Transitioning from Vet to Tech
Transitioning from Vet to Tech offers practical tips for veterans interested in transitioning from a career of service to a career in the tech industry.
All right. I think we are live. Hi folks. My name is Harris Hancock and I'm a systems engineer on the workers team here at Cloudflare.
And with me today I have Toan Le, a technical recruiter at Cloudflare.
And we're going to be talking about some of the challenges and opportunities from transitioning from a military career to one in the tech industry.
And the audience we have in mind for this segment is service members and veterans who are somewhere along the path of transitioning.
Maybe you're on the cusp of getting out or maybe you've been out a few years and you're trying to break into tech.
And also anyone else who's interested.
That's great. Thanks Harris. And first of all, thank you for having me with you today.
And to all the veterans out there, thank you for your service. And happy Veterans Day.
But really to, you know, kind of just kind of bring this back, right?
So Harris, you know, I know that you've had a very interesting background as well as a career here at Cloudflare.
So maybe tell me something about yourself.
You know, walk us through your story a little bit. Now you, you know, from your military days and then how did you transition to the tech space?
So I, to talk about my personal journey, I have to begin with a giant caveat.
And that is that I learned to code when I was six years old. My father was a mechanical engineer.
My mother was a software engineer and my grandmother was a statistician.
And they all knew how to code before I ever did. And so I learned it kind of through them.
So I had a, I had a big advantage, a big privilege actually in that regard.
I had a sought after skill that's already useful in the tech industry.
So when I got out of high school, I had some obvious choices. I could, I could try to go straight into tech with like skipping college, or I could try to go into college and get a computer science degree.
And a few factors around that time was the dot-com bubble burst, which sort of burst my own confidence bubble.
So I, I didn't feel, I didn't feel very confident about breaking into, into tech at that time.
It seemed like a losing proposition actually.
And I, I also didn't want to be a conformist.
I didn't want to, I didn't want to conform to the expectations that my own family had around me.
I wanted to do something different, something non -obvious.
I wanted diverse experiences. So I, despite already being a computer programmer, I said, I can't do that.
And I ended up joining the army in 2002 as, as a linguist, ended up as a Korean linguist.
Although I, I didn't get to choose the language.
They, they, they choose it for you. Yeah. And I talk about, I want to focus mostly on the transition out of the military, but to talk about that, I have to mention what it's like to join the military too.
And to summarize, it's, it's gigantic shock.
It's a mental, physical, emotional, and, and above all, a cultural shock.
One of the, one of the big things that struck me that still strikes me is you sign the contract and you get a ship, a date to, to ship out to basic training.
And then you, your life kind of becomes divided into two.
There's the before time before the ship dates, and then there's the after time when you're going to be in the military and you don't know what's coming next.
You, you know, only a few things for sure.
And those things are the government is legally obligated to take care of you.
They're obligated to shelter you, to feed you, to provide health care. And they're also obligated to tell you what to do, which is a really big thing.
That's actually, that's actually what I was looking for was someone to tell me what to do.
And getting out of the military, the reason why I talked through that is getting out is also a gigantic shock in the same way.
It's not, not so much mental, physical, emotional, well, definitely emotional, but, but cultural.
And again, there's a, a single date, one date you're in the military, and then the tomorrow after that, you're, you're out, you're, you're done.
You, you have this, you're on the other side, you have a sense of loss.
And the big difference between joining and getting out is, is that there's no field manual on the other side of, of getting out.
There's no one to tell you what to do. And you know, like, you know, that you're going to be your own boss, which is super exciting, but also, but also terrifying, especially if, if you're institutionalized to some extent.
And, and that's, that's something that I learned fairly early on, actually.
It was in training, learning Korean in the Defense Language Institute.
And I met a soldier who had spent, I think, four or five years in the army.
And then he'd gotten out. He spent, I think, two years out. And then he came back in.
And I, I thought this guy was really, really like, kind of irrational, but this was not, this was not behavior that I expected.
I expected once you're out, you're out.
Like, who would want to, who would want to suffer this anymore?
But he pointed out that when you're, when you're a civilian, you have to, you have to pay things like rent, you have to pay for the doctor.
It's, there's a lot of responsibility.
And he, he described it as hard and brutal. And he said that he got back in as soon as he could.
