From Serving the Country to Software Development

Editor’s Note: Below is an interview between Highland’s Marketing Manager, Bridgett Colling and Senior Application Developer Chris Womble.

Before joining Highland, Chris served in the United States military for ten years. In this interview, Chris reflects on his career journey — starting out in the Navy, joining the Army, and eventually landing in his current career as a software developer. He shares his thoughts on how military experience has made him a better leader.

1) What interested you in joining the military?

There is rarely a single reason people join the military. Service to the country is a common reason, which goes without saying. Contributing to the safety and security of your country (your tribe) is a strong social calling for many people of character. Other popular incentives are money for college, learning job and life skills, and seeing the world.

For me, it’s a bit more complicated because I served in two different branches: first the Navy and then later the Army — each at a different time in life and each for slightly different reasons.

For my family, enlisting in the Navy is a bit of a tradition. My father, step-father, brothers, uncles, and many other family members throughout the years were all sailors. About a week after graduating High School I took the oath of enlistment (pre 9/11) and became a deck Sailor on board an amphibious assault ship.

I primarily joined to earn money for higher education. A secondary, but more personal reason, was to see the world — to see what was over the next horizon.

During active duty, I earned back-to-back Sea Service from two deployments. I was honorably discharged from active duty and returned to civilian life to pursue my education. I attended the local state University in Film Production for four years. Later, I switched my major and completed a degree in Computer Science.

When 9/11 happened, my wife was pregnant with our first child. Despite my strong urge to re-enlist immediately, the early stages of my career and new growing family made it unrealistic to do so.

However, a few years later, I was able to transfer to the Army, where I qualified as an Intelligence Analyst. I loved being an All-Source Intel-analyst. It was a great unit, with great people and excellent leadership. I learned a lot.

But I still felt a need to push myself further, to see what’s over the next horizon, so I submitted a packet and was selected as a Warrant Officer Candidate. I completed W.O.C.S. at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where I received my commission as an Officer in the U.S. Army.

I completed my Basic Officer Course at the Army Signal Corps school at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I returned to my unit and spent the remainder of my time in the service as a Signal Officer (S6) for a Hospital Brigade.

So, to answer your question: “What interested you in joining the military?” — ultimately, it was the journey. The journey one takes to better themselves and the journey to see the world.

Chris at the de-commissioning of his ship while in the Navy

2) What values do you think you learned from your time in the military that you now apply to your work in software development?

Values are and should be taught long before a young adult volunteers for service. Our society provides the values that are passed to us through community and family.

The Army re-enforces several core values in its organization: loyalty, duty, honor, respect, selfless service, personal courage, and integrity.

My takeaway from serving has been: you need strong personal integrity in order to render service of any kind. Because without integrity you cannot put any other core values into practice.

But the most striking lesson I learned was the value of being a positive leader. It was a great experience to learn in practice how good leadership is effective as a force multiplier, and what effect it has on those who experience it.

Leadership should be an exercise in selfless service, but done with excellence it is so much more. Positive leadership shows gratitude to everyone in his or her command, it builds people up and never tears them down. I took that lesson with me as I transitioned from an enlisted Soldier to becoming an Officer and again into the civilian world.

3) What was the most challenging part about transitioning from the military to a civilian career in software development?

My time in the service, contrasted with my professional career, has made me realize how much opportunity there is to add strength to corporate leadership in IT.

In the world of IT, a common scenario for a large dev team or department is often structured like this: the person who knows the most about a given language or has the most tenure is often placed “in charge” of other developers and projects.

I believe the challenge for us is to ask:

Isn’t leadership more than simple knowledge and experience? Is the leader we have appointed someone that is building the team and fostering talent?

Being a strong leader is more than the ability to do a job well. The best leaders, in my experience, are those who can coach others to do it even better than they themselves can.

Frequently, the average Senior Developer who becomes a “Dev Manager” will have no real training in leadership. He or she is provided little to no guidance on the role of taking care of other developers. If these managers or leaders have not been provided mentorship on how to develop a team, they will likely be unable to see the importance of that focus.

As a result, these managers will often resort to hazing and bullying of junior developers. Sadly, that is the opposite of being a (real) leader. It does not create an atmosphere of positive professional development and often has a negative impact on the business.

Yet, IT departments the world over make this same mistake, time and time again, by handing unprepared managers a little bit of authority when they are not ready or capable to handle the responsibility. Being the best coder on a team does not qualify you to lead. Too often, IT departments confuse management with what a leader should be.

Seeing this unfortunate practice so often has been a challenge because, as an IT professional, I know we are better than that. The people we work with deserve better. I hope to constantly bring positive leadership and mentorship to every role I hold in IT to help change the culture for the better.

At various Army training exercises

4) What do you wish more employers knew about hiring people who have served in the armed forces?

There are real intangibles that vets bring to the table that they themselves may not realize or an employer may not even know are available to them.

One of the first things I was told as a soldier was, “The most important job in the Army is the one you are doing right now.” This philosophy fosters pride and teamwork and selfless service to a cause greater than one’s self. I think that most companies would benefit from this attitude.

Prior military people have had encouragement ingrained into their work ethic. Both employer and employee should consider how to find that force multiplier in the relationship in order to get the most from it.

5) What have you enjoyed most about working at Highland so far?

I appreciate the high caliber people I work with and admire how Highland emphasizes its philosophy of putting people first. Highland’s integrity really shows in how it tries very hard to take care of each team member. I think our brand of corporate responsibility is impressive, and that makes me proud to be a part of this team.

Thanks to Chris for these thoughtful reflections on life and work. Want to read more Highlander journeys? Read about Jordan’s path from the stage to computer science and Kristina’s first month at Highland.

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