Kevin Johnson of SmartBear: Five Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience about How To Survive And Thrive During A Time Of Crisis

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
14 min readNov 9, 2022

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Learn from the crisis: Don’t waste a crisis. After you have lived through it, regroup, and ask what did we do well? What could we have done better? Because, inevitably, another crisis will strike.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crises and how to adapt and overcome them. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Johnson.

Kevin Johnson joined SmartBear, a leading provider of software development and visibility tools, as Customer Adoption Engineer for its award-winning automated testing platform, TestComplete, in early 2022. He served for four years in the U.S. Navy as a Petty Officer 2nd Class (E-5) and Fire Control Technician where he worked with a team of five who maintained and repaired a computer-controlled antimissile system (General Dynamic’s CIWS). After transitioning out of the military in the early 1980’s, he spent 20 years at Compuware Corporation (currently Dynatrace) as a software developer. Prior to SmartBear, Kevin was Senior UI Automation Engineer, Homesite Insurance at SQA Group and Lead Automation Engineer at Tyler Technologies. Early in his career, he held the position of Software Support for Unisys. He has decades of experience in the information technology industry working with automated software quality assurance (QA), product development, and customer support of distributed software technologies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, on the border of 8 Mile Road, made infamous in the Eminem film of the same name. I joined the U.S. Navy after high school for a six-year enlistment as a fire control technician. After serving four years, I was honorably discharged, retiring from the Navy in 1983 due to a medical disability. It was a blessing in disguise, though I didn’t know it at the time. Reflecting back, I considered this my entry into Quality Assurance (QA) later in my career. Certainly, I wanted to complete my tour of duty and perhaps even make a career out of the Navy because I enjoyed the military and the people I worked with during my tour of duty.

After leaving the military, I returned to Michigan and went to Lawrence Institute of Technology (now Lawrence Technological University) through the Veterans Administration Vocational Rehabilitation program. I also joined the Disabled American Veterans which helped guide me through the transition to civilian life. While in college, I had an interesting job as administrative assistant to Joe LoDuca, the composer for the Evil Dead movies, Xena Warrior Princess, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. He was a jazz musician first, and performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Detroit. Setting up for him on stage was an interesting side gig before I started my real career.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Earlier this year on my 62nd birthday, I started my dream job at SmartBear as Customer Adoption Engineer for the company’s long-time automated software testing platform, TestComplete. I have been working with SmartBear software development and visibility tools for over 10 years so this was a perfect fit for me. When COVID hit in 2020, I had been working as a lead automation engineer at Tyler Technologies. However, a few short months into the crisis, just eight days shy of my five-year anniversary at the company, a change in business priorities at Tyler forced me into a job search as a senior worker.

While at Tyler, our team stood up a continuous integration (CI) automation solution to test a web-based public safety web application, utilizing SmartBear tools (TestComplete and Zephyr) inside a Jira/Jenkins-based framework. During my stint at Tyler, I had been a speaker at two Tyler internal QA conferences promoting this solution. In addition, during my tenure there, I spoke at two SmartBear user conferences regarding this CI solution — in person at the inaugural SmartBear Connect conference in 2018, as well as the first online conference in 2020 at the onset of COVID. I was also a member of SmartBear’s TestComplete User Advisory group in 2019.

After Tyler, I worked a contract job with SQA Group on assignment to Homesite Insurance where they used TestComplete, Zephyr, and other SmartBear tools within a CI solution testing a web-based insurance quoting software. When the contract position ended in December 2021, I was excited to see the SmartBear job post and am grateful that I have been able to move into this role seamlessly.

