BMC Software / Fighter Pilot
I am a super tough guy. I want that to be very clear in this profile. Say that I’m extremely physically capable, and imposing. A warfighter. (Laughs) Well, the truth is that I spent a lot of time as a kid playing video games, which left me with exceptional hand-eye coordination. I had a ton of practice interpreting complex information on my screen and making quick decisions. When I was learning how to fly a fighter jet, it occurred to me that it was just like playing a terribly designed video game. Real flying has no reward loop – no bright, flashing lights or pleasing sounds to give you the dopamine hit that makes you want to keep playing. None of that happens when you’re flying an F-18. At best, in a debrief you’ll get a “Hey, congrats – you didn’t fuck it up.”
Fighter pilots have a reputation for being self-centered jerks, so I didn’t know what to expect when I started flying at the highest level. After finishing flight school, I headed to the Marine Training Squadron in San Diego to learn to fly the F-18. Marine and Navy fighter pilots who had fought and won the war were there to teach me. I thought, “I have arrived. My talent has been noticed.” Then the ruthless banter began. We didn’t need to worry about hurting feelings because no one had feelings. These were the meanest people I’ve ever met, and this was how we showed love for one another. They were the best. I’ll never have closer friends.
I really enjoyed being a pilot. It was always challenging – that was part of the draw. I wanted to prove I could master it, prove I could manage the complexity and keep my cool with that amount of stress and danger. In a sense, it was like a professional athlete’s existence. You spend all your time becoming the very best you can be at this one thing. It was exhilarating to excel at something so elite. But I also had plenty of failures.
I remember one of my early experiences on an aircraft carrier. It was my first flight alone wearing night vision goggles. I catapulted off the front end of the boat and from then on, everything went off script. When it came time to land, I was fumbling around, still trying to catch up with the jet, which goes fast whether the pilot keeps up or not. At that moment, I badly wanted to be in a jet that was not moving. Once I knew I had the back of the boat cleared, I reduced power and came down hard enough that my tailhook bounced over all three arresting wires in the landing area. Then I did it again… and again, wondering over and over how could I have spent so much time on the flight deck without catching a wire.
After three straight failed attempts, I knew I had to get my act together. I was at the height of frustration and running low on fuel. I also knew I had an audience. Every landing on a ship is televised. When someone is having trouble landing, it’s like schadenfreude TV. “Here he comes again… he’s screwed it up a few times already… what’s he going to do this time?” Pilots are notoriously competitive, and other people have to suck at something for it to matter that you’re good at it.
I circled around again on my last lap, desperate to avoid going back to the beach to refuel. I had a terrifying and inspiring realization: No one can do this for me. Every now and then, sheer force of will means more than expertise or training. There was no chance that I would miss the wires this time around. No chance. I finally landed, screaming gleeful obscenities into my mask as I felt the hook catch a wire and the jet decelerate violently. I didn’t feel victorious as much as I felt relieved.
You know what’s easier than eating that much stress? It would have been easier to say: “I’m going to fly back to shore, land on a great big runway, and learn to be an accountant.” I cleared the landing area and parked the jet. I was sitting in the cockpit, rehearsing my speech. It started with, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Then I realized they would probably make me stay on the boat and do less glamorous work, which would be even worse. I got out and walked to the ready room. I was still in my flight gear when the most senior pilot on the entire aircraft carrier tracked me down. This is not a guy you’d see often. He flashed a huge smile, and then patted me on the back and said, “Welcome to Naval Aviation.” It was validation that I had struggled, lived through it, and learned from it. No one likes landing a jet on a boat in the middle of the ocean on a moonless night. That’s why they pay you!
My flying career was incredibly satisfying, but I knew I would eventually do something else. I was attracted to tech, which I understood to consist of big-brained people with an optimistic view of the world solving important problems together. As my transition date approached, I looked for a graceful exit to the next chapter. I didn’t want to start over, but do you know what tech companies were not hiring? Fighter pilots. That’s where BreakLine came in.
The BreakLine team helped me tell my story and connect the dots for decision-makers in the tech world. I went through the program in 2017 and met Dan Streetman, BMC’s EVP of Worldwide Sales and Marketing. He had traveled a similar path, saw me for what I was, and took me under his wing. That kind of executive sponsorship and mentorship made all the difference. It’s not that he’s a safety net – I still have to do the work and I can still fail. But I have sage counsel at a moment’s notice. I know he’ll always be an honest broker and steer me toward what’s best for me and my family.