And that's, that's not, that was not an out, an uncommon outcome.
I, I met many soldiers over the course of my career who, who were smart.
They're competent. They, they thrived in the military, but they failed to transition back to civilian life.
And so that's, that's sort of what was hanging over my head when it was my own turn.
Yeah. How long were you in the military for?
Six years. And yeah, so the, the rough sketch of, of my, like the rough outline of my, my service was spent two years learning Korean, and then four years in an operational unit.
Had two deployments, one to Iraq, which was not really intelligence related.
I was just a gunner doing convoy operations. And then another deployment elsewhere, where I was actually doing signals intelligence collection.
And I didn't think about this at the time, but I was essentially, I was essentially working in the form of tech.
I, I was, I wasn't, I wasn't coding. I wasn't coding too much, I should say.
But yeah, I was, I was using the equipment. Yeah.
So when, yeah, time I went, like when it came time to get out, and what that, what that process was like.
And I know if you're a veteran, and if you're, you're listening to this, you probably, you may have had this experience as well.
In the Army, they call it ACAP, Army Career Assistance or Advancement Program.
It's a class that they require you to take.
The, the big man has one more thing that he's going to tell you to do, and that is to study how to transition your career to civilian life.
And one of that, one of the components of that class is a resume writing workshop.
And I, I found that a, you know, resume writing, it feels like the simple task that everyone has to do, but it, I found it kind of, I found it very daunting.
I felt, I felt helpless. I kind of stared at the, the worksheet and just sort of started giggling because I didn't know what to write.
No, I mean, someone who looks at resumes all day, you know, if you asked me to sit down and write my resume out and focus on that, I, I too would have some trouble.
So yeah. I think everyone can resonate with that.
But yeah, and I guess. So, so, so when you were working on your resume, like were you thinking about, you know, like you just mentioned, like, hey, you know, think about it.
I just did some tech stuff when I was doing some of the signal stuff.
So when you were working and putting together your resume, like, did you think about that and go, okay, that's transferable to tech industry somewhere, somehow.
And then did you, you know, was that part of your process?
Okay. Very much. Actually, I did think about that. And what, but I didn't, I didn't do a good job expressing it on my resume at first.
Um, and the, the reason where the reasons are, there are some barriers to, to coming from a military career and, and expressing it in, in bullet points that a civilian employer can understand.
And, and, um, like sometimes, sometimes they might not even have enough context to understand the words that I'm talking about.
Um, and so as examples of the barrier, um, the, the first and obvious one to me was I worked in military intelligence.
So I, I handled classified material, uh, all day, every day. Um, what the things that I did in, uh, on my deployments were often classified.
If they weren't classified, then there was operational security to, to worry about.
Um, everything is it something that's drilled into you in the military is don't don't leak.
Don't, uh, always watch, especially in military intelligence, always watch what you're saying.
So that's, that was the first barrier. And that was actually, that was actually one of the biggest for me because, um, like, uh, I'll talk about a, um, the one time that I actually coded in the army, I was, um, I, I was operating a remote collection facility and it's, uh, it's essentially like a distributed system to vacuum up information in the surrounding area.
Information comes in the antennas.
It goes through some cables. I have to repair the cables all the time.
It goes into some black boxes, gets decoded, decrypted, um, and then stuffed into a database and then sent via satellite somewhere else for other analysts to consume.
And, uh, and that right there, like I could have described that on my resume.
Um, and, uh, and it would have been meaningful. Um, anyway, one, the one time that I actually did coding was, uh, I, um, I noticed that our black boxes that decoded stuff were misbehaving.
They, I'd been ordered to, to upgrade their software and it did not go well.
And I, I couldn't, couldn't quite, couldn't quite troubleshoot enough.
I couldn't visualize what the problem was well enough to, uh, to describe to my superiors that something was wrong.
So I, I wrote a Python script to parse the log files that were coming out of this.
And I generated like six gigabytes of log files per day.
And I, I didn't have Internet access.
All I had was a, um, a six month old mirror of Wikipedia to, um, to, uh, to learn Python from.
And, uh, uh, over the course of two weeks, I managed to extract enough data from the log files to present some pretty charts to, uh, the officers above me.
And I succeeded in convincing them that there was a problem. But again, I didn't talk about that on my resume.
