The summer after his college graduation, Alan Horowitz decided set out on an adventure that would shape his life for years to come. He took a road trip to California with a friend, stopping to experience America on their way across the country. Sleeping in their van, scheming to reach their goal of scoring a hot shower every day, they had the time of their lives. Al’s most defining moment, however, came after they reached San Diego and were preparing to make the journey back. “My friend got called back home suddenly, and I was left on my own,” he recalls. “I was like, wow. It was the first time in my life I was really by myself, so I resolved to make the best of it.”
On his solo journey home, Al stepped outside of his comfort zone to meet new people, experience new things, and see a different side of life—one of self-reliance and serendipity. By the time he made it to the welcome center rest area at the Louisiana/Mississippi state line, he had hit his groove, though he still struggled trying to cook his meals at night in the rest area. Several women who worked at the rest area decided to take him under their wing, and he was immersed in a southern hospitality way of life.
After about five days in New Orleans, Al threw caution to the wind and decided he wouldn’t be returning to the DC area that fall to start graduate school at George Washington University. Instead, he decided to get his MBA at Loyola University—a program he had been accepted to but hadn’t planned to attend. The N’awlins culture and warmth of the new friends he was making made it clear this was where he wanted to spend the next couple years of his life. “My time living in New Orleans was incredible, and if my buddy hadn’t gotten called away, I don’t even know that we would have driven down there,” he muses. “Why do things happen the way they do? Don’t be afraid to take the path that feels right for you when you’re met with great opportunities—things we never imagined for ourselves, but things we discover when we’re open.”
Since then, Al has made a point to live life that way: bravely, openly, accepting challenges as opportunities to help shape a better worldview. And after over thirty years of taking the right path for his family and himself, he now employs that experience and wisdom as the CEO of AcisTek Corporation, a rapidly-growing IT professional services firm in the DC metropolitan area. “There’s a time for everything,” he says today. “There’s a time for driving straight from Point A to Point B, and I can do that very well. But there’s also a time for taking a new course—one that just might change your life.”
AcisTek was founded by Daniel Cheng, a talented software developer from Malaysia who became a naturalized citizen after pursuing an education in the U.S. He had started off as an independent consultant and formed the company with nothing but his remarkable technical acumen, growing it over a decade-long period. Then, in 2015, he began looking for someone who could design and oversee a strategy execution plan to take the company to new heights. That person was Al.
Al knew nothing about AcisTek when he was first connected with Daniel, but the more he learned about the opportunity to lead and mentor in the firm’s dynamic environment, the more interested he became. He decided to accept the challenge, and when he joined the company in October of 2015, Al set to work designing S.M.A.R.T. Goals—objectives that are specific, measurable, attainable, results-based, and time-based. “You’ve got to have them underpinning your execution plan to see how you’re doing,” he says. “We wanted the company to broaden, leaning into its secret sauce of offering client-focused value. I wanted absolute transparency and inclusivity throughout the company, and I wanted to align our personal performance goals with our corporate goals.”
Since assuming the CEO role, Al has succeeded in diversifying the company’s key service offerings into three buckets. The first is tailored agile software solutions designed to meet unique client needs, like the complex software they wrote to help the U.S. Grants Center of Excellence administer and manage $65 billion in awards annually. The second is IT services to optimize business processes and performance, leveraging network, database, cloud, and mobile applications. “We’re now working with clients to optimize and automate everyday tasks and mission critical activities alike,” Al explains. “We deploy our top-notch IT folks to make things happen better, faster, and at a great value.” Finally, business consulting is a growing service area for AcisTek. Taken together, the company excels at agile software solutions, IT services, and business consulting, all focused on helping clients optimize performance.
Acknowledging the company’s ambition to grow, Al recognizes that the first step to success is keeping and strengthening what they already have. “Taking care of our current customers is a top priority,” he affirms. “The fastest place to grow your business is with clients who already know you and like you, so we’re focused on serving them better every day.” Al’s second step to success involves a focus on growth in adjacent markets and services. Who else can benefit from the services AcisTek already offers? What similar yet new services can they offer to clients they already have good relationships with? “If we’ve got three lanes, we’re taking care of those lanes while adding a lane to either side,” he explains. “That’s the strategy, and it’s working well.”
