Not many can lay claim to having a security clearance in high school. But then again, Lisa Finneran, a 1985 computer science graduate, knew early on that she wanted to work on high-priority projects.

Finneran’s mother played a pivotal role in that claim as she worked for a defense contractor and saw an opportunity for her daughter to put her math and science talents to good work during her junior and senior years of high school.

“It opened my eyes to good and bad things happening,” Finneran 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, although she also was accepted to the University of Virginia. “I fell in love immediately with Virginia Tech. I could feel the excitement when I toured the campus.”

Finneran said she fell in love with computer software as it was becoming more prevalent in the mid-'80s. During her time at Virginia Tech, she gravitated toward computer science classes and recalls feeling like she was part of something special as she studied within a growing and relatively new computer science department. 

A community-service mindset

Finneran said she wanted to get involved with the Department of Computer Science as much as she could. "If this is what I was going to base my career on, I wanted to challenge myself," she said.

Finneran became an officer in the student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). She gained fresh perspectives from faculty members such as Dennis Kafura, who later served as department head from 1985-2008, and Sally Henry, who served as advisor for the ACM chapter.

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

This community service mindset 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. A technology integrator and original equipment manufacturer, General Dynamics has deep domain expertise in land, sea, air, space, and cyber. The company provides mission-critical solutions to those who lead, serve, and protect the world.

And this is no easy task, as she is responsible for engineering execution across 60 General Dynamics Mission Systems locations and leads 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 and 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 listening to their challenges. 

Keeping the world safe

“We build products deployed to the bottom of the ocean floor, into deep space, and everything in between.” That's how 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 brainpower is eye-watering," she said of her team’s ingenuity. "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 was asked to work at General Dynamics twice during her early career. She had declined each time, feeling very fulfilled in her role at the time.

And, then 9/11 happened. 

Finneran and her husband, a federal government employee, felt and saw the impact of 9/11 firsthand in Washington, D.C., with the Pentagon 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."

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."

Lisa Finneran with her family at the 2022 Academy of Engineering Excellence.
Lisa Finneran (second from left) with her family at the 2022 Virginia Tech Academy of Engineering Excellence, where she was one of the five alumni inductees. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Returning to her Hokie roots

This has been a significant year for Finneran, who was recently inducted into the Virginia Tech Academy of Engineering Excellence. Membership in this academy is reserved for individuals holding a Virginia Tech engineering degree who have made sustained and meritorious engineering and/or leadership contributions during their careers. Initiates have reached the pinnacle of their professional achievements.

The Department of Computer Science also recognized Finneran with its Distinguished Alumni Award in April. This award is given to department graduates who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the computing field in their careers, whether it has been in industry, government, or academia. It also recognizes outstanding achievements and contributions in research and/or practice.

While Finneran was on campus to receive the award, she made it a point to see and talk to as many students as she could during her visit. While she certainly shared opportunities at General Dynamics, Finneran also encouraged students to grow and learn from their experiences, apply for different positions, and build skills that are marketable. "Computer science students are in a great spot as there is so much need," she said.

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