Break into a new tech career with BreakLine

A few months ago I received great advice to research a course called BreakLine. I’m a transitioning veteran who wants to work in the tech industry after I leave the military, and then perhaps pursue a venture of my own one-day. I went to BreakLine.org and read this, “BreakLine is an education and hiring initiative designed to help veterans transition into their post-military careers. Andreessen Horowitz, PayPal, Salesforce, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are hosting our first program this spring for veterans shifting into careers in the technology industry. We match high potential veterans with compelling professional opportunities, while establishing a new pipeline of top talent for some of the most exciting companies in the world.”

Three months later, I just finished the first week of the course at Andreessen Horowitz. The quality of instruction and access to industry leaders has far exceeded my expectations. Lara Tiedens, Jim Patell, Sarah Soule, Matt Abrahams, and Hau Lee from Stanford gave the course participants classes on team dynamics, design thinking, design & organizations, operations, economics, and communication. The entire a16z family was a phenomenal host! a16z brought in CEOs from their portfolio companies, provided us access to department heads and employees from within a16z, hosted panels with Dick Costello, Alex Constantinople, Bill Krause, Varsha Rao, David Mack, Margo Ellis, Orion Hindawi, John Hering, and provided the participants an excellent environment to learn. As if this wasn’t enough, the class was fortunate to hear from Don Fual of Athos, Yinon Weiss of RallyPoint, and John Rudella from SilverLake about how they transitioned form the military into great careers of their own. As you can see, it was a jam-packed week.

In addition to thanking everyone that was part of BreakLine this week, I wanted to capture some of what we learned to help anyone who is in the middle of a career transition. When I review my notes, a couple of themes are consistent.

One of the first classes was on creating a personal brand and learning how to communicate that brand to potential employers. Creating a brand is difficult for a transitioning professional. For many of us our brand is intertwined with our profession; we’re soldiers, doctors, lawyers, programmers, bouncers, bounty hunters and so on. Creating a brand that isn’t just about what you were but who you are and what you want to be can be challenging, it takes a great deal of introspection and brutal honesty. Now that we spent some time reflecting on our goals, BreakLine brought in world class faculty to teach skills to bring it all to fruition.

The academic classes focused on how to work with people, how to diagnose problems and economic data, how to execute, and how to present information. This is relevant for veterans, business people, or anyone who gets up in the morning and goes to work, which is kind of the point. There are skills that people possess which make them successful across of variety of disciplines, and this is good news for anyone making a career transition. If you can do the above tasks well, you have marketable skills that employers are looking for.

I could write a small book on everything we learned from the professors, and the professors have actually written books on these subjects so I don’t think my book would sell very well. Nevertheless, a few highlights are important. We all know it’s difficult to work with people sometimes, and this is why inadequate coordination leads to many team failures. It’s easy to look at a dilemma and immediately attribute the cause to the first obvious problem. Many times, this really isn’t the real problem; the true problem is hidden or is the confluence of several problems. When its time to solve a problem, don’t spend all your time looking at the problem and analyzing data, role up your sleeves and start fixing it — iterate. Whether you’re creating a product or re-structuring an organization, it’s important to prototype, implement, measure, and find out what really works and what doesn’t. Last, communication is inherent in everything we do. Be confident, connected and compelling. The majority of people are not born great communicators; they practice and have to adopt a style based on their strengths and weaknesses.

The week provided us with an opportunity to see great communicators in action during a series of panels with industry experts. The panels had several commonalities I found interesting. First, leadership is not dead in fact it is in demand. However, leadership is not just being in charge of people and telling them what to do. Leadership is keeping your people calm when things go south and being direct about how to fix the problem. Leadership is being honest with everyone — honest with your boss, honest with your subordinates, but most importantly honest with yourself.

Being honest isn’t easy, which is why leaders need to be courageous. Leaders need to have the courage to do what is unpopular. That is easy to say, but much more difficult to understand. Why is it that leaders see a path that most don’t? If everyone saw the path then it wouldn’t be an unpopular decision. Leaders see an uncharted course because they are thinkers, they’re intellectually curious, and they possess the conviction and perseverance to execute their vision.

At times, we lead people, but some things in life are done alone, and a career transition is one of them. Your network can help you, and friends can provide advice, but it is incumbent upon the individual to pursue and accept a new path. The veterans who spoke to the class shared valuable lessons about their respective transitions. Be honest about your individual strengths and weaknesses and be honest with the people you meet. People can’t help you if you’re feeding them crap, you have to be honest so they can really help. The veterans that spoke to us were all brutally honest in their transition and they were honest when they spoke with us. They were deliberate about their transition and didn’t settle. They worked hard, didn’t let continuous disappointments discourage them, and were willing to put in the extra work to prove their worth. This is a valuable lesson for anyone in a career transition. The only way you can attempt to make up for a lack of domain expertise is by working harder, preparing more, and showing your potential employer your worth.

A career transition can be one of the most volatile periods in a person’s life. For many, it isn’t just about us. Our family depends on us to succeed and this adds stress to an already difficult situation. Changing careers or dealing with any adversity-laden obstacle is not insurmountable. First, be honest about the situation and be honest with everyone around you. Don’t sugar coat things, cut straight to the heart of it. Second, learn new skills and meet new people that can help. Third, listen and learn from people who have gone before. Finally, look for many of the great resources and great people who are looking to help, and if you’re a veteran — BreakLine is one of these resources.