Saturday, November 17, 2018

Veteran Skillz

I had an interesting chat recently with a fellow Marine vet recently which generated some thoughts regarding non-technical skills that veterans bring to bear, in any environment. This is something I've thought about before, and following the exchange, I thought it was time to put together a blog post.

Before I start, however, I want to state emphatically and be very clear that this is not an "us vs them" blog post.  I'm fully aware that a lot of non-vets may have many of the same skills and experiences discussed in the post, and I'm not suggesting that they don't.  More than anything, the goal of this blog post is to help vets themselves overcome at least a modicum of the "imposter syndrome" they may be feeling as they begin their transition from the military to the civilian community.

The military includes some quality technical skills training, and a great thing about the military is that they'll teach you a skill, and then make you to use it.  This includes the entire spectrum of jobs...machine gunner, truck driver, welder, etc.  While the technical skills imparted by the military, for the most part, may not seem up to par with respect to the private sector, there are a lot of soft skills that are part of military training that are not as prevalent out in the private sector.

Vets also develop some pretty significant technical skill sets, either as part of or ancillary to their roles in the military.  When I was on active duty and went to graduate school, I did things outside of work like upgrade my desktop by adding a new hard drive which, back in '94, was not the most straightforward process if you've never done it before.  I knew an infantry officer who showed up and had not only installed Linux on his 386 desktop computer, but had already developed a familiarity with the OS...again, not something to shake a stick at back in the mid-'90s.  I developed more than a passing familiarity with OS/2 Warp.  Prior to that, I had some pretty inventive enlisted Marines working for me; one developed a field expedient antenna that he called a "cobra-head", and he carried around in an old calculator pouch.  Another Marine discovered a discrepancy in the "Math for Marines" MCI correspondence course exam; he wrote it up, I edited it and had him sign it, and he got the award.  After all, he found it.  My point is that I've spoken with a number of vets who've been reticent to take that big step out into the private sector, instead opting for a "soft" transition by working for a contractor or in LE first.  I think that some of this has been due to the misconception of, "I won't measure up", but honestly, nothing could be further from the truth.

For vets, the skills you have may be more sought after than you realize.  For example, if you spent some time in the military, you have some pretty significant life experiences that non-vets may not have, like living and working with a diverse team.  Spent six years in the Navy, with a good bit of that on ship or on a submarine?  If you spent any time in the military, you very likely spent time living in a barracks environment, and it's also very likely that you spent time having to be responsible for yourself.  As such, when you're transitioning to the private sector, you've already learned a lot of the lessons that others may not yet have experienced.

One notable example that I've heard mentioned by others is being part of a team.  What does this mean?  One fellow vet said that he has, "...a strong sense of not being the guy that screws over my teammates."  He further shared that he'll do whatever it takes to ensure that he doesn't make someone else's job tougher or needlessly burdensome.

There are also a number of little things...how often have you been on a conference call when someone spends a minute responding, but they're still on mute?  Or they have some serious racket going on in the background, and they won't go on mute?

Other examples include planning and communications.  Like many, I took a class on public speaking while I was in college (it was a requirement), but my real experience with direct communications to others came while I was in the military, beginning in Officer Candidate School (OCS, which is an evaluation process, not a training one).  During OCS, we had an evolution called "impromptu speech", where the platoon commander gave us 15 min to prepare a 5 min speech, and we were evaluated (in front of everyone) on both the content and conduct (i.e., did we finish on time, etc.) of the "speech".  Each of us got direct feedback as to such things as, did we follow instructions and stay on point, did we stay within the time limit, were we engaging, etc.  We then had multiple evolutions (military speak for "periods of training") throughout the rest of OCS where we had to use those skills; briefing three other candidates on fire team movement, briefing 12 other candidates on squad movement, the Leadership Reaction Course, etc.  For each evolution, we were evaluated on our ability to come up with a plan, take input and feedback, and then clearly and concisely communicate our plan to others.  And when I say we were "evaluated", I mean exactly that.  I still remember the feedback I received from the Captain manning the station of the Leadership Reaction Course where I was the team leader.  This sort of evolution (along with performance evaluation) continued on into initial officer training (for Marines, The Basic School, or "TBS"); however, there was no intro or basic "impromptu speech" evolution, it just picked up where OCS left off.  Not only were we evaluated and critiqued by senior officers, but we also received feedback from our fellow student officers.

My point is that there were experiences that developed basic skills that many of us don't really think about, but they have a pretty significant impact on your value once you transition out of the military.  For enlisted folks, did you ever have to guide a new person through the wickets of "how we do things here"?  Were you ever in the field somewhere and told by your squad leader that you had to give a training class to fill a block of time, and then evaluated on how you did?  Were you ever in a role where you had to give or elicit feedback? You may think that these were small, meaningless experiences, but to be quite honest, they add up and put you head and shoulders above someone with the same technical skills, but hasn't experienced those same sorts of events during their career to that point.

