Nearly a decade since its formation, the ranks of Microsoft Software and Systems Academy graduates have grown to more than 3,200 — all US military veterans.
Established in 2013, the academy, or MSSA for short, is a technology boot camp meant to help veterans transition to rewarding careers in the civilian sphere.
But instead of learning to handle a rifle, participants learn to manage server and cloud administration or cloud application development. And like basic military training — infamous for being an intense physical and mental experience — discipline is required to complete the MSSA.
Although the MSSA experience doesn't involve any yelling or pushups, it's still a demanding experience. The expectation is you'll digest a lot of information and then demonstrate that you have the ability to consistently perform at a high level under pressure.
Said academy graduate Desi Blaney:
You have to put in the work. This is not a walk in the park. You have to earn every bit of it. If you're interested, just know that it is hard work, it is really hard work, but it is work that can be done. … And you have a huge community that is right there behind you.
The 17-week MSSA is a full-time program. It's 100% virtual and includes hands-on labs, with the expectation that you'll learn and apply technical skills and creativity to solve real-world problems. The academy also focuses on mentorship and professional development.
At four and a half months, it's longer than the 13 weeks of Marine Corps boot camp, itself the longest boot camp of the five branches that conduct basic military training.
People who complete the MSSA have a path toward industry-standard Microsoft certifications. They also have an opportunity to interview for a position with Microsoft or one of the company's business partners.
'Did you know you were using Python?'
Blaney's software development fingerprints dot the digital architecture that powers the Xbox, which is one of the world's most popular gaming platforms. Gamers of all ages use the Microsoft-based platform to play well-known games such as Call of Duty, Halo, and Minecraft.
Blaney's journey to Xbox software engineer began with a career in the Coast Guard as an electronics technician.
"I actually was doing coding in the military and didn't even know it," Blaney said.
Her Coast Guard duties included integrating electronic systems, like navigational equipment, radio communications, and basic computer workstations aboard maritime vessels.
If the software that powered these systems malfunctioned, it was her job to troubleshoot and keep everything working in support of search and rescue missions. Out of necessity, she'd start by troubleshooting the code that powered the electronic systems.
"And I was like 'If it says this right here, then I guess this needs to be down there as well,' and you know, it worked. And right before I was thinking about getting out, I was told, 'Did you know you were using Python, like you were writing Python?'" Blaney recounted.
"And I was like 'No.' 'Or Java?' And I was like 'No, what is that?'"
After leaving the military at the rank of petty officer second class, she entered the MSSA.
"I went into the cloud development program and loved it. It was really up my alley, it was fun," Blaney said.
After the Microsoft academy, she had an opportunity to interview with Microsoft and Xbox and was hired. She's been in her position for about a year and a half.
Ex-Marine on Microsoft's side: 'A very satisfying job'
Johnny Jones Jr. credits "mentors on both sides of my career" for helping him see his passion and potential.
"When I was enlisting in the Marine Corps, like many Marines, I wanted to be infantry. I wanted to go and be on the ground and operate."
But he says a senior enlisted non-commissioned officer redirected his path. The senior Marine noticed Jones had military exam scores that qualified him for a career in tech.
"I didn't even know the Marine Corps had a tech side," Jones said.
So after some research, Jones chose instead to work as a data network specialist. He went on to work in several tech job roles during his nearly 11 years in the Marines. Near the end of his military service, another mentor suggested that he try his hand at coding to expand his skillset. He and Blaney were part of the same MSSA cohort in 2020.
"I learned coding and it blew my mind. I was a little bit apprehensive about it. … I went in with an open mind and tried my hardest and I loved it," said Jones, who left the military at the rank of staff sergeant.
"And I was like man, I should have been doing this my whole life. It clicked and it really became a part of me."
In his current role at Microsoft, Jones designs and implements solutions for vulnerability management and anti-malware compliance.
"So my job is kind of akin to what I did in the military with keeping our information systems secure from other countries … but now I'm making sure that the organization, the company as a whole, is secure," he explained.
"And it's a very satisfying job, when you have a huge vulnerability out and you're able to say, 'Hey we're all secure on that.' So that's an immensely satisfying job to be in and I love going to work every day knowing that what I'm doing is so impactful to the company as a whole."
International engagement is on the horizon for MSSA
Everyone who benefits from the dedication, creativity, and expertise of the MSSA's graduates can thank another Marine, Chris Cortez, for championing the program.
Cortez is Microsoft's vice president of military affairs. He joined Microsoft in 2006 after 33 years of military service, retiring as a two-star major general.
"I've done a couple of different things in the company, mostly 100% related to either our military businesses or things military," Cortez said.
In his current role, which began in 2014, Cortez does a variety of things "but this MSSA program is the crown jewel. Because this is the program — like so many other things Microsoft does — is something that gives back, that creates opportunity, that provides skilling so that people can have a better life."
Cortez said the academy has evolved significantly over time.
The MSSA began as a brick-and-mortar program operating on or near military bases. The academy launched in Washington — Microsoft's home state — at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, an Army and Air Force base about 50 miles south of the tech company's headquarters.
