As tech workers know well, there are countless of ways people end up in the field. A straight line between a college degree and a tech job isn't the only route.
This Veteran's Day, eight of every 10 veterans who transition out of service will do so without a job or a defined career path forward, according to nonprofit VetsInTech. In 2018, the veteran population reached 19.2 million, according ot the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and each year, another 200,000 transition out of the service, a move that often brings uncertainty.
For some, the technical know-how gathered during their service, as well as the grit and organizational skills instilled in military life, has led to career opportunities in tech.
Here are five stories of service members who made their way into tech roles after transitioning out of the military:
Kelly Macleod, project manager at Topcoder
Growing up an "Army brat" was Macleod's main motivator for joining the North Carolina Army National Guard. But in middle school, the anime series "Sailor Moon" inspired her to learn how to code.
As Macleod surfed the internet for fan-made anime websites, she said to herself "I could do that," or "I could do that better." But coding was just something she did for fun.
Macleod served in the National Guard, had two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and graduated with a psychology degree from Appalachian State University. Her first job out of the military was as an administrative assistant, but career advancement opportunities were hard to come by.
"Though I appreciated the skill set it gave me, it felt like a good base for something else," said Macleod, in an interview with CIO Dive.
One day, a personality assessment for job types brought her back to the "Sailor Moon" days when it recommended Macleod pursue a career as a web developer. "I said 'OK, universe, I'll start coding again.'"
A slate of free online resources led her to pick up the skills again. A "co-pilot" role at Topcoder turned her into a liaison between the veteran community and the crowdsourced software development platform. Then she applied for her current job as a project manager and took another step up.
"My tour in Iraq wasn't easy," Macleod said. "When I got back I was sitting on the floor of my living room thinking I could have been so much better to my colleagues if I had gotten over myself. Those are hard stress environments. That's where I learned tenacity."
Mark Seip, principal analyst at MITRE
Navy veteran Seip flew radar planes for 18 of his 24 years of service.
Last Monday, Seip started a new mission in civilian life, bringing his military background to MITRE, a not-for-profit entity overseeing federally-funded research development centers, as a principal analyst focused on artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.
With that background, he fit the profile of what the company needed: someone who could be a bridge between the needs of warfare and the work being done by researchers and engineers.
The Navy "does a fantastic job" of equipping service members with the technical know-how required of flying, Seip said. "From a tech perspective, no matter what your major is you quickly become a systems guy or gal."
Thoughearly in his transition into civilian life, Seip thanks the Navy for the ability to project manage and compartmentalize problems quickly, key skills no matter the context. For a fast-moving field like AI, the sharp instincts of a pilot come in handy.
"Best thing about being a pilot is you think quickly and adapt quickly," Seip said. "In AI, where so much is changing, it does require an ability intellectually to see where things are going."
Sheila Jones, process analyst at Cisco
An eight-year National Guard veteran, Jones sums up her transition story succinctly: A former primary school teacher, Jones came back from a deployment in the Middle East and wanted a way to harness the leadership skills she had built while serving.
"Often times, that's hard to harness as a young person in the private sector, but the military gives you a lot of leeway to earn those skills."
After taking project management training in North Carolina, she applied for her current position as a process analyst at Cisco Systems, where she helps customers manage their subscriptions-based cloud solutions.
"It was a steep learning curve," Jones said, going from the context of a primary school to now working directly with complex technological products. The team-building skills learned in service, coupled with solidarity from colleagues at Cisco, made that transition go smoothly.
Garry Roy, founder of iPro Alliance
To an extent, Roy's transition story goes in reverse. An engineer by trade, Roy joined the Navy reserve in 1979 ("at the ripe age of 29") after graduating from the Lowell Technological Institute in Massachusetts.
Roy's first role in the Navy put him in charge of maintaining the computer systems on a P3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft. Later he joined a communications research project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
After spending some time in the private sector, Roy was mobilized shortly after 9/11, and was shipped to the Persian Gulf to maintain the satellite link aboard the HSVX1, a high-speed catamaran.
Today, back in civilian life, Roy is the founder of Boston-based iPro Alliance, a IT services firm serving small businesses.
"As a result of my military experience, I learned a lot about organizational skills and a bit about self-discipline," Roy said.
AJ Kelly, information security engineer at Telesis
Right after high school, Kelly joined the Air Force in the hopes of becoming a computer programmer. On the first base he was assigned to, Kelly worked in a bunker 40 feet underground maintaining a security system.
"Not exactly what I envisioned," Kelly said. Still, his interest in tech prevailed, with him later dedicating long hours and weekends working on IT.
In 2010, after leaving the service, Kelly went to work for Endeavor Systems as a cybersecurity analyst. The company was later acquired by Telesis, where he works as an information security engineer.
Kelly credits his time in the Air Force with shaping him into a disciplined worker able to navigate bureaucracy while compartmentalizing different aspects of the job. For people who are going through similar transitions, Kelly says networking is essential.
"Getting the skills is great, those are high in demand, but what can improve your chances of getting a job is networking," Kelly said. "It was easy because I knew someone who would hire me right when I got out. I know other people who weren't so lucky."
Correction: The caption for Mark Seip's photo has been updated to reflect he served in the Navy.