Ed Leighton-Dick: Determined to Rise, Lead and Win

The Most Inspiring Business Leaders to Watch in 2022

Lived through the crushing pain of loss of a loved one, waded through record-breaking floods to protect valuable company assets, Ed Leighton-Dick knows how to get up from a fall, and stride ahead with a head held high.

“You can’t control what happens to you, but you can always control how you react to it. You always have a choice. Choose to be calm and level-headed, choose to be resilient, choose to act with grace and integrity,” says Ed, Founder and Principal Architect.

While many of us draw elaborate imaginary blueprints of our dreams and repeat the mantra ‘someday, I am going to do it’, Ed finally took the leap to follow his childhood goal to start a business. “In high school, I was writing small programs for friends. In college, I had the idea I was going to write shareware, which was popular at the time. After I started working, the idea was deprioritized, but the entrepreneurship bug never really left. From time to time, it would surface and in 2014, conditions were right, and I took the leap. A friend had started a consulting business a year earlier, and he offered to help me get started. Kingfisher was born.”

Alongside Plan A, Ed’s dream was supported by personal goals he set up for himself such as wanting to expand his repertoire of tech skills beyond what his employer at the time needed, wanting to be able to help others, wanting more time with his family and most importantly, wanting a new challenge.

Ground Zero to Big Data Leader

Starting as a single-person consulting firm, Kingfisher focused on Microsoft SQL Server database administration and specializing in business continuity. In the early days, Ed worked almost exclusively through other consulting firms. In 2019, the company started offering managed database administration services (essentially DBA-as-a-service) and started adding additional technical staff. Today, managed data services is its flagship offering, supported by five part-time team members.

The name for the firm has a direct symbolism. It uses the kingfisher, an aquatic predator, as a representation of ‘unseen threat,’ just as a server can be vulnerable to hidden performance issues and surprise attacks.

“We’re at an inflection point in technology, probably one of the largest we’ve seen. After many years of being able to pay little more than lip service to cybersecurity, we’re staring at the consequences of that inaction face-to-face. Drastic steps will be necessary in companies of every size to counter the very real, very urgent threats we now face from hackers and ransomware. The perimeter-based security practices we’ve used to date are not a complete solution to the problems we now face. At the same time, the need for data privacy is being recognized across the globe, and governments are taking notice. Legislation and regulation are rapidly evolving. One way or another, every company will have to adapt to meet both of these challenges,” he explains. Ed further explains the critical role of data management and how vital it is to have a reliable team of experts and database analysts ‘who manage the data have to step out of the shadows and lead the charge.’

Ed’s determination and dedication has given him the recognition of Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award that recognizes technical excellence and contributions back to the community at large. A five-time recipient of this honour, Ed is among only a few hundred people in his field worldwide to receive this award. Furthermore, he was recognized by Industry Era magazine as a Big Data Leader of the Year in 2021. He has also spearheaded the company towards achieving the ‘Best IT Systems/Software Provider/Consultant’ BizX awards in 2020, and being a 2020 graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.

Speed bumps that made to clear roads

The successes that Kingfisher Technologies enjoys today have deep value considering the many challenges that Ed has had to face along the way, both personally and professionally.

A defining challenge in his life was the sudden death of his first wife, Merry, in 1999. “No one is ever truly ready for the loss of a spouse, but that’s even more true when you’re young. At the time, I tended to keep to myself a lot – she was the social one. Her death shook my world to its core. When faced with a situation like that, people tend to do one of two things: they collapse into misery and depression, or they rebuild stronger than before. I chose the latter, in large part due to the support of a strong network of family and close friends that stood by me through it all. I became more self-reliant, and I became determined to make the most of each day.”

Another highlight would be the two “once-in-a-lifetime” floods that Ed lived through, he explains – one in Des Moines in 1993, and the other in Cedar Rapids in 2008. In the 1993 flood, the two rivers leading into downtown Des Moines both flooded, destroying much in the downtown area, including the city’s water treatment plant. Over a quarter million people were without water for weeks. The 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids was even more severe. The Cedar River that flows through its downtown reached a depth of 31 feet that summer – more than 20 feet over flood stage in some parts of the downtown area, and 11 feet higher than the river had ever filled before. In total, 440 square blocks (10 square miles) of the city were underwater. Many buildings – both homes and businesses – were completely submerged, and only a single bridge across the river was open. To make matters worse, most rivers in the area were in the same situation. Utilities and city services were unavailable for weeks. Ed’s company was one of the lucky ones and had “only” about 13 feet of water in their building, and it helped that they had ‘some semblance of a disaster recovery plan.’

“The first 36 hours were the hardest – we triaged and evacuated our most critical IT equipment in about 3 hours, and we carted it 75 miles to the rented data center that was to serve as our disaster recovery facility. Over the next twelve hours, we managed to bring enough online that a skeleton crew was able to work the next morning from a classroom at a community college. It wasn’t enough for an extended disaster, though. Dozens of additional pieces of equipment had to be carried down from our 7th floor data center in pitch black stairwells and loaded into boats in order to get our people up to full capacity. Over the following weeks, we spun up five additional DR centers and made it possible for many people to work from homes and other remote locations, but we were truly ’flying by the seat of our pants‘ and making do with what was available. The company owners were able to expedite repairs, and three months later, we were one of the first businesses to return to our offices downtown. The lessons here: you absolutely have to plan for a worst-case scenario, and you can never be too prepared.

