Closing the skills gap: Why ex-military are suited for roles in tech

Ex-Army officers from EMC and QlickTech believe that companies should be doing more to encourage ex-military into the IT sector

Two ex-army officers believe the UK government has finally taken note that citizens who have been overseas fighting deserve to come back to good jobs.

They believe that although the recent Troops to Teachers scheme – designed to fast-track highly-skilled former military personnel to become teachers within two years – is a step in the right direction, there is more that can be done in other industry sectors.

Faced with the skills shortage in the IT sector, Computer Weekly talked to the two ex-officers who have made the move from the military into the world of technology.

James Petter, vice-president and country manager UK and Ireland of EMC, said: “I naively thought I could step into a civilian equivalent. I can’t tell you how many applications I put out that were rejected. Businesses wanted someone commercial. I wouldn’t have taken me either.”

Petter may be responsible for EMC’s overall revenue generation, management and business strategy in the UK and Ireland now, but his passion from the age of 12 was the army. With his father and grandfather both having had careers in the army, and an uncle in the Royal Navy, Petter was drawn to the opportunities that the occupation had to offer.

He spent seven years in the British Army (Royal Green Jackets), where he completed officer training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Prior to EMC in 2004, he held several senior sales roles at Cisco Systems, Telstra and Coca Cola.

Translation problems

Petter explained that his biggest challenge was the use of military jargon on his CV. 

According to Petter, it would be easy if each ex-soldier was interviewed by someone who had experience of the armed forces. But the chances of this are slim. 

“There is a translation issue where ex-military don’t understand civilian terms and vice versa," Petter said. "We surround ourselves with jargon in the army, but you know how to command 150 people for instance.”

Sean Farrington UK managing director and RVP Northern Europe of QlikTech, agreed that translating military experience into something understandable to the civilian world is an issue. 

“When my dad was doing national service, everyone knew the jargon back then and knew how the experience transitioned," Farrington said. "But not anymore.

“Former military need to interview you and say in clear terms what it is that you have done and achieved.”

Mentioning the government’s Troops to Teachers scheme, he added: “Whether you agree or not with having a fast-track route for ex-military, we should advertise an alternative to a degree. 

"So a job advert could say a degree needed or the equivalent to X amount of years in one of the services. It would help ex-military to realise where their rung on the career ladder is.

“The military are very good at giving skills, but in a particular setting. It can be challenging to envision yourself outside of it.”

Farrington made the point that certain military disciplines transfer better than others. For instance, the Royal Signals is more suited for the telecoms sector. 

“Telecoms companies are very good at trying to bridge this gap,” he said.

Farrington is responsible for the European operations of software company QlikTech. In his mid-30s, he saw a window of opportunity which saw him leave his UK army officer post and join the technology sector.  

He spent 14 years in the British Army with roles ranging from running an ammunition depot and bomb disposal unit in Northern Ireland to air combat in the first Gulf War.

After he graduated from Sandhurst, he joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and later the Royal Logistics Corps. Farrington was also given the opportunity to train as a pilot. As a captain he secured a place in the Air Corps and trained as a helicopter pilot.

He chose not to take a civilian role in the military, but instead took the option of redundancy after the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s.

Farrington joined QlickTech in 2009, after a stint in e-commerce and the business software and intelligence sectors. He worked at Rockwell, the US engineering company, spending four years in Stockholm, before ending up at SAP for nine and a half years.  

Perfect match for skills

Both Petter and Farrington believe that ex-military personnel are a perfect match for the IT sector for several reasons.

Petter said: “The military has a strong ethos that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Candidates would be resilient and capable of working in adverse environments.

"They are team players that can drive and lead. In the army, you are told never to give an order that you couldn’t follow yourself.”  

According to Farrington: “An employer should realise that an ex-military candidate is loyal, hardworking, will go beyond their comfort zone and can work at a fast pace. But there is no cookie-cutter for ex-military. You have to tailor them to your skills.

“The military becomes more and more technical as the years pass. They now have a lot of tech kit strapped to their back, in their ear, maybe video. When I left, two people would have a radio, now everyone has one. It is much more complex now, even at infantry level,” he added.

Putting yourself forward

For anyone thinking of putting themselves forward as a mentor to ex-military personal, Petter said: “If someone would’ve sat me down and said here are your skills, do a work placement, know who you want to target, etc, then it would’ve got me there a lot quicker.”

Farrington agreed that someone in the IT sector who has previously served in the forces would be key in helping a new candidate translate his/her military skills into a value proposition for a business.

“Don’t be deceived by your own preconceived ideas of how civilian life will view you. Don’t underestimate the value you have. Capture your skills and present them to an employer,” he said.  

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