Service in one of America’s fine militaries is an experience that will provide a service member many valuable life lessons and skills that will serve them throughout their life. The transition to technology from the military does not necessarily draw parallels on day to day tasks however, when working in a professional environment there are important synergies. As a 12B1P (Twelve Bravo One Papa) or airborne combat engineer I did not necessarily draw the parallels in jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, breaching obstacles, and constructing fortifications to writing software or managing product development. That is because in every task in the army underlying skills are honed relating to discipline, professionalism, communication, and attention to detail. Associated skills aside there are still some difficulties with the transition especially in the technology sector where the general culture has become ever more relaxed in the past decade.
The first thing that is instilled on a fresh recruit is discipline. Each recruit is trained to follow any order no matter what the order and follow that order until told to stop. If your drill sergeant tells you to run up to your room and fetch your shower shoes and bring them down to the formation for chow you don’t ask a question like “why do I need my shower shoes to eat dinner”. The most important lesson here is not following orders unquestioned it is the ability to take an order from a superior and complete the task as it was stated. With the emphasis of completing it as stated. This means processing and understanding the order by paying attention to it and accomplishing the task in a timely manner. Once past the recruit phase it is not necessarily following orders without question, and effective leaders will allow input from their reports. In the technology world especially, developers need the ability to question a task and have the ability and confidence to propose an alternate solution. In both military and technology, the underlying importance is happily taking direction from a superior, understanding the full directive, completing that directive on time.
This is followed by attention to detail each footlocker contains a recruit’s gear with each piece of equipment in precisely the same spot across every recruit in the entire company. One container of shoeshine out of place can result in a lot of extra exercise for the entire company. This skill can serve in just about any position in the technology space. Particularly developers in designing of software components and user interfaces, product owners and understanding the minutiae of user interaction with their product, and quality assurance engineers in fully scraping an app from top to bottom for defects.
Speaking and communicating in a clear and professional manner is something that is instilled in each recruit through all levels of the military. Even something as simple as pulling desk duty requires that the service member speak concisely and professionally. We were taught to answer every phone call with “Alpha company 27th engineering battalion, how may I help you sir or ma’am?” and every element of the conversation was polite, concise, and each point was written down for transfer to the person in question. Leaders are trained to give instructions and require a subordinate to repeat back the instructions. This ensures that everyone remains in sync on objectives.
Vocal communication was only half of the training and protocol. Non-verbal communication is stressed in how we might sit, stand, place our hands (never in pockets!) and the maintaining of eye contact. The result is a full package of confidence and vocabulary that commands attention and respect when dealing with managers, employees, or unruly clients!
The military breeds leaders even as early as basic training because it requires the next man to be ready to step up when chaos reigns. The two prime responsibilities of an NCO in the army are the accomplishment of the mission and the welfare of their soldiers. These responsibilities have a direct translation to any management position as it breeds leaders who take responsibility for project initiatives without sacrificing their employee’s well-being. Also, of great importance is the responsibility a military member takes in the failure of their team and the “no excuses” mentality. A service member will naturally make no excuses for failure, will shoulder the blame, take their lumps, and always seek for ways to improve so that the next mission/ project is successful. Culturally this breeds trust from their employees that they will be taken care of and put in position to succeed and gives upper management faith that mistakes are taken to heart and rectified.
The workforce is filled with unique persons from different walks of life, most that have not performed military service. This can make it difficult for a military person to transition to the civilian workforce where feelings are an important factor. A crusty old Sergeant Major might call it candy land where you need to be kind and gentle, this underscores a major difference and can contribute to a service member rubbing folks the wrong way. The key is being able to assess the situation properly and live by an old saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans”. The civilian workforce is not a high-pressure situation where disobeying an order immediately and as described can result in loss of life. Therefore, we need to learn to dial back or rachet up our intensity as the need is required. There are times in software development where a project is running late that we need to instill martial law and ask our folks to simply narrow their objective and follow the direct orders.
The overall mentality of the technology world has changed rapidly in the past decade with companies splurging for employee benefits like free food offerings, work from home, and even lounge areas. Showing up to formation on time was a sin you did not want to commit. That is right, showing up on time was a sin as you should always arrive early to be prepared for any changes. Getting a late start especially in the technology world is becoming somewhat of a norm as folks are growing accustomed to working late and showing up late. Companies are providing flexible start times as a benefit for folks that have children or other conflicting responsibilities. As such we cannot order our employees to perform any amount of exercise for showing up late. Establishing a set of reasonable core hours is still a must and watching for a pattern of lateness should still be a requirement. This lateness could stem from a lot of good reasons and could be something personal that the employee is struggling with. It is important to understand why and how we can help, and not jump to negative reinforcement.
Service members are ingrained to not show emotion and any evidence of emotion is quickly ridiculed. This of course is aside from the only acceptable emotion of “hoah gung-ho let’s get some!”. Employees and clients need to feel like you understand them and can sympathize with them. It can be a struggle to let your emotions show when a client has an issue. It’s often not enough to say “we will fix this” we need to show that we feel their pain and add language such as “I’m sorry, I can see how this is a frustrating situation for you, we will fix this”. As managers we need to listen to employee’s issues and show sympathy for them. No matter how trivial we see the problem if it is a big issue for them it cannot be shrugged off.
In the military we pride ourselves on reacting rapidly to situations and new information. There are those hurry up and wait situations but usually only as it pertains to administration activities not as it pertains to mission. In technology it takes time to gather the information, research, and lay the groundwork involved with developing something as simple as a login page can easily take a week. True assessment of the situation and the baby steps of making a genuine architecture, discussing that architecture in a meeting, and executing the right way takes time. Whereas assembly on an objective, securing the objective, obscuring with smoke, laying down suppressing fire, launching a grappling hook to remove tripwire, mines, other nasties, laying explosives to breach, exploding said explosives to clear the way may only take 20 minutes. Even the agile approach which prides itself in rapid iteration and development works in the scope of 2-week sprints which in the military is an extremely long amount of time. Many objectives are met within 24 hours with literally months of training for said objectives.
Transitioning from service in one of our fine militaries to the civilian workforce and specifically the tech space can be daunting for the service member but it’s important as recruiters and service members to trust that our training has prepared us more than we realize. Many countries require their citizens to perform years of service and it’s easy to understand why. These citizens become valuable assets in whatever space they find themselves in.