When President Obama challenged the private sector this past August to hire 100,000 unemployed veterans by the end of 2013, he shared the stage with companies that have some of the largest IT workforces in the United States -- among them Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Siemens, Honeywell, Accenture and Microsoft.
In conjunction with the Joining Forces initiative launched by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden in April, Obama's hire-a-vet push offers tax credits, detailed by the White House this week, for companies that hire unemployed post-9/11 veterans or their spouses.
In addition, it establishes best practices to help businesses identify and hire returning armed services personnel, and provides vets with tools to translate their military experience into business skills that are more readily recognized by corporate America. As part of the initiative, Microsoft yesterday announced a voucher program that lets veterans in five key states obtain free online training and certification on various Microsoft software packages and platforms.
The project has urgency, observers say, because a large number of troops are scheduled to be drawn down in the coming year, and there's a disproportionately high rate of unemployment (12.1%) among veterans.
Given the IT-centric nature of many of the corporations that have pledged to establish or expand veteran-recruiting programs, Computerworld set out to determine if the high-tech skills people learn in the military apply meaningfully to private-sector IT. We also explored whether former members of the armed services are able to successfully transition to civilian IT jobs, and if hiring a vet makes good business sense as well as good moral sense.
The answers, according to both the vets and the companies that hired them, are yes, yes and yes.
If there's any one message that veterans would like to get across to the high-tech community, it's that today's modern military is as good an IT training ground as any.
"The military is arguably one of the most high-tech organizations in the world," says Mike Brown, senior director of talent acquisition at Siemens. "If you're working on a ship or a plane or tank, you've got responsibility for large, complex, extremely expensive equipment run by highly sophisticated IT platforms and software."
Veterans return to the civilian world with a wide variety of skills, says Laura Rawlings, a former captain in the U.S. Army who now works in enterprise information security at healthcare giant Humana in Louisville, Ky. "I would hope people know that not every military person was a trigger-puller just because they wore a uniform. The military trains for every field out there -- including high tech," she says.
Read on for her story and those of four other military veterans in IT.
Military experience: Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve 1999-2009; mobilized for active service 2002-2004 (stateside, at Fort Dix) and again in 2008 (Iraq); holds the 88A (Transportation) and 90A (Multifunctional Logistics) Military Occupational Specialties; assigned to the First Mobilization Support Group at Fort Totten, N.Y.; holds the rank of major.
Civilian role: Senior strategist, social business, at AT&T, Morristown, N.J.
Asked what qualities veterans have that might be of interest to corporate America, Chris Norton ticks off a list of 21st-century skills with rapid-fire delivery.
"Soldiers are given a very short window of time to master any piece of technology and put it to practical use under pressure. Be it analytics, communications, weapons -- they're expected to master it," he says. "Veterans are adept at working with minimal supervision; they're highly entrepreneurial; they're able to cope in a constantly changing landscape.
"Plus," he adds as he pauses to draw a breath, "they understand the global impact of their actions. That becomes a force multiplier in the corporate world; it can help any company become a more effective global organization."
Unlike some younger veterans, Norton has experienced re-entry into corporate life twice (once in 2004 and a second time just three years ago) -- both times at AT&T, where he has worked since 1999. (Currently, he's the business lead supporting AT&T's B2B efforts in social media and digital care, charged with identifying and executing a "holistic" social customer relationship strategy.)
"I was deployed to Iraq for all of 2008. I returned Dec. 20," he recalls. "It probably took me six months to get re-accustomed to the workplace. You go from being in a very high-pressure environment to one where that isn't the case.
Corporate take: AT&T
"There is the perception that veterans can be resistant to change, but of course that's not the case," says Rachel Book, lead employee staffing manager/recruiter at AT&T. "Imagine being in combat, where you need to change the plan and do something completely different in a moment's notice, while people are shooting at you. After that, a new email system is not going to be that much of a problem."
"In the military you have a very clear objective -- go take the hill by this or that time," Norton explains. "In most cases, you can't slip that deliverable without harm to life and limb. Compared to that, in the private sector, there's a different prioritization, or what might to a solider even feel like a lack of prioritization." Vets might need some time to adjust to an environment where missing a deadline isn't necessarily as big of a deal as it is on the battlefield, he says.
On the other hand, he says, businesses would do well to adopt some of the military's ability to focus and prioritize. "When I'm on a project and there are six priorities and they're all equally weighted, well, that doesn't help me at all. I would think it would be real attractive to employers to have someone on their team who can get away from ambiguity," he concludes.
Military experience: U.S. Army, 2004-2007, captain. Began her career working on the Patriot missile system; later became an information systems manager for the Army's NIPRNet and SIPRNet (a.k.a. the Department of Defense's "nippernet" and "sippernet"); served in Texas, Georgia and Korea, among other stations.
Civilian role: Security consultant, enterprise information security at Humana, Louisville, Ky.
Everything Laura Rawlings knows about technology, she picked up in the Army. Rawlings, who studied biology and biochemistry in college, worked first in the Army on the Patriot missile system -- "which is very high-tech: there are a lot of computer skills involved," she points out -- and then leaped at an opportunity to specialize in network security.
