Front & Center with Marine Veteran Byron Chen

Of all the topics that surround veterans, transition is one that seems the most difficult to get a handle on. The truth is, transitioning is just as complicated, if in a different way, as any military mission you had, with almost as many moving parts. Today, I’m going to introduce you to a veteran who is doing his part to help his fellow vets make the leap to civilian life with as much preparation and ease as possible.

Byron Chen is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who spent six years serving in the Marine Corps, including a tour in Iraq. A recently transitioned vet himself (he crossed into the civilian realm in 2013), Byron decided to use his personal experience with the process as a launching point to help other vets. As such, he created SuccessVets, which provides transitioning veterans with valuable, free digital content on a number of key transition-related topics.

Today, Byron is going to provide even more transition-related insights. If you’re a transitioning servicemember, know someone who is, or have transitioned but aren’t really sure you’re current position is where you want to be, read on to see how you can successfully complete Mission: Civilian Transition.

Me: You have helpful tips on SuccessVets about a number of practical transitioning considerations, such as resume writing, salary negotiation, and even how to best maneuver through a hiring fair. For a transitioning veteran, so many things to think about can get overwhelming. If you had to pick a starting place that is critical to a successful career transition, what would it be?

Byron: There are actually two places that I would start – networking and self-education. Since I talk about networking in a later question, I’ll focus on the latter here.

There are so many things to learn during your transition – skills that you need that you might not be aware of, a whole new language of communicating and verbalizing your prior experiences, and just being able to have a clear grasp of what you want out of this new life, because there is no clear path now. Self-reflection and self-awareness have been key to my transition and what just about every guest that I have had on SuccessVets has mentioned. So to figure out what it is you want, and what it is you are good at, and what it is that other people value in you – start asking questions and be open to all the possibilities when you start. As you narrow down what interests you and what might be a good fit for (and this is not just for a job, but also what grad program to go into or what business to start), what you’ll find is that there is so much you don’t know.

This can be scary at first. But it is also extremely exciting, because that means there are endless possibilities and there is something that will get you where you want in life. Be relentless in your pursuit to find it, because the ones that don’t settle, the ones that don’t just say, “I’ve got it figured out”, those are the ones that continue to learn and progress and have not just a successful transition, but a successful life.

Me: There are a lot of resources, including SuccessVets, which discuss the practical, logistical side of transition. However, one of the things I found most challenging about my transition was the mental aspect. What did you find the most mentally challenging part of transitioning and what advice would you give veterans to help them overcome or better adjust to that challenge?

Byron: This might be my favorite question and one that is not talked about enough. Have you ever read books like 4 Hour Work Week, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, or Rich Dad, Poor Dad? One of the underlying themes that I get from all these self-help and productivity books is that your mindset affects your behavior, affects your actions, affects your results. One of the mental challenges that I have faced in the transition is understanding my value in a new context.

I’ve been a Marine for 6 years. It was difficult, at first, to explain what value I could bring to a company that was looking at hiring me. Because of this, I was not successful in my first few interviews and I began to doubt that I was capable enough to do well in the civilian world. When I reflected on what I was doing wrong, I realized that because I was so uncertain, I was representing myself as desperate, inexperienced, etc, both subconsciously and consciously.

Think about the first time you asked out a guy or girl. If you were like me, you’ll probably remember how pathetic you came off! I just didn’t realize that I might be a catch to someone. The impression that you make on people is so important from the first second you meet them. If you have doubts about who you are, it is really difficult to convince people that you are a good candidate for anything, whether it’s for a date, a job, or as an investment in your business.

How do you develop the right mentality then? Well, people from the military have a hard time with the mental aspect because they haven’t had to form areas of thought on how they value their skills and experience. They haven’t had to convince people of their worthiness other than through their actions and character. So start there. Just like in the military, you have to continue to work on your personal development as much as your physical fitness.

Start off by talking to successful people and learn what they did. More importantly, observe how they act, how they communicate, how they continue to seek new challenges and opportunities. You will realize that they are not that different than you. That if you emulate and learn their skills like networking, negotiation, and communication, you already have the life experience to achieve what they have. You’ll have little trouble being confident then, that you have great value to provide to the world.

Me: You graduated from the Naval Academy with a B.S. in Ocean Engineering, held a number of leadership positions in Military Police and Recruit Training units, and now work for an international medical device manufacturer. Many vets might not be able to connect the dots on a similar path for themselves, either casting their net too widely or viewing their experience through too narrow a perspective. How would you suggest vets view their education and experience in comparison to listed job requirements?

Byron: I recently had a guest on my show where we discuss this very question. She talked about how she eliminated herself from so many positions because of the job requirements. This former Navy Officer ended up ignoring job requirements like work experience, educational background, and certifications. Instead she looked at the job description and realized that she had the experience from her military background and her own skills to do the job, she just had to figure out how to communicate that.