When I joined SmartBear, I shifted from purely tech roles to a post adoption sales position, so I am doing something very different here. I am onboarding customers to get them up and started. The company’s automated software testing platform, TestComplete is my primary focus, however, all the SmartBear tools represent the best value proposition throughout the CI/CD process — our products help customers no matter where they are at in terms of the Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC). Currently, I am setting up a continuous integration development lab with my co-workers to integrate various SmartBear products so that we can deep dive demo those products to customers and help them as they are setting up their continuous integration development projects. I am loving what I’m doing now.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I served for four years in the U.S. Navy as a Petty Officer 2nd Class (E-5) and Fire Control Technician where I worked with a team of five who maintained and repaired a computer-controlled antimissile system (General Dynamic’s CIWS). I served on two ships while in the Navy, the guided missile cruiser, USS England and on the pre-commissioning crew of the fast frigate, the USS Jarrett.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

I served during the middle of the Cold War, and we were on a war exercise in the Pacific Ocean, acting as if we were fighting the Soviet Union. It was a formal war game with a large carrier group of ships, something we did on a regular basis. We were running with wartime conditions with lights off, radio silence, and generally behaving as we would during an actual war. My ship was not a new nuclear ship, but it could carry nuclear weapons, and I was part of the nuclear guard force on the ship. The seas were a bit rocky but all-in-all pretty calm, routine exercise. Suddenly, we were told to stop what we were doing because one of the helicopters on one of the Helo carriers had crashed.

So, we went from a wartime exercise to a search and rescue mission to see if we could find survivors. We turned the spotlights on the ocean, could see the crash debris field, and placed dye markers in the water, however, sadly over the next 48 hours, we could not find any survivors. It was a striking experience that left a big mark on me. Even though we were in peacetime, the military is always inherently risky and dangerous. This experience made me reflect on how quickly change can happen. One minute, you are doing your job, and then suddenly, several men have perished.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

The ship I served on was called the England and is named in honor of Ensign John C. England. Born in Missouri, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1940 and was commissioned on June 6, 1941. On September 3, 1941, he reported for duty on the battleship USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. Days from his 21st birthday, on December 7, 1941, he volunteered to work in the ship’s radio room for a friend. That morning, the Oklahoma was one of the first targets attacked by the Japanese. England survived the initial attack and escaped as the ship was capsizing, but he went back three times to the radio room, each time bringing a man to safety. He went back a fourth time but was never seen again.

Just before COVID hit in early 2020, my ship’s crew got together for a reunion, and we had a wonderful time. I had not seen these guys since the early 80s. We are all very dedicated to keeping the ship’s name alive in honor of this hero.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

Heroes come in all sizes. There’s heroism in both small ways and big. My wife is a high school teacher, assigned to students with special needs requiring Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), and my hat’s off to her. She makes such a difference in kids’ lives and is a hero to their families, helping each to work toward graduation. Without question, special ed teachers are heroes. My mom was able to successfully raise four children after my father died when I was only two years old. And there are so many military heroes like John C. England who have saved countless lives. So, yes, heroes come in all sizes.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

Yes, in many ways, both directly and indirectly. I was in my late teens and early 20s working on millions of dollars’ worth of weapons systems and ships. It is just remarkable. We worked hard. We trained hard. There is no training like the military. My first job out of college, I worked for Unisys Corporation. They had just merged with Sperry Corporation and Burroughs, trying to compete against IBM. At the time, along with Digital Equipment Corp, those were among the three biggest players in the computer industry. The guy I interviewed with at Unisys told me after I got hired that I was selected in large part because of my military background. It turned out that he had served as a Fire Control Technician in the Navy as well. The military opened doors for me, and I will be forever grateful for that because it was the start of a wonderful career that has taken me through decades.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Chief Warrant Officer George “Gunnar” Evans, who I only recently reconnected with at a USS England crew reunion in Indiana in October 2019 pre-COVID. Sadly, he passed in December 2020. He was a true inspiration to me. When I was assigned to the England, he was the lead Weapons Specialist of Fox Division on the ship. To become a chief warrant officer during the Civil Rights era as a black man was no easy feat and is truly phenomenal. He joined the Navy in the late 50’s and served until the early 80’s, working his way up from an enlisted to chief warrant officer, which was quite an accomplishment during that time period. He was an inspirational leader and great person to work with, and I can only hope to be half the man he was.

Also, Ed Leonard was my manager at Unisys Corporation, and the guy who hired me because I had been a Fire Control Technician (FTG). A great manager who became a great friend. I learned a lot from both of these inspiring men.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in a crisis. How would you define a crisis?

