Originally posted on LinkedIn
Bottom Line Up Front – Every job I’ve had since the military involved networking, luck, and knowing what I wanted to do. If you skip to the end, I highlight my key lessons.
I didn’t have a typical transition from the military. I was medically retired and had a 30-day notice that I’d soon be a civilian. What a shock to my system! I rushed through the Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP) without learning much and immediately planned a move back to Virginia from Texas. I didn’t really have a clue what to do next. The Army was my first real job in life. I did the only thing I knew how to do; it turned out to be exactly the right thing.
I naturally turned to my network at this time of need. I called a friend of mine who recently left the military and got a defense contracting position with SAIC. I didn’t ask him to find me a job, but I did ask him about how he made it happen. I asked about the process and how he liked the work. I later learned that has a name in the career search process… an informational interview.
By the end of the phone call, he asked me a very important question. “What type of role are you looking for and where do you want to work?” I knew my answer, I was looking for an intelligence analysis role that did not require deployments based in either Northern VA or preferably Charlottesville, VA. The very next week, I was on a house-hunting trip to VA and my friend had set up a meeting with a hiring manager at his company with a role in Charlottesville.
I also attended a career fair. The list of attending companies included many I would have loved to work for… a laundry list of defense contractors, federal agencies, and tech startups with government contracts. I waited in long lines just to finally reach the front, get asked for my resume, endure a quick 15-second scan of my FOUR PAGE resume (they rarely flipped to the second page), then get told, “Thank you for stopping by, you may hear from us!” It was demoralizing, but I did receive interest from one company, Northrop Grumman, who called the very next day to set up an interview.
I got extremely lucky. The interview my friend set up occurred at a Chipotle the day after the career fair. It ended up being the only actual interview for the job. The following day, he and a recruiter emailed me asking me to officially apply on the website; I had an official job offer by the end of the week with a start date two days after my medical retirement date.
The recruiter from the career fair set up an interview the same week and I found myself at a Northrop Grumman facility in Fairfax, VA talking to two program managers offering what to me was my dream job… a counter-terrorism signal intelligence role at a federal agency. There was one catch, it would require a full-scope polygraph which could take a year to process if I even passed.
I accepted the role with SAIC and was up-front that I was very interested in the Northrop role and would pursue the polygraph. I told him I’d understand if he’d prefer to pursue a different candidate. He thanked me for telling him, and said he was willing to take the risk that I would still decide to stay even if I passed the polygraph.
Six months later, I received a call from Northrop Grumman telling me I had passed the full scope polygraph, and they wanted to know when I could start. It was a tough choice. I had been working on a contract for the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center with SAIC and really liked my boss and my team. I thought I was adding value, and my family was settled in Charlottesville (we even bought a house). But the truth was, I wasn’t very happy with the work; it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. It was an intelligence analyst job on paper, but in reality, it was more of a data analysis job.
It was hard for me to tell my boss I was leaving. I think I imagined the polygraph process would take much longer and if I could have stayed for an entire year, I would feel less bad about moving on. Luckily, because I was transparent with my boss before I even accepted the role, he was very supportive. I am very thankful for him.
I loved my job at Northrop, I was surrounded by amazing talent, had great managers, and felt like I was making an impact every day. My professional development sky-rocketed due to the high standards of the team, and I saw massive improvements to my analytical skills, writing skills, and briefing skills. I also got to meet and work with experts at all of the Intelligence Community agencies. But I was geographically separated from my family. During a joint meeting with the DIA, one simple comment would lead to my next job.
The DIA was moving their military analysts from Northern VA to a brand new facility in Charlottesville. It turned out that my direct counterpart at the DIA was not going to make the move. “Who is going to take your place when you start your new role?” She shrugged. I commented, “It would be great to be a government employee in Charlottesville.”
She replied, “Oh yeah! I forgot that you live there. Want me to ask my boss if they’re going to hire for the role?”