Today, she is in charge of digital marketing at a startup in Silicon Valley. When I asked her what experience she had in this area when she transitioned, she said, “Nothing”. She literally didn’t even know some of the common terms used in the industry. But she was able to communicate that she had the character, drive, and problem solving skills to figuring things out and add a ton of value to whatever she did. She was the first employee hired by that company.

My suggestion would be to not start with your education and experience. Think about military planning. What’s the most important part of an order? The Mission Statement. You have to know what your endstate is and why. Sounds really simple, but because most people don’t go about their job search, or life in this way, veterans forget to transfer this to their careers. Remember that by the end of your military career, you’ve done a bunch of things in a variety of ways. You can be a fit for a variety of careers. Figure out the endstate you want and backplan from that.

So for me, I started off looking at project management (PM) jobs because I had experience in management and leadership. Everything I did after fell under this theme of project management. My resume was screened with accomplishments that spoke to my management of organizations and projects. For technical PM jobs, I included my roles in managing lots of equipment and maintenance. When I told people “my story” I made sure to allude to all the leadership and management experience I had. When I interviewed, I made sure to give examples of when I led teams.

Contrast this with when I started to interview for sales roles. Now my resume was tweaked to highlight the influential positions that I had. Jobs that required working across organizations and influencing senior commanders. In my interviews, I emphasized my ability to communicate, solve problems, and motivate others to take on my ideas. If you’re a veteran you can probably see yourself in both stories. Notice how I adjusted my strategy to fit my endstate? I ended up getting offers for both types of positions, and took one in the medical device industry.

It’s funny how people try to categorize you based on what you’ve done and how they perceive you. That’s human nature, it allows us to easily “figure out” the world. What you need to do is to tell a story or paint a picture that gets people seeing you in the roles that you want them to see you. In this way, you’re using the natural tendency of people in your favor, rather than the other way around.

Me: You actually ended up doing this interview after a fellow veteran, Scott Fussell of Command Your Business, introduced us. How important a role do you think networking, military or otherwise, plays in expanding your influence and available opportunities?

Byron: Networking is my answer to everything these days. Let’s say I want to learn about an industry that interests me. While there is a lot of written information out there, there is nothing better than being able to ask other people questions. Why use a book or go through a class that just gives you information, some of which will be outdated, misunderstood, or inapplicable?

This is just one thing that I use networking to do. People tend to see networking as one sided. You build up your social network so that you can climb the social ladder. This is the wrong approach in my opinion. I think a better view of it is social team building. Everybody has something that can help someone else out.

In your example, Scott and I got to know each other because we have similar interests and backgrounds, but this one is a slim connection – he’s a veteran and a podcaster, and so am I. What makes us good “teammates” in each other’s networks is that we are constantly helping each other out. I’ve introduced him to people I’ve interviewed and he’s done the same for me. We’ve given each other feedback, and encouragement, and provided services to each other when the other was lacking in certain a skill. I’ve written some copy for him and he’s brainstormed some marketing ideas with me. We make each other’s network stronger.

You can apply networking to anything. By being interested in people and what they are doing and what they are struggling with, I can help solve their problems and develop a relationship that leads them to want to help me. Because of my continuing development in my network, I’ve come across new investment opportunities, job opportunities, and have met people that truly inspire me. Networking is one of the most important skills to work on, whether you are transitioning or not.

Me: You’ve been out of the Marine Corps a little over a year now. If you could go back and tell your Active Duty-self one thing, what would it be?

Byron: I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and did a lot of research on the subject before transitioning. For a variety of self doubting reasons – lack of support, a cofounder, a committed idea – I ended up going the corporate route. I also wanted to travel, but started work before I had the chance. Now that it is over a year later, I’ve seen that little has changed. While I’m fortunate that my job provides me the same level, or higher, standard of living than before, my interests have not strayed. So it is actually leading to my next transition where I will be taking some time off from work and I will pursue some entrepreneurial opportunities.

What I would tell myself is that the transition is scary because the future is unknown, but it is also one of the few opportunities when you can truly reinvent yourself. Going the normal route is just as risky and yet, you might not be any farther in your mind in where you want to be in your life. So why not go for it while you can. I would also caveat that. Following your dreams or passions is not an excuse to put off what you should do. Skills like networking, sales, and negotiating are life skills, not just when you’re looking for a new job. Work on these skills along with following your passions, and you will have the ability to maneuver through transitions successfully at any time in your career, not just once or twice.

You can find more great transition information on SuccessVets website, and by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

© 2014 – 2020, Sarah Maples LLC. All rights reserved.

Sarah Maples is a former Air Force intelligence officer and an Afghanistan veteran. She is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in veteran, military, and defense topics.

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