In this episode, we talk about how military veterans can translate their skills into tech with iAsia Brown, military veteran and program manager at Microsoft. iAsia talks about transitioning from the military into tech, documenting her learning and landing a job at Microsoft, and helping other military veterans to break into tech as well.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron. And today, we’re talking about how military veterans can translate their skills into tech with iAsia Brown, Military Veteran and Program Manager at Microsoft.
[00:00:22] IB: You already have the skill sets. What you lack is the knowledge and the visibility of what it looks like in the civilian side. So it’s living in two parallel worlds at the same time.
[00:00:31] SY: iAsia talks about transitioning from military into tech, documenting her learning, and landing a job at Microsoft and helping other military veterans to break into tech as well after this.
[00:00:53] SY: Thanks so much for being here.
[00:00:54] IB: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
[00:00:56] SY: So iAsia, tell us about when you first got interested in tech. When did that happen for you?
[00:01:01] IB: It probably started with the Etch-a-Sketch.
[00:01:03] SY: Whoa! I haven’t heard that one before.
[00:01:05] IB: Let’s talk Etch-a-Sketch.
[00:01:05] SY: Tell me about that. Yeah.
[00:01:07] IB: You know, you got the little red box, the two little buttons. But if you messed up, you had to shake the whole thing up and try again. And I was like, “There has to be a better way to do this. I should be able to go back to this piece and then go from here.”
[00:01:19] SY: Okay.
[00:01:19] IB: And I had been on my own a little personal journey as a child to try to figure out how to automate that for me. So I think my love in tech really did start with the Etch-a-Sketch and the wanting to be able to figure out how to make things better.
[00:01:32] SY: So how do we go from Etch-a-Sketch to coding? Because that still feels like a pretty big leap.
[00:01:36] IB: It’s not. Think about it. Everything is coding. Everything. Your first language, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, it’s a code. When you think about Navajo windtalkers, that’s a code. Now the method of entry and how we use a code, that’s what makes it “technology”. As soon as you put it in a machine or put it on a screen, then it becomes technology. But everything you do really is coding, whether it’s Morse code, whether it’s tapping. You ever watched two twins or triplets and they have their own language? That’s all code. Throughout life, you’re always learning code.
[00:02:06] SY: So when did the technology part happen for you then?
[00:02:09] IB: I had a fourth grade computer teacher, her name is Miss Ryder, and I just loved her, absolutely adored her. And I think this was the first time I’d seen an Apple Computer II, big, just sat on a desk, and I just wanted to play with it all the time. I was really into video games, love Nintendo, love Super Mario, Pitfall. Love games. But I really wanted to know how the computer works, but she wouldn’t let me. She never would let me take it apart. I would try, “Let me take it apart.”
[00:02:36] SY: Well, I assume other people had to probably use that computer. Is that fair to say?
[00:02:39] IB: Oh yeah, whole school.
[00:02:40] SY: Okay. Okay.
[00:02:41] IB: But in my mind, it was my project, but I knew at that point somewhere in my life I would come back to computers.
[00:02:50] SY: And when did you come back to computers? When did that happen?
[00:02:52] IB: In the military. I was in two different branches of the military. I was in the Air Force first and I was a mortician. And then when I joined the Marine Corps, they’re like, “Hey, what job do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t care as long as the people talk back.”
[00:03:05] SY: Fair.
[00:03:06] IB: Fair. Right? Fair point, right?
[00:03:08] SY: Basic job requirements. Yes.
[00:03:09] IB: That was it.
[00:03:10] SY: Yes. That’s correct.
[00:03:10] IB: So I got put in communications.
[00:03:12] SY: Oh, okay.
[00:03:12] IB: Yeah. First thing they gave me was a laptop and a radio. I was like, “All right, let’s do it.”
[00:03:16] SY: Okay. So communications doesn’t mean like marketing and social media in this context, I assume.
[00:03:21] IB: No. It means radios, wires, computers, satellites, how can we communicate across terrains.
[00:03:28] SY: So we recently had another veteran on the show who learned cyber security through the military. And I’m wondering, when you enter the Marines, where you, at some point, maybe hoping to use that to get more technical or did that just kind of happen for you?
[00:03:43] IB: I had already been on my own personal, ethical hacking path. Like I wanted to know how things worked, how things break, and then how you put them back together. So while in the military, I did like my SEC+, my NET+, my CISSP, just feeding towards my curiosity, but I spent a lot of my own time just researching, breaking things, “red selling”, just seeing how I could do things. And that love just grew.
[00:04:08] SY: How did you learn those things?
[00:04:09] IB: Trial and error. I was that kid in high school that could, “Oh, I can change this,” change class schedule, change bell schedule. I can do that.
