Growing up, I wanted to be a politician. Solving problems and enacting solutions that could have a real societal benefit was very appealing to me.
Everything seemed to be on track: I studied political science in college and scored a prestigious fellowship at my state’s legislature working for a senator after graduation.
Like most millennials entering the workforce, I had high expectations—and why not? In college, I’d written lengthy research papers, absorbed myself in political theory, studied presidencies, and simulated national security meetings. The world was my oyster—or so I thought. In reality, most of my time was spent as the first line of defense against angry constituents.
To be fair, as the months progressed, I was exposed to more of the actual policymaking process, helping draft legislation and joining my senator in the legislative chamber to watch bills become law. Afterward, I’d join the other staffers at a local bar to share the gossip of the day.
The routine wasn’t bad, but I didn’t feel engaged. I could see my future in front of me—working my way up the ladder from analyst to director to, ultimately, senator.
Honestly, it didn’t seem that appealing.
Shaking Things Up
During my time in the state legislature, I joined the Army Reserve in a military intelligence unit to help shake up the routine. The Army’s recruiting commercials seemed much livelier than anything I was doing in the office. Suddenly, the void and monotony of the legislature was suppressed by my military obligations. I could spend a week in the senator’s office making tedious amendments to legislation that would likely never pass and then spend my weekend at drill igniting my endorphins during an obstacle course. The balance was welcomed.
Eventually, the drill weekends became more frequent and I took leave from the senator’s office to deploy to northern Afghanistan to perform interrogations. The experience was fascinating and I enjoyed being able to sit across from people with very different world views to learn and understand their motivations.
Notwithstanding genetic predispositions, we’re all very much the product of our environment, with our behaviors and decisions being the culmination of years of exposure to a particular environment.
A year after my humbling deployment began, I returned to the States with what I can best describe as added perspective—most people seldom put themselves in another person’s shoes, let alone the shoes of those under polar opposite circumstances. I felt like I matured internally by a decade.
New Perspective, New Career
After returning to upstate New York, I was at a friend’s wedding when I heard that a big investment bank, JPMorgan, was hiring military intelligence professionals in New York City to help them perform due diligence on clients and prospects. I had no desire to rejoin the legislature, and while I didn’t know much about finance, relocating to a bustling city seemed intriguing.
Shortly after submitting my application, a recruiter who works with veterans reached out and set me up with an in-person interview at 9 a.m. Aside from airport layovers, I’d never been to the Big Apple and I was terrified of the bumper-to-bumper traffic. I remember leaving my parents’ house in Syracuse around 2 a.m. dressed for the interview, crushing energy drinks while driving five hours to beat the morning commute.
The method probably sounds absurd, but the long, quiet drive before the interview was very therapeutic. I played out the discussion in my head, cemented the points I wanted to convey to the interviewer, and relished the prospect of relocating to the big city for a hefty salary and a new beginning.
After repeating the five-hour trek two more times, they gave me an offer and I accepted it.
Time to Upskill
Fast-forward a year into my role, I opted to join the corporate social responsibility team, which serves as the firm’s philanthropic and government relations arm. Being introspective, I was reasonably aware of my workplace strengths and weaknesses: I could play well with others, had strong interpersonal skills, and built an impressive network of colleagues and mentors. But I had no technical skills to speak of.
It’s difficult to differentiate yourself on social skills alone and I didn’t want to be characterized as someone who was all bark and no bite. I needed to upskill.
I remember looking at different options, but Springboard stood out for its strong reviews and affordability. I enrolled in the Business Analytics course to ramp up my Excel, SQL, and Tableau skills. I knew that anyone with strong data competency would be a value-add to any project.
After months of pivoting and massaging data sets and talking through solutions with my mentor, I felt empowered. Anyone who is intellectually curious knows how great the feeling of learning and applying a new skill set can be.
Climbing the Ladder
I ended up working as a quasi-product manager with a devoted development team to create an application that mapped out the company’s footprint (employee headcount, customers, philanthropic dollars, property count, etc.) in communities across the globe. In order to achieve this feat, my team had to work with other teams across the firm to collect and integrate their vast data sets. The product launch—creating something of value that previously didn’t exist—was incredibly rewarding.
My next role was chief of staff for the firm’s campus recruiting department. I had eyes on everything. I could drive accountability for deliverables and identify opportunities for process improvement. But rather than simply observe, I wanted to solve them directly.
On the side, I spent months taking a front-end coding course online and became proficient at creating custom solutions on our firm’s SharePoint platform. I could see the value in using an intuitive and aesthetically pleasing central repository to store our information, making it accessible to everyone involved. Nothing seemed more important to me than creating an efficient end-to-end ecosystem.
Looking back, even my desire to join politics fed from the idea that legislators would create rules to govern an efficient system to maximize the wellbeing of everyone involved, creating a symbiotic relationship between people and their respective environments. Yet, too often, people act in their own self-interest, which may be counter to the interests of people in their communities.
In comes my romance with technology and data. By leveraging data, we can remove the self-interest and allow for more objective decision-making.
Recently, I started exploring opportunities within the technology sphere of my firm and became intrigued by the work being done in artificial intelligence. Less than a year ago, we created an AI research lab to produce foundational insights not only for our firm, but for the greater community.
They brought in experts from around the globe to double-down on their research commitment. It seemed a bit far-fetched, but I knew I wanted to join this team. I finally noticed an opening for a strategy and execution role and quickly applied. Shortly thereafter, the recruiter called to explain that I didn’t fit their ideal candidate profile (i.e., not management consulting), but the hiring manager agreed to meet with me anyway.
Five interviews later, I can happily say that I’ll be joining the team in the coming weeks. I’m excited for the opportunity and my head is still buzzing with ways I can add value to the lab and the community at large.
What have I learned through all of this? The greater the breadth of our experiences, the more abstract we become in our curiosities and ways of thinking. Pairing that abstract thinking with tangible skills has helped me navigate to a Fortune 20 company’s AI research arm, something I originally thought to be inconceivable.
Embrace your experiences, invest in your potential, and relentlessly contribute to whichever community you choose to engage in.
Jon Shepard is one of the Springboard Veteran Fellows. Find out more about Springboard’s efforts to help veterans transition to satisfying post-military careers, including scholarships for veterans, here.