The very next week I get a phone call from her Division Chief asking if I’d like to grab a coffee. His first comment after we sat down was, “By the way, this isn’t a job interview.” I smiled and acknowledged I had no expectations. He continued, “The job is yours if you want it.” I was ecstatic.
I would spend five years as a DIA civilian employee. As much as I loved my work with Northrop Grumman, I was not home with my family, and I really wanted to be an official government civilian versus a contractor. My time at the DIA was nothing like my time at the CIA though. I never quite felt the same there and after two roles, three deployments to Afghanistan, a divorce, a PTSD diagnosis, and 15 years of service to the country, I resigned. I was a GS-13 with great benefits and government tenure, half way to retirement, and I just didn’t think I could do another 15 years.
This began my career transition #2, which would prove to be much more difficult.
I didn’t really know how to transition from a government employee and 15 years in the US Intelligence Community to the regular world. I had a strong belief that I could do a lot of things and add a lot of value to a company, but didn’t know how to translate my resume into a lateral role that wouldn’t require a large drop in pay. At first, I considered becoming a real estate agent with my sister. She is a very successful agent and we often talked about real estate for hours. I thought I’d really enjoy the work, but was terrified of a 100% commission job while paying spousal support and child support for three kids.
While supporting a special operations task force in Kabul, Afghanistan, I managed to get my manager’s support, letters of recommendation, and application submitted to the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in time for the March 1st round of applicants to their Executive MBA program. I interviewed via Skype from a shipping container recreation room on shoddy internet; my Army and civilian colleagues graciously gave the entire room to me for the duration of my interview. And to my disbelief, I was accepted… to a top MBA program in the country.
This opened up the door to transition into the private sector with viable business skills I could leverage to continue my career versus starting from scratch. During my first year at Darden, I was still working for the DIA. Around February I decided it was time to leave as I was exhausting my available leave time and really unhappy there. During the next 18 months of the MBA program I explored entrepreneurship, did over 30 informational interviews with alums and veterans in various industries, spent over 20 hours revising resumes and cover letters, and applied to exactly two jobs. The first one I got, the second one (which I really wanted) I did not. In the end, I didn’t take either.
So as a new MBA graduate, I was unemployed. Fortunately, during the program, I had taken the immense effort to know what I wanted to do. I had done enough research and interviews to understand various roles and career tracks and had settled on being a generalist. That doesn’t translate directly for most people and the hardest part about wanting to be a general manager is that you have to start somewhere a bit more specific.
Being a generalist means that you have competency in operations, marketing, sales, business analysis, human resources, supply chain, finance, accounting, customers, competition, and leadership. There are a few companies that specifically recruit MBAs into general management development roles, and I decided to focus on those companies exclusively.
I once again went to my network. Once I targeted a company and a geography, I used their online job search pages to explore open opportunities, but I didn’t apply to any of them. Knowing what may be available, I asked my friends at those companies about their experiences. I didn’t ask for a referral or help, but they almost always offered both. If I didn’t know anybody there, I either looked for a second-degree connection on LinkedIn or I coldly wrote veterans or alums at that company. I was able to talk to people at four targeted companies within the first two weeks of my renewed job search.
The following week I had my first phone interview with a recruiter and hiring manager. The week after that, I was on a plane for a full day of interviews. The week after that I had a job offer that I accepted. I am now on my third role with that company on a very transparent journey towards general management.
Career Transition Lesson #1 – Networking is vital
Networking is not acquiring a list of contacts, frantically passing out business cards, or growing a LinkedIn connection count. True networking is about genuine connection and relationships, and at times, you’ll get the satisfaction of mutually benefiting one another. I grow my network through common bonds like school, career aspirations, or veteran status. I grow it because I genuinely love connecting with others. I rarely ask my network to do anything for me, but I often offer assistance to them in their times of need. But networking is vital because we tend to value word-of-mouth referrals more than most other forms of marketing.