[00:04:18] SY: Were you successful? Did you change the bell schedule?
[00:04:21] IB: I was. I was very successful.
[00:04:22] SY: Really?
[00:04:23] IB: I had a sought out skill set, and that’s also another reaffirming that, “Hey, this is going to be a good skill set to have in the future.” Like most people who code, you don’t learn it because you sat down. And was like, “You know what? Today I’m going to code.” You learned it because you tried things. I don’t know. Okay. Wait. Did you ever have a MySpace?
[00:04:43] SY: Yes, I did.
[00:04:44] IB: Did you change your layout of your page?
[00:04:46] SY: I don’t remember. I was thinking every time someone mentioned MySpace, I think like, “How did I use MySpace?” I don’t think I was that creative with MySpace. I think I just changed like the words and the photo. And I think I was very minimal with it. I didn’t really go very deep.
[00:04:59] IB: So at that time, like if you came to my page, a different song would play. Like I had HTML worked out and I had no idea that that was even coding because no one told us we were coding.
[00:05:09] SY: Yeah. So when did someone tell you, you were coding? When did you go from communications, wires, signals, that sort of thing, over to what we consider to be learning to code, maybe it was some web development that sort of thing today?
[00:05:22] IB: I got put on a project and they were trying to figure out how to do something. I was looking at it and I said, “Well, this is wrong. You need to change this to this and this.” And they were like, “How do you know how to code?” And I was like, “Oh, you mean this?” And that’s when I truly understood what I was doing was coding and I kept going. And at the time, I didn’t know the language that I was using was C#. That’s what I had just been using. I feel like if I’m a polyglot in life, then I should be a polyglot in programming languages.
[00:05:51] SY: And that happened at the Marines?
[00:05:53] IB: Well, it happened while I was in the Marine Corps, but it happened as a result of me just wanting to learn more.
[00:05:58] SY: So I understand that when you left the Marines, you did a fellowship called the SkillBridge program. Is that right?
[00:06:06] IB: I did. So I don’t think it’s a fellowship. A fellowship is a specific type of program itself. I did a SkillBridge program called Microsoft Software and Systems Academy or MSSA. And I did it because, one, I love technology. Two, I would tell everyone, my last two years, I would tell everyone, “When I got to the Marine Corps, I’m going to Microsoft.”
[00:06:25] SY: Really?
[00:06:26] IB: There was no, like, “What’s your Plan B? Plan A is going to work.” If I plan for Plan B, then I’m going to plan that Plan A is going to work.” So it was, when I leave the military, I’m going to Microsoft. And that is what I set my intentions on.
[00:06:36] SY: Wow!
[00:06:36] IB: So when I found SkillBridge program, it was because it guaranteed one interview with someone from Microsoft. And I said, “All I need to do is get in front of someone and I’ll get hired.”
[00:06:45] SY: Why were you so intent on Microsoft? Why that company specifically?
[00:06:49] IB: The value is really aligned with what I joined the Marine Corps for. When you set out to want to help people and want to do better and then you look at the mission statement, to empower every person in every organization on this planet to do more, and I wasn’t trying to save the world. I was just trying to do more than what I could do yesterday. I want to do more tomorrow than I did today.
[00:07:08] SY: So I hear that there is a very fascinating story with you and a smart mirror in some of your early learn to code part of life. Can you tell us that story?
[00:07:18] IB: That was really one of my first conscious coding projects. So my smart mirror, I call it my life partner. My wife was in Japan and I was getting out the military. Actually, I was in the program for Microsoft. I was in the MSSA program and they were like, “For people who don’t really know how to speak about their tech, you can do a project and be able to talk about it.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, I can do a project.” Right? So I was like, “What am I going to build?” And I was like, “Oh, I’ll build a smart mirror.”
[00:07:46] SY: What is a smart mirror in this context? What did you mean by that?
[00:07:49] IB: So a smart mirror was I took an LED screen, hooked it up to a Raspberry PI.
[00:07:54] SY: Okay.
[00:07:55] IB: And then I programmed it very, very, basically using Linux. It would tell me the date, the time, and the weather. And then I was like, “Oh, I wonder what else I could do.” So then I bought a webcam for it and I started running an ML model on it, some AI and some cognitive services. And I started showing it what I looked like, what my daughter looked like, what my classmates looked like. So now if one of my classmates, Sebastian, sat in front of my mirror and it’ll go, “Hi, Sebastian,” it can identify Sebastian.
[00:08:23] SY: That’s cool.
[00:08:24] IB: Oh, I went out the window with this one. I just kept feeding it. I wanted to see how far down the AI, ML rabbit hole I could go with it. So there’s something about when children go to school, they don’t always come back with the same clothes they had.
