In honor of this Friday’s Veterans’ Day, Channelnomics speaks to a Navy vet about the challenges of transitioning to life in the tech sector.
The 2016 Presidential debates produced almost 300 minutes of politically packed content, yet the word “veteran” was only used three times.
Regardless of what side of the aisle you associate with, it’s likely that many watched the debates with disappointment that veterans were not given more air time. With what remains exceptionally high suicide, unemployment and poverty rates, veterans’ issues remain significant and need to be explicitly addressed. Along with this, programs to help veterans transition back into civilian society, and the civilian workplace needs to be given more attention and funding, along with higher levels of participation from businesses and employers.
The tech industry is an obvious choice for veterans for many reasons – not least that it is a booming industry with massive skills gaps. The channel in particular is struggling significantly to fill posts that require security expertise, for example, which although may not be an immediate slot-in for a veteran, offers the opportunity for key transferable skills to be put to good use when moving from the military to a civilian career.
There are channel firms operating programs for veterans. Continuum’s Veterans Foundation works with the Atlanta-based organization, Hire Heroes USA, which helps find veterans jobs. Continuum itself also provides preferential consideration in hiring veterans to work for the MSP platform vendor.
Despite such programs, it remains a difficult path for many veterans when trying to return to civilian life. In honor of Friday’s Veterans’ Day, here at Channelnomics we spoke with Justin Ossola, cofounder of Tech Qualled – a training company that works with veterans seeking to enter the world of high-tech sales – and a U.S. Navy veteran, to learn more about that journey.
What was one of the key challenges you faced when leaving the military for civilian life?
When I transitioned out of the military, I had everything going for me – two college degrees, my physical and mental health, and a clear vision of what I wanted to do, which was to break into high-tech sales.
I was a best-case scenario transitioning veteran, one of the lucky ones, yet I still struggled greatly to land on my feet. I didn’t have a technical background from my time in the Navy, so my shortcomings could be summed up in one phrase: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was determined to find an academic program or degree that would help me bridge my knowledge gap and land my dream job.
How helpful were the programs you found?
Unfortunately, the veteran transition assistance programs available back in 2012 failed me. There was no Udacity, Coursera or EDx. I found it impossible to identify affordable and relevant training, and most university-
sponsored programs focused on theory rather than practice. I was on my own.
How did you go from this to founding Tech Qualled?
After finally breaking into the tech space with jobs at IBM and Oracle, I helped start Tech Qualled to specifically address the needs of transitioning veterans, as well as to help solve the massive talent shortage I had seen in the technology space.
We started out by creating a training curriculum to help transitioning veterans break into the high-tech sector through the trending concept of massive open online courses. We knew veterans had immense and often difficult-to-explain soft skills, such as leadership experience, but severely lacked in the hard skills that hiring managers expected. We spent a year building and tweaking our program to ensure that it did more than just enhance veterans’ knowledge – we recognized the need to facilitate a medium in which veterans could harness personal reinvention.
Leaving a career in the military requires that veterans significantly let go of who they were yesterday and focus on creating a personal brand of who they want to be right now.
What key issues have you sought to address at Tech Qualled?
The first is accessibility. The veterans we work with are all in different stages of their transition to civilian life. Most are still on active duty while they job search and thus responsible for the daily challenges of managing military operations. Others are on deployment overseas or are in the midst of relocating their families across the country. In all cases, transitioning military veterans brings a unique set of challenges when it comes to virtual training.
Along with this, the curriculum has to be quality, it has to be engaging and personalized to their level of knowledge and learning pace and it has to be accessible. For us, that meant limiting the number of ‘mandatory’ lectures that students must attend.
At Tech Qualled, we host one weekly virtual forum where we have a guest subject matter expert recap the week’s topic and answer our students’ questions. The rest of the curriculum is self-paced and can be completed at a time that best suits the student – as long as they don’t fall more than a week behind.
Leveraging mobility is another strategy we have incorporated. The learning software we use is compliant with most mobile operating systems so that our training platform can be accessed by our students anywhere and at any time.
The next key issue is communicating expectations. Our team empathizes with the positions veterans find themselves in as they transition, but we are also extremely clear about standards and the need for accountability when completing our program. Grading assignments on time and giving thorough feedback lets our students know that this is not a course they can simply click through.
Through cold-calling on the weekly forums and mentorship discussions with our CEO, we demand proof of improvement from our students. If a student is not completing assignments on time, he or she is subject to removal from the program. Ultimately, students are most comfortable and perform best when they know what is expected of them. Clearly communicating these standards maximizes student attrition, learning retention and overall satisfaction.
The third key issue is finding the right people. One of the lessons we have learned at Tech Qualled is how to find the right students to participate. We have a clearly defined selection process, including three interviews and comprehensive tests, and boast a very competitive acceptance rate (about fifteen percent). Finding the right people to put into a virtual classroom is important – after all, the technology space is not for everyone.
Do you keep in touch with the veterans you train once they have finished your programs?
Understanding what types of student are attracted to your program is important, but tracking them as they progress in their career after your program is critical to understanding how to streamline your vetting process. In particular, when applying to an online educational environment, there needs to be a threshold for acceptance. Receiving our free training is a privilege, not a right, and students should feel good about who they are seated next to.
In the military, there is an old adage ‘it’s all about the guy or gal sitting next to you’. I’ve found this particularly relevant to a virtual training environment. The more closely aligned each student is from a mission, values and career aspiration perspective to others in their virtual class, the more each student will get out of the experience.
Ossola is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, received a Master in Business Administration degree from Georgetown University and a Master in Public Administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School.