Bernard Bergan spent six years as an information system analyst for the U.S. Army, including one deployment in Afghanistan. He saw combat, lost friends, and experienced a lot as a sergeant in the Special Forces unit.
But when it came time to leave the military in 2013 and an opportunity to land a job at Microsoft arose, Bergan felt the nerves. Transitioning from the military back to civilian life isn’t easy, let alone to start a fast-paced career in technology at the world’s third-most valuable company.
“Saying I was a bit nervous and hesitant is an understatement,” Bergan told GeekWire.
Bergan spent the next 16 weeks in the first cohort of Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA), a first-of-its-kind formal IT training program designed to help service members transition from the military to civilian life.
Two-and-a-half years later, Bergan is flourishing at the Redmond tech giant as a technical account manager for Microsoft’s Premier product. He credits the company for providing that bridge from active duty to a career back home.
Bergan is one of more than 350 veterans who have gone through the academy, which provides training for IT-related careers and guarantees an interview for a full-time job at Microsoft. About 30 percent of graduates land jobs at Microsoft, and others find positions at companies like Amazon, Dell, Accenture, the Department of Defense, and Facebook. The tech giant continues to invest in the program and there are plans to expand to nine regions servicing 14 bases across the U.S. within two years. Once the program is fully operational, Microsoft expects to graduate 1,000 people each year.
“Veterans are exactly the type of talent we are looking for to evolve the face of IT beyond the traditional four-year degree,” said Chris Cortez, a 33-year Marine Corps veteran who now is vice president of military affairs at Microsoft.
The Microsoft campus in Redmond and a battlefield in the Middle East are certainly different places. But Cortez explained how active duty experience — whether it be with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, etc. — can be invaluable for a career in tech.
“They are trained to quickly assess, analyze and fix a situation with the resources at hand while working with a diverse group of people as a team,” he said. “Who better to bring into the company to create a diverse and inclusive workforce, expand the way we solve problems, and fuel creativity than folks who are adept in the skills that are incredibly applicable to the IT industry.”
Added Cortez: “Companies look for these traits in the people they recruit; it’s about hiring great people. If you hire the right people, your company will thrive.”
The program has been a win-win for both service members and Microsoft, which is quickly learning about the quality of talent that comes from veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“We are investing more in the program,” said Kathleen Hogan, executive vice president of human resources at Microsoft. “We are getting exceptional talent.”
Ryen Macababbad is another beneficiary of MSSA. She served in the Army for eight years, working as a technician for military intelligence systems, and deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. After her second deployment, Macababbad knew she had to come home and transition back to civilian life. Like Bergen, she too had lost a friend in combat, and it was time to regroup.
Macababbad thought about going to college and finishing a computer science degree. But a quick glance at a flyer for MSSA changed everything.
“It’s basically allowed me to accomplish a dream of mine,” said Macababbad, who is a program manager on the Azure team and is closing in on her 3-year anniversary with Microsoft.
Macababbad, a self-described computer geek, explained that military service members are one of the untapped talent pools that IT companies need to consider. Veterans know what it means to adapt in different environments and learn on-the-go. They are trained to think outside-of-the-box because you never know what to expect in combat.
“These are individuals that are extremely trainable,” noted Macababbad, who was honored by the White House earlier this year and got a special shout-out from Michelle Obama. “They are disciplined; they have self drive; they have the ability to not only learn but also accomplish great things under high-stress environments.”
Bergan echoed that thought. He said MSSA is reaching out to a talented group of people that, for the most part, have been hidden from tech companies. There were 495,000 unemployed veterans in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Knowing how to perform at the highest level where things were life and death with other people — that same mental toughness and grit applies in the tech industry,” Bergan explained.
MSSA originally started out of a need. Cortez explained that there are few opportunities for veterans to acquire in-demand IT skills. The initial MSSA cohort launched in 2013 on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just south of Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond.
“Since then, the program has grown not only by the numbers but through the support and commitment of everyone at Microsoft,” Cortez added.
Hogan, a 13-year Microsoft veteran who became EVP of Human Resources in late 2014, noted that Microsoft’s idea of diversity extends beyond gender or race.
“It’s diversity of experience, too,” she said. “Those who come from the military have unique experience. They come in with a real work ethic and high integrity. A lot of them have done really unique things in the military and have skills we can leverage at Microsoft.”
That diversity of thought helps lead to better thought process, better decision making, and better answers, Hogan explained. It helps Microsoft build better products, with all types of customers in mind. It also ties into the company’s mission statement: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”
“We used to think that engineers and developers had to come from these 16 schools and had to be computer science majors,” Hogan said. “That’s still great talent. But we did some analysis that showed how folks we hire from different schools and different degrees have been equally successful at Microsoft. We are open to different types of talent. It’s not about lowering the bar; it’s about expanding our pool.”
Bergan said that veterans know all about diversity, given that the military itself is made up of a diverse cross-section of the population.
“You bring that same experience of working with people from all over the world and country to the table,” he said. “The mission has to get accomplished no matter who showed up and was on the team that day.”
Macababbad added that the military helps engrain a “different way of thinking” that is valuable for tech companies.
“Having different ways of thinking and getting people who all think differently in the same room — that is really what drives innovation,” she said. “Microsoft has been a strong supporter of getting those creative thinkers in the same organization so we can continue to innovate.”