Like others, I've also experienced prejudice against members of the armed forces.  I'm not sharing this to diminish or minimize anyone else's experiences; rather, I'm simply sharing one of my own experiences.  Years ago (at the time of this writing, close to 20), I worked for a services company in VA, for which the security division was run out of the office in CA.  Not long after I started, I was told that I needed to fly to the CA office to get trained up on how things were done, and that I would be there for three days.  So, I flew out, and spent the first day and a half chatting with the tech writer in the office, who was also a Marine vet.  That's right...after all the discussion and planning, I showed up and nothing happened.  When things finally got kicked off, the Director of Security Services stated emphatically that, had I applied to the company through his office that I wouldn't have been hired, for no other reason that because I was coming from the military.  Apparently, his feeling was that military folks couldn't think the way civilian security folks thought, that we're too "lock-step".

While he was saying this, he was also giving me a tour of the facilities in the local office. Part of the tour included a room that he described as a "Faraday cage".  While we were in the room, with the door closed, his cell phone rang.  Evidently, it was NOT someone calling him (in the "Faraday cage") to remind him that, per my resume, I had earned an MSEE degree prior to leaving the military.  In fact, I knew what a "Faraday cage" was supposed to be from my undergrad schooling.  So...yeah.

My point is, don't put someone on a pedestal due to some minimized sense of self-worth, or some self-inflicted sense of awe in them.  After all, we all knew that Colonel or 1stSgt who really shouldn't have been in their position.  Realize that there are things you do bring to the table that may not be written into the job description, or even be on the forefront of the hiring manager's mind.   However, those skills that you have based simply on what you've experienced will make you an incredibly valuable asset to someone.

For the vets out there who may be feeling anxious or reticence about their impending transition...don't.  Remember how you hated staying late to clean weapons, but you adjusted your attitude and focused on getting it done...and not just your weapon, but once you were finished, you went and helped someone else?  Remember all those times when the trucks were late picking you and your team up, and how you developed patience because of those experiences?  Remember how you also looked to those experiences, and thought about all the steps you'd take to ensure that they didn't happen on your watch, when you were in charge?  Well, remember those times and those feelings while you're interviewing, and then reach out and extend a helping hand to the next vet trying to do the same thing you did. 

5 comments:

Mathew Locke said...

I'm glad I read the entire article. Made me remember all of the "growing pains" I experienced while I was in the Marines. I've always tried to maintain a positive attitude, but it's most challenging in IT Security where everyone is trying to prove themselves and focused on their own career path. This is in contrast to organizations, such as the military, that are highly focused on teams. Well done Harlan.

Brett Shavers said...

The best analogy for what you get out of military service is "Wax on. Wax off."

When you are in, you don't really know what you are learning that is actually more important than you think are learning. And you really don't get it until you have been out long enough, when you start to pick out specific points in time where you 'learned' something way back then that directly affects what you do today. Working with people is one of those things.

Harlan Carvey said...

Brett and Matt,

Agreed, 100%. Not long after I got out, I started seeing things that could be done better. Poorly organized ("poorly" being generous in the assumption that there _was_ some organization...) engagements, no one on the "team" stepping up, etc. That's the point when I realized that while I may not (at the time) have 3 yrs of experience running ISS's Internet Scanner, and I may still need to ask questions about how it's configured, run, and what checks it makes, I was able to bring something to the table to "make a difference", based simply on my experience.

To Matt's point about focusing on themselves, yeah, you're going to see that a good bit (I saw it in the military, as well), and I think what gives someone with experience an "up" is being able to recognize it.

Thanks, gents!

Kiran Vangaveti said...

Always had tremendous respect for Vets. Having missed out on some of those life experiences (military), I can authoritatively say, you gents start with an edge over others. Discipline and Team work are two of the most important qualities needed for success anywhere, and Vets have it ingrained ... Like a default setting. Felt good reading the entire article. Thanks Harlan.

Dan O'Day said...

As I read this, I couldn’t help but think about how often I felt like I was learning more about being a janitor than a soldier some days during Army basic training. Years later, it still amazes me when people don’t empty their own garbage cans under their desks (and I also grab every one I can carry that I see is full along the way), push in their chairs, and occasionally clean and disinfect their work environment (including door handles, light switches, and phones). It also baffles me when I hear someone say, “That isn’t in my job description.” I suppose we do learn a few things from the military.... Thanks for sharing.