[00:08:37] SY: I have seen the TikTok videos. Yes.
[00:08:41] IB: So I RFID chipped her clothes and the mirror and then I uploaded them, I cataloged all of her clothes to this mirror. So now based off the weather and what she has catalogued in her closet, the mirror could make a recommendation. You know, “Okay, based off the weather, here’s an outfit you can wear,” or, “You haven’t worn this outfit.” It can make clothing recommendations. And then I uploaded like her school schedule, so she knew what was due on what days, what she had that day, if she needed to bring clothes for gym, if she needed an umbrella. It was great. It really truly became my life partner.
[00:09:15] SY: That’s cool.
[00:09:16] IB: And then adding sentiment analysis to it, it was kind of like my anti-bullying tactic, because we had just moved from California to Washington. My daughter was in a new place, new environment, around different types of people she had never been around before. So now if she walked past the mirror and the mirror’s sentiment analysis said that she was sad, it will go, “What’s wrong, Jaylen?” And it was very interesting to watch her interact with the mirror because she would talk to it.
[00:09:41] SY: Oh, interesting. Okay.
[00:09:43] IB: Kids don’t always want to talk to their parents, but she had an outlet. And it was good for me to learn and understand because she would just put her thoughts out there.
[00:09:52] SY: So I want to dig a little bit more into the technology behind this. So you mentioned the Raspberry PI. You mentioned Linux. You mentioned some ML and AI. What coding language are we talking about? What frameworks were you using for this?
[00:10:04] IB: This was C++.
[00:10:05] SY: Okay.
[00:10:05] IB: When I tell you I’m a trial and error, I had no idea what I was doing. I literally had no idea what I was doing, but I was just going for it. And I love Twitter because everyone on Twitter has an opinion and everyone on Twitter has a solution. So if I be like, “I’m stuck. This is what I’m trying to do. This is what I did.” I’ll get responses like, “Hey, have you tried this? Have you done this?” Twitter and Reddit because Reddit is an infinite hole of vast knowledge as well.
[00:10:30] SY: That’s true. Yeah.
[00:10:32] IB: But when I will get stuck, I would just ask Beyonce’s Internet and Beyonce’s Internet and they would give me the answers.
[00:10:41] SY: Very nice. So you had a goal of working at Microsoft after the Marines. Did you have a particular job you were going for? Was there a dream job in mind or was the goal just to get to that company?
[00:10:54] IB: Have you ever had your dream job and didn’t know and turned it down?
[00:10:58] SY: No. But tell me about your experience.
[00:11:02] IB: I’ll walk you through on this one.
[00:11:03] SY: Okay.
[00:11:04] IB: So when I got to Microsoft, I actually got two offers. I had two offers on the table. And now in the situation that I was in, my wife was in Japan, I was in California. I did not want to relocate to Redmond at the time. I did not want to relocate. Mind you, I ended up there, but I didn’t want to relocate. And the Mixed Reality team, the HoloLens team had an offer for me and so did the Azure team. The HoloLens team I knew came with a relocation. I didn’t know about the one for the Azure team. So I turned down HoloLens team, took the Azure one. And in a roundabout way, I’m actually glad that I did, but I ended up relocating to Redmond anyway for six months until my wife came back from Japan. But I learned so much about the platform and how to leverage and utilize the platform. It made me much more prepared to be able to because I sit here with my Oculus and my HoloLens and I play with games and I’ve built stuff and I break stuff. So it allowed me the opportunity to truly immerse myself in the platform and learn how to build on it. So I’m grateful for that. But man, had I known, had I known.
[00:12:14] SY: That you were going to end up in Redmond anyway. Okay. So it sounds like you were pretty open because Azure is pretty different from augmented reality and VR and that kind of space. So it sounds like you were pretty open with the different jobs you could have taken. So that actually is really interesting because I think that when most people think about doing a bootcamp or a program, similar to a bootcamp, they think, “I’m going to go into web development or in mobile.” And that’s kind of the end of it. How are you able to go from the program that you did to applying to such a decent range of jobs?
[00:12:51] IB: So when I did my project, I documented my project, I documented my project very, very well, and I was able to write down not only all the steps that I did, what steps led me to what, how I leveraged my different resources, what different resources I brought in. So I was able to show a multitude of different skills. I love being a program manager. I love being a technical, a very technical program manager because I can leverage both skill sets at the same time. I can be super, super technically proficient, but I’m super organized. I’m like the nanny when it comes to keeping my work stuff.
[00:13:26] SY: Yeah. Got you. So the projects that you did, that you documented, was all that part of the program or was that something that you did on your own?