Cause at the time, at the time they put the fear of death in me as to the legal consequences of talking about any of this.
So jumping forward, like to present day, right now that you're here at Cloudflare and you go, you know, you're in this tech space, like, can you talk a little bit about that?
And, and what, you know, some of the benefits and, you know, now you have the 2020 hindsight, right?
So. Right. Yeah. So in, um, my, uh, my, my great uncle, the guy I'm named after, uh, Herrick Harris Hancock, he, uh, he wrote a book about his life and he starts off talking about how he didn't really know what he was doing at the time, but looking back in hindsight, he saw that all of his choices in life, they formed building blocks upon each other and they got him to where he is.
And in retrospect, indeed, I find the same thing. I can connect the dots from, uh, skills I learned, um, back in the military to where I am now, the most obvious ones are that are related to signals intelligence.
So, um, on the workers team, I, um, I, I frequently have to debug customer reported problems.
And this usually involves crawling through our massive databases of, of, uh, request logs, trying to correlate a request with a sub request and figure out what exactly, what, which code path went wrong here.
And, um, and every time I do that, I'm, I'm struck by the, uh, the similarity to analyzing signals intelligence, uh, in the army, I had to crawl through gigantic databases, correlating disparate event sources with each other.
And they're for very different purposes. Um, the, uh, like at Cloudflare, we take privacy extremely seriously, and we try not to record any personal data that we can, whereas in intelligence, the, the whole point was to vacuum up personal data.
But other than that, the skill was, uh, eminently transferable.
Um, another, uh, another, um, aspect of my former career, which is strikingly relevant, uh, nowadays and actually struck me in the first month or so of working at Cloudflare was, um, the importance of standards and regulations.
So when I was, uh, I think this will, this is kind of a generic military skill that any veteran has to, has to acquire.
It's the ability to navigate regulations and standards.
Um, if you know the regulations or, you know, uh, like the Geneva convention, and you can say that order is illegal for X, Y, and Z reasons, then you don't have to do that.
You don't have to follow that order. And that's the ultimate power in the military.
And, uh, uh, like it's, I don't have to worry about the Geneva convention anymore, but I have to worry about the HTTP protocol or the, um, the many web platform standards, which define the APIs that we, we implement in workers.
Um, so those are, those are like the obvious signals and tolerance, or one of them was explicitly signals intelligence related, but those are, those are very, uh, those are technical skills that transferred over, but there are some, there are some other vague skills that I had a lot of trouble.
Like the, the one that really, really, um, uh, that I had a hard time expressing on my resume was how do I, how do I talk about my experience in Iraq?
How, how relevant is that to anything that I did later or anything that I want to do later?
Like, um, like, yeah. And so my, my experiences in Iraq were did convoy operations.
So I got, I got good at maintaining Humvees, radios, machine guns, things like that.
And none of that is relevant to me today.
Uh, probably never will be again, but it, in retrospect, I realized that none of that was really relevant to my official job title in the army either.
I was, I was a cryptologic linguist. What was I doing doing convoy operations?
Well, the answer is someone needed to do it. And I just happened to be the guy doing it.
And, uh, so I, I had to, I had to adapt and learn technical skills to get my job done.
And that's something that we do every day here at Cloudflare. Right.
Or in the tech industry in general. Right. And the perception that, that service people are not able to adapt or pivot is so incorrect or that perception is right.
It's kind of the opposite. Um, re related to that, I wanted to talk about, uh, people skills as well.
That's something, a, um, uh, it's actually something a psychologist told me like later in life.
Uh, she pointed out that as a, as a service member, I had had to learn to communicate effectively with an enormous range of people, a very diverse range of people.
And that's communication skills is not something that you immediately think of when you think of a military veteran, you think of someone who, who, who fights basically, um, or it furthers a fight, but it's, um, you, in contrast to here, where we can reject 99 point something percent of all applicants.
Um, we, you don't get to reject that many applicants in the military.
You get what you get. Right. And so you, you have no choice in the matter.
You, you have to learn to work with very different people from yourself.
And, uh, even on deployments, um, you might be interacting with civilians who come from a, uh, starkly different culture from you.
Uh, there might be an extraordinary language barrier difference in life experience.
