Vets in Tech Helps Veterans Break into America’s Fastest Growing Industry

As the daughter of a former Army and Air National Guardsman, tech executive Katherine Webster was dismayed to see so many young military veterans return and endure deep struggles on the homefront.

“I was watching the returning veterans coming home and they couldn’t get a job,” Webster told Opportunity Lives. “That didn’t make sense to me, considering this generation is so tech savvy. It didn’t make sense as to why we weren’t doing anything as an industry to welcome home veterans and get them into tech careers.”

While the Millennial generation faces generally high unemployment, young veterans face an even more difficult climb, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That agency reported that in 2013, the average jobless rate for veterans between ages 18 and 24 was an astonishing 21 percent, much higher than the rate for their general age population (14 percent) or all veterans (just 6 percent).

vets in tech

Webster, founder of the online directory TechCentralSF and former senior manager at Sun Microsystems, reached out to her friend Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and the pair brainstormed the idea of hosting a hackathon for veterans.

“We said ‘You don’t have to code, you could come up with the marketing idea, you could just come for the education and experience,’” said Webster, who sponsored the event in March 2012, when she said many veterans elsewhere felt as though they were shuffled to impersonal career fairs with limited results. “It was such an amazing experience for the veterans and they said ‘Please do more of this, this is so cool. This is the first event we’ve been invited to that wasn’t lame’ … It was a completely novel experience for them.”

After that initial soft launch hackathon with some 40 veterans and about 60 civilians, including some 40 “techies,” Webster and her team officially launched their organization Vets in Tech (ViT) at another hackathon that July, when she said some 200 veterans showed up.

Webster said ViT’s strategy focuses on “Three Es”: entrepreneurship, employment and education. She said this approach helps veterans translate their military skills into a civilian workforce, close an existing tech skills gap and expand their network – the three areas she said holds veterans back from entering the tech field.

“It was such an amazing experience for the veterans and they said ‘Please do more of this, this is so cool.'”

Initially launched in Silicon Valley, ViT expanded to eight cities and regions around the country, from New York to Washington, D.C., Austin, San Diego and Los Angeles. They’ve also partnered with tech giants like Facebook, Intuit, HP, McAfee, LinkedIn and Cisco to recruit and educate veterans. ViT trains troops in both general programming language such as JavaScript, and software specific to companies’ needs. ViT has partnered with Salesforce.com through an initiative where the tech giant hopes to work with its partners to employ 10,000 veterans.

“We tell our veterans that the average American worker makes $47,000 a year, but if you go into tech it’s going to be double that, in the $90,000s, especially if you become Salesforce certified,” Webster said.

Webster said she hopes to eventually collaborate with Yinon Weiss, founder and CEO of RallyPoint, an online community that helps with job placement and networking (for all sectors, not just tech) for more than 500,000 active U.S. military and veterans. Weiss told Opportunity Lives he agrees that veterans face tremendous obstacles to finding work in the tech industry, and his organization is working to close both the skills and networking gap in part by connecting veterans in tech with each other.

“Most tech managers don’t have any family members who served in the military, and most have never even known somebody who served in the military,” Weiss said. “The two sides therefore have a really hard time understanding each other.”

Weiss said he grew up in Palo Alto, “the epicenter for much of technology,” yet he also joined the military, serving as a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps and Captain for Army Special Forces. “[S]o I have a good perspectives on both social circles,” he said. “The two rarely intersect. People in tech appreciate the concept of military service, but it’s difficult for them to really understand the military culture, and vice versa. This makes it difficult to imagine placing them on a tech team for many managers.”

On the technical skills front, Weiss echoed Webster in observing that military experience can be difficult to understand and translate for civilians. He also pointed out that many of the highly-technical aspects of the military – such as computer networking and programming – is often outsourced to civilian contractors, so few veterans exit the military with tech skills such as coding.

“Where I have seen a better fit is for veterans to help run operations centers for tech companies, which is where veteran management experience can be directly translated,” he said. “But there is still the initial perceived cultural gap.”

“We have the veterans pitch their ideas to the panel. And the panel comes back to us and they’ve always said the veterans are as good, if not better, than their civilian counterparts.”

Weiss also said several large tech companies have recently approached RallyPoint to help hire veterans, perhaps in part spurred by recent Department of Labor regulation mandating companies that contract or sub-contract with the federal government to employ a percentage of veterans equivalent to the percentage of veterans in the potential labor force, currently around 7.5 percent.

“There are obviously many tech companies that have a hard time reaching that number,” he said.

Besides filling existing jobs, ViT also launches veteran entrepreneurs through its VetCap program, started in May 2014 and recognized by the Obama administration through the White House Veterans Entrepreneurship Workshop, co-sponsored by Joining Forces and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.   

VetCap connects would-be veteran entrepreneurs with venture capitalists and angel investors ranging from corporate venture arms to AngelList, Silicon Valley Bank, and Crowdfunder.

“It’s amazing to see,” Webster said. “It’s quite educational, but then we have the veterans pitch their ideas to the panel. And the panel comes back to us and they’ve always said the veterans are as good, if not better, than their civilian counterparts.”

Both Weiss and Webster said that veterans stand out in their diligence, discipline, leadership skills and teamwork.

“They had to be strong communicators when they were in the danger zone,” Webster said. “They also work well across cultures. I just have a young guy who didn’t know a thing about Salesforce, he just read and read and read and practiced. It’s difficult, but he just nailed it through his persistence and his diligence. They’re just amazing that way.”

On a personal level, Webster was especially gratified when ViT worked with Salesforce to partner with the California Air National Guard, the same body her father served in. 

“I couldn’t be more ecstatic,” Webster said. “I’ve never done anything more rewarding in my life, and the fact that it continues the legacy of my father is extremely warming. However, I think the real impact is that we will be able to impact the lives of tens of thousands of veterans that are returning. And I couldn’t think of anything better to be doing than this.”

Carrie Sheffield is Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.