“Challenges make you stronger, and more resilient. While there are many in the world that are far, far worse off than I have ever been, I’ve had my share of challenges and hardships. While they were difficult at the time, I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences. If I was to pick one word to define myself, I’d have to say ’determined‘. The past couple of years have been extraordinarily difficult. I love what I do, though, and I’m determined to keep moving through the challenges we’re currently facing.”

Life before Kingfisher Technologies.

Ed grew up on a family farm in a small town in southwest Iowa, as any ‘typical farm kid’ helping his parents and grandparents with tasks. “I was always more interested in school than the farm, though, and my parents were very supportive of that. I was always reading, always doing projects, and as I got older, I became very involved in music, 4-H, and our church. Growing up in this environment, I learned the value of hard work, and I learned perseverance by watching my parents struggle through the difficulties of the farm crisis of the 1980s.”

He fell in love with programming when in grade school in the early 1980s. Personal computers were still a new phenomenon at that point, and he hadn’t seen one until a regional educational support agency brought a group of them into his 6th grade math class for a two-week introductory unit. “I was amazed at what the machines could do, and I was immediately captivated by the idea that, using nothing more than creativity and electrons, we could create something that could solve real problems.”

After that, much of his free time was spent teaching himself by typing in code that was printed in tech magazines of the era and from computer manuals he picked from the library. When the time came to apply to colleges, he knew exactly what he wanted to study, and enrolled at Simpson College to earn a Bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in both instrumental and vocal music, graduating summa cum laude in 1994.

After graduating he took a job as a programmer in the MIS department at Kirke-Van Orsdel, Inc. (KVI), a benefits management company in West Des Moines, Iowa. Most of that job involved programming for HP3000 mainframes, but they were also starting to develop systems on a client-server architecture.

“In 1996, after my wife graduated from college, we moved to eastern Iowa, and I took a job in IT at Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, a local media company. I started out programming on their VAX minicomputers, but they were moving many of their applications to client-server architectures, and in 2000, I moved to the web development team, working with ASP.Net and SQL Server databases. I took over as the web development manager in 2001, leading a team of five developers and designers in transforming the company’s rapidly evolving internet properties.” In 2006, Ed decided to focus on a single role, and he became the first full-time database administrator for GreatAmerica Leasing Corporation (now GreatAmerica Financial Services) in Cedar Rapids, a position he held until he started Kingfisher Technologies in 2014.

In the meanwhile, Ed also discovered a love for teaching from his involvement with the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS), a global user group organization dedicated to educating IT professionals working with the SQL Server platform, which he discovered while working at GreatAmerica.

At Kingfisher, he doesn’t really have a ‘regular’ day. Rather, he wears ‘many hats’ as the owner of a small business, from technical consulting to sales and marketing to management to finance to business planning, and everything in between. “Prioritization is absolutely key for me – I have a long list of tasks to be done, and I’ve learned that the only way to keep moving forward with everything is to ruthlessly prioritize what must happen first. Aside from that, I try to spend some time each day working on projects for my clients, and I try to spend some time each day doing things to move the business forward.”

Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his wife Heather, two daughters, and two cats. Hobbies includecooking, watching movies, traveling, reading, playing games, and of course, tinkering with computers.

“A mentor once told me that balance is impossible, and that instead, one should strive for harmony between their personal and professional lives. I love this idea. Balance implies that the two should have equal weight, but that’s often not achievable. Harmony, on the other hand, conjures visions of an orchestra: multiple parts, ebbing and flowing, all coming to the forefront at different times, all contributing in its own way to the texture of the music. Take away one part, and the music is no longer whole. I see my life in the same way – my work, my hobbies, my family, my friends, my teaching, and everything else are parts of who I am. The challenge is to keep them in harmony with one another so that no one piece overpowers the rest when they shouldn’t.”

Future Plans

Ed’s vision is to make Kingfisher a leader in preparing small and medium businesses for data-focused cybersecurity and data privacy compliance.

“The vision is ambitious, and to make it happen, Kingfisher will need to grow. How much remains to be seen. My personal goals are very much intertwined with that – to continue learning and growing into this role I find myself in, and to put together the team and technologies that will allow the company to achieve its goals. Beyond that, who knows?”

To aspiring business minds, Ed advises to ‘leave yourself open to smart risks.’ “Opportunities will present themselves to you, and you never know when (or if) the next one will arrive. You can choose to stick with what you know, or you can choose to lean into the opportunity – both are risky. It all comes down to whether you’re prepared to take the steps necessary to succeed. And at the end of your life, the only steps you’ll truly regret are the ones you didn’t take.

“To me, success is about impact, about positively affecting the lives of those with whom you interact. It’s also about being able to find a comfortable balance between your work and the rest of your life. Life’s short, and it can change in the blink of an eye. The only things that truly matter are the relationships you have and the experiences you make.”