And, um, so in, in retrospect, I, I look back on some of the, uh, the, the more controversial aspects of my military experience and the, the one, the, uh, the aspects which seem not relevant at all to my current career.
And I, that I've, I realized that's where I learned empathy and that that's a cloud for value.
It's one of the, one of the things I love about company.
In fact. Yeah. So, yeah, no, you're, you're absolutely right.
I think, uh, I think one of the, the, the, the characteristic of a service person is this teamwork, uh, mentality that's kind of driven into you.
So you really need to be able to, you know, one collaborate with so many different folks, right.
And whether it's a ranking, whether it's, you know, culturally and whatnot, I mean, you're, you're, and of course we talked about the adaptability.
So I think these are some of the vet traits, if you will, that are often, you know, overlooked, right.
Cause then, you know, as a recruiter, you look at doesn't have Python, doesn't have this, doesn't have that.
So definitely not a fit for the role, but I think, I think, you know, I think maybe you'll talk a little bit, but just, you know, um, how do you prepare yourself for that?
You know, moving into that tech space, how do you really communicate, you know, your, your proposition, if you will.
Right. Yeah. Yeah. I, um, so I, yeah, I did kind of fast forward over eight years of, uh, like I, I got out and then I'm at Cochlear and there's something in between, something happened, something very important happened.
Um, and, and the, the sad answer is I worked my butt off. Like I, there's no shortcuts.
There's, um, I, uh, when you get out, when you get out of the army and you have a particular skill, I don't have any good tech examples, but say you're a mechanic, you, you might not be ACE certified, but you might be a really good mechanic.
And you might think, well, I can just walk into any job or a similar with, uh, if you're a medic, you might think, well, I can, I can just walk into a nursing job.
Um, and a lot of times the people helping you transition out, they'll try to buck up your confidence and tell you, yes, yes, you can do this.
That's no problem.
You just walk right in. And the answer is no. Um, just like a civilian, you, you have to do the training.
You have to get the certification. You have to get the experience.
And that's, um, I, I didn't want to believe that. Um, my, uh, my, that my, the, the transition course that I took at the end of my career in the army, the, uh, the instructor, he gave this example of, uh, a Marine corporal who, who got out and he, you know, had a enormous opportunity ahead of him.
And then he, he said he ended up just sitting in his bathtub, drinking beer most days, not doing anything.
And then he was in the Marine Corps again, a year later. And, um, you know, maybe not the best, maybe not the worst outcome for that particular person.
And maybe don't mean to judge it. I, um, but it, it underscored to me that this wasn't getting out of the military separating is, is not the, um, it's not the end of training.
Uh, and that's, that's something that I, I really hoped for a year and four, like when I, after six years in the army, I was like, I'm done.
I just, I don't want to want to stop training all the time, but no, it's just the beginning.
Um, so the big trick I think is to, to find some way to make it fun, make, make that journey fun.
You're going to have to walk it. Um, I'm sure it's different now, but then back when you transitioned out, I think, you know, aside from that, that short kind of program where how to write a resume, right.
I, you know, I think, I think we, you know, probably have a better program today, at least within the military services to have a more formalized or more in-depth program about, okay, what can you expect?
How do you, when you transition out, what can I, what can you do to kind of prepare yourself?
Do you know that that's the case or?
Well, I actually think that the program that I took was, was, was pretty good.
Um, and I, I'm sure it's still going. I'm sure it probably looks relatively similar.
Um, I, I haven't actually talked to anyone who's transitioned lately.
I yeah, that'd be, that'd be good to know though. Yeah. Um, but then you, you, you like took it upon yourself, like you, you, you leveraged the GI bill.
Right. Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. So talk about that. Yeah. Yeah. So I, um, at the same time that the, everyone's telling you like, oh, you're so qualified.
You're so competent.
You, if you can do this, you can do it in the civilian world too.
Um, at the same time that you're learning all that you're learning about these, these privileges that you're going to get these benefits, the VA benefits like the GI bill or, uh, or, uh, healthcare or, uh, VR and E, uh, veterans rehabilitation, something, something.
Um, and, and there's kind of a, um, not everyone takes the benefits.
Not everyone feels comfortable. They, they think that the, the GI bill is for, for someone else, someone who needs it more, um, than them.
