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From the Military into Software Engineering (1/5): The Exit

Leaving the Military

Please note: this section especially is just my opinion, driven by my own experience at Fort Gordon, GA in 2017. Yours may be very different.

That being said, the first couple of tips aren’t specific to engineering.

  1. You’re not destined to succeed.

    This article is great, and sums up this point well. For years before leaving, like many peers, I had this preconception that the red carpet would just roll out for me into some sweet role I couldn’t even picture yet. Spoiler alert: not the case. If you don’t actively manage your transition, the only thing waiting for you is unemployment.

  2. Get the required transition tasks out of the way ASAP.

    The required transition program was not the best use of my time when time was already short, and the long click-through trainings and lectures about VA benefits (a) can be easily summarized in a page each and (b) interfere with the real tasks that can make or break your transition.

  3. Take the advice of senior figures with a grain of salt

    You’ll probably be required to sit down with a commander, who may try and talk you out of leaving, or express doubts in your plan. Generally, if that leader were optimistic about his/her own future as a civilian, they wouldn’t be lecturing you as a commander right now.

  4. Forget SFL-TAP: Ask the Experts

    SFL-TAP is a vital program to take care of the average soldier/sailor/marine getting out, often without an education or without marketable skills.

    If you’re going into software engineering, that’s not you.

    This is a great time for you. There are brand-new, incredibly valuable resources just for people like you. Use them!

    Look into these at the very least:

    • Breakline Education provides seminars, networking, and placement assistance, and has a network unlike any other;
    • Shift will place you in a Silicon Valley startup while you’re still employed by the military (after a full interview loop with that company). Often, this translates into a job offer for a smooth, immediate exit. They’re growing fast, to new companies and cities all the time. Young, for-profit, venture-backed company, with all the good and bad that brings.
    • Veterati is an online network of veteran mentors. Some mentors show more promise than others, but this is definitely worth a shot.
    • Hiring our Heroes at the very least. Government-run, so no profit-driven incentives to place you where you don’t belong. Word from one participant mentioned a series of mandatory events through the course of the program, generally unrelated to the desired career field.

    There is an incredible veteran network building in the tech world, including San Francisco. Tap into it. Shift, Breakline, and Hiring our Heroes all have programs for during your transition, so you can get your career moving and your network growing before you get your DD-214.

    Note: these programs are relatively new and only a very small minority of transitioning servicemembers qualify for and are interested in these kinds of jobs. This is an unorthodox track that most Army bureaucrats won’t be prepared for. It will take grit to fight through that bureaucracy, but don’t give up!

    The other companies that focus on JMO’s, that you’ve probably been getting spammed by for years, seem to focus on 20th-century middle management and sales.

  5. Remember that these helping hands (and others) have their own incentives.

    Headhunter/placement companies may not cost you anything, but they’re not charities. Competent engineers are highly prized and valuable to companies, and they pay the headhunter well for you. The top engineers out there (not you, probably … sorry!) fetch headhunting bonuses of up to $100k. Even friends and contacts get cash referral bonuses (often around $5k) when they bring you into their company. Don’t let any mentor or company talk you into something you don’t want. Search out all of your options, and get multiple opinions.

  6. Search out short-term roles and duties that you can parlay onto your resume…

    If I hadn’t done this, I would have been mowing lawns (literally, no joke) for my final few months, as happened to every other transitioning officer at my unit. I found a role maintaining a local OpenStack deployment, which not only became a prime resume talking point, but also showed me what it was that I wanted to do.

  7. …but even if you can’t, skill up!

    Anyone can BS soft skills in an interview, but you can’t BS code!

Building Technical Skill

  1. Programming is only one part of software engineering

    Ana Ulin puts it well. Programming is what you do as a hobby - but there is so much more to collaboration, maintaining code written a decade ago (or more), quality/testing, and office politics.

  2. Your soft skills are already as good as anyone expects from an engineer; your hard skills (always) need practice

    Don’t bother paying for a bootcamp until you’ve exhausted all the free training available, which is probably impossible. A few places to start:

    But those books, videos, and exercises teach programming and not engineering. Don’t forget:

    • GitHub: take your language of choice, find some leading projects in that language, and look at their issue queues for issues marked ‘beginner’, ‘quick win’, etc.
    • Contests: check out Kaggle if you’re interested in machine learning/data science, or DevPost for development work. Both encourage collaboration and networking, and you might win some money! I won the first contest I entered.
  3. Want a Master’s Degree? Georgia Tech OMSCS

    This is an excellent, affordable (~$7000) online program that has tracks in low-level systems design, software architecture, machine learning, AI, and user experience. You don’t need a CS degree to apply (a technical background helps), but will need to be ready to dedicate 20-30 hours a week to classes. You can take breaks of up to one semester at a time to give room for other things in life. You also don’t need to take the GRE - the application only requires 3 letters of recommendation and a resume. If we know each other, please reach out to me for one of the recommendation letters.

    The degree is indistinguishable from that earned on-campus, except for the price tag. Even at that low cost, the program almost pays for itself in all the free perks that come with it. The software I use, provided for free through school, would cost over $1500/year out of pocket.

    The school also offers a similar degree in Analytics, with some course overlap between the two programs.

Next: Getting the Job