David Tohn has been through more life transitions than many people, and readily cites what was, for him, a life-changing book: “Transitions,” by William Bridges.
Now CEO of BTS Software Solutions, Tohn’s path to business leadership has traversed his childhood in a single-parent household, military service, a vow never to become a government contractor, a brief but impactful stint as a zombie, and ultimately becoming a “proud” defense contractor, continuing to serve his nation despite any previous vows.
Tohn, 52, is not afraid to talk about the challenges of life’s transitions, knowing that he’s not alone and that, as Bridges writes, “many Americans are caught in a semi-permanent condition of transitionality.”
For Tohn, dealing with change in his life has kept him from ending up in the limbo — the zombie state, if you will — of being “in-between,” whether it relates to jobs, communities, his family or his outlook on life.
Both Tohn and his favorite author acknowledge that transition can take you places you never thought you’d go. Bridges writes: “It is as if we are launched out from a riverside dock to cross to a landing on the opposite shore — only to discover in midstream that the landing was no longer there.”
Swimming in Many Currents
Growing up, Tohn said, “we had the opportunity to live in many places, up and down the East Coast as well as in St. Croix and Florida. I joined the military because the Army offered me an ROTC scholarship to go to college. At Gettysburg College, I fell in love with Baltimore over many weekend trips to visit friends at Hopkins.”
Upon his retirement, he left the military with more than 24 years of experience; six combat deployments; and a deep knowledge of policy, planning, military intelligence and cybersecurity operations. He also authored and coauthored several publications, including “On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the Army’s official history of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Coming out of the military, then making a transition into the commercial world, “I explicitly wanted not to be a defense contractor or government services person. I wanted to do something else and see if I could succeed there as well.” He started his civilian career with the Baltimore-based company CyberPoint International, where he worked with commercial cyber products and solutions.
He stayed at CyberPoint until 2014, when a friend from his former Army years, a co-founder of BTS Software Solutions, asked Tohn to join BTS as the new CEO. BTS develops cutting-edge technology and engineering to support its federal partners, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Army and the Missile Defense Agency. “So despite my best efforts, I’m now a proud defense contractor,” smiled Tohn.
Thirst for Adventure: Check
His path is far from complete: Tohn has kept a sense of entrepreneurship and adventure intact in his professional and personal lives. “At BTS, I’m still hooked on the entrepreneurial and startup space,” he said.
Tohn is a father of three; one of his children, Joshua, is an entrepreneur as well, currently operations manager at FreeStyle Media, an audio production company in Baltimore. His daughter Rachel will earn her MBA from George Washington University this summer, and his other son, Adam, works with Freddie Mac. His wife Beth teaches at Golden Mean Academy.
When Adam competed in a “zombie run,” his father acted as a zombie, stationing himself under a bridge. (In the zombie run, runners wear “flags,” and then race the course while “zombies” try to tear off the flags.)
The runners were climbing over Tohn and other zombies on a cargo net. “I was doing one-armed pull-ups all night,” Tohn recalled, “and I felt a pop-pop, and my right bicep separated.”
He drove to the emergency room, still dressed like a zombie, complete with fake blood makeup, at midnight on a Saturday. “I wanted to say it was a freak gardening accident,” he joked, “but the triage nurses and doctors were pretty startled.”
He has since healed — and still highly recommends the zombie run — although he no longer does one-armed pull-ups.
Caring About the Community
Tohn meets regularly with his colleagues in the Howard County Chamber GovConnects program, which focuses on bridging the business-to-government gap, as well as how to educate and connect local industry leaders with opportunities and represent their interests in the wider community.
Tohn serves on the board of advisors for GovConnects, which he sees not just as a program, but as a community. “I moved around so much that I never had a hometown,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve realized that business leadership cares about the community. It’s not just about making money but about actually being involved and giving back.”
Another life-changing book for Tohn, entitled “Never Eat Alone,” by Keith Ferrazzi, is about the power of relationships, a power he often talks about when he’s speaking to young people.
“I tell them to network with everyone,” he said. “But I think my biggest takeaway for young people is that you’re only 21 once — don’t forget to have fun, and don’t forget to be who you are.”
He also tells young people to find out what they’re passionate about. “Then go after that, at least until your parents will no longer feed you.”