding achievements and contributions in research and/or practice.

She plans to accept the award in person and see and talk to as many students as she can during her visit to campus to see what they are interested in doing. While she will certainly share about opportunities at General Dynamics, she says she will encourage students to apply for different positions, build skills that are marketable, as well as grow and learn from their experiences. "Computer science students are in a great spot as there is so much need."