On the face of it, the cultures of Silicon Valley and the U.S. military couldn’t be further apart. Stereotypical techies are slouchy, decidedly casual and resistant to order. They are the opposite of the well groomed, formal and fiercely disciplined picture of a veteran.
Yet the leadership, teamwork and technology skills many young people obtain through military experience make them strong candidates for technology jobs.
Some financial companies, like Citigroup and PayPal, have tapped into this source of talent and created special programs to hire veterans for tech jobs. In so doing, they are taking on the cultural biases that exist in the tech and business communities.
“We can teach them the technical side of things, but we can’t teach them … the mission focus, the discipline,” said Christopher Perkins, the global head of OTC Clearing at Citi. “They come to us with very special skills. We see this as an opportunity to build our business and grow our franchise.”
In 2009, Perkins, a former Marine who served in Iraq, started a grassroots network at Citi designed to recruit, retain, mentor and conduct community outreach to veterans.
“It was one of the first of its kind, certainly on Wall Street,” Perkins said. “It was the first time we institutionalized our support of veterans on the Street.” At the launch ceremony, then-Chairman Dick Parsons turned up. He is a veteran, too.
The network now has 2,000 employees (including some nonveterans there to support their colleagues) in 17 cities. All told, the bank has 10,000 self-identifying veteran employees globally.
In 2012, the bank launched a program called Citi Salutes that helps veterans transition to jobs at the bank. It hired a team dedicated to recruiting veterans. In addition, the bank works with NPower, an organization that helps veterans transition from military roles in tech jobs. Citi is also part of Veterans on Wall Street, which now has more than 100 member banks.
“It’s not charity work,” Perkins said. “Our whole goal and desire is for the business. We valued the qualities these veterans brought to our workforce.”
From Marines to Silicon Valley
Marine veteran Heather Holcomb could have used an advocate like Perkins or the network he has created when she arrived in Silicon Valley in 2016.
When Holcomb was in the Marine Corps, she led a team of 200 who provided digital communications for 11 military sites. She also managed three mobile data centers that allowed Marines in the air to connect with Marines on the ground.
But when she left the military and came to Silicon Valley to find work, she faced closed doors.
“I was having a hard time connecting with recruiters and getting past some of the HR software that was reading through my résumé and immediately kicking me out because it didn’t understand the experience I brought to the table,” Holcomb recalled recently.
Even on the rare occasions when she managed to speak with a hiring manager, there were obstacles.
“There would be a lot of stigma around this belief that military service members are too rigid or not flexible or only take direct orders,” Holcomb said. “That really is just a misunderstanding because there is so much decentralized leadership that has to happen, especially in chaotic environments. … You have to be able to understand what the mission is, understand the intent of the leadership and be able to make decisions quickly.”
After six months of job hunting, she came upon a program called Breakline that helps veterans transition into civilian jobs. Breakline helped her translate her military experience into language that hiring managers at tech companies could understand.
For instance, her title in the Marines was detachment commander. She learned to explain the work she did in corporate technology terms.
“Being able to say ‘data center’ instead of ‘systems operations center’ or ‘systems control center’ helped,” she said.
She reworked her résumé and got a job at PayPal, where she is now senior product manager.
Going from a Marine base to a scrum room is an adjustment. In the Marine Corps, “Uniforms are immaculate, and we pride ourselves on discipline,” Holcomb said. “Then you go to Silicon Valley where it’s T-shirts and hoodies.”
But there are also many parallels, she noted: the need for teamwork, a sense of camaraderie.
“Everyone has to do their part,” she said. “The communication style and the way we dress is different, [but] the way we work together is very much the same.”
PayPal reaches out
Steve Fusco is another former Marine who got a job at Citi, where he co-chaired the veterans group with Perkins and joined Veterans on Wall Street.
“In finance and banking, if you’re really smart and if you’re able to work really hard and if you’re someone who can be trusted, who has integrity and is honorable, you probably have a good chance of doing well,” Fusco said.
Veterans coming back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often fit that bill.
“The banks picked up on that quickly and they started to implement accelerated development programs whereby you would account for the leadership experience of veterans in bringing them over to banks,” Fusco said.
In the technology industry, however, the tendency is to hire for a very specific skill set, he said. It’s harder to take the mental leap to see that a vet’s experience qualifies her for a tech job.
When he later moved to Silicon Valley to take a job at PayPal, “I found that there was an absolute lack of awareness of even the relevance of veterans’ talents here,” said Fusco, who is now vice president and general manager of North American Distribution.
When he suggested holding a mixer for the veterans among the crop of 300 interns PayPal was hiring at the time, no one signed up. At a party for all the new interns, Fusco chatted with some and found out many actually were veterans. When he asked why they hadn’t signed up for veterans mixer, they told him they felt there was a stigma.
“In some cases, business schools are telling graduates not to overemphasize a veteran background to technology companies because those companies would look down on them,” Fusco said. “I found that shocking.” He realized many tech companies lack the understanding that a platoon commander who just did a couple of tours in Iraq can think on his feet, innovate and lead.
“If you don’t understand that, you’d be oblivious to the fact that even though what this person has done is described as something different, it’s hugely applicable to exactly what you need here as a technology company,” Fusco said.
Three years ago, Fusco started a veterans program at PayPal called Serve. It provides community, mentorship and recruitment for veterans. It now has more than 350 members.
PayPal actively recruits veterans, particularly for its operations centers. The Omaha center, for instance, is close to an Air Force base, and when PayPal has openings it lets the base know about them.
It is hard to say which tech jobs veterans are most cut out for, Fusco said, but anything goal-oriented would likely be a good fit.
“When I look at PayPal, our former [chief technology officer] was an Army veteran. A couple of weeks ago I met a developer who’s a former Marine. Heather [Holcomb] is a product manager. I’ve met veterans in strategy, in finance, in product development, sales, business development, operations and in the service environment.”
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