The Skills Veterans Gain While in the Service — Organization, Discipline and Problem-Solving — Translate Well Into the Tech and Private Sectors
Call them “vetrepreneurs.”
Two U.S. Army veterans — challenged by transportation nightmares in the Beltway around Washington, D.C. — have created a tech start-up that’s trying to alleviate commuters’ frustrations.
The idea came to fruition back in 2010 when Joseph Kopser was living in Arlington, Va., and had to navigate his way to the Pentagon — only five miles away.
The result was RideScout, a startup based in Austin, Texas.
Kopser and co-founder Craig Cummings created the RideScout app to solve D.C.’s inefficient use of transportation. The app, which the company dubs the “Kayak of ground transportation,” allows users to view in real time all ground transportation options available – buses, taxis, bikes, the Metro, walking, and more – as well as costs, routes and travel time. RideScout first launched in Washington in November 2013, followed by Austin, San Francisco, and most recently Boston. The company wouldn’t release any download numbers for its app from Apple’s App Store. Its Google Play page says it has between 5,000 and 10,000 downloads.
Kopser, the company’s CEO, says his app has “absolutely” become the app he had envisioned. It lessens transportation headaches, promotes energy efficiency, and benefits the public. The company’s spokeswoman, Rachel Charlesworth, says RideScout is “bringing people off the road and into more alternative modes of transportation.”
Kopser’s story is similar to many military veterans’ lives after service: Translating the skills they learned from Uncle Sam into usable solutions in small business and the private sector.
Building Teams, Solving Problems
Kopser graduated from West Point in 1993 with an aerospace engineering degree and served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, retiring in 2013 as a lieutenant colonel. He is among a growing number of veterans translating military skills into successful tech careers in civilian life.
“I think most veterans share the same traits that I feel have given me a leg up as an entrepreneur,” he says. “One, we build teams. Two, we solve problems. Three, we don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Veterans — often noted for characteristics like discipline, organization, and solid problem-solving skills — make great entrepreneurs and employees. Companies like Cisco, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Google boast veteran-focused initiatives, such as workshops and training events to cultivate veterans’ talents. Kopser says the more tech exposure the better for potential employees.
“You need to attend every possible meet-up, founders event, open house for techies, hack nights, etc.,” Kopser says. “You need to immerse yourself in the people, styles, attitudes, and norms of the tech community. It may seem like foreign culture at first, but once you understand the lingo, you’re a step ahead.”
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‘Embrace a Skill That You Love’
Veterans typically have hard-to-find tech skills, with exposure to the latest technology in the service. Garrett Deese, who served seven years in the Air Force, worked in cutting-edge weapons technology while communicating and collaborating with a variety of agencies.
“I learned how to leverage technology in order to accomplish squadron goals, whether that was troubleshooting a $67 million aircraft weapons system or creating a medical-tracking program in direct response to a command initiative,” Deese says.
Translating those skills to a resume can often be difficult for many veterans. Deese attended an event called “Secrets from the other side of the interview table” held at Intuit headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and organized by VetsInTech, a group that helps veterans land tech jobs. The event allowed Deese to work directly with Silicon Valley’s top recruiters and hiring managers who helped him repackage his experience and develop what he calls a “polished value offering pitch.”
Put simply: As an employee, he becomes a solution to an employer’s problem.
He says the experience laid “the foundations for what has turned out to be the career of my dreams at the best company in the valley.” He now works at Intuit as a marketing coordinator on the company’s talent acquisition marketing team. Deese applied many of his military skills directly to his new career.
“Every company is a tech company in one form or another,” Deese explains. “If you can apply your skill to business, then you can apply your skill to a tech environment. Don’t be intimidated by Silicon Valley – but instead embrace a skill that you love and find a way to apply it to a business problem.”
From the Military to Small Business
Many veterans also make great small-business owners. Nearly one in 10, or 2.4 million small businesses nationwide, are veteran-owned, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Former Air Force fighter pilot Mark Kelly chose the franchise route and is manager and owner of TeamLogic IT, a computer services company in Colorado. Kelly earned a computer science degree from the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Kelly says he wanted to start a small business instead of chasing a corporate career “so I could create jobs and employ veterans.” He looked at many franchise opportunities but naturally was drawn to IT.
“I find the IT arena intellectually stimulating and challenging,” Kelly says. As he did in the military, he follows a “mission-oriented approach” to running his business. “Our customers appreciate that,” he says.
Advice for Veterans: Learn Now, Don’t Wait on Employers
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics says the unemployment rate for veterans dropped from 6.2 percent in April 2013 to 5.6 percent a year later. While this is an improvement, many vets still struggle to find jobs. The growing tech field, training, networking, and job certification programs can offer veterans more career opportunities.
In 2013, G.I. Jobs asked the nation’s military-friendly employers to list the top 20 hot jobs for which they were recruiting America’s veterans. No. 1 on the list was IT specialist, with an average salary of $69,903. And while G.I. Jobs says some IT employers want candidates with advanced degrees, “experts say certification is often the most important qualiﬁcation.”
Chris Galy, an advisory board member of VetsInTech and the vice president of talent acquisition at Intuit, says his company has a strong track record of hiring vets and is always seeking veterans for all roles.
He says veterans sometimes don’t carry those “ready-now” skills when transitioning out of the military because many tech jobs are outsourced to government contractors: “The military has solid IT infrastructure, but the development and design work goes to the contractors.”
VetsInTech also works with the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to get more soldiers interested in tech careers before they leave the service.
But Galy believes today’s service members “should be experimenting and tinkering with building technical development and design skills” before leaving the service.
“I get why they don’t – they are defending freedom,” he says. “But if they want to break into the places where there are high-paying technical careers, they can’t wait for a company to hire them to be trained on the right skills, mindset, and capabilities.”