College isn’t the only route to a successful technology career. Technical schools or associate degree programs can both yield excellent results. But don’t rule out military training, which is a well-kept secret in the IT world.

Andy Dobisky, 34, will attest to that. Despite parental objections, he signed up for the Navy when he was 20 years old, and it turned out to be the best career decision he could have made. Serving a total of six years, including two eight-month tours on an aircraft carrier, he received training in electronics, hardware and software, programming, and networking. “The training was the equivalent of what is being taught in most college computer science curriculums,” he says.
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Above and beyond the average IT training program
The military gives you more than technical training, according to Glenn Goldstein, a project manager at Verilytics, Inc., a Waltham, MA, company that builds Internet software portals. Goldstein, 41, was in the Army for 11 years, serving as a computer security/artillery specialist and a paratrooper. He also spent a year fighting in the Gulf War.

Goldstein says his military experience prepared him for life. “The military is built around small teams,” he explains. “People have to think on their feet.”

On a practical front, intense technical training prevents mistakes that could cost lives. “It points to the value of training, which is very rigorous and intense in the military,” says Dobisky.

“If I screw up, virtually everyone on the aircraft carrier could be affected,” he adds. “It’s a dangerous environment. Planes are constantly taking off over your head. We’re working with complex electronic equipment. You could be electrocuted if you’re not careful.”

Additionally, Navy life is hard. “Spending more than six months at sea on an aircraft carrier takes an emotional and physical toll,” say Dobisky. “We work in 10- or 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and it’s not easy living, working, and sleeping with 6,000 men in cramped quarters.” As for the food, calling it “wholesome and plentiful” just about describes it. “After three months at sea, all the food tastes the same,” Dobisky adds.

Nevertheless, Dobisky’s Navy stint paid off handsomely. He landed a great job as a principal flight simulator technician at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, VA, for Cubic Defense Systems, Inc., a San Diego -based government contractor that builds flight simulators.

Military training pays off
The flight simulator Dobisky works on duplicates actual flying conditions for the F-14 (Tomcat) and F/A-18 jet fighters, which are capable of traveling at more than twice the speed of sound. As such, one of the perks of his job is getting occasional rides in state-of-the-art super fighters.

The closest—and safest—equivalent to actually being in a jet fighter is experiencing flight conditions in a flight simulator. Programming a simulator can be likened to “working on a multimillion-dollar video game,” says Dobisky. “But, it’s anything but fun. When a pilot makes a mistake or there is a technology glitch in the simulator, it could mean instant death for the pilot. The purpose of simulated flights is to prevent catastrophic accidents.”

Dobisky’s job is to maintain the simulators so they’re working properly 24 hours a day. It requires troubleshooting problems, programming, maintaining software, having knowledge of hydraulics, and being able to evaluate and instantly solve problems. He credits his six years in the Navy as the perfect preparation for his job.

Looking back on his Navy career, Dobisky says he would do it all over again. It’s not because he’s a glutton for punishment either. “It wasn’t easy, but I learned priceless skills and discipline, which helped me in my career,” he says. “Besides technical skills, I got experience most people never get in a lifetime. I’ve been able to travel around the world, and [I’ve] made lifelong friends along the way.”

Word of caution: If you’re thinking of joining the military to polish technical skills, Dobisky advises recruits to make sure they sign up for the job and training they want. “The Navy, for example, offers countless career training tracks.”

And, don’t hesitate to tell a military recruiter “that if you don’t get a particular field, you won’t sign on the dotted line,” Dobisky advises. “If you don’t voice your preferences, you could wind up in a job going nowhere.”

That’s advice worth heeding.
Have you learned invaluable technical skills through military training? Have these skills helped you in the private sector? Start a discussion below and share your experience.

Bob Weinstein’s weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the United States.