CEO Interview Series: Q&A with Steve Cooper, CEO Exelaration

Bio courtesy of

With over 30 years’ experience in technology consulting, Steve Cooper has founded three successful companies whose clients include Fortune 100 companies, leading federal agencies, and world-class non-profit organizations. Starting his career as one of the first relational database experts, Steve’s focus is helping individuals achieve exceptional careers, and helping leaders build organizations around them. He founded NextUp Solutions to focus on transformative learning for teams and individuals. Steve is a vocal leader in the effort to invite more diverse and abundant participants to the technology workplace through internships and experiential learning.

Who are the mentors and peers that have helped you grow professionally?

When I started my first company, I didn’t start it by myself. I started it with three other partners and we started it together.  We were constantly learning from each other. There were skills that I didn’t have that I knew I needed to develop that I got from my partners and skills that they needed for me.  We filled in a lot of gaps around each other. Similarly, with my second company, three of us started the company together as equal partners and learned from each other. In fact, I still learn from both of my partners at Excella. Now, At NextUp Solutions and Exelaration, I still lean on all of those resources and those experiences, as well as the broader network of the chamber of commerce in Arlington, the RBTC, the leadership teams at Exelaration, and NextUp Solutions.

You never stop learning. You never stop getting better. You never stop fixing what you think are your weak points and brighten and magnify the parts of you that you think are successful.

What is your advice for a Director or Manager making a career move toward a C-Level position?

I always equate the C-Suite to two other “C” words: conspicuous and change. That’s why I always liked the term, “C-suite.”  It tends to mean chief executive officer or chief information officer. But to me, the two Cs that are the most important for the C-suite is being conspicuous and dealing with change. As a leader, you need to know what they both mean to you.

Conspicuous means you have to put yourself out there. Your customers need to know you. Your employees need to know you. And they need to see you. There are a lot of leaders that tend to hide or wait to be called upon when someone reaches out to them. And I think that’s a mistake. I think if you’re entering top leadership, or if you’re entering the C-suite level, you’ve really got to work to be conspicuous and make sure that people see you. They want to see you. They want to hear from you. They want to know what your views are. They want to read articles from you or about you. The point is that you really are doing yourself a disservice if you’re not expressing yourself, because people want to hear from you often.

The same thing is true with change. You have to know what changes need to be made, spot them, and lead the change rather than wait for someone else. Changes are a big part of business and, let’s face it, every project that we’re working on in IT is a change. If we’re putting in a new system, upgrading a system, adding something, rolling out a new app; all are examples of changes that a leader has decided is important for their customers.

What are some of the most valuable lessons you incorporate from your daily life into your professional life?

People can always say we’re building technology, we’re selling technology, we’re building software, but it’s really all about people. People who come to work feeling unworthy or feeling like they are just a cog in a wheel are not going to be there long. The biggest problem I’ve seen in my professional sphere is the ability to attract and retain talented people. There is always a lack of that.

People want to work for something that’s valuable.  They want to feel like they’re contributing. They want to see their contribution matter and see that they’re making an impact in someone’s life by what they’re building, or making, or doing. And if they don’t see that, they’re not going to work hard. They’re not going to be happy. They’re not going to end their day happy. They’re not going to come to work happy.

I think leaders need to understand that. You have to connect, for every person individually, why what they’re doing is linked to the larger, more important mission. That part is a real challenge for leaders. But it just takes spending time with people. Being conspicuous as a leader is important because it means that you’re spending time learning.  What makes someone tick? What do they care about? Are they feeling like they are connected to the mission of the company, or the project, or whatever it may be that you are building?

What inspires you to stay motivated as a leader to your team and in your industry?

One thing for sure is stripping away what is unnecessary. As a leader, you can get a lot of baggage loaded onto you that seems unnecessary. As a leader, I try to strip a lot of that away and focus only on what is important. I’ll give you an example.

At Excella, we used to do performance appraisals and it took about two and a half months every year to complete. That’s a lot of time to be preparing, working on, or evaluating these appraisals. They became a huge process that employees dreaded for the rest of the year. It became something that drained the company’s energy. So, at Exeleration and NextUp Solutions, we made the decision to eliminate these appraisals. We decided. we’re not doing that!

Instead, we stay focused on the mission; giving as many tech opportunities to as many students as we can and building great software for as many clients as we can. Whatever distracts from that mission needs to be stripped away.

The same thing is true in life. What can I do for myself that lets me come to work full every day? I’m trying to strip away those things that are not important. If I have a board meeting, I could spend a month preparing for that board meeting, right? And I could probably spend months making a slide deck, a shareholder letter, preparing notes, and putting together an agenda.  But how is that helping with the mission?  I know that I want to engage the board members, get them energized, and get them excited. Maybe I bring in a couple of students or a customer to speak at the board meeting. Maybe I go over the financials and discuss what our challenges are. That’s it.

Let’s simplify and not make the process a big production. That is a distraction. I think a lot of leadership is about stripping away and saying no to a lot of things, and knowing what the purity of your real mission is. It likely has something to do with the customer and employees. The rest? It has to be stripped.

How does being a member of the RBTC contribute to your success?

I love what has happened in the Roanoke-Blacksburg community over the last 10 years that we’ve been involved. I can say that in that time, this community has attracted amazing amounts of energy, startups, and businesses that are growing. The businesses that are being built, the organizations, the teams, the community that is happening in the Roanoke-Blacksburg area, it’s just remarkable. The thing that we see more and more now is our student partners at Exelaration saying,

“You know what? My ideal place to live is right here! I came to school here, and I don’t want to leave. I’m getting job offers from Richmond or Washington or Austin or Silicon Valley or Los Angeles, but I really just want to stay here. And now I can, because there are new startups in health care, biotech, transportation, energy, in all these areas that are exploding now.”

I’m just so proud to be a part of this membership because the Roanoke Blacksburg technology community is really growing up into a wonderful, beautiful place, not only to do business, but to meet people, connect with people, to learn from people.  It’s just an awesome community.



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