In this session of The Pipeline, we connect with Conor Burke, who served in the Marine Corps, worked as a contractor overseas, and is now a student veteran staying at Georgia Tech.
How did you become interested in the military?
I knew I wanted to join the military–and in particular the Marines–since I was about 12. Several people in my family had served in WWII and Vietnam, and my family in general was very patriotic. Additionally, I had always played sports and I felt the brotherhood that develops there is even more pronounced in the military, and I was drawn to that. Growing up with three brothers, I was used to competition and always looking for a challenge. The military was the next logical step in meeting challenges, and while I never planned on doing it long term, I am definitely glad that I did it.
Did your role in the military have any direct relationship to your current or previous roles?
I was a Signals Intelligence Officer in the Marines, so I had to understand how radio communications work and how tactical networks are employed. However, since I was an officer, I dealt more with coordination and mission planning so the technical experts (sergeants and corporals) could actually conduct the collection missions and set up networks. I had more of a managerial role in the military compared to my jobs in the civilian sector, where I was truly the one on the keyboard building software. Still, it was helpful to get a general knowledge of networking so that I could understand how various systems communicate with each other.
What experiences did you have while in uniform that started you on the path to where you are now?
Before my deployment in 2015 I went to United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) for a program called the Joint Advanced Cyber Warfare Course, where I spent about two months learning about cyber policy, procedures, and employment practices. This really lit a fire in terms of my desire to become a technical expert in the cyber domain. We were instructed by technical experts in industry and government, including employees at the NSA, and I found all of the information extremely compelling. This course also prepared me for the Security+ exam, which is a certification I would recommend to anyone interested in cybersecurity.
What did you do in the latter part of your service/while you were leaving the military that set you up for success?
As my End of Active Service (EAS) date approached, I used a lot of my free time to learn new programming languages and just read up on the industry in general. It can be challenging to break into a new career from the military, especially one that requires technical knowledge. I also was linked up with a mentor of sorts through an organization called American Corporate Partners. They identified an engineer at Amazon who was willing to answer questions about the industry in general and what employers are looking for. I would certainly recommend some sort of mentorship program.
Looking back—did you do anything that set you back
There wasn’t anything that really steered me off course, but I would say I wasn’t aggressive enough in obtaining certifications or just even writing enough software to increase my competency. As I stated before, it can be tough to transition to a technical role in particular, so employers want to know that you can do the job. One way to do this is to get certifications, so I would recommend doing research on what types of certifications employers require or prefer.
What are 3 challenges or experiences you’ve faced in your current role that you used your military experience to help overcome?
I’ve worked for a couple defense contractors as a software engineer, so one challenge that a normal civilian might face that was easier for me was interacting with people in the military. From things like using tons of acronyms and knowing the lingo to understanding a commander’s requirements, I was able to seamlessly get up to speed with the projects I worked on that otherwise may have had a steeper learning curve for a civilian. Another challenge that the military helped with was when I had to write a program that ingested network intrusion alerts. My background in dealing with networks and in particular how the military employs them helped me understand the cyber terrain and make sense of the data in a way that would have been very difficult without that foundational knowledge. More generally, a third challenge I had to overcome was learning several new technologies on a large, distributed system. The problem-solving skills and ability to adapt that the military instills are intangible but very real, and those helped me work through some difficult parts of a new job.
What sort of education and experience would a veteran need to be part of your team?
This may vary based on what industry or employer you are looking at, but in general some combination of a bachelor’s/master’s degree in a technical field and certifications will help get you in the door. Most employers really want to know that you can actually do the work, and especially for big companies, those things are what they screen for. Personally, I have a bachelor’s in Information Systems and a Security+ cert, and I am currently working on my master’s in Computer Science at Georgia Tech to help advance my career. It also helps to have an online presence, for example if you want to write software for a company you should host your code on Github or a similar platform. For more specific cyber roles, I would look at certifications such as Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) or ones offered through CompTIA. Don’t just simply read books or watch courses; make sure you are producing things that you can show to employers and that carry weight.
What would you say to employers who are considering hiring veterans? Why should they…and what should they do/not do in order to attract/retain vets?
In general, veterans are going to be hard-working and able to adapt to new challenges. I think that latter point is key, as the world of information technology is quite dynamic and you need to be able and willing to learn new skills constantly. Most vets want a challenge and the leeway to be able to do their job, so as long as they are producing quality results then companies should steer away from any sort of micromanagement. Micromanagement will alienate talented vets, as many probably experienced that in some form or another while in uniform and are not looking for more. If you give vets meaningful work and the freedom to pursue it, you can expect the team to meet its requirements.