[00:13:35] IB: I was doing it on my own. In the program, they were teaching us Azure administration. So that was the goal. I did the program because I knew it guaranteed me one interview.
[00:13:44] SY: And through your projects, your documentation, you were able to get a totally different job.
[00:13:49] IB: Yeah. Well, when I got to Redmond, other people came down to interview us. If other teams were interested in you or if someone was like, “Hey, I interviewed this person,” go reach out to another team and be like, “I interviewed this person. They might be a really good fit for your team.” So you should send someone down to interview them.
[00:14:04] SY: Oh, that’s really cool. So you really do get a door that opens up a lot more doors, at least in terms of how Microsoft works. That’s really interesting. Okay.
[00:14:13] IB: It opens up to their partners as well. People in my class went to Cognizant, went to Amazon, went to Facebook, went to Unity, went to EA, and there were a bunch of different places where we all landed, but we leveraged that SkillBridge program to use the network.
[00:14:47] SY: Now I know that we are always encouraging people via our Twitter chats, via Instagram, via at this podcast to document what they’re learning, to write those blog posts, make videos, whatever medium is most convenient for them, and we tell them to share the journey and do these projects. But a lot of the feedback we get is that it’s really scary. Right? It’s always scary to put yourself out there and possibly look stupid, post things that might feel obvious to other developers. Did you ever deal with that or are you ever worried about what people thought of what you were posting?
[00:15:21] IB: No.
[00:15:22] SY: No? Why do you think that is?
[00:15:24] IB: Because some of the worst advice I ever received was to be overly cautious, “Don’t do something. Don’t do it. Don’t.” And then I realized that people’s don’ts and people’s cans are really a limitation of what they can do and not what I can do. And I know that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. And when people know that you need help, then you can be in a position to be helped. So if I want to sit and suffer in silence, then I’m not going to get any further. However, if I throw up my little hand, my little tweet, my message, smoke, signals, flares, a bird, pigeon, dove, whatever, and say, “I need help with this.” After all the sarcastic people say what they need to say, someone is going to give me something tangible and helpful to help me move forward.
[00:16:12] SY: Well, that is a great mindset to have. That’s definitely the right mindset to have that we encourage as well. So good for you. So tell us about your job now as program manager. What is that job like?
[00:16:21] IB: Oh, I love my job. I feel like I'm an orchestra conductor.
[00:16:23] SY: Okay. It’s not what I was expecting you to say. What does that mean?
[00:16:28] IB: I tell my customers and I’d be like, “All right, I’m your orchestra conductor,” because I get to listen to customers, bring me their projects. Right?
[00:16:34] SY: Okay.
[00:16:34] IB: And whatever their wildest dreams are to bring to fruition as far as technology, I really get to listen to it and break apart the pieces. Is this going to be an infrastructure in beta, AI, ML? Now what are the pieces that they need? I listen to all the different things that they’re doing, whether it’s SAP, whether it’s a DC migration. And as the orchestra conductor, I’m not going to play every single instrument because that’s not what I do. I’m here to, “All right, I need data for this part. I need infrastructure for this part. I’m going to need an SAP engineer for this part.” And I really get to harmonize the project and bring them in as I need. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. I can’t be like, “Hey, I'm iAsia, I’m your engineer for everything. I’ll have the breadth across the technologies, but I won’t have the depth. So it’s my job to make sure that I bring the depth into each and every piece. I can help surface level with some things, got it. For the things that I’m deeply deep in, I can go down that rabbit hole all day, but if someone needs a security project, if they’re doing a lift and shift, maybe they need app mod, app development. One of the engineers on my team has that specialty to make sure that they’re getting exactly what they need via some broad and general answer, like, “Oh, no, it’s okay.” I’m like, “No.” I make sure that I bring to the table all the experts so we can work together as a team to help the customers as best as possible.
[00:17:53] SY: And tell me how the job you have now compares to the first job that you had at Microsoft. What was that like?
[00:17:59] IB: It’s a little different. So my first role in Microsoft was truly a blessing because I was a program manager who oversaw all of the APAC region. So that’s the Asian-Pacific Region and my wife was in Japan. So it meant that I could take trips to Tokyo and see my wife.
[00:18:12] SY: Oh, that’s cool.
[00:18:13] IB: It was great. When I say it worked out, it worked out.
[00:18:17] SY: It really worked out. Yeah.
[00:18:18] IB: Yeah, it worked out. So I’d fly with the kids to Tokyo, drop her off with the wife, go back to work and it’d be cool to spend weekends like on Okinawa. It was great. And that was more program manager than technical program. I didn’t have to be technical. Now I get to really leverage my expertise and my knowledge base and I can get my hands dirty and I like it. So I just learn something every single day.
