Veterans Say Military Helped Prepare Them for Careers in Technology

By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Technology is proving to be a profitable and fulfilling career field for many veterans. As the tide of the country continues to move into more technical and digital arenas, veterans are finding their niches in the tech space. We spoke to four veterans who are making waves in the tech industry and one civilian who is opening doors for veterans to get training and network with other tech giants. They tell us technology is a booming business that the military prepared them to tackle.

Kyle Cox
Kyle Cox came to the U.S. Navy a bit later than most. After a career in sports and entertainment, Cox took his self-described “entrepreneurial spirit” and launched a couple of businesses. But, he knew that he wanted something more.

“I saw technology as the future,” Cox said of his desire to pursue a new career.

Photo courtesy: Kyle Cox

Photo courtesy: Kyle Cox

Inspired by his soldier brother, Cox decided to join the Navy.

“I looked into the Navy and it made sense. They had the programs that I could jump into,” Cox added.

Cox enlisted in 2010 as an electronics technician and satellite communications specialist.

“I learned a lot of the things that people don’t tell you about the military. They had all the programs where you could get certifications and go to school. All of these things you can do for free,” Cox said.

During his time in the Navy, Cox became certified in fiber optics, software programming, hardware maintenance and repair and, ultimately, earned his executive master’s degree from UCLA.

Cox said the military gave him access to the technology field while teaching him “patience, adaptability, [how to] learn on the fly and demand what you want.”

“If I didn’t do my research and actually dig and come in with a plan, I probably would not have had these opportunities,” Cox added. “If you take advantage of it, [the military] really does take care of you.”

Screenshot: Ballerz World app

Screenshot: Ballerz World app

Since leaving the Navy, Cox teamed with a fellow sailor to launch Ballerz World, a mobile app that connects veterans to pick-up basketball games around the world.

Cox has also started 05 Level Innovations, a company that he hopes will one day service government contracts.

Nicholas Damuth
Nicholas Damuth’s path to the Navy actually began with his love of art. Damuth thought art would be the future of technology when he first got involved with the field in the 1990s.

“The more I got into it, the more I got fascinated with the ability to create and do thing with computers,” Damuth explained.

At 26, Damuth joined the Navy as an electronics technician, serving the country for 11 years.

“At no point during my career in the Navy did I give up my passion for tech. I worked at refining my programming skills and my talent. I really tried to take advantage of what the Navy was offering,” Damuth continued.

Photo courtesy: Nicholas Damuth

Photo courtesy: Nicholas Damuth

He believes the Navy even helped him become a better computer programmer. Damuth began creating mobile apps as a hobby, ultimately shifting his career into the private sector, leaving the Navy in Aug. 2015.

It was during his time creating mobile applications that Damuth crossed paths with fellow sailor, Cox.

“I worked on a frigate in Jacksonville, Florida, the USS Doyle, then the USS Anchorage in San Francisco where I met Kyle Cox. He ended up hearing about some of my work and he came to me with the idea for a basketball app,” Damuth explained.,

“I saw the value of it and the potential. I’m fascinated with projects that are about inner-connecting humans and the human experience,” he continued.

The two joined forces and created the award-winning Ballerz World app.

Damuth is now a project manager at the veteran-owned Solute contracting company where he leads a team of engineers who work closely with defense contractors to integrate mobile technology into the Navy fleet.

Damuth said his years of service prepared him for this career by accelerating his life.

“I didn’t learn programming in a college. I was very self-taught and so when you go that path, it’s difficult and you have to earn your stripes. It’s a slow-going, uphill path. That was why I moved to the Navy at 26. I knew this would be a long, hard road doing this on my own. With all of the training I got as an ET, it gives me a powerful perspective on computer engineering and computer science,” Damuth said.

Damuth walked away with not only programming experience but a background in team management and teaching.

“I definitely would not have gotten to this level without the 11 years of military experience. Doors are wide-open now,” Damuth added.

Even if their military careers were focused in other directions, Damuth believes veterans are uniquely positioned for careers in technology in ways college students may not be.

“If you have a military background, a background in talking and managing and having things done on deadline, you’re at a huge advantage over collegiate,” Damuth explained.

Like Cox, Damuth urges service members seeking careers in technology to do their research.

“There’s no one grabbing you by the hand telling you to do this. It’s there, but you have to take advantage of it. The Navy is not going to make you give up your free time to do it. You have to be ambitious and capitalize on your time,” Damuth advised. “I started thinking of my post-Navy career around the five-year mark.”

Courtney Wilson
Former Army Engineer Captain and Bronze Star recipient, Courtney Wilson, has taken the skills she gained during her seven year military career and poured them into a resource website for other veterans. Wilson, who deployed to Afghanistan during her years of service, is the founder of DropZone For Veterans, an online clearinghouse for a variety of veteran resources.

Photo courtesy: Courtney Wilson

Photo courtesy: Courtney Wilson

“Engineering in the military definitely prepared me for entrepreneurship. As an engineer, if you had the right tools, it could make a job significantly easier. Learning to leverage external tools and resources prepared me well for technology,” Wilson said.

“The Army taught me efficiency and understanding how to complete missions better, faster and safer,” she added.

Wilson believes engineering in the Army helped her appreciate what technology and having the right tools can do, but she took it upon herself to look for ways to learn more about the industry.

Wilson is currently pursuing her graduate degree to catapult her tech career. She says the experience has revealed the growing numbers of women in the tech space.

“Female veterans are outperforming any segment of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They crush it,” she noted.