As soon as I took my first job at BMC, I started working, producing, and delivering again. I’m climbing faster than I ever could in the Navy. I know that if I want even more responsibility and I’m willing to do what it takes to operate at that level, my hands are at the controls. I’ve laid down the mantle of being a fighter pilot, and I’m building new habits around other things that bring me joy. BreakLine is one of those things. Nothing gives me a lift like engaging with other veterans making the leap. It feels good to throw down a rope and say, “Your talent matters and you will get a great job. You will succeed.
Cisco Meraki / British Army
My granddad was one of the first black doctors in Zimbabwe. My mom was influenced by his example and she became one of the first black psychologists in the country. She was driven. As a single mom with two kids, she was a nurse and also held down two other jobs while studying to get her Masters. Then she became one of the first research fellows to study HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. She collaborated in that capacity with British academics. After that experience, her vision was for me to go to a British university.
It was a big dream, especially since Zimbabwe collapsed while I was growing up. During high school, a loaf of bread went from $1 to $3000. There was no fuel, no eggs or milk, nothing in the grocery stores. We lost everything. It became impossible to pay for daily necessities.
I graduated from high school as a top student, but after the economy crashed, we had no money for college. My mom looked at me one day and said, “We have to get you out of the country.” Years prior, she had bought land and designed her dream house. She sold it and made just enough to pay for one year of university in England. Our understanding was that I would work to pay for everything beyond that.
I applied and was accepted to the University of Gloucestershire. I had never been out of Zimbabwe and had no clue what I was getting into. I took all of my possessions to the airport in a single suitcase. It felt momentous – the beginning of the rest of my life – and also scary. It was too expensive for my mom to come with me, but she talked security into letting her through the gate so that she could wait with me. Then she found travelers in the departure lounge who looked trustworthy and asked them to look after me on the flight.
When I arrived in Gloucestershire, my housemate, Johnny, took me under his wing. He brought me to the grocery store. At that point, I had never even seen a vending machine. I remember saying, “There are 6 brands of milk, how do you choose?” He helped me get a phone and open a bank account. Johnny had a job as a bartender, and he helped me get hired too.
I majored in English, and enjoyed it. However, it didn’t answer the question of what to do with my life. The college career counselors encouraged me to interview for the British Army. After learning more, everything about the Army called to me. It was about making a positive difference in the world, being a force for good, rising to the challenge. All of that appealed to me.
I commissioned into the British Army’s Education Training Service due to the opportunities they offered; from language and media training to civil and military affairs. I felt I could really make a difference here! After achieving the highest score on the Modern Language Aptitude Test, I was given the opportunity to go to the Defense School of Languages. A year after joining the Army, I became a linguist and I now speak 5 languages: Shona, English, Pashto, French, and German. I spent the next 9 months teaching Pashto and ‘cultural awareness’ to soldiers during their pre-deployment training, before I deployed to Afghanistan myself.
Midway through that deployment, I joined 3 PARA (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) a move that made my career. The only thing that mattered was whether you were good at the job. Nothing else factored in, not where you came from or what your name was. I would teach the soldiers Pashto, English and Math until 1 am because they wanted to learn and we never had enough time. I remember sprinting from place to place since walking wasted precious seconds. When I showed them that I was effective and efficient, the guys said, “you’re now one of us.” They looked after me and vice versa.
I started going on patrols with a core of four women and the 3 PARA guys. While our colleagues spoke with the elders, we’d say “are any women here?” And we’d make conversation with them. There was no point in ignoring half the population. They told us it was the first time they met women who wore trousers and worked with men.
I deployed again, two years later, and this time designed and delivered training to policewomen in Helmand. These women were some of the most inspirational people I have ever met. One police officer had been shot and stabbed, but she still turned up to work every morning, determined to make a difference. I will never forget their fortitude. They were willing to risk everything to create a positive impact for their country and to provide an opportunity for their children.
My mother’s dream had been for me to get an education and to grow as a professional. These mothers shared that dream for their own children. They saw the art of the possible. One mother introduced us to her daughter, this vibrant little girl who ran from place to place. She said she wanted to be a doctor someday. On a fundamental level, people have dreams and aspirations no matter where they are from. My role as a linguist in the Army was about finding the commonalities among us all.
