This piece is part of our ongoing series The Pipeline, highlighting veterans working in cybersecurity.
We were fortunate to connect with Hilton’s Michael Leidinger. Hilton was founded by a veteran and has hired thousands of veterans, military spouses, National Guard and reserve members in just the last few years. Michael joined Hilton in 2010. His military career began at the United States Naval Academy where he commissioned in 1988. He then served on the USS Silversides (SSN-679) and was a later a Flag Lieutenant for Naval Sea Systems Command before leaving the Navy in 1994.
How did you become interested in the military?
Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to serve my country. Growing up, many of the people in my community were veterans ranging from World War II through Vietnam. They always impressed me as being leaders in the community and their respective career fields so they significantly influenced me to look towards the military.
Did your role in the military have any direct relationship to your current or previous roles?
I believe the shared values that we embraced in the military (leadership, integrity, honor, commitment, initiative, execution) have been critical to my personal success in every role I’ve ever had. These values are what I believe make veterans such valuable members of any team.
What experiences did you have while in uniform that started you on the path to where you are now?
Being given a tremendous amount of responsibility at such a young age and then expected to execute the mission without oversight were extremely valuable to me. That really helped me to focus on driving forward and innovating without being told what to do. I also strive to create the same environment for my team members where they are empowered to take on challenges without being micromanaged.
What did you do in the latter part of your service and while you were leaving the military that set you up for success?
During my time in the Navy, I constantly looked to take on the most challenging assignments that would push me while affording the greatest opportunity to learn and grow. Never take an “easy” duty assignment and always be stretching yourself.
Looking back—did you do anything that set you back?
Far too often people view careers as ladders that you constantly need to climb. My experience has been that careers are more like winding roads with multiple paths leading to the same destination. At several points in my career I’ve taken what some have perceived as a lateral move or even a step backwards in terms of title or job scope. However, I made each of those moves to gain experience in a new technical field or gain exposure to a different part of the business. Each of those moves challenged me in new ways and made my overall experience more valuable which has benefitted my career growth.
What are 3 challenges or experiences you’ve faced in your current role that you used your military experience to help overcome?
When I was a junior officer standing Officer of the Deck on a submarine, I had to process tons of information and make very quick decisions. That experience has been invaluable to me as I can sift through reams of data and quickly make key business decisions rather than be trapped in the “one more fact before we act” mode.
At several points in my career, I’ve been involved in some big crises and the experiences I gained in the military around remaining calm and composed in high pressure situations has been invaluable. One thing I learned in the Navy is that when things start going wrong all heads swivel to you to see if you’re worrying so being able to remain calm inspires confidence in others.
Nothing ever goes according to plan so I learned early in my military career that you need to have multiple contingency plans that you can quickly execute and that you always maintain flexibility so you can respond to any circumstance.
What sort of education and experience would a veteran need to be part of your team?
I would recommend anyone interested in the technology or cyber field look towards courses that focus on network engineering, systems engineering, or software development. It’s important to have a good foundation in these elements to get your civilian technology career started. It’s also important to see how you can position and leverage the technical skills you gained in the military to market yourself to civilian employers.
What would you say to employers who are considering hiring veterans? Why should they…and what should they do in order to attract and retain vets?
When a company looks to hire veterans, they are tapping into an immensely talented and diverse pool of candidates. Technical competencies aside, you are focusing on people who understand the value and importance of teamwork, initiative, dedication, leadership, and tenacity. If you want to attract veterans, then you need to work to build those recruiting pipelines and make it known that your company is veteran-friendly.
Hilton is constantly recognized for its efforts to support the military community. What have you done to help recruit/retrain/develop veterans in your part of the business?
Hilton has done an amazing job attracting veterans through our Operation Opportunity program which has been essential to our plans. We initially started with a goal of hiring 5,000 veterans across Hilton corporate and properties and when we hit that goal, we doubled it. Our program has been successful because it has the active support from our CEO, Chris Nassetta, and our senior executives; programs like this need that level of support to succeed. Personally, I’ve been honored to lead our Military Team Member Resource Group which provides a forum for veterans and supporters from across Hilton to come together to support and advance the community of veterans within Hilton.
What are some key things for vets should consider when applying to IT/cyber roles for a large company (like Hilton)? What are the advantages of joining a large company versus a smaller tech-focused firm or startup?
My first bit of advice is don’t be shy and be persistent. Do your research and see how your skills can meet the overall mission and current openings. Networking is also key so if you know of veterans within a company that interests you then reach out to them to get their ideas on what may be a good fit. The question of a big versus small company is interesting. In my personal opinion, I think an individual can wield far more influence in a mid-size company than a larger tech behemoth but many times the larger firms offer more comprehensive formal training programs. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal choice, but I always recommend giving serious consideration to a small or medium sized firm.
What are some rules to live by for veterans currently working in IT/Cyber?
The biggest one is be flexible and stay current. Technology and cyber are fascinating fields but they have a high operating tempo with frequent change in direction, so you need to stay ahead of things and understand that a 10pm outage or incident call is a part of life. The underlying technology standards and patterns are also constantly evolving so you need to stay current with trends and keep your technical knowledge as fresh and relevant as possible.