By Dan Zehr – American-Statesman Staff
If Michael Lynn didn’t fully understand the instability that military life can inflict on a soldier’s family, he got a better sense for it in 2012.
When Lynn, then a counterespionage case officer in the U.S. Air Force, stepped off a plane in Afghanistan that July, his father and brother were there to greet him. The following day, his wife arrived for her own deployment.
“All four of us were there while mom was back in Reston with the dogs,” Lynn said. “She’s a strong lady.”
Such is life in a family dedicated to the military and the foreign service. But when Lynn’s daughter was born in January 2014, he and his wife also knew they wanted a different life for her.
“My wife and I took a good hard look at where we came from and where we were going,” he said. “We didn’t want to have her face mom and dad deploying.”
So over the next year, they started planning for life after the military. On the advice of a mentor, they saved enough money to cover a six-month transition. And by the end of last year, while starting the official transition process, Lynn linked up with a recruiting firm that placed with veterans with private-sector companies.
He went through multiple rounds of interviews, but nothing quite fit. And then he heard from Justin Ossola.
Ossola worked for Tech Qualled, a firm launched by a retired Austin tech executive to train soldiers for advanced, high-tech sales jobs. The company had just joined the host of training and recruitment firms that try to help the tens of thousands of veterans who transition from military to civilian life each month.
Most training programs focus on enlisted soldiers. But Tech Qualled offered a different approach.
It recruits officers and college-educated enlisted soldiers who, after an intense 10-week training course, can slot comfortably into technically demanding sales roles at high-tech companies. And it supplements that curriculum with a full-service support program designed to help students navigate their transition into civilian life.
Because it was so new, Lynn was skeptical at first. But he had also started to feel increasingly anxious about his pending shift out of the Air Force, which he’d joined straight out of Boston University. The breadth of support won him over.
“We knew it was a gamble, especially since we were class No. 1,” he said. “But having met the Tech Qualled team and seen the dedication and commitment they were bringing to the table, I knew even If I had to give it another few weeks they were going to see it through and put me in front of a company that wanted me on their team.”
All 11 members of the first class have landed jobs. Lynn and his family moved to Austin, where he works as an enterprise account executive with Blackberry.
‘Working for a purpose’
Jim Sherriff has no military experience, but he knows how fraught the soldier-to-civilian crossover can be. His two nephews struggled when they cycled out of the military. One eventually made it through; the other took his own life.
“My brother dealt with his grief by starting a foundation that helped veterans who were struggling with their transitions,” Sherriff said. “It had really good intentions, but it was not a scalable model.”
Having wrapped up a 35-year career in executive and sales leadership roles with Hewlett-Packard and Cisco, Sherriff dedicated himself to developing a self-sustaining organization that could help veterans make that transition.
He and his wife, Karen, developed Tech Qualled. (The name is a play off the military jargon for “qualified.”) They initially saw it as a nonprofit training program, but they made two critical changes while participating in Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative — a program for people ” transitioning from working for a living to working for a purpose,” Sheriff said.
First, they decided to launch as a for-profit company, so they could attract more funding and talent. Then they brought on Ossola and Nick Breedlove, two veterans who were working toward master’s degrees and brought extensive military experience.
And then the Sherriffs took it a step further, designing a corporate and capital structure that, over time, will shift majority ownership of the company to the veterans who work there.
Do something different
Today, Tech Qualled offers an account executive track, which readies students for external sales roles, and an engineering management track, which trains veterans for technical roles associated that support sales teams.
It’s free for the veterans who participate, Sherriff said, with revenue coming from placement fees paid by companies.
For employers like Wayne Fullerton, senior vice president for sales at PCM-G, which sells technology to the armed forces and other public-sector customers, the combination of military experience and private sector skills makes the investment well worth it.
“I think it gives me an unfair advantage over my competitors who aren’t hiring the veterans who know the mission,” Fullerton said. “I’m hiring guys who did it.”
Fullerton said he appreciated the altruistic side of hiring veterans, but he’s run the numbers and seen a financial return on the placement fees he pays Tech Qualled to hire its graduates. He hired three from the first cohort and is already talking to some of the program’s 15 current students.
But that’s not always an easy blend to create.
“The perception is that veterans are too hierarchical and structured,” Sherriff said. “They need to be able to deal with more ambiguity and flexibility, especially in a sales role.”
Tech Qualled bakes that into the program. For example, it leaves instructions in its online exercises vague or open to interpretation, pushing veterans used to the military’s structure to think more creatively. They even bring a Dallas improv comedy troupe in as an icebreaker for boot camp.
The training and support aren’t cheap — currently costing Tech Qualled in excess of $10,000 to put a student through the program, Sheriff said. But he said he expects those costs to drop as the program adds more capacity and they put processes in place to support students without the heavy oversight needed in the startup phase.
For now, Sherriff said he is more concerned about getting transitioning soldiers into the Tech Qualled program. So he, Ossola and the rest of the team are busy reaching out to soldiers like Michelle Kimbrough, one of the program’s current students.
A graduate of West Point, Kimbrough hopes to find a job near Fort Bragg, where her husband is stationed as a newly minted Green Beret. It can be harder to find jobs in specific locations, and as of last week she was preparing for some second-round interviews.
After seven years in the military, she said, the transition was going well, even though she hadn’t followed the same path her West Point classmates took. Many had gone on to graduate school. Most of the rest linked up with recruiting and job-placement agencies.
“And then there’s the rest of us,” she said, “who kind of want to do something different.”
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