I am grateful for my time in the Army – the standards, the adventures, the chance to see the world. It played to my strengths. I have always been open to change and able to adapt to different environments. That is why I have survived. It’s also what led me to explore possibilities outside of the Army, and what drew me to technology. This is an industry of constant change, of trying and failing, knowing that it’s how you get up again that really matters.
I took BreakLine as I approached my transition date and it opened my eyes to new possibilities. We visited Cisco Meraki during the program. Our hosts encouraged us to walk around. I noticed a wall with everyone’s pictures on it, along with pictures of their dogs. The openness and warmth of the culture reminded me of the connection I have with my 3 PARA teammates, and Cisco Meraki’s drive to simplify technology drew me in. I have accepted an offer to join the Customer Success team and I am absolutely thrilled with this opportunity. My new role utilizes my language skills and focuses on building relationships, problem-solving, and finding a mutual path forward. It feels brand new and familiar all at the same time.
Palantir / Pararescueman
I am a pararescueman (PJ) – a jack of all trades in the military. The primary mission of PJs is personnel recovery of downed aircrew. The classic instance would be a crew who has to punch out of an aircraft and are now stranded in the middle of nowhere, where no one else can get to them. We might get called up when a combat zone is too hot for conventional forces, for example. We’ll send a smaller element to parachute in behind enemy lines to rescue folks and provide medical care before extraction.
Parachuting can be terrifying at first, but it’s really one of the simpler, safer things we do as long as you address it professionally. It’s a mode of transportation, a way to get there. You learn to fly the parachute – think of it as an aircraft under your control. The first time I jumped out of a plane, my pulse had never been higher. But I improved through practice, and worked on mastering the skill, rather than coping with it. After learning how to parachute on land, we added water. We’ll throw a boat out of a plane over the middle of the ocean and then jump out to follow it with a parachute on our backs and fins on our feet. There’s no time to be scared – it’s only 30 seconds of an entire mission that could last hours or days.
More recently, the scope of my responsibilities as a PJ has expanded to include civilian rescue during natural disasters. This has been the part of the job that I love most. We were called in to help with rescues during Hurricane Harvey, which was unbelievably complex. I remember flying in by helicopter. We were based 2 hours away, and at first it didn’t seem that bad. Then we hit the wall of the storm. We started seeing people hanging out of windows, waving cloths to signal for help; people with babies, waving towels. The roads were just gone – they were now rivers, flowing with more than 5 feet of water.
We started hearing the Air Traffic Controllers on the radio, asking for help with rescues. My team sent me down from the helicopter with the hook to rescue a dad with a baby. I got down there, and the water is flowing like a river with a decent current. There is a ton of debris in it – I’m getting hit by tree branches, even mailboxes. Then I see the dad and baby, standing outside of a home on higher ground. The father takes me inside. The first floor is flooded. I looked up the stairwell, and 9 people were trapped there, waiting for rescue, including three more babies. I radioed my partner, “You’ve got to get down here, man. We’ve got a little more work to do.”
We wore baby carriers to bring the babies safely up to the helicopter. Helicopters discharge a big shock when the rescue hook hits the ground. Every time we grabbed or rode down the hook that day, we’d get an awful shock, like sticking your finger in socket. It would paralyze me for a moment, but we kept going. I would rather absorb it myself than have it shock the babies or our other patients. There was also no time to dwell on it. Our helicopter alone did over 50 hoists and rescued at least 100 people that day.
Two days later, the Cajun navy was up and running in Houston, so we moved our rescue operation to Beaumont, Texas. The Air Traffic Controllers were making emotional pleas for us to come out there, and they were right. I can only describe it as insane. At one point, I was hoisting a few young children and the helicopter started losing control. I got dropped into the water, and just focused on keeping the kids above the water line. Minutes later, I was swung into a building and then into gate. My foot got caught in the gate, and I thought I might lose it. But the pilots did a phenomenal job flying, and we ultimately got the kids out.
