People, Person, Blonde, Female, Woman

Old Dogs and New Tricks: The Journey to a Post-Military Career

By Matt Berry

The story of a military career, told in patches and mementos

The Day I Walked Away

After giving it ten years of your life, it is hard to describe the emotions that you experience on the day you leave the military.

There is excitement for something new. Military members love to talk about someday, “When I’m out and have freedom again.” On the last day, when you sign the paperwork during your “Final Out” appointment, that moment has finally come.

The Atlas V rocket that lifted off the day the author walked away, official designated as NRO L-79. Photo credit to Vandenberg AFB Public Affairs

There is pride in the things we’ve accomplished, the people we’ve known, and the flag on our uniform.

Perhaps the strongest emotion of all is the trepidation of the unknown. How am I going to support my family? How will I fit in outside of the military? Have I already reached my peak? Is it all downhill from here?

I remember all those feelings, and more, circling through my mind on that Wednesday afternoon in March. I remember looking at the horizon just in time to see an Atlas V rocket lifting up from Space Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3, pronounced “slick three”). I couldn’t tell if the vibration in my chest was the thunderous roar of the rocket engine, or my own anxiety for the path ahead.

Let’s back up.

About five months before watching that rocket lift off, I knew I was going to separate from the Air Force. I had been toying with the idea for years, but had never committed to “dropping papers,” as we used to call it. My specialty was Nuclear and Missile Operations, and I had built a niche for myself among my peers as a bit of a nerd in all things nuclear strategy and physics. What exactly was I supposed to do with that knowledge and experience I had amassed? It’s not as if Google or Microsoft are looking for nuclear operators to solve world problems.

Then it happened. I submitted my forms and the date was set. Whether I was ready or not, things were in motion. So I did what any veteran learns to do: Figure it out.

In the months that followed, I met with my bosses, peers, and even subordinates. One thing became clear: they were all hoping for my success in a post-military career. The fact that I had formed good relationships with these people was only a small part of their attitude. They saw their own futures ahead as well.

An early morning test launch of a Minuteman III ICBM, the author’s old warhorse. Photo credit to Vandenberg AFB Public Affairs

The general feeling was, We’re looking to you and the path you are forging, because none of us have been there. We all know it will come some day, though. We can’t offer you advice, we can’t mentor you, and we can’t offer you a job. All we can do is give you anything you need to get there.

No pressure, I thought.

The months that followed were a flurry of research, studying, resume writing (and rewriting), interview practice, tweaking my LinkedIn page, applications, phone calls, interviews, and all the trappings of the job hunt. All the while, I kept reporting progress back to everyone in my corner. I shared lessons learned, and helped others prepare their own resumes.

You know, just in case.

I attended the mandatory workshops preparing us for the “transition” to the civilian world. I asked for, received, and gave huge amounts of feedback on my skills and background. As many career hunters know, looking for the next job is nearly a job unto itself. Complicating things even more was the fact that I still had my regular job to do, leading people and solving problems.

And then the day came. I completed my “final out” and shared teary goodbyes with friends and coworkers. I watched that rocket lift off over the horizon and then went home to take off my uniform for the last time. Even today, it still feels surreal.

The Way Forward

Looking back, I realized that I was extremely fortunate. I had already accepted a position at Appian about a month before my final out appointment. The only thing left was to pack the house and drive across the country. We arrived mere days before starting orientation.

Not everyone is so lucky.

I chose Appian for a variety of reasons, but chief among them was the culture. The walls are glass and cubicle are low. Transparency and openness are not buzzwords, but guiding philosophies. There is the ever-present undercurrent of, “Best Idea Wins” that recognizes creative problem solving and initiative over maintaining status-quo. Perhaps most of all, the company cares about its people. From “affinity guilds” to #AppianPride, from free standing desks to helping pay for gym memberships, the organization prioritizes its people and their well-being. These are encompassed by the idea of #AppianLife, where it’s not just about work.