[00:18:41] SY: So you mentioned that earlier in your life, you were interested in prosthetics and robotics when you were younger. Do you still have a passion for those things? Do you do any work on those? Tell me about this.
[00:18:52] IB: I do. When I think of the end goal, it is to have a fully operational and developed chip to stem prosthetic that will grow with children through puberty. That’s my end goal.
[00:19:03] SY: Whoa! It’s a big goal.
[00:19:05] IB: Every day, I try to move the needle closer to trying to figure out a different piece.
[00:19:08] SY: And is this a company you might start one day, a technology you hope to invent? Is that kind of what you mean?
[00:19:14] IB: It’s the technology I hope to bring to fruition. Yes. I’m really not interested in owning my own company. At least not at this time, but it definitely is a technology that I want to bring to fruition.
[00:19:26] SY: So that’s really interesting. Because I think that when most of us are coding, we are building something new, but it’s not really that new, right? It’s really kind of remixing things that already exist. It’s putting together different components that have already been built. It’s maybe an iteration, but it’s not invention, I think, right? Creation and invention I think are generally a step further than what most of us developers do on a regular basis. But what you’re talking about seems like an invention. When you are pursuing that, how do you do that? Where do you even begin when you’re trying to create something that actually does not exist yet?
[00:20:07] IB: So it kind of does, but it kind of doesn’t. I think it does exist, but it doesn’t exist in the capacity to which I envision it. There’s already technology to read the brain. There’s already technology to move a robotic. Now the space in between, that’s the part that I’m trying to solve for.
[00:20:27] SY: And is this the kind of thing that one person can kind of solve on their own outside of a research center or a university, a big research and development team? Is this something that is doable for someone to do on the side?
[00:20:42] IB: I have no idea.
[00:20:43] SY: Okay.
[00:20:44] IB: I just know I’m going for it. I feel like somewhere in the world there is a four-year-old genius who probably already has unlocked this in their head. They just can’t articulate it.
[00:20:53] SY: And is your job to find that genius or to be that genius?
[00:20:57] IB: I just want to see it. I don’t care if I build it. I don’t care if I find the person who builds it. I just think it’s very important and it’s a missing piece.
[00:21:04] SY: Well, that’s very exciting. I’m really excited to see how you progress and make steps towards that dream. So you have obviously made a very successful transition from the military into a career in tech. Tell me about how you’ve helped other veterans pivot into tech.
[00:21:20] IB: That’s why I do this. The day I got my offer letter, I called someone else and was like, “Hey, you want to come into tech?” And for me it’s every step up the ladder. Someone else should be replacing you where you are. So I talked to all the ongoing MSSA cohorts I helped mentor. My wife is a career planner at a recon battalion. I talked to all her marines, like, “All right, if this is what you’re trying to do.” I help them come up with plans. I help them roadmap. I show them the resources to be able to help themselves. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s tag, if they want to go into dentistry, whatever, if they’re just trying to make sure they establish. But I love, love, love helping future technologists because tech is the equalizer. I stand on that. It’s the one space where us, as veterans, we do a lot of thinking, but we don’t necessarily put it out there as much because it’s not the environment to do that. You just got to get things done and go, go, go. And this is the environment where you can run with your wildest fantasies, your wildest ideas, and really be able to change the world and bring things to fruition. It’s like, “Why don’t you just try it?” “Oh, I’m afraid to fail.” Fail. Fail fast. Fail forward. I promise you the first time you tried to walk, you didn’t just get up and just walk. You fell a couple of times. It’s okay. It builds character, it builds strength, and just helping people get comfortable with failing. Because in technology, you have to fail. No one wakes up a coder that can just code with no red lines. No. Everyone makes mistakes. You got to sit there, stare at it, getting mad, turn your computer off, walk away, and then come back to it with a clear head, like, “All right, I can do this. Let’s do this.” So for me, giving back to veterans is we’ve already given so much of our lives and our time. Now let’s do something that gives back to not just us, but our families and everyone around us.
[00:23:09] SY: What’s really wonderful about tech is you really can have a wide range of jobs in the industry. Even you, your first job, you had a choice between augmented reality and cloud computing, right? And even within that, you could be an engineer, you can be a PM. You can do so many different jobs within the same niche within the world of tech. So when you’re helping people make that leap, make that pivot into tech, how do you help them pinpoint the skills they already have to the role they might be a best fit for?