Serving both government and commercial clients, AcisTek is now a growing team of super talented, high energy, youthful IT professionals that give Al an opportunity to put his experience to the test through mentorship and leadership. “We’ve all fallen into potholes from time to time through life, and if I can help my team be their best and avoid some of those potholes, that’s great,” he says. “Plus, I learn a lot from them too. I learn new things every day here, and that’s really exciting. I love what I’m doing with AcisTek, and even though we have ten years of successful past performance, I truly believe that our best days are in front of us.”
This optimistic forecast is made possible by the journey taken and lessons learned over the years—a journey that began when Al was born in 1958, the youngest of four children in a middle class family living in Washington, D.C. His mother had worked part-time while also being a homemaker, and along the way she went back to school part-time and earned a Masters degree. His father, a World War II veteran and hardworking government employee with a PhD in chemistry, was the model of drive and commitment—though he still found time to take his young son to Washington Senators baseball games. “The Senators were horrible, but I loved the experience,” Al recalls. “I even had a baseball signed by all the players until my dog ate it.”
Al learned more about responsibility and the rush of getting rewarded for hard work when he got his first job as a paperboy. He loved the experience so much that he ran his route for five years, through junior high and high school, eventually earning enough money to buy his first car and learning about the importance of customer service in running a small enterprise. “That was one piece I kept with me,” he remembers. “Another was the experience of playing a lot of sports growing up, as competition and teamwork were things I really enjoyed.”
As a kid, Al also played tackle football in the Beltway Football League, named for the new Interstate encircling the city. He still remembers his coach, a soft-spoken but impactful man named Mr. Guy. “Back then, Montgomery County was predominately white, and I had never met a black adult,” Al recalls. “Our guy, Mr. Guy, was a black man coaching all these white kids, and he had an incredible way of helping us understand how we could do better. Us kids on the team didn’t see him as black or white—all we knew was that he was a great coach. It was the first time I really had a mentor.”
In high school, Al played on the golf team, which went on to win the Montgomery County championship. But, realizing a career in football or golf wasn’t in the cards for him, his participation in organized sports dwindled after high school. Still, their impact on his life remained noteworthy. “They served to show me that winning might not be everything, but effort is,” he remarks. “And they’re a testament to self-motivation.”
More than anything else, Al’s childhood was guided by values that encouraged him to stay grounded while striving to be the best he could be. His childhood and neighborhood friends didn’t care much for material possessions, focusing more on playing hard and having fun. “We had beat up bicycles and beat up shoes,” he laughs. “We were never materialistic. We didn’t know what wealth was, so we didn’t think about it.”
The late sixties and early seventies were a time of tremendous upheaval for American culture, and the older Horowitz children got involved in the counterculture movement. Al, however, steered a steady course amidst the tumult, not missing a beat as he went through high school, work, college, and his MBA program. “I never felt the need to have that ‘go out and find yourself’ experience,” he explains. “The closest I came was that cross country road trip that landed me in New Orleans. I’ve been running since eighth grade. It’s just that side of me that’s driven to stay focused, and though all of my siblings are now established and successful, the decision making responsibility in our family still tends to fall in my court.”
As a child, Al had always wanted to become a lawyer, but once he started college at the University of Maryland, his interest in business grew with every marketing class he took. He also used college as a platform to cultivate his people, public speaking, and leadership skills, getting involved in plays and even doing some standup comedy. “I had a lot of fun,” he laughs. “It was something completely different, and not something I had planned on doing. It was a great experience because of the unknown—getting up in front of people and seeing if they were interested or if they’d throw you out!”
Upon finishing his bachelor’s degree, he immediately pursued an MBA and landed at Loyola in New Orleans—the only time he has lived outside of D.C. “It was a great experience culturally—one that I still carry with me,” he says.
