Microsoft hires veterans, calls it 'an obligation'

SEATTLE -- President Obama's 2015 budget confirmed plans to dramatically shrink the U.S. Army to the lowest levels since before World War Two. Locally, it will mean a loss of thousands of jobs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, creating a flood of soldiers leaving the military and looking for work.

When Adam Citterbart enlisted in the Army in 2009, he thought he'd found his place in life. The Special Forces sergeant did two tours of Afghanistan and one in the Philippines, But then Citterbart got engaged.

He became the instant father to three young girls, and he and his fiance had a baby together. Family made his priorities shift, and he was ready to give up his military career.

"I was actually planning on doing the three job route," he said. "Obviously that would not leave a lot of time, but at least I'd be home to sleep in bed every night, to see the girls before bed."

As Citterbart mapped out his military exit, Chad Townes and Josh Gray were doing the same thing. Townes has been married for five years, but through deployments and assignments, he's only lived with his wife for about nine months. Gray spent 10 years in the Army, including a deployment to Iraq. He was ready for a change. All three knew, life after the Army could hold everything or seemingly nothing.

"Coming from being in Special Forces, I felt a lot of purpose," Citterbart said. "I went to, where exactly am I going to go?"

"There's a lot of uncertainty out there. There's a lot of opportunity, but no guarantees," Townes said.

The farthest career from their minds was the one they all have now. They work for Microsoft. A year ago, they wouldn't have dreamed it possible.

"We all think you have to be super geniuses to get into Microsoft. Most of us don't even try. That's one of the things they told us with this whole process. They have problems with people applying because they think it's just above them," Gray said. "We've got to get rid of that stigma that just because you're in the military and don't have the college background, you can't do these things. We need to get rid of that thought process."

The three men were in the first class of 22 soldiers in Microsoft's Software and Systems Academy - designed to prepare veterans for STEM jobs. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Of the 22 people in their class, 11 are now working at Microsoft. One person went back to school and the other 10 landed jobs with other technology companies. Townes hopes other companies pay attention.

"It's basically a big miss for companies to pass over a huge talent pool of wonderful, talented people that are leaving the military that have the skills these companies need and realize they can tap into that resource to get great people," he said.

Sean Kelley dreamed up the academy and hopes it finds bright minds for Microsoft. Before he was a senior staffing director for Microsoft, Kelley was a Navy sailor.

"My grandfather served. My dad served 30 years. You want to live up to that legacy and say I never forgot where I got my start. Somebody gave me a shot," Kelley said.

Kelley recently testified before the U.S. House Committee on Veteran's Affairs. He wants to share what Microsoft is doing in hopes other companies will also focus on hiring veterans.

"It's not a choice to participate and be part of the solution," Kelly said. "I'm actually obligated to do that."

In addition to feeling it's an obligation, Kelley sees it as a no brainer. He's finding employees with a strong work ethic and grace under pressure. He says of people with military service, "it brings out this resilience and character that you can give big problems and big challenges with a lot of ambiguity, and people are problem solvers. One of the biggest skills we hire for is somebody's ability to solve problems. And at all levels of military, people are adaptive leaders You can't train people in a classroom to have those skills."

In addition to JBLM, Microsoft has programs in California and Texas and will open two more on the east coast this year under the name "We Still Serve."