[00:23:45] IB: It’s really about understanding what they do now because every single job has a project. Every job. I talk to a lot of Marines. And I’m like, “Have you ever been on a field op?” They’re like, “Yes.” I’m like, “You know, that’s a project.” They’re like, “No, it’s not.” I'm like, “Okay, let’s break it down. What is the end result of a field op? What do you are supposed to accomplish? Okay. Boom. This is what you’re supposed to accomplish. Now let’s work backwards and look at all the things that it takes to get there. And you break apart the pieces of what it takes. What do the logistics look like? What is the food? What is the bedding? What is the personnel count? Do we have weapons? Do we not have weapons? How are we going to handle them?” All this stuff, that’s a project. And then I show them what a project plan looks like and what a field op exercise looks and it mirrors. So sometimes it’s not about you already have the skill sets. What you lack is the knowledge and the visibility of what it looks like in the civilian side. So it’s living in two parallel worlds at the same time. I like to remove the veil and show the polarity so they can see it. Like, “Hey, look, these are the same things. This is what it would look like as a civilian. This is what it looks like in the military, but they’re the same set of tests, same set of responsibilities.”
[00:24:56] SY: Are there any exercises that you do with these veterans to help kind of reveal some of those skills?
[00:25:02] IB: Oh, I do this to my wife. She’s so tired of me. I mean, I do this to her all the time. My wife puts out next year. So we were at like LensCrafters and someone asked her about her job and she was telling them, and then when she got done, I said, “Oh!” I said, “Excuse me, can we do a social experiment really quickly?” And she knew what was coming. She was like, “Oh!” And he was like, “Sure.” I was like, “I would like for you to tell him exactly what you did with using no military terminology, no jargon, no acronyms and words that 90% of the country can identify, go.” And I’m trying to get her out of the comfort zone of being like, “Yeah, I’m a career planner at 1st MARDIV.” What does that mean? And really get her to articulate what she does intentionally. So I do those exercises a lot, “Okay, tell me about your responsibilities.” “Oh, I’m in a platoon of,” “Okay, a platoon, what is it? Is it a team? Is it a group? What is it? Are you a team lead?” Like really get them to explain what they do and give tangible examples.
[00:26:08] SY: So are these exercises things that you yourself went through? Did you kind of go through this process that showed you that you’d be a good program manager?
[00:26:17] IB: No, I think I’ve always been a good communicator, and then I went on recruiting duty. I went on recruiting duty in South Central Los Angeles and a place where they said you could not be successful. And I became a recruiter of the nation just by being able to talk about the Marine Corps in a way that made other people want to join. I think that’s my superpower is really allowing people to envision what they want for themselves and put themselves in that place. I don’t know. I love working with people. That’s my passion. I love people.
[00:26:44] SY: Tell me about some of the general skills that veterans have that translate well into different tech jobs.
[00:26:52] IB: Initiative, definitely has initiative. A different perspective. Tech needs someone with a different perspective all the time. And typically when I walk in a room, I’m like, “All right, really quick, everybody.” And I could do a list on this call right now. I’m like, “All right, give me a country that starts with D. Go!”
[00:27:10] SY: Denmark.
[00:27:11] IB: All right. Cool. And then give me an animal that starts with a letter E.
[00:27:15] SY: Elephant.
[00:27:16] IB: Cool. Everyone, about 98% of people say Denmark and Elephant but typically, and I’ll use veterans in this, there’ll be like, “Oh, Dubai, Eagle.” Why?
[00:27:29] SY: Ah, interesting.
[00:27:29] IB: And I do it for the Dubais and the Eagles because they deserve a voice in that room too because if everyone is focused on the Denmark and the Elephant, we forget about the Dubais and the Eagles and tech needs that too, because we’re all inclusive. Every single person needs it. We have that different perspective because for me, the sky’s not falling. It doesn’t matter what is going on. At work when everyone else was freaking out, I'm like, “Yeah, I know it can be worse. Right?” And we sit back, we have that calmness, that clarity of like, “What’s the big site picture? What are we trying to do? All right. Let’s reverse plan and work backwards.” We definitely have planning skills because you have to plan. You plan and planning. If you don’t plan, you plan to fail, the maturity and the leadership because everyone is taught to lead. So when it comes time to step in and step up, you don’t really have to be like, “Does anyone want to do this?” Like we’ve already got it. We got everyone close to this.
[00:28:21] SY: I think one of the words that comes to mind when I think about veterans is discipline and ability to focus and just be really disciplined. And I’m wondering, would you feel like that’s a fair characterization? And if so, how does that translate to technology?
