My personal exposure to Silicon Valley is limited. Back in the 1990s, I was interviewing for a job at a large technology company expanding into the media business. When the interviewer asked about my management experience, I pointed to the time 10 years earlier when I commanded a Marine rifle platoon after college.
“That’s not leadership,” the interviewer said. “You just tell people what to do and they do it.”
There were a lot of reasons I was unsuited for the job. Still, this remark struck me as dumb as it was revealing. Silicon Valley is a pretty insular place.
Silicon Valley has come under fire for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, but little is said about the number of veterans at tech companies. In fact, it’s impossible to know what those numbers are. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo would not say how many veterans work there, but all told me they are making efforts to attract former servicemembers.
For much of the time since my interview, the nation has been at war. Yet fewer than 1% of the American population serve in the military today. That’s a far cry from previous wars, when a draft drew millions into service.
The gap between the military and civilians is wider than at any time in modern history. That’s a tough break for this generation’s warriors, who are getting out of the military and looking for jobs. They’re entering a workforce where employers know almost nothing about their experience.
That gap is particularly pronounced in Silicon Valley, a pretty insular world by any measure.
“There is a complete misunderstanding, particularly in tech, about what people do in the military,” says Doug Stone, a retired Marine major general who has run several technology companies.
He says he has learned to avoid talking about his military background, which includes running detainee operations in Iraq, with business colleagues. “They really pigeonhole you very quickly, and you can’t convince them otherwise,” Stone says.
Some tech companies say they are working on the problem.
“We’re still crawling, but we’re making huge progress,” says Chris Cortez, a retired Marine major general who is Microsoft’s vice president of military affairs.
He and others point to such workers as Bernard Bergan, a 32-year-old soldier who served a year in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and now works at Microsoft.
Exposure to combat has helped keep stress in perspective. “I get to go home tonight,” Bergan reminded a colleague who had commented on how stressful one workday was. “I don’t mind what our tough days look like.”
The military is shrinking after more than a decade of war. An estimated 200,000 servicemembers will be getting out of the military in the next five years, says Cortez, who has led Microsoft’s efforts to establish a software training academy at military bases.
Ben Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chairman, recently said studies have suggested that military training doesn’t give workers a boost in the workplace.
But that misses an important point. It’s the intangible qualities of military experience that are the most valuable. If you survive the Army’s Ranger School or a year of combat in Anbar province, Iraq, you have probably demonstrated a level of intestinal fortitude that goes beyond what is required to roll out the latest iPhone app.
That doesn’t mean veterans should be treated as a protected class deserving special treatment. That well-intentioned “support” ultimately leads to a public that views veterans as victims, as damaged goods.
As horrible as combat is, it also forges character and leadership skills that help propel people through life and work. Many come out of the experience stronger than when they went in.
Previous generations instinctively understood that.
Donald Regan, who headed Merrill Lynch before becoming President Reagan’s Treasury secretary and White House chief of staff, once explained how his service as a Marine commander in the Pacific during World War II shaped his postwar business and political career. “At age 26, I was a major on Okinawa with 1,200 men under me,” he told The Washington Post in a 1985 profile. “When people are calling you the ‘old man’ and you’re 26 years old and you’re responsible for so many people, it does shape your life. You’re not afraid of command from then on.”
Today veterans are coming home from war with the same experience. The American public seems slow to grasp it.