Um, or, or healthcare is some meant for people in worse off shapes than you are.
Um, and I, I think one of the things that you have to do when you get out is, um, uh, beat that instinct down.
Like the, the, the country invested in you and now it's your turn to, or sorry, you invested your time in the country and now it's okay for you to accept investment from the country in, in you, in your own life.
Um, so that was the GI bill in particular was, um, very life-changing for me.
It made me able to go to college.
It, it made me able to go to college without worrying about money, about worrying about just scraping by.
Um, and, uh, and that, that allowed the journey list, this nonstop training journey, it allowed it to be fun, which was actually the key.
And that's something that I would, I would stress is you got to find a way to make this, this path fun.
Yep. Absolutely. So that, that, you know, you talked about your days prior to the military and then, you know, your military days and then your transition and then GI, and then you went to your CS program.
What question do you have for me or what, what, what, you know, from a recruiter?
And fortunately we have another recruiter here at Cloudflare that actually also served.
He couldn't join us today, but he was also a serviceman.
Uh, he was a serviceman, excuse me.
Um, and you know, you know, he's done amazing stuff to help the service community here as well, Cloudflare.
But that said, like, you know, what questions do you have for me that would, you know, maybe help someone who's watching our program today?
Yeah. Yeah. Well, the, the obvious ones are, um, uh, are there any resume smells, uh, like if you, do you see, uh, like a cliche, um, uh, prop pop up on veteran resumes frequently that you're like, Oh God, you shouldn't have written that or, um.
Not so much, but you know, my, my, my, maybe my advice to that is, you know, you, you got to approach it and tailor the resume to the job you're applying to.
Right. And you, and that's just, just trying to get your foot in the door.
Right. And so talk about, you know, your, you mentioned this earlier, even when you said, you know, Hey, I literally did tech when I was in the military and I just didn't figure out how to convey it on my resume.
You need to figure out how to convey that on your resume, you know, and specifically if it's for like a role that, you know, you may not have the traditional education for, for example, if you're applying for a computer science or CS and engineering role here, then, then you really need to be able to elevate yourself and talk about that.
But for the most part, when you think about just your traits and where, you know, that's naturally fall within, you know, transitioning to, uh, you know, outside of tech and into a professional career, not, not tech in general, but, you know, you look at, you know, possible opportunities as well.
So there's, there's, there's places where, you know, it's a natural fit, if you will, for, for vets, because vets are so teamwork mentality oriented, like, you know, client engagement, you know, those kinds of spaces, right.
Speaks to potentially for vets, um, you know, uh, here at, you know, tying it back to Cloudflare, right.
So there's like roles like CSM roles, right.
Where a customer support manager role or account manager's role, or even project manager type roles, because, you know, when you're in the, if you're in the military, you're probably managing a project and you didn't even know about it.
Yeah. Right. So, so you need to be able to talk about that.
Yeah, that's very good. Um, I, uh, I I'm also curious about, um, like, uh, about, about stereotypes, like are, is it, is, um, are, are, are stereotypes of veterans something that you see in your, your field and recruiting?
Um, did you suffer from any yourself, maybe from your own family history or, and then later realize, uh, um, the, an error or, um, like what sort of, what are your thoughts on that?
Yeah. So, so, you know, I'll talk about the, from a recruiter perspective, I think the common, or even hiring manager perspective, and I kind of alluded to this earlier, I think, uh, it's a very, uh, common stereotype to, you know, you assume that a veteran, uh, is not adaptable, right?
A veteran can't come into a tech place and be able to move fast and pivot and, and, and, and, and also excel, but in, you know, contrary, that's not the case.
I mean, that is the trait of a veteran or anyone in the service, right?
It's because, I mean, you think about it, you're like, you're training someone to potentially go to war and be able to react immediately to make life decisions, you know?
Um, and so, so I think that's a common stereotype, whether it's, you know, uh, for anyone, let alone going to tech.
Um, so I think that's a, you know, misconception I think as recruiters and, and, and hiring managers need to overcome and, and, and really see the value and what a veteran can bring to their table.
Very good. Well, um, Tuan, thank you for joining me for this.
I- Oh, thank you for having me. I love hearing your story. Thank you.
And again, thank you for your service. Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.
All right. Take good care. Bye everyone.