[00:28:37] IB: Discipline is absolutely fair. Yes, because there won’t be any shortcuts and our line of work, well, we are used to, and what’s been ingrained in us when it comes to our jobs and our work ethic, we cannot afford to take shortcuts. If you take shortcuts, someone can possibly get hurt on the other end of it. So you learn to sit there and you get disciplined in your craft. You have to learn your job. Something as basic as learning your weapon, you have to learn what you’re working with, your computer systems. For me, it doesn’t matter if I’m trying to figure out how to use my microphone. I’m going to take the time to do due diligence, to figure out how to do it. I have discipline to everything that I’m trying to do because it matters. We’re going to be on time. We’re going to be early. I was sitting here early just because I don’t like making people wait on me. That’s something ingrained in me, 15 minutes prior. I try not to be 15 minutes prior because it’s a little crazy when it comes to civilians. I’ll sit here and just be waiting. But it’s one of those things that if we say that we’re going to do it, then we’re going to do it. We’re going to follow through.
[00:29:46] SY: Coming up next, iAsia talks about some of her favorite resources and tools to help military veterans pivot into tech after this.
[00:30:07] SY: So what are some of your favorite resources or tools that you use to help that are pivot into tech?
[00:30:15] IB: I use LinkedIn. I keep a spreadsheet of a lot of different nonprofit organizations that are geared to helping military. I level set with everyone and say, “Hey, talk to somebody.” Mental health is the first step in taking care of yourself. Because wherever the head goes, the body’s going to follow. You have to find where you are. I live my life by the rules of navigation, where am I at and where am I trying to go. I love programs like onward to opportunity because you can get a certification in pretty much everything, from program management, the different clouds, the different securities, human resources, you name the certification, the professional certification, and they can help you get your certification. They’ll put you through the program. I work with a local coding camp here. I’m actually on the board of directors here. So I love helping transitioning military members who want to learn to code, get their paid apprenticeship, and be able to learn how to code in the job so that way, and they have up to 12 months and it guaranteed the job at the end of the apprenticeship. So it’s really nice to be able to figure out what people want to do and point them in that direction. I use the SkillBridge website. I really talked to people and understand what they’re trying to accomplish. What are you trying to do? And then based off what they’re trying to do, it will determine the resource in which direction I send them.
[00:31:35] SY: One of the things that comes up a lot when it comes to people breaking into the industry and even once they broken in, rising up in their career, getting those promotions is mentorship. And the idea that having a mentor can be extremely powerful, extremely valuable, but also hard to get. I’m wondering what role does mentorship play, if any, in helping veterans break into and transition to tech?
[00:32:01] IB: Super vital. And I say this to every cohort that I talked to. Get yourself three mentors.
[00:32:06] SY: Three. Wow!
[00:32:07] IB: And I give three for a very specific reason. Right? And you don’t have to have all three of them at the same time. Is it ideal? Probably. No, maybe two at a time, but the three and the three types are the first one is someone who is early in career where you’re trying to go. So someone who transitioned maybe one to three years, right? Because they’ve been through the programs. They know the path. They can introduce you to their network. They know what they know at that point and they’re passionate, right? They’re very, very passionate. They’re like, “All right, this is what I did.” They have the most relevant information closest to the technology because that’s what they’re doing. Then I say, “Get someone who is about three to seven years in that range.” Why? Because now they not only know the technology, they have the network to back it up and they understand the layout of the companies a little bit better. They have that in-depth knowledge that for military members, it will be the NCO to the new private or lance corporal, like that junior enlisted leader. So they kind of understand the lay of the land and they can introduce you to people in their network. Plus, the most important thing that they can give you is their lessons learned, like, “Hey, if I was in your position, this is what I would have done.” And in the one to three can do that as well, like these are some of the things, but now they have a different understanding because now they understand the financial piece behind it too because that financial literacy for veterans is very, very low. And now you have someone because when you're a paygrade, your pay is about to change dramatically. If you don’t have a handle on it, it’ll get a handle on you. So having someone to be like, “Hey, these are some of the things that I learned that I wish I had known when I first started making this type of money.” Like to do this, what’s an FSA? What’s an HSA? What’s a 401-k? What’s a Roth IRA? What’s a regular IRA? What’s a 529 plan? Someone who can explain those types of things you and/or point you to the resources to do so. And then that third person, 10 years more. Because that comes with a different type of mentoring because those types of mentors can typically introduce you to someone who will become your sponsor.
[00:34:08] SY: Where do you find these mentors? Because finding one is hard, finding three seems like quite a challenge. How do you find these people?
[00:34:15] IB: I mean, there goes that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. Like, Hey, I talked to people on LinkedIn all the time. I met a woman on a boat. I was on the USS Midway, and there was a woman there. She was like four foot four, had like a seven-foot presence. Well, she said she worked at Microsoft. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to work at Microsoft when I get off the Marine Corps.” She’s like, “Are you confident about that?” I said, “I’m absolutely confident about that.” She goes, “All right, when you get there, ping me.” I said, “What does that mean?” She said, “You’ll figure it out when you get there.” And my first day at Microsoft, as soon as I got my computer, I was like, “Excuse me, what does it mean to ping someone?”
