From Boot Camp to Booting Up – How Veterans Can Find Success in IT Careers

Cybersecurity

Army Career and Alumni Program photo

Few people today join the military with hopes of getting rich, and after serving in the military many veterans actually find it hard enough to get by. There is, however, great demand for qualified professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) where according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a sharp increase in related positions over the past 15 years. From 2000 to 2015 there was a jump from 10 million to 18 million positions, while the number of STEM employees is expected to increase 55 percent faster than non-STEM jobs over the next 10 years.

According to a data from CNN based on a PayScale report, one of the highest in-demand and highest paid positions is in the field of cybersecurity.

Addressing the Talent Gap

As the U.S. military faces a downsizing and scales back, more veterans are seeking jobs in the private sector; but the timing couldn’t be better when it comes to cybersecurity. Data from the Boston-based labor analytics firm Burning Glass released this past March highlighted that cyber security jobs grew some 74 percent between 2007 and 2013, more than twice the growth rate for all IT jobs (http://burning-glass.com/research/cybersecurity).

“There is a significant gap in talent so there are many opportunities for veterans today,” said Angie Messer, executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm, which has programs to help veterans obtain careers in the cybersecurity field.

“Vets are adept at working with teams, can make decisions quickly even when they don’t have all the relevant information and they can make those decisions on the fly,” added Messer, who spent 13 years in the military including seven years active duty before working with numerous start ups and other tech companies.

“Security is the underlying foundation that everyone in the military has,” she noted, but added, “Education and certification are still needed. There are programs out there for veterans but you really need to think about this before you can make the leap.”

It is true that military veterans are often well qualified for positions such as a chief information security officer, who can oversee the team responsible for protecting an organization’s information systems and evaluating security strategies.

“Veterans can grasp defense in depth better than those who haven’t served and are well suited to a career in cyber security,” said Homer Minnick, director of the Cybersecurity Academy at UMBC Training Centers, a U.S. Army veteran who served as a computer network operations (CNO) operator and technical advisor in the development of the Army’s new Cryptologic Network Warfare Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).

Discipline and Training

Minnick now heads a program that helps veterans transition to a career in cybersecurity. He said that veterans are well suited because they are used to discipline and understand why ongoing training is crucial.

Fellow Army veteran Jon Mathers agreed.

“Veterans are well positioned for cybersecurity jobs because they can adapt to the necessary training,” said Mathers, who is now an account executive with corporate recruiting firm Orion International. He works with several companies to place veterans in cybersecurity positions.

“Veterans have the discipline to follow procedures,” added Mathers. “No matter what job you had in the military, there is always a procedure to follow and veterans are well suited to understand that things are done for a reason and can also understand that a checklist needs to be followed.”

Continuing to Serve

While few people may see the military as a path to future riches, many do join because they feel a need to serve their nation and help protect it. A transition to a cybersecurity career is another way for many veterans to continue to serve.

That is part of what has drawn U.S. Navy veteran Adam Thiessen to a career in cybersecurity. After his service in the Navy, his game plan was a career in active law enforcement or if all went right the FBI. Unfortunately for Thiessen a hip injury sidelined him and he knew he couldn’t handle the physical demands that law enforcement would require.

“I began to look at IT in general,” he explained. “The advice I was given is that you need to know all the systems, so I’ve been very much a generalist but I was told it was a good way to get on the path for cybersecurity.”

The ongoing training has been a challenge, but he agreed that the military discipline prepared him for the difficult schedules. He underwent 280 hours of class work in just over seven weeks, and as a result he has been able to obtain a number of certifications.

“I’m taking a break from life to focus 100 percent on this,” Thiessen added.

Finding the First Job

Being able to focus 100 percent may still not be enough for Thiessen or other veterans, because one of the reasons for the talent gap is that all too often employers look not at skills or certification but at real world experience in cybersecurity. In fact, many positions now require three to five years of experience.

“This is a very real challenge,” said Messer. “Too often the question comes down to experience and more needs to be done to provide programs and internships that partner with industry. Employers should also be better educated as well to leverage that knowledge base.”

For Thiessen the lack of experience has been his biggest hurdle, but he has obtained a number of certifications that might allow an employer to overlook this fact. He’s also taken a unique approach to the problem.

“I’ve built a home lab system and installed and configured a system that includes a number of different service setups,” Thiessen explained. The goal has been to simulate what he might experience in the workplace.

Here his discipline continues to pay off, as he only left the Navy about 18 months ago, spent much of that time studying and is now in full time job hunt mode.

“The next few weeks will determine if it was a good route to take,” he added.

The training and certification are thus just one part of the process in making this transition from the military to a full-time career post-service. One option for veterans might be to get the training and experience at the same time.

Often it might mean starting at the bottom with a job in a lower level IT position.

“The training programs can be modular and allow someone to get the foundational skills and as a student then can take it to the next level and get certificates in cybersecurity; and there are now programs that, accredited through bodies, to allow post-9/11 GI Bill,” said the Cybersecurity Academy’s Minnick.

“Veterans can also look to get work while they’re getting certification,” said Messer of Booz Allen Hamilton. “There are project-by-project programs so veterans are getting experience while they’re getting the education, but unfortunately there is no silver bullet, so everyone needs to be part of the solution.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.

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