Making the transition from military to civilian IT jobs: Plan, train, and network

A military career can provide topnotch IT skills, but it can be difficult to find use for them in civilian life. Here's the story of a retired Captain who successfully made the switch from military life to civilian IT pro.

There is an old joke involving the U.S. Army's former recruiting motto. When a potential enlistee tells a seasoned recruiter that he wants to "Be all that he can be," the recruiter replies with a laconic, "Well, son, take your pick…truck driver, cook, or infantry. That's all that you can be."

Placed against the backdrop of today's high tech "Army of One" advertising campaign, this reply seems outdated. Perhaps it is, as the Army now expects individuals—and teams—to make more significant technical contributions.

It is interesting, though, to listen to many career soldiers who are contemplating their options following retirement. Some boldly pontificate on their past experiences and seem to expect that their transition to senior-level civilian employment will "just happen." Others, despite excellent credentials, are oddly pessimistic about their chances for a meaningful post-military career.

Somewhere in the middle of these extremes are those who are too busy to worry about it. Those soldiers busily toil to meet military mission requirements right up to the day of their retirement ceremony and then stand at the exit door blinking in stunned surprise at the glare of the "bright future" suddenly confronting them.

Fortunately, I didn't wait to prepare for my civilian IT career. I wanted to share my story with TechRepublic members who might be wondering how to manage the transition from the military to a civilian IT position. The keys for my successful transition were early preparation, skills building, and networking. Here's the story of my career journey from military to civilian IT.

The early years
I began my transition to civilian life late in my 13th year of military service. During this period of my career, it dawned on me that my job had been fun, exciting, dangerous, challenging, and, often, just plain boring. I had amassed an incredibly diverse list of accomplishments but had no real marketable skills for outside employment. I had spent eight years working with Special Forces and Airborne units jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, hauling 80-pound rucksacks around the woods, practicing ambushes, and playing with high tech weapons and gadgets that would have made MacGyver turn as green with envy as the camouflage face paint I frequently wore. My final 13 months of enlisted time were spent as a Warrant Officer Candidate learning how to fly helicopters and roll my socks and t-shirts into tight cylinders of exacting measurement (flight school barracks inspections were legendary for their cruelty…um, I mean…strict attention to details). Eventually, I was released back to the Army as a card-toting helicopter pilot complete with mirrored sunglasses and an annoyingly superior swagger.

Thirteen years into a career, I'd gotten rid of the swagger (most of it, anyway), attended night school to complete a bachelor's degree, and even begun an IT-related graduate degree. Now, after being granted a direct commission, I was finishing a tour in Panama and wondering if a flying career was something I really wanted to pursue after the military. I really loved the flying. The problem was that I enjoyed working with automation and wanted to gain some experience with automated systems before finishing with the military.

Early preparation is the key to success
Looking at the big picture, I began to develop a plan for the rest of my career that would allow me to be confident and competitive with my civilian counterparts. I had approximately seven years remaining to get my game together. Discussing my options with some associates, I learned that the Army had a Health Services Systems Manager job specialty, which was critically undermanned and, therefore, available as a secondary job skill for those with sufficient IT education or experience. I immediately applied, and you could have knocked me over when I found out that not only had I been granted the secondary in automation but I was also being reassigned to Georgia to an automation assignment. Be careful what you ask for, right?

Instead of waiting for ideas to come to me in a vacuum, I started asking automation professionals about the criteria for success in the field. I read journals and lurked in Web discussions. I attended trade shows and called IT vendors to gather as much information as I could on what it would take to become marketable in the IT industry. After sifting through all the opinions, I discerned four recurring themes:
  • Get an IT or business-related degree (or both), on the graduate level, if possible.
  • Be able to show a series of accomplishments and experiences that showcase measurable IT and business abilities.
  • Get one or more IT certifications to show a competent level of technical understanding.
  • Network, network, network.

I was astounded by the number (and fury) of arguments about the varying degree of importance or irrelevance of these factors. Very talented and informed IT professionals seemed to revel in argument for argument's sake over the value of the various elements. I simply decided I would do my level best to apply all four to my portfolio and allow the needs of the mission to dictate the importance of any factor at any given time.

Military habits don't surrender easily
Despite the clichés that have been attached to the military thinker by some movies and television series, the average soldier is generally taught to create order from chaos at whatever level of control he or she has the means and authority to manage. I was definitely a representative sample of the average. As I began to model my efforts after successful civilian organizations, I had to learn not to speak in "militarese" or to illustrate solutions with techno-babble. I discovered that consensus was desirable but not at the expense of a project's success. I learned that the transition process from military to civilian employment was most definitely not a solo event. I had to set my sights on the goal of being a valuable commodity to a prospective employer and not "just another retired military guy."

During the last several months of my military career, I let friends, family, business, church, and personal contacts know when I would be getting out of the military and what my target job types were. I called or sent e-mails to executive recruiters and posted resumes on Web sites. I attended briefings at the Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP) office, and I solicited their expert advice and criticisms on my credentials, appearance, mannerisms, and potential. I did not always apply the input I received verbatim, but I did develop a thick skin and kept an open mind toward following opportunities that were not strictly up my alley.

"Do not take counsel of your fears"
True words of wisdom tend to be timeless. Despite extensive preparation and a solid record of accomplishments, schooling, and credentials, when the retirement orders were final, I still harbored some doubts and concerns about my ability to meet the needs of the civilian job market. General George S. Patton, Jr. once said, "Do not take counsel of your fears." As it turned out, General Patton had it right.

Northrop Grumman Mission Systems offered me an excellent job with very good benefits and compensation several weeks before my retirement was to be final. Although the responsibilities of my new position differ from what I had envisioned my niche to be, the challenges and opportunities are providing me with a whole new perspective on IT project management. The obstacles I will be required to overcome should give me a broader technical skill set, but the skills I learned in the military are of inestimable value to me as well.

In a time when unemployment in the IT sector is at a record level, it would be insensitive to say that the transition for all military IT professionals is sure to be easy. All transitions are difficult and are fraught with uncertainty and sometimes even disappointment.

Would I do it all again knowing what I now know? You bet. If I could choose one piece of advice to pass along to others faced with the same choices, it would be to plan early, train hard, and execute with conviction. Be all that you can be!


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