Looking back on my decision to become a PJ – I had no idea what I was getting into. When I chose to pursue it, I was 18 years old, a freshman in college. I was bored by school, and had a surplus of energy. I spoke with an Air Force recruiter, and actually told him I was interested in Naval Special Warfare. He said, “Nah – you don’t want to be cold and wet all the time!” I told him that I had been a lifeguard on the Jersey Shore, near where I grew up, and that I loved the water. Then he started describing pararescue. It checked all of the boxes for me. He also told me he had never had a recruit make it through training, which sealed the deal in my mind.
I found myself in a 12-week training pipeline with a drop-out rate of 85-90%. I remember the calisthenics – I had been a cross-country runner, so I was able to hang in there. We ran hauling heavy sand bags, hiked around in teams carrying big logs, and did a ton of pushups and pullups. The tough part was called water confidence, which required completing all kinds of difficult tasks in and under water for extended periods of time. We tied knots under water, floated in the pool with weight belts and no hands, got our arms and legs bound and were thrown into the water. All for 3-4 hours a day on a random cadence of increasing difficulty over many weeks. I made it through three months, but failed one task and had to start all over again in Week 1. I graduated on my second try.
There is something about suffering together in pursuit of a tough goal. My closest friends are PJs. Being part of a community matters a lot to me, especially since I grew up feeling alone at times. There aren’t many people with last names like “Kosequat” in suburban New Jersey. It clearly identified me as having Native American ancestry. My father is a member of Odawa Nation, and part of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. His family is based in Harbor Springs, Michigan, which borders reservation land and Lake Michigan. We spent every summer there, and I loved it. I always feel good when I am near a shoreline, perhaps because of my heritage. Our name has been loosely translated as “Eagle of the Water.”
I grew up a lot in the Air Force. I married my childhood sweetheart. She’s the hero in our story. I’ve been chasing her around forever. I fell in love with her in middle school, but had to wait in the wings until she turned 16 and was finally allowed to date. I had pink hair at the time and her parents said, “please – anyone but this guy!” We went to both proms together, and stayed together all the way through my service, even when we only saw each other a few times a year. We have two little kids now, and I love her parents too – I’m the world’s luckiest guy.
I wanted more time with my family, so I decided to transition out of active duty service. I took BreakLine after my friend, Nick Gesualdo (also a PJ), recommended it. After the program, I joined Palantir in a role that spans business development and technical project management. So much of what I learned in the military directly translates. My experience triaging patients is a great example. At Palantir, I’m constantly figuring out how to apply limited resources to achieve as many of our top priorities as quickly as possible, while delaying less pressing items. Our work here is operationally minded and all about accomplishing the task at hand. It’s a fast-moving, inventive, creative world, that focuses on what you produce and how you function as part of a team. It feels familiar – in a sense, it’s a lot like being a PJ.
BMC Software / Navy SEAL
I am from Prince George’s County (PGC), Maryland. It’s pretty much crab cakes and football. A lot of NFL players with name recognition have come from that region. The competition is concentrated, and it breeds excellence. Every 5 years, as waves of kids come of age, someone in each pool makes it and plays a professional sport. Usama Young, my friend since childhood, and my mentor Madieu Williams are prime examples. In PGC, if you have any drive at all, you’ll strive to be that next professional athlete.
My story is one of growing. Literally. I was 5’3’’ in 10th grade – that was the year I decided to be a professional football player. I was a late bloomer, but I always had the heart. Football was my ticket to having options, a way to pay for college. My parents always supported my goals. I was a tiny kid with my eye on the NFL. If they worried about my ability to achieve, they didn’t show it.
Looking back, it was a blessing to be small for so long. I learned determination first hand. Coaches at football camps would say, “Raise your hand if you think you’ll make it to the NFL.” Some kids were scared. I was never scared. The coaches would say to me, “Kid, you’re way smaller than everyone else, what are you doing with your hand up?” But I was going to the NFL no matter what.
I started growing in 11th grade. In my senior year, I began to really stand out. Scouts were like, “Who is this dude?” By the end of my freshman year in college, I was 6’1” and 210 pounds. I transferred to Kent State, a Division 1 school, and I walked on to the football team. As I approached college graduation, I didn’t get drafted. But after the draft, three teams called me: The Rams, Chiefs, and Vikings. I was a priority free agent, and I was able to choose which team to play for. I chose the St. Louis Rams.
During the NFL pre-season, the Rams started off with 90 guys. After each game, they cut and cut to ultimately trim down to a team of 53 players. I made it through all the cuts, but in the last pre-season game, I sustained a career-ending knee injury.