One thing his MBA program did not teach him about, though, was sales. “I think sales is one of the most misunderstood disciplines in the world,” he avows. “Whether you’re an accountant, an author, or a used car salesman, it’s one of the most important skills anyone can have—and one of the hardest things to do. It’s something I continue to try to get better at all the time.” Al got his early sales education through various telemarketing jobs, including photography services, aluminum siding, and magazine subscriptions. “I enjoyed the challenge of sitting there with a list of 600 names you had to just tackle,” he remembers. “It was raw sales, and I loved it!”
Shortly after completing his MBA, Al returned to D.C. in May of 1983 and was hired as a junior research analyst for a Navy contractor. It was several months later that he made one of the best decisions of his life—to go to a bar in Georgetown called Champions with his basketball league buddies. There, he spotted one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. He knew he had to meet her. Noticing he had a golf ball in his pocket, he marched up and dropped it in her drink, and fortunately, she had a sense of humor.
The two married a few years later, in 1986. “I still can’t believe that that kid from Montgomery County met a beautiful girl from Arkansas, so bright and articulate and with a masters in public administration,” he describes. “What are the odds of that? I did not set out to meet my wife that night. It was the luckiest night of my life. Sandy has such great insight and intuition that have helped so much throughout my life and my business career.”
After working his way up to a research analyst position, Al decided he wanted to get into sales and marketing, so he accepted a position with Future Enterprises, a computer training company. As the marketing manager, he developed their marketing capacity capability and sales for five years, having the time of his life as the company enjoyed rapid growth. One of the firms they did training for was an up-and-coming firm called Microsoft. Al’s contacts there helped create a new position for him there as a DoD Program Manager, running marketing and managing government contracts with systems integrators for their federal office.
“Microsoft primarily only had Word and Excel back then, doing about $40 million of business for the entire government,” Al remembers. “After several years, I approached the guy who ran the federal business, and said we needed to get into consulting and product support for the government.” At that time, Microsoft Consulting Services existed in the commercial world, but not in the government. The company finally said he could try it for six months if he put together a business plan, but if it didn’t work, they’d shut it down.
Al started with nothing more than a few people, but the business took off. Their first purchase order was for $10,000, and they expanded from federal to state and local government all around the country, quickly becoming one of the largest consulting and product support business within Microsoft, and one of the most profitable. Again, Al found himself having the time of his life.
He also learned how to savor life. At the time, he and his wife, Sandy, had three young children—an era of barely-controlled chaos when he was suddenly reminded how precious life is. His oldest son, Zack, had decided to slide down the stairs in a big plastic bucket, and Zack smashed his head against the steel banister. When Al met his wife and son at the hospital, he was told that Zack’s head injury was so severe that the neurosurgeon needed to drill holes in his skull to relieve the pressure. “In that moment, we realized how fleeting and precious life is,” Al says. “Any regular day can take a sudden turn into territory where your life can change irreversibly. Thank God the pressure subsided and the story had a happy ending. But you have to remember that things happen. On September 10th, 2001, I was on the same California-bound flight that was hijacked the next day. It’s always haunted me, and I really focus on cherishing every day.”
In 2005, Microsoft wanted to take their Practice around the world, so they named Al WorldWide Public Sector General Manager for Services. He traveled from country to country, helping the local Practices launch and grow and linking people together with best practice sharing. “I had never really understood other cultures or traveled much internationally, so it was a fantastic experience for me,” he says. “But as time passed, I realized my kids were growing up, and I wanted to be home more.” By the time Al transitioned out of that role, the WorldWide Public Sector Services was doing over $700 million in annual revenues.
Also in 2005, Al had an opportunity to reconnect with his roots when Hurricane Katrina hit his beloved New Orleans. Through Microsoft, he helped lead a recovery effort in building katrinasafe.com, an application to help people find one another at various Red Cross centers. “It was so personal for me, being able to work on that project,” he recounts.
