When someone is referred to as a “veteran in the tech industry” that typically means the person has been programming for a few decades, launched a few companies, or invested in a few startups. But there’s another kind of “veteran in the industry”—actual United States military veterans, discharged service members who are returning home and finding their place in the private sector.
Harry Wingo is himself a veteran, having served with the Navy SEALs in the ‘80s and ‘90s (he came off active duty in 1995). Wingo currently works in “people operations” (HR) for Google, where he runs the search giant’s efforts to recruit military veterans to its own ranks. We spoke with Wingo to learn why more tech companies ought to hire former service members—one million active-duty personnel are scheduled to become veterans in the next five years—and why more veterans ought to consider tech companies.
FAST COMPANY: Are veterans underrepresented in Silicon Valley?
HARRY WINGO: I think we need more veterans. There are veterans in Silicon Valley, and we have veterans at Google.
Why should tech companies look to hire veterans?
It’s really a business imperative. Veterans have the ability to deal with ambiguity, they work with all types of people, they have the will to persevere, they’re used to dealing with limited resources and being creative.
Also, the military is an ever more technological force. I think the challenge is making the translation, helping veterans explain to the people hiring how they used technology in the military.
What are some tips for how a veteran explain their technology experience in an interview with Google?
Some veterans haven’t gotten past the initial point of considering that they have skills that are valuable outside the military. I spoke with one veteran pursuing his MBA who had worked on artillery—he was in charge of a unit that had a howitzer. I told him to approach that experience in a way that could catch someone on the outside. Explain how much responsibility was involved, how much it cost, how many people you were in charge of. Those things translate. Using numbers is a really good way to translate what you’ve done into concrete things. Google is a data-driven company, and it helps them augment their story.
To indulge in stereotypes a moment, I think of Google and the armed forces very differently. At Google you roll into work whenever you want on your scooter, but in the army you wake up at the crack of dawn to a day full of discipline.
It’s true that we have a fun environment. There’s a picture of me on my first day at Google, sitting in a big pool of those balls—a bunch of ping-pong balls of different colors...
I think it’s called a ball pit.
There you go. Thank you. But then there’s this image of the military: very rigid, with every day planned out. Maybe I have a different view since I was in the special forces. As a Navy SEAL, if there’s time to think outside the box, we will. Maybe that’s one place where Google reminds me a lot of the SEAL teams.
On the surface, we have a lot of fun, but people are laser focused on delivering more value for the user, moving the mission forward. That’s one of the hardest stereotypes to get over. People go, “Wow, you were a Navy SEAL.” Yes, I did sports—lacrosse, soccer, wrestling, and I boxed at the Naval Academy. But I also wrote haiku. I wanted to be a minister when I was little. There are a lot of different types of personalities and people within the military. There are folks in the military who would take to the culture here pretty well.
For an interview with a former Googler who worked aboard a nuclear attack submarine, click here.