A crisis is a difficult situation that involves some sort of change that is not good. Many times, a crisis by its very nature is reactive — all you can do is sort things out after the fact. Crises can range from personal to global, and from big to small. COVID-19 was not only a large global crisis, but it also translated into an untold number of personal crises for everyone. When I was working at Compuware, we had two employees perish on two separate planes on 9/11. At the end of the day, crises come in all shapes and sizes.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

Being proactive in preparing for possible crisis is critical. Often, a crisis tends to be a reactive exercise. It is its very nature. We are caught by surprise. Part of being proactive, you hope you have the right people in place. Your employees are your company, you have to have confidence in them, and you cannot waste time. You have got to be quick and responsive when a crisis happens. Have plans and backup plans, in case your original plan does not work, and try to do everything you can to minimize the impact on your employees and your customers. But a lot of the planning needs to happen before the crisis occurs, if possible.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

Fight/Flight/Flow. Sometimes you need to stay and fight. Sometimes you need to put a stake in the ground and fight against something. Other times, you must run away and avoid something. Flow is essentially deciding on the appropriate course of action at the appropriate time. This comes back to the idea of making sure you have the right people who understand your company, your industry, and the situation. If you have picked the right people, their instincts and reactions are going to help guide you through. Through it all, you have to be agile to adapt to changing circumstances. You have to be ready to switch gears quickly at any point.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Are you familiar with the poem, “If,” by Rudyard Kipling?

“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…”

We are the total sum of our parts. We should spend our lives trying to be the best person we can to make our children proud, the next generation proud. I believe it’s more important that we do the right thing for the upcoming generations than to try to make our parents happy. I do not want to disappoint my parents, but we need to look at what kind of world we are going to leave to our children and the next generation. It takes strength. Internal strength to endure is important in a crisis.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Sully Sullenberger immediately comes to mind when I think of the traits of someone needed in a crisis. How he glided that airplane in the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan that morning in 2009 where all 155 people on board were safely rescued is the definition of successfully handling a crisis. I can’t imagine anyone more composed in those circumstances than that man.

Did you have a time in your life when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

I had been working at Compuware Corporation for over 20 years, and I honestly thought I would retire from there. I thought I was going to see that job through to the end of my career. But things changed. The company was divided up, and I ended up in their Dynatrace unit, which ended up moving most of its operations to Austria, where the headquarters were. As a result, I was faced with a layoff in my late 50’s. That was a bit of a crisis as I did not see that coming. It changed my plans considerably. I needed to figure out what I was going to do. Fortunately, because of my experience and contacts, I was able to land a good job with Tyler Technologies. So, there was certainly turmoil in that situation, but that setback did lead to better days.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Plan for crisis: It is evitable that a crisis will hit. You cannot spend enough time planning for countless scenarios. Benjamin Franklin said it best when he said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Try to get ahead of a crisis as much as possible by having the right mechanisms in place for when it strikes.
  2. Have a backup plan: Whatever your plan is for any crisis you are anticipating, there will be failings. A crisis would not be a crisis if you expect everything to run perfectly, so you will need to be agile and make changes to the plan along the way.
  3. Have the right team in place: Your people are your biggest asset. When a crisis hits, you already need to have the right people in place to execute on the plan. Have faith in your hiring practices and in your people, and they can generally get you through. Keeping your workforce happy and productive is essential, too.
  4. Communicate the plan: Being in constant communication with all the players involved is critical. Everyone needs to know their role and the tasks they need to carry out.
  5. Learn from the crisis: Don’t waste a crisis. After you have lived through it, regroup, and ask what did we do well? What could we have done better? Because, inevitably, another crisis will strike.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Think globally, act locally, and work toward making the next generations proud of your actions.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

I would love to meet with Jon Stewart, Stephan Colbert, or Jimmy Kimmel. John Stewart has been a great voice for veterans and 9/11 survivors as have the others. I would also love to have a conversation with environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Her advocacy with climate change is admirable.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/kevinmjohnsonautomationtech/

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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