After seventeen wonderful years at Microsoft, Al grew tired of the global travel and wanted to spend more time with his kids, who were entering their teenage years by that time. Interested in taking a hiatus from the IT industry, he came across Mainstream GS, a business consulting company focused on increasing performance and achieving sustained success for clients. “That mission really resonated with me, since I was feeling that my work had become more about the IT itself than the clients,” he recalls. “I wanted to get back to a client-focused approach, and they wanted someone to come put in place a strategic business plan for them.”
Thus, in 2008, Al joined Mainstream as Senior VP of Public Sector Programs, where he honed many of the skills that would prove invaluable at Acistek. “We began to evolve from a singularly-focused lean consulting company to a more full-service management consultant company,” he recounts. Within two years, he was promoted to President. “At Microsoft, people would ask what the best prerequisite was to work there,” he recalls. “I would tell them that the best thing you can be is well-rested, because you’re running a marathon 24 hours a day, every day that you’re there. I was conditioned for hard work coming out of that experience, and it served me well.”
Mapping out a diversification strategy, Al employed his execution skills to lead an important transformation at Mainstream, succeeding in important wins despite the entrenched resistance to change one would expect to find at an established company. The company did great work for clients like the Department of Defense, assisting with strategic execution and process improvement plans on the ground in countries like Afghanistan and Kuwait. “Because we served them so well, I developed great relationships with 3- and 4-star generals,” Al recounts. “Relationships trump everything in business, so serving others well serves you well.”
Through his eight years at Mainstream, Al refined his knowledge around business consulting and the importance of client performance. “I learned to measure success by how well we solved business problems and increased client performance,” he says. “Focusing on sustained high performance, we addressed the technical tools and cultural change management. We found that doing a transformation isn’t about just learning a new technique; it’s about changing the way we look at things and the way we work. That’s the approach I bring to AcisTek today. I also focus on the importance of listening to leadership. It’s one of the most underrated things in business and in life. People want to be heard, so it’s important to listen and then execute on what you hear.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, he encourages them to focus on success at every step. “I think there’s this burning desire to get the best job or do the best thing right away, but it’s not about where you start; it’s where you end up,” he points out. “If you come in as a junior research analyst like I did, be the best junior research analyst you can be. Build a great track record during the time you’re there, and even if it’s not your dream job, that’s okay. You’re running a really long race, so pace yourself to ensure future success.”
Al also underscores the pivotal importance of planning and preparation so that one can “be bright, be brief, and be gone,” leaving a lasting positive impact. He emphasizes the importance of believing in yourself, picking yourself up and trying again in the face of failure or rejection. “Honestly, you’ll learn so much more from things that don’t go well than from things that do,” he says. “Savor those learning experiences, even when they’re hard.”
In important ways, Al’s gaze has been steady, and his footsteps have been straight. “I’ve always had something inside of me—a work ethic I think I got from my father—and it’s driven me to be focused and hardworking,” he says. “But my success is due in such large part to my wife, Sandy. Meeting her was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life. I don’t know what I did to deserve this, but I thank God for it. I’m so grateful for our thirty years of marriage and our wonderful family.”
Today, Al serves on the board of Kids Play USA, an organization founded by Darryl Hill, the first black football player to participate in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In this capacity, he helps provide equipment and resources to inner-city youth in DC and Baltimore so they can be more athletically competitive. He’s also involved in St. Andrews Episcopal School, where two of his children received their education and where Sandy spearheaded an important transformation as President of the Board of Trustees.
AcisTek is his next great challenge. The company has been named Contractor of the Year and also received an Assistant Secretary’s Honor Award as Outstanding Contractor from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, a testament to its ability to serve and deliver. And with Al’s commitment to openness and decisive action, more is sure to come. “Strategy without execution is just conversation,” he says, echoing a quote that has stuck with him from Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell. “It’s one thing to paint a great vision, but it’s not enough. I think leadership is ultimately about execution of strategy and all the pieces you have to lay down to create that strong foundation. After over three decades in business, I feel that I’ve been working toward this my whole life, and I can’t wait to see where we can take AcisTek.”