I had leaned toward law enforcement if football didn’t work out. I’ve always had an instinct to protect others. It goes back to being that little 5’3” guy. I knew what it felt like to be targeted or picked on, even though I was a jock and y’know, fairly handsome (laughs). I hated to see anyone take advantage of a position of power through resources, station, or standing to bully a weaker individual. Let’s level the playing field and see if you still have the same attitude. Bullies back down when the odds are even.
After I got injured, one of my buddies reached out. He had also played for the Rams and then had started working for the Secret Service. He helped me get a start as a Secret Service Officer. A year in, I was on post at the White House, and an African American Navy SEAL came to give a briefing. I pulled him aside and asked about his experience. It turned out that he had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He said, “I recommend it man, if you make it through training, you’ll be a part of an elite brotherhood.”
I was hooked. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to swim. In fact, I had always hated the ocean. There is a picture of me at 5 years old, standing next to my mom and sister in ankle deep water and I am bawling because I can’t see my feet. Until the moment I decided to become a SEAL, I was afraid of open water – the vastness of it, the fact that I was not the apex predator. But I had to shed that fear.
I started getting after it. I looked up YouTube videos and went to the 25-meter community pool for 2 hours every day. Swimming back and forth, until I worked up to a mile and a half or more. It was miserable, I hated it, but I wanted to be a SEAL and that’s what I had to do.
In 2006, SEAL (SO) became a rating, and a direct pipeline was established. It gave me a shot to try out right away, rather than after years of service. I made it through boot camp, and then to a pre-BUDS training where they prepare progressively for the swimming and running that will be expected of you. First, you swim one mile in the pool and then you ramp to two miles. A coach pulled me aside. He said, “Your technique is like a snow plow. You’re wasting so much energy.” I replied, “I’m just getting there the only way I know how.”
The great equalizer came from the ocean. I was no more efficient, but we had to wear wetsuits, and I became more buoyant. I was able to plane my body out a bit more. Also, in a pool, you just stay in your lane and go straight. In the ocean, you have to guide: to pick something in the distance, swim a few strokes, look up make sure you’re still on that track, and start the process again. The bad guiders would swim in an “S.” I became one of the best guiders. I just went straight, the quickest path from point to point.
I earned my Trident. In the SEAL teams, being a new guy is rough. You don’t get any respect until you complete that first deployment, which can take up to 3-4 years. It takes 1.5 years just to get through training, another 1.5 years to get attached to a team and to get deployment ready, followed by a 6-8-month deployment. You’re the lowest of the low that whole time. But after you come back from the first deployment, you’re now mentoring the next batch of new guys coming in. I finally knew a little something, but I was never complacent. There is always something to make you better at your craft. As the SEAL Ethos states, ” My training is never complete.”
I had planned to stay in the military for 20 years, but being a SEAL takes a toll on your body. Wearing body armor, getting deployed, being away from home 250 days out of the year. It wreaks havoc on your personal life too. I wanted a family someday, and I wanted to dial back the physicality of my work in favor of the next cognitive challenge.
I found out about BreakLine, and liked their focus on excellence. I have always been part of elite organizations. I can’t do mediocrity. I don’t know how to do it, sometimes to my detriment. In college, after losing a game of Madden, which was rare (laughs), I made my friend play again. He said, “Dude – tone it down, it’s not that serious. It’s just a game.” To which I replied, “Yea, it can go back to being a game when I beat you (laughs).”
When I reached out to BreakLine, the team said, “It’s wonderful that you’ve done all of this stuff, Mr. Kirkland. You’ll still have to apply, go through interviews, and then we’ll see if there is a spot.” They challenged me. I loved it! Applying to the program was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The preparation from BreakLine was so good that real job interviews felt less challenging. In particular, I can still hear Lauren (Faul) saying, “Nope, you can do better.” (Laughs). It reminded me of a saying in the SEALs: you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training. People have this grandiose idea – I’m just going to walk in and dazzle. That never happens – just stop it right now. I would rather fail 1000 times in practice and crush the real event than go in unprepared.
