Last Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced his proposal to reduce the size of the US military to pre-WWII levels. Since the announcement, there has been a flurry of debate around budgets, spending, and readiness on Capitol Hill and in the media. The one thing all sides can agree on is that as drawdowns accelerate, more U.S. service members will be entering the job market in search of their next mission.
Since returning home from Afghanistan, where I served with the Department of Defense, and entering the startup world, I've noticed a trend. With increasing frequency, I've been running into military veterans who have entered the technology industry. It seems that in growing numbers, the new uniform of choice for vets is the hoodie. This is good news for both vets and the tech world.
Defying other sectors of the economy, technology has been a strong area of growth and job creation. Hungry for capable and driven team members who can problem-solve on the fly and execute projects under uncommon pressure, many tech companies large and small, are turning to vets for support in areas like programming, logistics, sales, operations, and finance. As Slater Tow from Facebook stated, their ability to "produce phenomenal results" on tasks where they're provided with little to no information makes them a valuable asset.
Equipped with leadership skills and the ambition to address challenges, many vets are also trying their hand at launching startups. The results to date look promising. In recent years, vets have brought to market consumer companies in areas as varied as transportation, such as RideScout, to food, like Plated. Services supporting other vets have also been common among veteran entrepreneurs, with platforms like Rally Point and Unite Us leading the way.
As Christen O'Brien, co-founder of the prestigious Silicon Valley incubator 500 Startups, and wife of a Navy vet, described, this shouldn't come as a surprise. "Veterans have a level of discipline and commitment both physically and mentally that most people won't understand. Entrepreneurship is similar. You have to have that kind of commitment. You have to believe in what you're building and doing."
Guided by the idea that vets should be the country's engine of economic growth, serial entrepreneur Taylor McLemore worked with Techstars to develop a program to support transitioning vets who want to launch their own ventures. Called the Techstars Patriot Boot Camp, this 3-day intensive workshop not only trains vets with the skills they need to pitch investors and bring their products to market, but pairs them with mentors to help guide them along the way.
The obstacles facing vets as they transition to the private sector, however, are very real. Mismatches between Military Occupational Specialty and desired career paths, a lack of familiarity among civilian recruiters with the transferable skills vets bring to the table, and a culture in the military of humility that leads some vets to downplay instead of highlight accomplishments, can all create challenges. Nevertheless, quality ultimately shines through - and vets are where you find it - asserts Zach Iscol.
A decorated Marine Corps vet, Zach is the founder and CEO of Hirepurpose, a startup that places transitioning veterans in jobs. "The military is the top talent pool in the country," he told me confidently. With higher than average education levels, technical training, and hands-on experience working in team environments, the choice for many employers is clear. And, he continued, the results speak for themselves. Once in positions, vets record higher levels of performance, lower turnover, and make more money. Buttressing his argument, he dropped the kicker; 77% of prime recruiting population, aged 18-24, do not meet minimum qualifications for military service. While this can be viewed more broadly as a red flag for the country, it also reflects the high standards of those accepted into the military's ranks.
As drawdowns accelerate and more veterans reintegrate into civilian life, the relationship between vets and the tech world is likely to continue to grow. For a tech community eager for high-level talent to help grow established companies and lead the next wave of startups, and vets looking for solid jobs where they can apply their unique skills and experience, this is a win-win. In coming years, I expect many of those who are called upon to tackle the tech world's toughest challenges to be the same ones our country called upon to serve overseas. In these tasks, their character and determination will serve them well. As transitioning Marine General James "Mad Dog" Mattis once joked, they "don't know how to spell the word 'defeat.'"