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Check Out Robert Wall’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Robert Wall.

Hi Robert, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I grew up with my three younger siblings in a small town in northern New Jersey. My father, a physician, and my mother, an attorney, instilled in my siblings and me the value of hard work, sacrifice, integrity, and giving. As a kid, I was interested in lots of things. Academically, I always enjoyed math, science and languages, particularly Spanish. I played several sports, performed in our school choirs and musicals, and did a bunch of volunteer work. My parents always encouraged us to do as much with our natural gifts as we could.

Because I was the first child, I certainly got plenty of my parents’ love and attention directed toward my success in certain key transitions. As wild as it is to think about, I began looking at colleges in the summer after 8th grade. During that summer, my family attended the big 4th of July fireworks display at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, and it was then that I decided that I wanted to go there. My local “Blue and Gold” Officer, Captain Rick McGoey, was exceptionally helpful during the application process. After my junior year in high school, I attended the Academy’s week-long summer seminar to get a taste of the regimen and day-to-day experience of a midshipman. From early wakeups to intense physical activity and constantly being on the move, there was something in the experience that felt right to me. I was accepted to the Academy early in my senior year of high school and began training hard to be ready for what was to come. That included much more running than I was used to or particularly enjoyed and increased strength training, which I liked just fine.

The morning of June 30th was chilly, and my family arrived at Alumni Hall very early. Once inside, the rest of the day was a blur, not particularly pleasant, and totally consistent with my experience for the next six weeks of Plebe Summer, the Academy’s intensive indoctrination for incoming midshipmen. I sweated a lot, lost my voice a few times, learned to fail (often), and to always get back up and keep moving. I made some very close lifelong friends at the Academy: company mates, teammates, cast mates, and fellow Glee Clubbers. For four years, I had the pleasure of performing and traveling with the US Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club under the direction of the inimitable Dr. John Barry Talley. I met inspiring people, including several US Presidents and living recipients of the Medal of Honor. I saw beautiful places including Hawaii and the West Coast, neither of which I’d seen before, and found a sense of respite from the strictures and stress of military life. Music was a mainstay for me during my first year at the Academy and for every year thereafter.

I was a newly minted Chemistry major during my second year at the Naval Academy, entertaining the thought of an eventual career in medicine. However, after a semester of struggling through Organic Chemistry and late afternoon labs underground, I realized that perhaps I had made the wrong choice. When 9/11 happened, early in my second year, I was in my dorm room preparing to go to navigation class and dreading my next Organic Chemistry exam. Seeing our formerly open campus locked down with sandbags and .50 caliber machine guns was something I’ll never forget, as was the worry in my mother’s voice when she called me on the phone in my room that day. My hometown had many residents who worked in Manhattan, some of whom were lost in the attack.

At that moment, I began to consider what I could do to prepare myself for the enemy I would at some point face and changed my major from Chemistry to Political Science, with a focus on National Security and Middle Eastern Studies.

The Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) progressed without my classmates’ and my direct involvement until our graduation and commissioning. After graduation, I attended the Naval Cryptologic Officer Basic Course in Pensacola, FL progressing to a joint-service assignment in Colorado. There I began my career in the intelligence community, supporting everything from strategic intelligence requirements to direct support for troops under fire. With increasing numbers of troops on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the incidence of improvised explosive device use became increasingly frequent. Terrorist groups changed tactics quickly and our military’s countermeasures were forced to evolve with equal speed.

As an operations watch officer, I spent a large portion of my time coordinating real-time intelligence collection efforts: utilizing resources that were briefly available when not consumed by higher priority tasks. The need for improved situational awareness at both the strategic and the tactical level was crucial for decision-makers, as was the need to be able to understand discrete changes in the operational environment. Such changes were often the only clue commanders had about adversaries’ activities and their best chance for thwarting impending attacks. I founded and led the Fusion Analysis Development Effort (FADE), a team focused on highlighting such critical changes in the operating environment by overlaying numerous real-time data sets on top of one another. We developed what became known as the Multi-Intelligence Spatial Temporal (MIST) tool, detecting enemy movements, meeting places, weapons caches, and supply routes. MIST continues to provide situational awareness to tens of thousands of users across the US Defense and Intelligence Community more than a decade later.

From the FADE, I transitioned to serve at the newly established Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), an organization which emerged to combat the use of IEDs through better equipment analysis and training. There I coordinated interagency efforts to understand the evolution of commercially available technology threats, specifically the radio communications technologies that were used to remotely detonate roadside bombs. My briefings to Pentagon leadership informed multi-billion-dollar acquisitions of jammers, for both dismounted troops and military vehicles, at a time when radio controlled improvised explosive devices were claiming an increasingly concerning number of lives and limbs. I also participated in the evaluation and selection of intelligence collection and analysis capabilities to support in combating IED networks.

