Veterans and service leavers enter the employment market with a unique set of skills. Unfortunately, these do not always translate easily into industry terminology, resulting in unemployment and under employment in the veteran community. Not-for-profit organisation TechVets teaches veterans and service leavers to combine their military experience with sought-after digital skills to gain sustainable careers in info security.
TechVets CEO James Murphy had his first tour in Afghanistan in 2007 where he received life long injuries. “Nothing serious,” says he, but the injuries did force him to rethink his career path he had set out for himself and put him on the road where he is now. “I was a generalist, like most in the military. Shallow in knowledge but adaptable.” He started working in intelligence and when he left the army in 2020, found a tech job fairly soon. He became a member of TechVets and a volunteer which in turn helped him find his first role after the Military with GDS as head of Cyber Threat Intelligence. In January 2020 he applied successfully for the job of CEO and it has been “a whirlwind adventure ever since”. All his well-made plans got upset by Covid-19, but not for long. As Murphy puts it: “We were all online anyway, then all learning moved online too and we are used to being adaptable. But Covid had a real impact on ensuring the community was adequately supported given the impact of isolation and the affect on job hunting for those leaving the military. For many military people the Corona crisis is just another operational exercise, but being co-located with your family rather than being apart.”
With partners such as SANS, TechVets teaches veterans digital skills that are in huge demand. Its community of volunteers share support and advice on transitioning into cyber or tech. Although it has become easier to change careers, there are still hurdles veterans and leavers face after military life. Their lack of industry experience, for starters. Murphy explains: “Their 5, 12 or 20 years of service are all about operational delivery, delivering the mission and time bound objectives using multi-discipline teams whilst managing resource allocation. They often have the same experience as people in industry, but use a different language to describe it.” And sometimes they run into another hurdle: prejudice. Movies and tv-shows quite often depict the veteran as the older, rugged introvert with PTSD and/or suicidal tendencies. “It is but one of many misconceptions about the military,” says Murphy. “The British military has 14,000 leavers every year. Many of them are young people and reporting suggests that there are as many in the military community with PTSD as there are in the civilian population. ”
Graeme Manzi is a volunteer at TechVets, he manages the SANS partnership. Young Manzi had aspirations of becoming a chemical engineer, but dropped that idea for the military. He served five years full time and is still a Royal Marines Reservist. In Afghanistan he worked as a signaller, an expert with data and communication systems, and received a commendation for doing the job of 3 people on his own. After he left the military, he started a personal training business in London. That ended when he got hit by a car and broke his neck. “I needed to do something different,” he says drily. Manzi had fond memories of his dad’s computer shop which had sparked an interest in computers for him early on, years later this is what led him to get involved in TechVets. He obtained an MSc in Information Security (InfoSec) and joined Bridewell Consultancy in 2020 as a cyber security consultant. “Cybersecurity had the same appeal for me as the military: a desire to protect people. The principles we are taught in the military translate from the physical to the digital. How hard is it to learn the technology? That depends, but the perseverance you learn in the military helps.”
As one of the training partners, SANS offers premium training for TechVets members. “We love SANS,” says Murphy. “Not many TechVets members can afford premium training, but now we can offer it once a month to people who want to break into the industry.” Manzi adds that SANS is the gold standard in InfoSec training. “Many vets have military qualifications but no civilian equivalent. Qualifications from SANS and GIAC are recognised in the industry and then their potential is recognised immediately. SANS’ instructors are an authority on their subject and the extra bits and pieces they teach make the training invaluable.”
Manzi has to select one person a month for the premium training. “It has to be someone that will make the most of the partnership. People who have taken the initiative and that are involved in the community. It is important for us that people give back.”
When asked about the advantages of hiring a TechVets member, Murphy and Manzi can list quite a few. Murphy says: “We are robust and adaptable. We are trained to work in teams and to strengthen the weakest member to become the strongest team. The military focuses on professional skills with an emphasis on defending people or preventing attacks against people and buildings. Military have an ingrained ability to assess a threat. We always assess the level of risk and threat and we do that in a split second. That is very useful in cyber security.”
Manzi concurs and adds that “Veterans have a lot to give. We are tenacious, we rarely have a 9-to-5 mentality, will work until the mission is accomplished and we want to make a difference. Compared to graduates, service leavers of the same age generally need less guidance. They can be trusted to work independently and have real world experience, often operating in extremely difficult situations and environments.”
He says that in the military in general, people enjoy being part of a team and are trained to be capable and adaptable. And that qualities such as “cheerfulness in adversity” and “unselfishness” help cultivate a positive can do attitude, which veterans have in abundance.