Civic Tech

A Soldier’s Journey from Big Tech to Government Innovation

Feb 1, 2021

I served in the United States Army, both at home and abroad, for five transformative years. I loved the people I worked with, the atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the collective sense of duty. But at the end of my contract, I was ready to try something new.

After the Army, I was fortunate to transition into the technology industry, where I took a role as a program manager. I had few marketable technical skills, but I was eager to contribute to my new team where I could. Veterans have the superpower of being able to learn. We learn quickly, efficiently, and with a passion for the work. Most of us didn’t know how to be military intelligence specialists, supply planners, or infantrymen until we were them. We’re resilient in the face of challenges and change. 

Looking back on my journey from active duty to big tech, and now to my new journey in government innovation, I want to share my learnings. Whether you’re a service member, a veteran, or a technologist, you can adapt each as you tackle new chapters, personally and professionally. 

Ask the right questions (even, and especially, if they’re hard questions)

Much of what I learned in the military about being results-driven and a reliable teammate I was able to leverage in my tech role. I found the right people to learn from and discovered the right questions to ask. Just one example is the Military Skills Translator I co-developed with my former colleagues. Our hackathon team tackled the issue of lagging veteran employment in the technology industry. We asked the tough questions about our background and our industry to get to a solution that wasn’t clear at the outset. The tool allows veterans to use their military job title to find Facebook careers relevant to their experience. 

I saw first hand what talented people with the right resources could accomplish in a short amount of time. Always in the back of my mind was the idea that the same experience could be had in the military and the public sector. 

Mission matters

After a few years away from the Army, I began to feel like I was missing an important piece of my identity. I was enjoying my work and my colleagues, but I was not striving towards a personally fulfilling mission. I needed a second tour of service.

I also reflected on the fact that many veterans and their families are not as fortunate as I was in the transition from the military to the civilian world. If there was a way to help others, I knew that’s where I needed to be. I discovered Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF), and it was the perfect opportunity to combine my personal interests and newfound professional skills. No one leaves the military because they are tired of serving their country. This was a way for me to reconnect to the selfless community I have always felt drawn to. 

So I went for it. I applied to PIF and got the offer to join the 2020 cohort. I was thrilled to learn that the agency I’d be working with - or detailed to, as we call it - was the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But I was also apprehensive. The experience was no different than being a brand new soldier, falsely assuming I had to know everything on the first day.

Innovators aren’t always disruptors; innovators build people up 

When I joined VA, I was heralded as a technology expert, but the truth was, talented and knowledgeable professionals were all around me, I just had to find ways to remove bureaucratic barriers and elevate good ideas to the right people.

Ultimately, I am heartened by the great work being done at VA and I am excited about the small part I get to play in it. In my first year as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, I supported the talented and dedicated researchers at VA’s Office of Research and Development. Now, I’m excited to be beginning another year in the VA’s Office of the CTO, where I am helping implement a data and analytics platform to enable efficient decision making, and ultimately, better care for veterans and their families.

To be sure, there are still mountains to move. I’ve lost good friends, fellow veterans, and colleagues to deaths by suicide and beared witness to the frustration inherent in interacting with large government systems. There is always more work to be done if you simply look for it.

The search is just as important as the solution

Government service offers many intangible benefits to technologists, including opportunities for entrepreneurship, camaraderie, and impact. Civic tech is entrepreneurial in nature; it’s about challenging the status quo and finding value everywhere you look, even in the most unexpected places. Serving in government means you get to join a group of mission-driven professionals who are always searching for ways to better serve the American people. You are rewarded with the knowledge that you can have an impact on both the personal and national scale. 

To my fellow veterans - I believe in you. I believe in us. To my fellow PIFs and VA colleagues - thank you for showing me that mission-driven work knows no bounds. Here’s to new chapters of civic tech service.

Are you passionate about technology as a tool to improve lives? Interested in using your expertise for public good? That’s what Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) is all about. Learn more about PIF at our website, and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to find the latest work from our Fellows. (Our applications are usually open in February of each calendar year!)