Microsoft Exec: Soldiers Make Great Software Developers

Nov 5, 2013

Jason Keefer in class at Joint Base Lewis-McChord,Washington.
Jason Keefer in class at Joint Base Lewis-McChord,Washington.
Credit KUOW Photo/Patricia Murphy

A new program in Lacey, Wash., gives soldiers training and a career track in software development after discharge from the Army.

The Software and Systems Academy, a partnership between Microsoft, Direct Technology and Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, is a win-win for everyone.

“American service members possess the drive, self-discipline and problem-solving skills that are essential for the technology industry,” said Microsoft executive Brad Smith.

It's a big deal to know that you're going to have some stability when you get out.

Last year, 8,500 troops retired or were discharged from Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The unemployment rate for veterans in Washington state is 7.2 percent, which is slightly higher than the civilian rate. 

Jason Keefer is fire direction specialist. His job is to tell rocket launchers where the enemies are and record all of the firing data during combat.

Today he’s in a classroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord learning statistical analysis, C# programming language and software testing.

“It’s still a little tricky,” Keefer said. “I mean some of the stuff we’re going through and learning is over my head at points.”

But not completely. Keefer is one of only 22 service members accepted into the academy partly because of his problem-solving skills and his focus.  

JBLM’s transitions services program begins working with soldiers on a plan between 18 and 24 months prior to their discharge. Program Manager Robin Baker says that includes making budgets and often clueing them into the harsh reality of the current job market.

“We definitely don’t sugar coat anything,” Baker said. “We want to be very realistic. Honestly when they do that budget and they look at what they realistically need to survive on the outside, some of them turn around and re-enlist.”

Baker says about half of service members go back to school.

The reality check can be difficult news Baker says. Soldiers’ emotions run the gamut from overconfident to terrified. “It is scary. But when you give them the knowledge and they feel like they can take control of their future and make some progress towards being successful, [the fear] doesn’t go away completely, but it is manageable,” Baker said.

For Keefer, the training he’s receiving comes with some peace of mind. At the end of his 16 week program he’ll be placed in a job at Microsoft or one of the company’s contractors. He knows it’s a chance that many soldiers don’t get. 

“While I was deployed, a friend of mine from my training at Ft. Sill got out of the Army and he actually committed suicide because he couldn’t find anything,” Keefer said. “He thought his life was going to be better when he got home, and then when he got home there was nothing there. So it’s a big deal to know that you’re going to have some stability when you get out.”

Keefer’s scheduled to transition out of the military in February, the same month his wife is due to deliver their first baby.

Microsoft plans to expand the software training program to military installations in California and Texas later this year.