Military Vets Increasingly Look to Solve Tech's Chronic Shortage of Skilled Workers
Tech has been slow to recognize how much vets have to offer, but vets are taking the lead to change that.
When Mike Slagh told the military he was interested in working in Silicon Valley after finishing his service, they were shocked. Prior to the military, Slagh had helped start a company as a school project (now ID.me), but he had no idea how the skills he had learned in the military translated into something of value for future Silicon Valley employers. Since Slaugh had worked as a bomb disposal officer, his exit interviewers encouraged him to take a job with a nuclear power plant.
However, Slaugh suspected that his experiences could help him succeed in other areas. He had attended the ultra-competitive Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal School, where he had learned to disable mines underwater. He knew the education had prepared him to learn technical skills at an extremely fast pace, “If you want to be on a submarine in the Navy, you have to obtain the civilian equivalent of an engineering master’s degree in six months.”
During the later part of his service, Slaugh became interested in the developments that companies Facebook, Google and similar tech companies were pioneering. He recognized that, like the military, tech is a field of change and advancement. He was intrigued with the idea that a person could help build a company that makes a global impact in just a few years.
But his interest didn’t lead to jobs right away. At first, Slaugh’s naysayers seemed to be right. Mike tried to schedule tours at companies he dreamed of working with, but replies were few, so he took a different approach. He gathered a group of 20 other veterans and approached the companies again, asking if they would like to give a tour to the whole group. The response was much more enthusiastic. Slaugh sat down with Ruben Harris and Artur and Timur Meyster, the hosts of the Breaking Into Startups podcast, to tell the entire story of how he started his company to help vets break into the tech world.
Creating new pathways.
The result was the Vet Tech Trek, a small meet-up group that laid the seeds for Slaugh’s eventual company, Shift.org. Shift is aimed at creating new pathways especially suited for veterans. It recognizes that tech is a fast-growing industry where vets have a great chance to succeed.
“A lot of folks in the military learn the world’s most advanced tech on a daily basis,” Slaugh explained. “They work with really advanced, cutting-edge systems.”
Shift’s services include job matching, hosting meet-ups for like-minded veterans and empowering advocates within top companies to hire veterans. Their Military Fellows Program allows active-duty service members to start working at companies a few months before they leave the military so they can make an informed decision about their next career.
Getting veterans into code school.
Mike is not alone in his efforts. Dave Molina, another vet, is the head of Operation Code, which offers scholarships to veterans interested in code school. The organization also provides job coaching and mentorship. In addition, Molina and some of his partners are petitioning the government to get the G.I. bill to cover more code teaching programs.
“Vets are really underrepresented in tech…” Molina said. “And that shouldn’t be the case.”
Much like Slaugh, Molina was initially discouraged from his career interest in tech. His boss even laughed at him when he discussed the pursuit. But today, after a few short years, at least 22 code schools accept the GI Bill. All are listed on OperationCode.org, Molina says. The group has more than 3,000 veterans and military spouses on their Slack team, either in tech or gearing up to work in tech.
Helping top leaders transition.
A third figure in this new revolution is Joe Musselman, founder of The Honor Foundation. During his Navy SEAL training he suffered a spine injury that made it impossible for him to continue to serve in his original capacity. He started working as an admin at the base instead, where he first had the idea for his organization.
Musselman worked at the office where everyone came to turn in their separation packages. While there, he befriended a Master Chief serving on the base. The man was a legend among Navy SEALs, with 26 years of service, countless demonstrations of fearless leadership and numerous awards. The day after his retirement ceremony, the Master Chief showed up at Musselman’s office with tears in his eyes. “Twenty-six years in the SEAL teams,” he asked, “What am I going to now?”
The incident had a massive impact on Musselman. This thoroughly qualified man had no idea what to do with his life. Musselman helped the Master Chief put together his resume and LinkedIn profile, but wished he could have done more. Eventually, he would research the issue extensively, interviewing veterans and top companies until he got a good idea of what everyone wanted. Then he started The Honor Foundation.
The Honor Foundation serves the top 1 percent of veterans all over the world, helping them land key positions in tech and business. It might seem odd to target highly successful service people, but according to Musselman, the most decorated veterans are often the ones who have the hardest time finding a place in civilian life. “Their focus has been too front side,” he explained.
The solution, a 15-week, extensive program with three major components: executive education, professional development and one-on-one executive coaching.
Musselman is happy to report that the program has reaped significant rewards, with its graduates quickly finding jobs in tech and business and succeeding at them. Hear more about his mission to help vets break in on his recent appearance on Breaking Into Startups podcast.
A way to reinvent themselves.
It’s a phenomenon that’s no surprise to Slaugh. While he was careful not to make too many broad generalizations about service people, he was also quick to point out a few commonalities. “One axiom that applies is that everyone has some sort of leadership experience. It’s ingrained in the military. The person who checked in six months ago is responsible for the person who checked in six days ago.”
Another axiom he points out is the diversity of the service. Veterans are used to working in very different environments with very different people, which also makes them suited to tech.
All three men encouraged other veterans to follow in their footsteps and explore unique ways to make the transition out of the service. “Many veterans, myself included,” said Slaugh, “have this mindset that they need to reinvent themselves.” Learning code and embracing tech, he went on to say “Is one of the best ways to do this in a healthy environment.” He offered six tips for veterans seeking to break into tech.
1. Translate the skills on your resume.
Make sure the skills and experiences on your resume are written in such a way that civilian companies can best understand their value. For example, if you were a squad leader, you might write something like “Independently managed a team of 16 in a highly technical environment.” Companies like Shift.org can help you review the skills on your resume and match them to different jobs.
2. Attend meetups.
Even though skill translation is important, a fair number of online applications have an automatic algorithm that may not take your service into account properly. This is why it’s essential to meet people face to face. Be sure to regularly attend tech events, vet meet-ups and other business-related conferences in the city you want to work.
3. Arrange one-on-one meetings.
Be friendly at meetups and see if you can arrange coffee meetings with people at companies you are interested in working in. Having a personal connection at the company is a huge leg up that will make your resume stand out from the others. It will also give you a chance to better explain your service and the skills it took.
4. Look for advocates on the inside.
There are a growing number of companies who want to specifically hire veterans. Seek these out, using the above foundations as a resource to find them. If you have people on the inside gunning for you, finding a job becomes easy.
5. Attend code school.
According to David Molina, code school is almost always a good idea. Many veterans excel in code school because they are accustomed to the fast-paced and rigorous environment. It may seem intimidating to take a three-month break from work, but it’s often the right choice.
6. Research different roles in tech.
On the flip side, you don’t actually need to code to work in tech. This is a common misconception. Many tech companies need people in quality assurance, supply chain, project management, information systems and other fields. Often they are hiring aggressively, so take a look at multiple roles in the companies you are interested in and consider whether you’d be a good fit.
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