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How to Translate Military Experience to the Tech Industry


Thought Leader


The military is an under-tapped community of outstanding, diverse talent. More than 200,000 veterans transition from the service each year and enter the job search looking for opportunities to apply their skillsets to meaningful work. At the same time, companies – especially startups – are looking for people who are resilient, unflappable, and creative problem-solvers – qualities that are especially prevalent in the veteran community. As a result, every robust talent acquisition strategy should include a plan to build bridges with this large and talented pool of job seekers.

In our recent blog on the BreakLine Bar, where we shared how we find and assess outstanding, high-performing job candidates from nontraditional backgrounds, we touched on the skills and qualities military veterans often exhibit. However, it can be challenging for both veterans and hiring managers to translate military careers to roles within the private sector. This communication gap causes a hurdle for hiring managers looking to bring high-performing veterans onto their teams. 

Military job titles do not clearly align with private sector roles, leading outstanding candidates to fall through the cracks of conventional recruiting searches and filters. Furthermore, it can be difficult for those without military experience to parse how the military recognizes excellence. Without that understanding, they may underestimate or misunderstand a veteran’s skills and qualifications. 

Over the past seven years at BreakLine, veterans have thoroughly proven the value they can bring to startup and corporate teams. BreakLine alum, Kathy Borkoski, is a perfect example. She majored in Aerospace Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy and served as an underwater Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer– an elite, competitive role that demanded peak professional and physical performance. 

Despite Kathy’s track record of success in the service,  she found it difficult to shift to a new career once she left the military. “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,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post. Upon moving to the Bay Area, she said, “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 company.”

Connecting with BreakLine led to a career breakthrough. Kathy found a role at Meta, and she is now a Senior Product Manager at CrossFit. Her story highlights the difficulties veterans face when seeking to apply their skills in non-military roles, as well as the challenges companies encounter when working to translate and evaluate veteran backgrounds.

BreakLine eliminates these barriers by demonstrating the specific excellence of veterans. Below, we share how to map military career success and experience onto the qualifications you seek. With more insight, companies can successfully hire and retain outstanding veteran talent.

How Excellence Is Measured in the Military

If you know the lingo and indicators, it is fairly straightforward to parse out those who rose through the ranks and had truly outstanding military careers. However, with veterans making up just 5.2% of U.S. adults by 2023 estimates, few are familiar with how to assess military excellence. 

Here are some of the professional development indicators that we look for during the BreakLine application process:

  • Stratifications: Annual performance reports that stratify military personnel relative to their peers (i.e. #1/25 – the top performer out of 25 peers)
  • Promotions: Promotions ahead of schedule
  • Awards: Merit-based awards like “CGO of the Quarter” or “NCO of the Year” (Company Grade Officer and Non-commissioned Officer)
  • Selective Units: Acceptance into elite, competitive special units
  • Education: Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees pursued and earned while enlisted or otherwise working full-time

How Experience Can Be Translated

In our previous blog post, we discussed how job roles can be deconstructed into hard and soft skills to help recruiters and hiring managers translate nontraditional backgrounds and more consistently identify leading indicators for performance. At the same time, this deconstruction assists job seekers from varied backgrounds (who may not be familiar with tech sector verbiage) to find suitable roles. 

For veterans, the deconstruction goes even deeper. As military titles and experience are likely unfamiliar to the 95% of people who have not served, hiring managers and recruiters often need coaching to learn how to “read” military experience in a resume.

Say a company is looking for a data scientist but a recruiter sees a candidate whose most recent job title is “Lt. Colonel.” On the surface, it may appear to be misaligned. But let’s deconstruct the role: They seek a Senior Data Scientist, but what they need is someone who can build a Random Forest classification neural network in Python. It turns out that this former Lt. Colonel has these skills, developed during her time serving her country.

BreakLine helps both our participants and our partners with this translation. Applicants learn which roles are applicable to their experience and how to share their expertise in language that hiring managers understand. We also train our partners to recognize, evaluate, and value equivalent experience from different fields.

Why Military Experience is a Superpower

We often hear from our 150+ partners, regardless of company stage and size, that they want people with a startup mentality. They seek someone who can operate in ambiguous environments, innovate under pressure, and exude a calm presence in the midst of chaos. They need employees with the resilience and grit necessary to succeed.

Perhaps without knowing it, they are describing military veterans. 

At the same time, many companies harbor concern over candidate ramp-up time. Will someone without the exact experience in a similar company be slow to onboard? The great news here is that servicemembers constantly pick up new jobs and learn new skills in stressful environments throughout the course of their military careers. And they are tasked with getting their arms around the new role within days or weeks. Drinking from the firehose and parachuting in to solve problems are essential to charting a successful path in the military. 

What else can you expect when hiring a veteran? Extensive skills in:

  • Taking Initiative: Working alongside a team, often thrown together by circumstance and need rather than choice, and achieving the common goal
  • Resourcefulness: Finding efficiencies and hacks in chronically under-resourced environments
  • Incentivization: Building esprit de corps in teams without relying on material perks
  • Problem-Solving: Finding solutions in high-pressure situations where failure is not an option
  • Flexibility: Pivoting to get the job done in ambiguous, dynamic circumstances

All of these skills are fundamental to working in the private sector where market conditions can shift unexpectedly, the economy can throw plans into a tailspin, and new competitors or technologies can change the playing field. 

Companies must rely on great employees to lead and innovate through these disruptions. Veterans are the high performers for the job.To learn more about what BreakLiners seek in their careers and how you can attract them to your company, read our report Finding the Right Team for Your Tech Startup.

© 2022 BreakLine. All Rights Reserved.
© 2022 BreakLine. All Rights Reserved.