Career Transition Lesson #2 – Applying for jobs online has a low success rate
I’ve never gotten a job that I applied for online. It seems so intuitive when you find a role that fits your skillset and career aspirations to just hit apply, but I’m recommending you don’t. I’ve applied to easily 100 jobs online with one of two results: 1) “Your application has been received.” 2) “Thank you for applying but you were not selected for a role/interview at this time.” Every role I’ve had (both internal roles or external) I never applied online until I was told to by a recruiter after it was pretty certain I already had the job. This goes back to lesson #1 above, networking is vital. When you find that ideal job online, the next step should be leveraging or growing your network to try and get a personal referral. I’d only apply when the referrer or company tells you to.
Career Transition Lesson #3 – Know what you want to do
“What type of role are you looking for and where do you want to work?” I have talked to so many veterans, and we all share one common fault – we all believe and know that we can do anything that you need us to do. If your answer to the above question is “I’m open to anything,” you just made the other person’s job extremely difficult. Do your homework with each opportunity, identify a job role and level and be prepared to explicitly talk about that career path and opportunity.
Career Transition Lesson #4 – Career fairs can be such a let down if you don’t prepare in advance
I got lucky at my career fair. I had the right word on the front page of my resume that met an immediate need for the employer. Knowing what I know now, I’d recommend being much better prepared. I recommend you do your homework and research the companies and available roles before arriving. Refine your resume to just a single page, highlighting the value you can bring — none of the recruiters made it to page two of my resume. Know what you are looking for and be prepared to give a quick 15-30 second explanation. If you’re lucky, it may lead to a longer conversation. While I still like networking over career fairs, I would take career fairs over blindly applying online, but only if you’re prepared.
Career Transition Lesson #5 – Transparency is a highly valued trait
In multiple job interviews in my life, I’ve made an effort to be transparent. I’ve openly admitted when I didn’t think an aspect of a job was a great fit for me. I’ve openly discussed if I was currently talking to other companies for roles. In almost all cases, I have been thanked and sometimes rewarded for that transparency. Rewarded? Yes, by the interviewer becoming more transparent as well, telling me facts about the role I may not have known or the details of how many other people they are interviewing for the job. Being up-front has never hurt me.
Career Transition Lesson #6 – Don’t stress too much about your resume
I did hint above that you want a single page resume that highlights your skills. I won’t argue with the abundance of resume advice that exists on the internet. If you need help with your resume, pretty much every single opinion exists out there. My only advice is not to stress over it. I do think you should have a one-page resume that highlights your skills and background. I typically work from a longer, master resume that includes all of my details and then I will tailor it down to one page (or two pages max if applying for a specific role) depending on how I’m using it. But if you’ve followed Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 above, your resume just needs to back up that you are qualified.
When I transitioned, there were likely tons of resources available to me, but I didn’t really know about them. What I know about today is amazing. If you’re not sure what you want to do in life, look into mentoring from Veterati or ACP. My ACP mentor was very helpful in translating my government experience and identifying my desired career path. If you’re still serving and within 180 days of leaving the service, look into the DoD SkillBridge program. There are also great companies other there helping you with transition through skills training, career advising, or transition programs like HireMilitary, Shift, FourBlock, TechQualled, SalesForce, IVMF, NS2 Serves, Troops to Teachers, Code Platoon, Covered 6, or Helmets to Hardhats. If you want to start your own business, there are opportunities for veteran business training and entrepreneurship as well, like Bunker Labs, Patriot Boot Camp, IVMF’s ARSENAL program or Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV), VetToCEO, Boots to Business, VETRN, or Warrior Rising.
No matter which resources you find valuable, I still highly recommend getting started on building your network, doing informational interviews, connecting with folks on LinkedIn, and posting more about what you believe in, what your values are, and what you want to do (versus posting about the challenges of job searches or just telling people you are looking for a job). I didn’t touch upon using recruiters — but it goes without saying you should also learn more about the value they bring. Especially recruiters, whether independent or within company HR teams, that specifically recruit veterans. I had many great conversations with these professionals and recommend you do the same.