MOAA’s 2021 Transition Guide: The Digital Domain

MOAA’s 2021 Transition Guide: The Digital Domain
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Editor’s Note: This article by Todd Gilchrist is part of MOAA’s 2021 Transition Guide. A version of the guide appeared in the December 2020 issue of Military Officer magazine.


As technology enables greater connectivity with devices in our homes, and companies transition from brick-and-mortar spaces to virtual marketplaces, cybersecurity has become one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. The abundance of jobs in this sector — and the need for this kind of support — challenges servicemembers to adapt their skills to an expanding field, but also gives them a unique opportunity.


“I think IT is the wave of the future,” said Cmdr. Chuck Papas, USN (Ret), who now works as a principal multidisciplinary engineer for the not-for-profit research and development organization MITRE. “Particularly in the COVID environment, we have two different economies right now: the IT economy, which is doing great; and a labor-intensive force, which is suffering. That should be the clear wake-up call that the labor force that migrates toward IT skills has a future.”


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Cybersecurity is a great career path for veterans for a couple of reasons, said former Capt. Stephen Semmelroth, USA, vice president of cyber for StrataCore.


“First, it’s very mission focused, so veterans who still want a sense of service and duty can have one,” Semmelroth said. “They are literally defending a large population against attack, loss, theft, and reputation damage. Second, one of the first things that you do is attempt to understand the threat. All of the analysis that you do to accomplish a [military] mission directly translates to the same thought process and analysis in the cybersecurity domain.”


More practically, the evolution of technology even in just the past few years indicates increasing needs for cybersecurity in a variety of industries, said CWO4 Fernando Tomlinson, USA, who works in the forensics and malware analysis branch at Army Cyber Command.


“Literally everything in our house has an IP address and talks or communicates,” said Tomlinson. “So it’s a recession-free skill in my opinion, because everything we do on an electric system requires defense, and that will continue to grow.”


Training and Resources

There are many paths to explore in cybersecurity, from entry-level analysis to digital forensics. Josh Mason, a cyber instructor who is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, said that as impenetrable as the field may seem, there are abundant resources to get veterans started.


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“Cyber is not that hard, but it is cryptic — it’s not something we do every day,” Mason said. “But there’s a bunch of free information just sitting out there, waiting for people to take it. There’s YouTube videos that can teach you exactly what to do. MIT and Harvard’s whole cybersecurity or computer science curriculum is available on YouTube. … There’s tons of tools.”


Training is essential for job duties and career mobility, but Semmelroth believes achievement milestones are less important on paper than they are in the field.


“As a general caveat, I’m going to say don’t worry about certifications,” Semmelroth said. “Focus on the skills, because they will get you further than the certifications.”


Papas suggests that veterans can have the greatest success with a combination of technical skill and operational resilience.


“It’s absolutely imperative for those who have done a career in the service to be able to demonstrate a willingness to change and adapt,” Papas said. “One of the things the military does is it has a very rigorous way it develops its people and its expectations. The commercial world and the IT field is much more free-floating. Those who don’t adapt will not do well.”


Finding Cyber Jobs

When it comes to finding jobs, there are myriad placement firms that specialize in matching veterans with opportunities.


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“When you have the top-secret clearance and a cybersecurity pedigree, there seems to be infinite demand for jobs across the Booz Allen Hamiltons [technology consulting firms] of the world, as well as small contracting firms,” said Christopher Perry, BMC software lead product manager. “I ended up using a company called Brake Line, an education organization that specializes in getting veterans into tech. They have relationships with everything from Facebook, Palantir to BMC software, and for all major companies that have hiring veteran initiatives.”


Meanwhile, Papas says a good way to start is by consulting periodicals in your city or community that evaluate local businesses. Once you reach the interviewing stage, Perry encourages job candidates to draw from their time in the military to showcase technical, decision-making, and dispositional skills.


“Tell your stories of how you led soldiers in combat, and how you had to make tough decisions with real-world implications,” he said, “because those are pretty profound decisions and challenges that I still think are quite appreciated and respected. You need to translate that to something they understand, but be proud of it.”


Although Tomlinson is still a year away from retirement, he said he’s eager to leverage his military experience as he explores private sector job offerings.


“Having the opportunity to serve my country, learn cyber skills that I can utilize outside the military, and continuously gain exposure and experience to address threats in the world, I think it’s great,” he said. “I mean, I can say I defended the network of the Department of Defense; employers are looking for that. And when we look at transitioning to the civilian side, being able to take some of that experience with us is priceless.”


Todd Gilchrist is a writer based in California.


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