Heather Holcomb

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.”

Kathy Borkoski

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?”

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