There is, of course, the great underdog story of a smaller, more innovative, and agile company competing (and winning) against historic tech giants. There are also the awesome corporate getaways, catered breakfast on Mondays, lunch-and-learn continuing education sessions, and the great Reston location. But, if there is anything that I learned as a military officer, it’s that people matter. Appian understands that, and it comes through in their policies and hiring practices.

Every day, I am grateful to work with and around such fantastic people.

A small selection of the author’s photos. Top: An office celebration of diversity on National Pride Day, organized by #AppianPride. Bottom Left: Appian’s board room, with its transparent walls. Bottom Right: Catered breakfasts are a regular occurrence, especially to commemorate special events

Character Matters

As a military member, from any branch, we learn to adopt a series of personal qualities that help us succeed. The words will vary from person to person, but the underlying themes remain similar. In my final weeks, I sought to develop and share my own list of qualities with the new officers beginning their careers.

The list is simple:

  • Strength: The physical, mental, and emotional fortitude to exert influence on, and resist the influence of, the outside world
  • Initiative: The ability to recognize opportunity, the accompanying risks, and a willingness to pursue those opportunities
  • Mastery: The constant drive to be better than we were the day before. What’s more: it is the desire to use those mastered skills for the benefit of those around us
  • Honor: An unyielding sense of personal integrity, loyalty, and courage

Why do I share this?

The author and his teammate training for a prestigious ICBM nuclear operations competition. Photo credit to Malmstrom AFB Public Affairs

I am lucky enough to say that I’ve found an organization that values these qualities as much as I do. It may go by different names, such as “Best Idea Wins,” instead of Initiative. Or, rather than Mastery, it is a staunch commitment to excellence and service. Appian has established a culture that encourages employees to recognize a niche, or need, and fill it with their talents. Strength is evidenced by the incredible products and position the organization has developed, as well as its ability to adapt to change. Honor is found in Appian’s open culture and commitment to its people.

Nearly every veteran struggles with translating their professional military experience and training — that doesn’t mean their skills and personal qualities aren’t valued.

My list of qualities exists, as it does for others, because we needed to figure it out. Through endless cycles of team building, leadership training, vague guidance, harsh deadlines, scarce resources, and rough conditions, we learned to get the mission done . At the time, those schools and training sessions seemed like a “time suck” away from my family and personal life. In hindsight, however, I realize that they were opportunities to learn and grow; they were opportunities and experiences that most people will never have.

Those of us who have worn the flag on our shoulder understand dealing with uncertainty under pressure. We do not accept failure. Working alongside a team of people from a variety of backgrounds, and putting the needs of the team before our own, is not some mythical goal. We did it every day, because we had to. We learn, adapt, perform, grow, and then do it all over again in a new position in a new location every few years.

These skills matter.

Sure, we sometimes speak in acronyms and use strange jargon. During Appian Academy, the intense internal product training program, I remember the look of confusion on my instructor’s face when I mentioned that I CANX’d a bit of code I was working on (it’s pronounced “Can-Ex”, by the way, and it loosely means “to cancel”). I still fight the urge to sharply stand up every time an executive walks into a room or ends a meeting. It took months to stop trying to attach “Sir” or “Ma’am” to everything. But you know what? That’s part of the charm.

The author in the midst of filming a video for Appian’s online training courses

I know I can’t speak for every veteran out there. In fact, I can’t speak for anyone other than myself. The biggest fear before I walked away from my previous career was that my skills would be wasted. I worried that I wouldn’t fit in. I wasn’t sure how I was going to relate to my coworkers, most of whom probably had very different life experience than me.

The fears all faded away on my first day at Appian. I’ve never felt such openness from the very beginning. I may not be operating nuclear weapons, but the skills that helped me be so successful in the military still apply here. I found my niche with my years of training experience and team leadership. My background brings a unique point of view, and I’m happy to say it is greatly appreciated. After all, the best idea wins, right?

Whether you are on the verge of dropping papers yourself, or you’ve been out for a while, know that you have value. Appian has become my new home, where is yours going to be?

Old Dogs and New Tricks: The Journey to a Post-Military Career was originally published in AppianLIFE on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on Aug 8, 2017

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