Having completed my tour of duty at JIEDDO and my commitment to the Naval Service, I transitioned to the private sector, working with several startups, founding my own, and supporting several of the philanthropic causes closest to my heart. I found my way to Baltimore in 2013. As an entrepreneur, I have continued to relish being a creator and surrounding myself with technology innovators in the community. I’ve also enjoyed being increasingly involved in the arts as well as supporting the veteran community, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and other underserved portions of society. I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve on the board of several great organizations including the Arc Baltimore, Warrior Music Foundation, and Journey Press.

In 2015, after about a decade of not performing on the stage, I decided to audition for a local production of Evita at Spotlighters’ Theater. I was cast in a major role in what ended up being a terrific and memorable production. I rediscovered my voice and my love of performing. And I made several new, and dear, friends. Since then, I have performed in productions throughout the Baltimore area on the stages of Spotlighters’ Theater, Silhouette Stages, and Just Off Broadway Baltimore.

In March of 2018, I met my beautiful wife, Virginia, a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner at Johns Hopkins who had just completed a 13-hour shift in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I had just finished a longer-than-expected “tech week” rehearsal for a show that I was in at the time, and we were both a little loopy to say the least. Thankfully, it was like making a friend on the first day of kindergarten. We made each other laugh – a lot – and the rest, as they say, is history. Several years and a couple of job changes later, Virginia and I are happily married and have welcomed our beautiful daughter, Amelia, into the world. I am now a sales executive with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Basis Technology, a leading provider of Natural Language Processing and Digital Forensics software. At Basis, I manage and develop strategic relationships with government and commercial customers, ranging from the intelligence organizations with which I worked while in uniform to others like the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the civilian sector. My wife who still works within the Johns Hopkins NICU has transitioned to case management. We’re still sleep-deprived but smiling and laughing together.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
I feel like my life has been one big learning experience and I think even the most difficult periods, whether due to finances, job stress, or personal setbacks, were instructive in a lot of ways. If I had to choose just one thing, I’d say that my biggest challenge at various points has been loneliness. Military personnel spend a lot of time away from the ones they love and that is one of the hardest parts of the profession. Many friendships and relationships don’t survive all the moves. Veterans come home to find themselves without the mission-driven connections that gave their life meaning and with insufficient supports to cope with PTSD and the stresses of transitioning back to civilian and family life.

With the Warrior Music Foundation, my colleagues and I have worked to address this common problem, combining our love of music with our passion for helping fellow veterans and their families find connection and healing through music.

Entrepreneurs and creatives spend significant periods of time intensely focused on a solo act of creation and sometimes burn out as a result. Feeling disconnected from our main sources of energy can be very draining. I’m blessed to have several creative outlets as well as a large and wonderful group of family and friends who offer tremendous support. These days, I am focused on investing in and enjoying those relationships as much as I can.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
Having worked in a variety of different roles, facilitating technology development, acquisition, and transfer to the Defense and Intelligence Community, I’ve enjoyed the diversity of problems that I’ve had the opportunity to address. Working at Basis Technology the last couple of years has been so much fun because of the applicability of natural language processing to so many areas of government, business, and daily life. For example, if you’ve traveled abroad, when you’ve gone through Customs upon your return, Basis Technology’s artificial intelligence and machine learning-based name matching software has been used to screen your documents against government watch lists to clear your re-entry. That same software is used by large multi-national banks for anti-money laundering / know-your-customer screening and by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to match names shown on supporting documents to the correct applications for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Basis Technology has a suite of software components that do everything from high fidelity identity verification to the extraction of substance and meaning from text at a scale that far surpasses human capacity. Our components are designed to enhance existing systems and our performance leads industry when it comes to many of the hard language problems that arise when analyzing text at great scale and language diversity. From a business perspective, our exceptional performance on the things we do has translated to continued and accelerating growth in our global presence, tremendous partner loyalty, and renewal rates that are significantly above average in our market space.

We all have a different way of looking at and defining success. How do you define success?
For me, success is the ability to match outcomes achieved with expectations. Studying and learning from both our successes and our failures improves our ability to predict outcomes and manifest successful ones. Doing this reduces unproductive stress and improves our overall sense of wellbeing when making even the toughest decisions, and every tough one navigated is good preparation for the next.

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Image Credits
Headshot: Matt Schreier Theater Shot – Judy and the General: Shealyn Jae Photography US Naval Academy Yearbook Photo

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