5 questions for… TechVets

TechVets is a newly launched social enterprise in the UK, which “provides a bridge for veterans and service leavers into cyber security and technology.” Its goal is to help ex-forces personnel to start careers in Civvy Street, both with direct activities and by catalysing a network of service leavers and industry representatives. TechVets’ first support programme is a Digital Cyber Academy from Immersive Labs, offering free Cyber-Security training to the first cohort from the service leaver and veteran community.

I attended the launch event and spoke to a number of people, and the below is an amalgam of what I read, saw and heard.

1. Why is TechVets necessary?

Simply put, the transition between the forces and civilian careers is not as simple as it could be. While service men and women have a wealth of highly transferrable skills, they can struggle to find their way into the tech industry. This is primarily down to a lack of connections. At the same time, the industry stands to gain. With effective transition support, veterans have the potential to contribute an enormous amount to the future of the UK’s tech, cyber security and startup sectors.

2. What’s so different about the corporate environment?

Part of the challenge is about translating the capabilities of technology into positive business outcomes. It’s less about solving problems and making things happen, and more about helping identify opportunities and helping people achieve more. In addition the corporate life is more diverse — this isn’t just about gender, race or sexuality, but also about diversity of thought. This latter point is a strength, but it also creates a challenge for people used to more structured thinking.

3. What can the industry gain from ex-military staff?

People that have worked in the military bring a number of soft skills that are vital in the corporate environment. Standard military training makes people problem solvers, and able to both follow standard procedures and follow initiative when the situation becomes more taxing. There’s also a level of inherent trust — people who are ethical, reliable and who can be trusted. Thinking specifically about technology — forces staff are used to using technology to deliver solutions, rather than seeing it as an end in itself. In compliance-based environments, ex-forces personnel are very good at risk analysis and mitigation and can build on that.

People that have worked in the military bring a number of soft skills that are vital in the corporate environment. Military personnel have very strong people skills, with experience of both being led and of leading. They understand the notions of tempo and scale — to work at the pace and size of the challenge — and are also tuned into the notion of training. And also, strangely, there’s a sense of humour in the forces that doesn’t exist so much in corporate life. Yes, it’s a bit dark at times but it really helps if a real crisis hits, not just to alleviate the mood but also to help communications.

4. But what are the main challenges?

Culture shock is a major issue — in corporate life, most people don’t do what they are asked! Companies talk a lot about strategy and values but do they live them? In the military you are used to walking the talk, which isn’t always true in the enterprise!

Equally, the corporate world may be looking for certain things from their potential hires — for example, expecting a post-graduate degree. For people leaving the military and who are unsure what they want from civilian life, the need to knock on doors, to market oneself and indeed, to demand a market wage, can feel more than daunting.

5. So, what should ex-military people be thinking about?

Of course, it’s going to take time to adjust. You may leave the services but the services do not have to leave you — you bring a great deal to the table in terms of the experience you bring.

As a starting point, you should think about what you do (and don’t) want to do. You may be good generalist but the industry tends to look for specialists first. Think of an interview as a situation to be dealt with, and plan for it. For example, think about competencies, about what are the expectations of the situation and what you can do to deal with them.

And of course, use your network — and find out from them what works and what doesn’t. You can’t be expected to have everything on a plate, it is up to you to demonstrate this to future employers, and to take responsibility for your own future.

My take

I’ve not been in the military but having worked with many ex-service personnel, in various government establishments, I’m aware of the challenges that face people shifting from one well-established culture to another. Often the issue comes from a strange feeling that skills learned in the military are irrelevant, redundant or inadequate for the needs of corporate life.

This feeling is misplaced, as a significant opportunity exists to take advantage of this unique skills source. With technology in general, and cybersecurity in particular being areas that continue to grow, ex-forces staff should not underestimate the value that they bring to the table. At the same time, yes, there is a culture shock that needs to be addressed. An ex-military colleague told me of the benefits of mentoring, particularly if the mentor comes from a similar area of the forces.

At the launch event, repeated stories were about how finding a stable career offered a response to depression and in one case, near-suicide. Ex-forces personnel can struggle to get on in civilian life, to the extent they can end up homeless — numerous charities exist in the UK, the US and elsewhere to support such people, illustrating the problem. The bottom line is, we can’t underestimate the importance of initiatives such as this.