I was lucky to receive multiple offers, and I opted to go with BMC Software. They recognized my potential, and they are aligned with the vision I have for my career. Beyond that, it’s about fit and feel. Bill Miller, Jonathan Adams, and Joan Lundholm are great examples. Bill runs the entire division – thousands of people. If I see him in the hallway, he’ll say, “Hey Will – how are you doing?” Like Bill, everyone is kind, helpful, and patient. It’s a great place to be.
My mom and I have a favorite movie, an urban film called The Five Heartbeats. We like a quote from it: “You always have to prove your love.” For the majority of us, nothing of value will be handed out for free. So go into it with a level of work ethic and dedication to prove you love what you’re doing. In every team I have been on, I was all in all the time. In the SEAL teams, we didn’t ever do something half speed. That equaled death. That intensity and rigor translates to any profession. In tech, law enforcement, education – whatever. You have to be dedicated. Be all in, and that’s when you see the fruits of your labor.
PayPal / Marine Corps
I grew up in small-town Texas as the oldest of two kids. My parents served in the military. Neither of them could afford college, so the Marine Corps became the springboard for their careers. They did well, but they were always adamant about the importance of education. For me, going to college was a given.
While my parents provided what they could, and they helped a ton, I still learned at a young age to figure out things on my own. I always had a desire to prove myself, and to be independent. Throughout college, I worked 40 hours a week at different jobs. It varied by semester because the service industry doesn’t care that you’re going to school. They have shifts to fill, and if you aren’t able to make the hours, they’ll turn to the next person in line. I sought out any opportunity – even an hour’s drive away. I waited tables at sports bars, lifeguarded at the YMCA, worked at a dry-cleaners in the 120 degree Texas heat. My worst job was selling inflatable seat cushions for NASCAR races at the Texas Motor Speedway.
Looking back, I was focused on financial independence, and making enough money to meet my needs at the time – tuition, books, my living expenses. I also signed up for a lot of classes, probably too many. It was a grind, but I hustled to meet my goals.
I graduated debt-free. That was so important because I wanted my professional decisions to be based on my passions and interests, rather than driven by the need to pay off debt. I always felt a calling to serve in the Marine Corps. I had wanted to join the military right out of high school, but my parents dissuaded me. They thought that if I went to college, I would forget about it and find other career opportunities.
I kept my dream quiet, and was actually so intimidated by it that I almost missed my shot. For a long time, I believed the narrative that someone like me couldn’t do it. I was 5’4, and 105 pounds soaking wet. I wasn’t athletic. Women recruited to the Marine Corps were often college athletes. I did not fit mold of what you see on the recruiting posters. There was a lot of confusing messaging. Family friends would say “You’re too pretty to be a Marine.” It took a while to develop the self-confidence that I could really go for it.
I researched it on my own, took the right college credits, worked out and got fit. I was a month out from graduation. I had known all the requirements for years – I knew what I wanted to do. It was now or never. I thought, I at least want to go try out, throw my hat in the ring, and have them tell me no instead of taking myself out of the running.
I drove down to the recruiting office, walked in, and said I was interested in putting in an application for Officer Candidate School (OCS). They called me into an office, and gave me the whole spiel on why the Marine Corps is the best. I cut them off – “I hear you, you don’t have to sell me, I’m ready to sign up.” They said, “Wow, this is easy.” I wasn’t looking for information that day – I was looking to take action.
I passed all of the exams, the physical fitness test, and the background checks, and was invited to attend OCS. When I told my mom, she didn’t speak to me for a week. At the time, the Marines were constantly deploying for Operation Enduring Freedom. A Marine from our community had recently been killed while on a deployment. My mom was not exactly thrilled by my decision. She had a hard time with it. Now that I am expecting a baby, I have a better appreciation for how difficult that was for her.
I made it through OCS, where the attrition rate for women is 45%, and then I went through 6 months of The Basic School. When it came time to state a preference for an occupational specialty, I asked for communications – basically designing, setting up, and breaking down the networks that provide communications and data support to the troops. It was described as the thankless job nobody wanted. Everyone else wanted the sexy military roles – the pilot, the infantry platoon commander. I thought, “Great! If there are no other takers, I will definitely get this.” We were service providers, your cable guy. When it works, no one appreciates it, when it’s not working, you are in the hot seat.
It was also a second chance for me to get into a technical career. In college, I took 19 credits in STEM during my first semester. I came up through a small public school district, and I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of those classes. I was often the only girl, I felt out of my league and lonely. I was really interested in the subject matter, but shifted paths when I wasn’t immediately successful. The experience chipped away at my self-confidence. Becoming a communications officer in the Marine Corps enabled me to leverage tech in day to day operations. I had another shot at it.