"When I was making the jump from lieutenant to captain, there was an opening in one of the functional areas, which is a niche within the army -- sort of a specialization of a specialization," Rawlings explains. She won early acceptance into the FA 53 officers' program, the military's version of information systems management. That was a big achievement, she says, because "usually they pick more senior people, but they wanted more younger officers."
Unlike many other military positions, FA 53 incorporates computer-industry tech and security certifications from Microsoft, Cisco and the CISSP, among other companies and organizations, alongside its military requirements. That combination left Rawlings in good stead when she was discharged and was ready to start looking for civilian employment, she says.
Still, she found the process of translating her skills into business-speak daunting. "Putting together my résumé was the most nerve-wracking thing I'd done in years," she says. "I felt like I was bragging" -- a common problem among ex-military personnel trained to credit team accomplishments over individual achievements -- "and it was difficult to exactly explain what I had done in the military."
Corporate take: Humana
Veterans tend to have a "strong sense of structure" and respect, says Kevin Stakelum, talent acquisition director at Humana. "Veterans are very familiar with a lot of the values that we value: honor and commitment and service. Those are requirements, really, for a lot of our positions, and the [veterans] that we hire demonstrate those qualities," he says.
Rawlings had expertise in networking, but the military networks she worked on have many more components than civilian systems. Among other things, they might incorporate technology called Blue Force Tracking, a GPS-based system for identifying forces in the field. "It was hard to make all these other devices I was working with sound applicable" in a civilian setting, Rawlings says.
She succeeded, receiving an offer from Humana shortly after she separated from the Army. That was a relief, given the high jobless rate among veterans and the fact that they often face long periods of unemployment.
At Humana, Rawlings is on the team that provides security consulting services to business unit leaders. "When they have a business function that needs to happen, we make sure they achieve their goals securely," she says.
In terms of soft skills, "the Army is a fantastic place to find people who can tell nontechnical people why technology is important," Rawlings says, adding that she believes that capability is equally valuable in military and civilian settings.
Military experience: U.S. Air Force, 1985-1998, noncommissioned officer. Specialized in electronics intelligence for the Air Force Space Command; served in Colorado, Nebraska, Spain and Italy.
Civilian role: IT manager (responsible for 18 project managers) at Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., Cleveland
As both a veteran and as a manager who has veterans reporting to him, Dennis Thoma says military experience teaches two concepts that are key to IT: the need for strong security and the importance of solid project management.
Security in particular is in the military's DNA, Thoma points out. "When you start to look at securing networks, securing data, those times when you're transferring encrypted data, even Sarbanes-Oxley -- a lot of that was new at one point to the civilian world and to IT."
Corporate take: Progressive
Progressive Insurance recruiting manager Connie Dingeman, who herself served in the U.S. Army for eight years, praises veterans' ability to adapt. "These are people used to moving from place to place, changing jobs every 12 months," she says.
"Beyond that, for us, leadership is a key component. We have hired a lot of ex-military into leadership roles where someone else might have been hired into a more entry-level position. And they're mission-oriented, which fits well with Progressive -- we want that sense of clear goals and objectives."
In contrast, the military has been focusing on security for "a long time," he says. "They've understood hacking for years and years."
Thoma himself came out of the Air Force with significant experience in worldwide program management, a skill he says translates easily to companies that do business with the Department of Defense -- but somewhat less so to mainstream corporate operations. For that reason, he picked up Project Management Professional (PMP) certification following his discharge, a move he recommends to veterans as a way of validating that their military skills will cross over to the civilian side.
Military experience: U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 2005. U.S. Navy, 2005-2011; surface warfare officer, served as first lieutenant on a cruiser and as navigator on a frigate, both out of Mayport Naval Station; deployed to the Horn of Africa, Persian Gulf and the western coast of South America.
Civilian role: Member of the sales and marketing development program at Siemens Energy Inc., Jackson, Miss.
After 10 years in the Navy, Jimmy Lamz was ready for a change. With a wife and two young children, he didn't want to deploy again. Yet the economy was in shambles and, as a soldier, he had no experience with unemployment. Unlike civilian job-changers, who can wait for the hiring market to improve before leaving their current employers, U.S. Navy personnel are required to indicate nearly a year out that they plan to ask for a discharge.
"Once you say you're going to get out, you're out," Lamz says. "It's a gut-wrenching decision to have to make."
Lamz set to work trying to translate a decade's worth of highly skilled military experience into layman's terms, which was "kind of a scary," he says. "Some skills translate [easily] and some don't." Then, at a career fair, he made contact with Orion International, a recruiting firm that specializes in military placements, and Orion put him in touch with Siemens Corp., which has a well-established veterans hiring program. Problem solved.
Lamz graduated from the Naval Academy in 2005 with a degree in IT, but the course of study was heavy on engineering as well, something Lamz admits he was not particularly gung-ho about at the time. "I took thermodynamics, electrical engineering, [calculus] and physics alongside more computer-science-type courses like networking and other IT-type classes," he recalls. "I thought of the engineering as 'nice to have' -- I never guessed in a million years that I'd wind up working for an engineering company, and that I'd be working in sales."