"In July of 2013, we cut the ribbon, and in December of 2013, we graduated that first pilot which showed us very clearly that this concept would work, and we had a plan, which we executed," Cortez said.
Over the next five years, the program grew to 12 locations nationwide. Microsoft used two universities to provide the teaching. Students could use their GI Bill benefits to pay for it. But when the pandemic hit in early 2020, program leaders had to make a decision. They decided to make the program 100% virtual. Microsoft also turned to learning companies to teach the content.
"We made the decision to fully fund this virtual training," Cortez said. "So as of February 2021, this program is fully funded. The participants pay nothing. They can retain their GI Bill and under the current GI Bill, they can either use it for other reasons or pass it on to spouses or family members."
Microsoft now fully owns the program. Cortez said that means at least two of the company's military-focused team members interview each applicant. He said that process allows the team to strive for diversity and inclusion in every cohort.
As of late May, nearly 100 people were in the current MSSA cohort. Cortez said the program's graduation rate is 95%. Of the 95% who graduate, 96% are either employed or choose to return to school to continue their education in computer science degree. And of those that are employed, 91% are employed in the tech field.
Cortez confirmed Microsoft is expanding the MSSA to other regions of the world. In his capacity as vice president of military affairs, he also leads Microsoft's engagement with veterans and military families. His responsibilities also include STEM education, training, and veteran employment.
Microsoft established an MSSA for members of the Australian Defense Force. A few weeks ago, the academy recorded its first international graduates. In June, Cortez said they plan to expand that program to serve US military members stationed in Asia and Australian military members.
"And then probably within the next year, we'll take it to a European time zone, beginning with the UK and starting a program for the UK Defense Forces but then doing the same thing — having a mix of US service members serving in Europe and the UK."
Graduates credit mentorship as key element of their success
Jones and Blaney said the MSSA's support and mentorship were key to their success.
"When you're transitioning out of the military, you're in a really vulnerable position," Blaney said. Although the MSSA is intense, she described the atmosphere and experience as welcoming and a "family type of environment."
"I think that the biggest thing that I took from MSSA was how to fight off that imposter syndrome, because, throughout your entire career, you're going to end up having that come back. It's like the bogeyman, you know? You never really get rid of it. But if you know how to fight it off, it helps you in the long run."
Jones echoed that point of view.
He and Blaney were ending their military careers and starting something new at the same time COVID-19 was turning the world upside down.
"So folks like myself that have had families, we had made the decision to leave the military and go into the great unknown in the middle of a pandemic," Jones said. "So we had the weight of that on our shoulders," along with the normal uncertainty of a career move.
"As a group, the military is very hierarchical," Jones continued. But in the MSSA, "there are folks from different ranks in there, there was also that getting used to understanding that you can address everybody by their name, you can speak in a different way than you were used to.
You know maybe for a decade, 20 years, you were used to speaking very respectfully or you wouldn't say certain things to people. So there's a lot of these gates that you go through. The mentors and the teachers and the advisors you have, they're amazing, and a lot of them were veterans as well.
The MSSA has a web page and YouTube channel with full information about the program.
To qualify for the program, you must meet the following basic criteria:
Attend or view an MSSA informational session
Meet cohort-specific prerequisites by taking a Pearson Vue IT specialist exam for either networking or software development
Active duty members must get command approval to participate while veterans must submit a DD 214 form, proof of general discharge under honorable conditions, and either a high school diploma or GED.
"It can be so daunting when you're outside of tech looking into tech and you're seeing all these things — machine learning, AI, other stuff — but the one thing I want to tell people is you can do it."
And once you graduate from the MSSA, "that community is still there for you," Blaney said. "There's a Discord that's made for MSSA alumni and MSSA students, current students. There are people who are always there to reach out to you, even if they didn't get into Microsoft, the MSSA community is strong.
"And it's actually really unbelievable when you think about the scope of it," Blaney continued.
"So many people are (supporting the) MSSA that they are willing to take time out of their day, time out of their workday, their family time, to actually help other people get through MSSA and succeed."
This article was reviewed by Michael J. Kirchner, Ph.D.
Michael J. Kirchner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of organizational leadership at Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he teaches courses in leadership and human resource development. He also serves as the campus's veteran resource center director.
Previously, Dr. Kirchner oversaw the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Military and Veterans Resource Center, where he guided programming for the campus's 1,500+ military-affiliated student population. Under his leadership (2013-16), the campus built a nationally recognized "military-college-career" framework focusing on supporting student veteran transitions.
Dr. Kirchner earned his Ph.D. in human resource development from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research on career transitions and leadership development has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including Human Resource Development Quarterly, Advances in Developing Human Resources, New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, and Industrial and Commercial Training.
Dr. Kirchner is the founder and president of Time for Development LLC, where he provides consulting to organizations on military-friendly programming, human resource development strategy, and training design. He served for a year in Baghdad, Iraq, from 2004-05 as part of the U.S. Army National Guard.
Dr. Kirchner is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.