By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
John McNeely says he became a pretty good cross country runner in high school and ran his way into a scholarship at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).
Many would say the soft spoken President and Chief Executive Officer of Sword & Shield Enterprise Security, Inc., has used that early training to successfully grow the Knoxville-based company which he joined six months after its founding 18 years ago.
After all, cross country running involves a solid strategy based on the nature of the course – its surface, the frequency and tightness of turns, and the amount of up and downhill racing. In other words, you have to adapt to changing environments, and that is the reality of a company focused on enterprise security.
“I would also add that it involves knowing your competition and their race tendencies,” McNeely explains.
In fact, McNeely says that Sword & Shield only focuses on information security, compliance, and managed services unlike many of its competitors.
“We compete on a national scale,” he says, adding an interesting fact: Sword & Shield has more clients in California than in Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte combined.
For McNeely, what has become a lifetime fascination with computers and networks began his senior year in high school. He recalls it was his first computer math class where he was exposed to an Apple II computer. That resulted in spending endless hours learning the Apple II system and BASIC programming language.
“I fell in love with programming,” he said. “That experience focused me on a clear professional path.”
During his junior and senior years at UTC, McNeely worked in TVA’s R & D Division, eventually logging about 20 hours a week while also taking a full course load. A two-year tour with Southwest Research Institute in Texas followed graduation where he worked on a “state of the art” project involving the Tomahawk Missile System.
“Texas was great, but Texas wasn’t East Tennessee,” McNeely says. Since he and his wife were both from the state, they selected Knoxville as a central location to both families. So, they picked-up and moved here to a position with Martin Marietta Energy Systems, prime contractor at the time for all of the U.S. Department of Energy facilities in Oak Ridge.
McNeely’s activities were focused on what today is known as Federal Work for Others, one federal agency utilizing the expertise of another one. In McNeely’s case, his customer was frequently the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We worked on new prototypes for them,” he said of his five years with Lockheed Martin. “It was a great experience. I learned a lot.”
Yet, like a cross country runner preparing for a course, McNeely surveyed the landscape and saw some exciting new opportunities.
“The Internet was open for business, and security was becoming more of an issue,” he said.
NEXT: McNeely and James Goldston team-up to launch Sword & Shield.