When I arrived at Communications School, I thought “here we go again.” There was a software engineer from Google, an officer with a graduate degree in mathematics from MIT, and pilots who had decided they didn’t have the stomach to fly but they were brilliant engineers. I was intimidated all over again. But the military was such a great fit for me because performance reviews didn’t just look at traditional academic credentials. They tested you with leadership experience. Really aggressive classroom schedules were complemented by week-long field exercises. They’d say, “Holcomb, you’re in charge, here’s what we need you to do, here’s your team, make it happen.” I learned a completely new language, made mistakes quickly and then grew from them, and adjusted to keep pushing forward and persevering. I had never worked harder, and I was really proud to graduate in the top 10% of my class.
The work was challenging – technology always seems to fail when you need it most. Our goal was to never let the user feel it. We were constantly thinking about how to build architecture that was resilient, redundant, meets deadlines, and meets requirements. And I’ll never forget the people I teamed up with to solve those problems.
Marines build relationships when it’s miserable, when you’ve been away from your families, and you’re stuck in a tent in the middle of nowhere, staring at a bunch of systems to be sure everything is blinking green. That’s when we’d share stories. One of my Marines was a stud. She was fast – outpaced the guys on our runs, knocked out more pull ups than anyone, and was so persistent and driven to be the best in her role as a radio operator. She was “fire and forget” – I knew she’d get the job done. She told me she had a rough upbringing in Oklahoma. She was homeless and living out of her car in high school. Bounced around to wherever someone would let her crash. Joining the Marines was an opportunity to build a new life, to leave her town, get away from a bad situation, and provide for herself. She was one of my top performers, and I told her she was going places, fast.
I loved my work, I loved my colleagues, and it showed. I was lucky to be selected to lead a detachment of 160 Marines as a First Lieutenant. Where else could I get that chance in my early-20s? I always planned to have a full career in the Marine Corps, but my fiancé at the time was serving too, and we would have to be stationed apart. It required too much time away from each other, so I decided to transition out.
I heard about BreakLine and applied while I was on my honeymoon in Puerto Rico. I took the program, and immediately started interviewing with PayPal. The company’s vision of democratizing financial services spoke to me. So many of my Marines were the primary breadwinners for their immediate and extended families. They sent tons of money home, took out loans for their families. I knew if we could better serve this market in the US and globally, it would be a game changer. It touched me as well. When I was working and going to school, a $20 fee on my checking account made a big difference. So when PayPal described leveraging the tech that we carry in our pockets to take control over our money and our spending habits, I wanted to be a part of that. I have been here for 2.5 years and everyone speaks to that mission, everyone is highly motivated to achieve it, whether they are engineers or salespeople.
It was also clear from the beginning that my boss, MJ Austin, is a rock star. From day one, she was enthusiastic about taking me on and mentoring me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. In an engineering-heavy org, she also had the only all-female team, and they were crushing it.
MJ reflects the best of our company. Continuous mentorship and learning is part of the ethos at PayPal. Now I have the ability to give back and help others too. Marines are so confident in crazy conditions overseas, but when it comes to our own career jumps, the tech industry seems mysterious and impossible to break into. I’m an advocate now. I say to other veterans: “You have so much to provide and you don’t have to go through it alone. Let me tell you – if I can do it, you can too.”
Facebook / Navy EOD
My parents both enlisted in the Navy in order to pay for their education. They met in boot camp and served in the Navy for their entire careers. They raced each other to Master Chief – they both always promoted early. My mom was a hospital corpsman. My dad was an aviation mechanic. We say that she fixes people and he fixes everything else.
I grew up around Navy bases for my whole childhood. It was fun – I felt proud of my parents. My mom is insanely smart – the smartest person I have ever met. And she was a woman leading in a place and at a time when that was rare. My dad is a great storyteller, and he would spin tales about leadership. The moral of the story was always ‘Real leaders serve in the military.’ Fortunately, they rarely deployed at the same time. When they did, my sister and I would stay with our neighbors for a few months. Our neighbors were also in the Navy, so they understood.