Corporate take: Siemens
"There's a general perception that veterans need to be told what to do, but in fact it's the opposite," says Mike Brown, senior director of talent acquisition at Siemens Corp. "They're used to having a high level of autonomy and accountability, and making decisions quickly in a crisis. If you're the only person on site when a [Siemens] turbine or a generator goes down, you're going to need that kind of discipline to handle the situation correctly."
The fit makes sense, though, he says. In the Navy, he gained experience working with the gas turbines that turn ships' propellers, for example. In his first three months at Siemens, he assessed markets for gas turbines in South America, looking at both economic fundamentals and technical requirements.
Culturally, Lamz is discovering what many a civilian IT employee already knows: In corporate settings, procedures aren't always clearly defined, and goals aren't always definitively set. That's a big change from the military, Lamz says, where "there's a structured procedure for everything from greasing a bearing to getting a haircut."
Beyond that, it took a little work to exorcise certain phrases from his vocabulary. "A senior person would say, 'Call me Joe,'" Lamz relates with a laugh, "and I'd say, 'Can't I call you Joe Sir?'"
Military experience: U.S. Air Force, 2001-2008, traffic management officer in the Logistics troop; stationed at Andrews Air Force Base (home of Air Force One) and Cannon Air Force Base, Clovis, N.M.; supervised cargo moving processes and personal property moving processes.
Civilian role: Veterans vocational evaluator, Operation Independence at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, Charlotte, N.C. (a position funded by Microsoft)
Nicholas Riggins was sitting in an interview at Goodwill Industries, discussing a possible role coaching and mentoring returning veterans on their job skills, when word came through that Microsoft had committed to funding the program as part of its Elevate America's Veterans initiative. "That was a good piece of timing on my part," Riggins says with a laugh.
Things hadn't always worked out so serendipitously for him after he left the Air Force. "I got out in August of 2008. My plan was to find a job and raise my family. I started working my network right away, but I kept hearing, 'I would hire you but you need that degree.' So I was unemployed for a year, going to school full time." Riggins eventually earned a dual MBA and master's degree in organizational leadership.
As for his technical knowledge, he says, "I got it all while I was in the Air Force. I was raised in rural America. I didn't have access to the level of technology that I experienced in the Air Force." Like a lot of veterans he now coaches, Riggins initially wasn't aware of just how many of the tech skills he picked up in the military were applicable in business.
Corporate take: Microsoft
"Microsoft's role is to partner with organizations in the community to give local veterans an opportunity for skills training," says Andrea Taylor, director for North American community affairs at Microsoft. "This is a group of individuals that is highly trained, highly skilled and disciplined. They are eager to give back and be productive. [Microsoft] certification is an extra boost. They have a credential that says their military training is valued in the business world."
"Intermediate SQL-type querying -- something we did all the time -- I had no idea how valuable it was," Riggins recalls. "Access, Excel, high-level database work and presentations -- those are valuable to employers." He now conveys that message to the newly discharged soldiers he counsels. And beyond tech expertise, ex-military personnel have management and leadership skills and "a personal desire to improve the organization that they're working for."
That doesn't apply just to officers, Riggins is quick to point out: "Every military person is trained this way."
As for the future, Riggins says he would like to see programs like the White House's Joining Forces initiative promote the idea of providing veterans with business-approved certifications before they separate from the military. "Program management" on the military side equates directly with "project management" in the private sector, Riggins explains, so why not discharge a soldier with that coveted PMP certification already under his or her belt?
Translating military skills into business terms
Part of the White House's initiative to spur the private sector to hire 100,000 veterans by the end of 2013 is an array of services -- including Careers4Vets from AT&T, Elevate America's Veterans from Microsoft and US Military Pipeline from Futures Inc. -- that help veterans translate their military job codes and skills into terms that can be understood by corporate recruiters.
The process works both ways, vets say. Rawlings, the former Army captain, admits that private-sector hiring managers probably wouldn't know without coaching that her FA 53 officer designation means she is an expert in network security.
By the same token, upon his discharge from the Navy, Jimmy Lamz was perplexed by corporate job titles that sound similar but actually vary widely in terms of responsibilities from company to company. "There is sales and inside sales and field sales," he observes. Then there's the kind of sales he's involved with at Siemens, which is more along the lines of technical field service support, he says.
Either way, says AT&T recruiter Rachel Book, the goal is to demystify the military résumé and the veteran's experience for recruiters and hiring managers. A "classic challenge is helping recruiters to get the candidate beyond a yes-sir/no-sir interview," she says. "We encourage behavioral interviewing to help draw them out, saying, 'Give me an example of time when you...'"
Norton, the Army reservist and longtime AT&T employee, recalls that he once attended a career fair where he spoke with a young veteran who described his experience as "served in the Navy, worked on Seahawk, honorably discharged, now in college." Only after Norton pressed him did the sailor share the kind of details that a hiring manager would find attractive: He had supervised a staff of 10 mechanics responsible for five helicopters that cost $20 million each, and he was then working toward a degree in applied mathematics at a well-respected college.
"There's a big difference there," Norton says. "You accrue some amazing attributes through your military service; you just can't always put a name on them."