[00:34:47] SY: Oh, interesting. Yeah.
[00:34:48] IB: And they were like to look them up on teams. So I got on teams, putting her first and her last name and I said, “I made it.” That was it. And then subsequently later on, she ended up becoming my sponsor because she’s been able to bring my name up in rooms that I don’t have access to, that my manager doesn’t have access to, but she can create a path for me in those spaces. And those are the people who you want. You want the people at the more senior levels, at the more visible levels to be able to know who you are, or if they see opportunities, they can direct your attention that way. Like, “Hey, I know that you’re phenomenal at this. This team is looking for this.” That’s how I ended up on the team that I'm on. She reached out to me. She was like, “Hey, you’re trying to come back to Southern California?” I said, “Yes.” She says, “I’m not hiring, but I know someone who is.” And she gave me who would become my skip-level manager’s name. And I literally walked out of my building on the Redmond campus, ran to that building. It was like, “Hi, my name is iAsia. If you give me an hour of your time, I promise you’ll hire me.” And you just have the conversations, but that’s what it starts with, a conversation, but you got to be unafraid to talk to people.
[00:35:51] SY: So what would you say is the biggest challenge with veterans trying to pivot into tech? What’s the hardest part for them?
[00:35:58] IB: Talking to people.
[00:35:59] SY: Oh, really? Tell me about that.
[00:36:00] IB: The awkwardness in trying to think, there’s a lot of them and I won’t call it imposter syndrome. It’s more like, “This is no longer my world. How do I get back to it?”
[00:36:13] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:36:14] IB: Because most of us joined, I joined at 17. My first adult job was United States Military. So really being able to come back to this world where you haven’t bonded with these “people” or understand what they do. There’s a separation that’s kind of taught in the military between civilians and service members, civilians and service members. And now that you’ve become one of them, it’s like, “What do I do with this?” So being able to have them talk and articulate and be able to be like, “This is what I do, this is what I’m passionate about,” A lot of them like to lead with what they don’t know. And I’m like, no, stand in your strengths. What do you know? Tell me about you. Tell me about what you love to do instead of giving me all the negative. So trying to change that mindset is really very, very simple.
[00:37:04] SY: What is your biggest piece of advice for other veterans who also want to get into tech?
[00:37:09] IB: Just jump. Who cares where you land? Find someone who will listen. Find someone who will give you their time. If you can’t find someone that’ll give you their time, find me. I’ll give you some time. I'm very, very easy to find on LinkedIn. I’m very, very active and I respond. But believe in yourself. You cannot talk to your active duty member friends about transitioning because they hadn’t done it. Talk to people who have successfully done it. Don’t talk to your buddy that got kicked out. Don’t talk to your buddy that still lives at his parent’s house on their couch because he hasn’t found a job. Talk to successful people who can help you via their blueprint, what they did, introduce you to their network. You want to set yourself up for success. So you want to make sure that you’re talking to successful people.
[00:38:01] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. iAsia, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:38:08] IB: Let’s do it.
[00:38:09] SY: All right. Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:38:14] IB: You can’t do that. Someone told me I can’t do that. And I believed it for a little bit. It took me about two weeks to be like, “You know what? I’m just going to do it anyway.”
[00:38:23] SY: Good for you.
[00:38:24] IB: Best decision I made.
[00:38:25] SY: What was the thing?
[00:38:26] IB: It was me really trying to figure out this robotics thing.
[00:38:29] SY: Okay. Okay.
[00:38:29] IB: And I made such great progress that I’m mad that I even listened.
[00:38:36] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:38:39] IB: Be authentically you and I got that from my grandmother. So I joined the military during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I’m a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. And I think that’s kind of what kept me more in the civilian world than in the military world is because to be who I authentically was, I had to be away from the base and away from the people that I worked with. And I feel like that part of me helped me be successful today.
[00:39:12] SY: Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:39:16] IB: A smart mirror.
[00:39:17] SY: The smart mirror, that was the first one. That was a big first project. Oh my goodness!
[00:39:20] IB: It was the first time I was consciously coding.
[00:39:23] SY: You were doing stuff a little bit here and there before.
[00:39:25] IB: Oh, yeah, MySpace first.
[00:39:26] SY: Right.
[00:39:26] IB: I’m telling you, MySpace was the remix.
[00:39:28] SY: Right. Right.
[00:39:29] IB: It was like Club iAsia every time I'm doing my page.
[00:39:33] SY: That’s awesome. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:40:05] IB: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:40:14] SY: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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