Screenshot: DropZone For Veterans website

Screenshot: DropZone For Veterans website

DropZone For Veterans is a small business award winning web-based platform where members of the military can filter through resources, discounts, and other opportunities that match their interests. The site is currently in the beta testing phase.

“Eventually, we want to make it an app but right now, we want to make it as accessible as possible. Our focus is on high-impact and trying to go really personalized and as unique as veterans are. DropZone offers run the gamut of all types of interests,” Wilson said of the website.

“We’re the Match.com for veterans’ resources. Whatever you are looking for, we make those connections,” she added.

Mike McNerney
Mike McNerney joined the U.S. Air Force after the 9/11 attacks. He was active duty for four years, serving as a munitions officer, something totally unrelated to what he’s doing now as a veteran.

McNerney is the CEO and co-founder of Efflux Systems, a cybersecurity start-up based on the West Coast.

Photo courtesy: Mike McNerney

Photo courtesy: Mike McNerney

Like Damuth, McNerney walked away from the military with valuable skills that you don’t pick up in a classroom.

“There are a number of things that I learned that are valuable to my career as a CEO and entrepreneur,” McNerney said. “I learned general leadership while in the military and the notion to not quit was valuable.”

McNerney believes the military taught him “grit and determination,” which he’s put into his new career in tech.

“There’s a nice culture element to the military that I took with me. My company is almost entirely former military or people with DoD backgrounds and a good understanding of camaraderie and understanding the mission. It’s really helped add to the success of our company,” McNerney said.

McNerney, who got a law degree after leaving the military and also worked for the State Department, thinks tech is a “booming industry” that veterans should consider.

“Everyone has this perspective that you need a four-year computer science degree from Stanford and that’s just not true. You can write JavaScript with minimal amount of training. There are many jobs you can get with a relatively simple training regimen,” McNerney advised.

He also advises veterans to look for companies that hire veterans, or go out and create their own company.

“There are going to be a lot more opportunities for vets going into the entrepreneurial space. Veterans should seek out companies or consider entrepreneurial opportunities. They’re going to walk out of the service prepared for what it takes to be entrepreneurs,” McNerney said.

Colin Supko
After spending 18 years as a Navy SEAL, Colin Supko knew he wanted to learn more about business. The U.S. Naval Academy graduate and surface warfare officer was selected as one of five naval officers to go through SEAL training. Supko completed three deployments, including counter-piracy operations near Somalia, still he knew there was something more for him to do.

Photo courtesy: Colin Supko

Photo courtesy: Colin Supko

“I decided that for my transition, I wanted to learn a little bit more about business,” Supko said. He went to the Stanford Graduate School of Business and later started a tech company.

“If you’re going to be a company at all in this century, you’re going to need to be a technology company,” Supko declared.

He describes his company, Patriot List, as a “cross between eBay and Craigslist” for the military community and federal employees. The site, which has a mobile app component, verifies the identity of buyers and sellers to create a safer way for people to buy, sell and trade goods online.

Screenshot: Patriot List website

Screenshot: Patriot List website

In addition to creating a safe space, Patriot List is also a means for military spouses to earn extra money by selling items, which Supko sees as the future of retail.

“More and more people around the world are going to turn to these peer-to-peer markets because fewer people can buy retail.”

Supko believes the lessons he learned in the military prepared him for his new career in technology.

“What you get as a member of the military are soft skills, leadership and teamwork. Those are the hardest to come by in the civilian world. The technical skills can be taught,” Supko added. “It was the military that gave me the confidence to recognize there was a need in the market.”

Supko thinks technology is where it’s at.

“Technology is here to stay and it’s only going to increase,” he added. “Despite the luddites that still exist in our nation, tech is not going to stop. Manufacturing is going to go to those who have the skills to technically program the machines.”

Katherine Webster
Veterans looking for access to technology courses and training have options, thanks to Katherine Webster. Raised in a military family, Webster saw a need and decided she could fix the problem. While working in the technology field in 2012, Webster noticed returning veterans were coming home and not able to get the caliber of jobs they wanted in the San Francisco area, despite more than 10,000 technology jobs being available.

“I thought, why aren’t we doing anything for the veterans?”

Webster decided she would host a hackathon to reach veterans. The event was a huge success and many began to ask her to hold more technology-related events which, Webster said, interested them more than typical career fairs.

“The employers that showed up said ‘please do more of this,’ because they wanted to recruit veterans but could not find tech-savvy vets,” Webster said.

“I don’t think enough is done when veterans are transitioning out to let them know about opportunities in technology,” Webster said.

Her organization, VetsinTech, is working to make sure veterans know more about the types of post-military careers they can have. The organization works to further education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for veterans by partnering with some of the most well-known names in technology, computing and software. VetsinTech puts veterans through six-month coding boot camps and offers other training to get their skills up to date.

VetsinTech has twelve chapters in cities across the country to reach the generation of veterans who grew up on social and mobile gaming and are tech-savvy.

She also hopes to reach veterans who think tech careers aren’t for them.

“What we hear most is they think they have to be able to code to work in tech, and they don’t. There are many other fields that get you into these big tech companies,” Webster added.

Webster sees more female veterans entering the technology space. She also estimates at least 25 percent of veterans, in general, will leave the military and go into the tech sector.

Supko agrees. He thinks veterans are primed for careers in technology.

“The veteran community is strong,” he said. “They have skill sets that their contemporaries of the same age do not have. They are some of the most powerful people our nation has to offer. Vets will lead our country into the future.”

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