As I approached high school graduation, all I wanted to do was go to the Naval Academy. It was prestigious, and everyone said it was so hard. Well, if it was hard, I was drawn to it. I had straight A’s in high school. I was the salutatorian of my class. But I didn’t apply anywhere else – there was only one school for me. I got accepted on Halloween – I still remember that feeling.
I showed up at the Academy, and decided to major in Aerospace Engineering. Everyone said it was the most difficult track, so I decided to go for it. Looking back, that’s a bit of a theme. At the same time, I also played on the Under-23 Women’s National Rugby Team. I loved it. It was a great combination of intellectual and physical pursuits. When I graduated from the Naval Academy my mom gave me my first salute, and my dad swore me in.
Somewhere along the line, I heard about explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). Jeremy Renner later popularized it in Hurt Locker. But at the time, I was told EOD is where the smart, strong people go. Navy bomb techs work both on land and under water. So, to be accepted, you have to succeed in Dive school, which is physical, and EOD school, which is academic. Only characters are drawn to this line of work. Just a handful of super forward-leaning people even find out about it. As a woman, I couldn’t go into the SEALs. But the EOD community demanded similar levels of peak performance, and attracted a similar profile: The best and brightest folks, who also liked to work out.
It sounded great, so I applied. When I got it, people would say, “wait, you got EOD?” Yeah, yeah I did. A guy from my company at the Naval Academy also got it. We became so tight. It didn’t matter that he was a straight dude and I am a gay woman. He’d say, “Of course you should come pig-hunting with me.” We’d hang out and build bikes together. He taught me all this fun stuff, and he was always there for me, even when I was going through hell.
I stuck with it for years. There is nothing like disarming bombs. People talk about the adrenaline thing they do on the weekends. I got to do that for work. I remember one week of training. We had a day each of diving, blowing things up, parachuting, shooting guns – everything you could imagine. And the people were awesome. I got to work with folks like Jeff B. He would tell me that he ‘pissed excellence.’ He was hilarious, comfortable with himself, and smart as hell.
I loved it, but EOD also takes a toll. In 2008, it was time for me to try something else. I remember stepping out of the military, and feeling that I was voluntarily giving up everything I knew. That was my whole identity, how I saw myself, who I was. I didn’t know how to separate myself as a person from the work I did as a professional. I thought, ‘If I’m not the work I do, who am I?’
It didn’t help that I transitioned out at the beginning of the Great Recession. Nobody was hiring in 2008. Every prospect I had dried up. I interviewed with a bunch of folks, went to every career fair. It was a mess. I didn’t understand the roles described to me. And I had no idea what skills I had that would be useful for a non-military context. I assumed I would be a government contractor because that’s what people around me were doing. In reality, I just didn’t know I could do anything else.
Through some twists and turns, I wound up as a stunt double in Hollywood for two years, and then a former SEAL hired me to help build a boutique consulting firm. I moved up to the Bay Area with my wife, Lauren. The tech industry was literally all around me, but I couldn’t figure out how to get into it. I submitted my military/ government resume online everywhere, and it didn’t get picked up by a single system. I didn’t know how people got those jobs. Lots of people would help a little bit, but not a lot. I would have done literally anything, but then I happened to see a post about BreakLine on social media.
I went through BreakLine and felt really drawn to Facebook because of the culture. Everyone I talked with loved the company. I have been here for 2 years now, and culture is why I stay. I remember when my first manager asked me: “what projects do you want to work on?” I had never been asked that question before. I felt comfortable and valued right off the bat.
Until recently, I worked for Loree Draude, who was one of the Navy’s first female combat pilots. She hired me at Facebook, and gave me a chance. I didn’t have to sanitize or translate my background for her. She said, “wait – you were EOD?” That signaled something to her that a civilian might not see right away. The first thing she did was make sure I felt supported. She would say, “Do you have everything you need? What else can we do to help?” I’m encouraged to pursue my strengths here, which are meant to be things I am good at and also that I love to do. Now, I’m in a position to hire and help others. There are cool, feel good reasons to work with veterans, but that’s not the most important reason why I hire them. Ultimately, it’s because I know I can take one of them, drop them into the middle of a shit show and they will be scrappy and hustle to develop a smart, effective solution.
Veterans recognize the value of veterans. Once a veteran has helped another veteran break in, everyone else around says “this person is amazing, where do they come from?”