Lessons Learned From My Time in the Marine Corps

This month I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my time in the Marine Corps, and not just because of Veterans Day a few weeks ago. November 27 is 10 years since I stood on the yellow footprints at bootcamp in Parris Island, SC, and 5 years since I separated from the service. I’ve now been out of the military as long as I was in it. Sometimes it feels I just got out of the Marine Corps; but most of the time it feels like a weird dream that I woke up from…as if I was never really in the military.


Most days I’ll tell you that I was miserable (somewhat true) and couldn’t wait to get out of the military (true). I spent my youth, my formative years (18-23) in the military. These years have molded who I have become as a (mostly) fully formed adult. During my time in the Marine Corps, I learned a lot about leadership and even more about myself. I’d like to spend a little bit of time discussing some of the things I’ve learned and how they are applicable to the tech industry.

Be Self-Aware

Understanding yourself and your own limitations —what you’re good at, and, more importantly, what you’re not good at, is critical to ensure you surround yourself with the right people. There’s a Marine Corps leadership principle that states: “know yourself and seek self-improvement.” I’ve always felt that is one of the most important principles for a leader. Surround yourself with people who complement your skill sets and challenge you to improve. Personally, I tend to surround myself with those who I perceive to be far more intelligent than I am because it motivates me to do better —be better. Don’t be the smartest person in the room, learn your weaknesses, and find a way to make your weaknesses a strength. On consulting projects, I try to surround myself with others that have a skill set I don’t so I can try to learn from them.

Be Decisive

In the Marines, I was taught to make “sound and timely” decisions; there was always an extra emphasis placed on “timely”. My fellow non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and I were taught to methodically analyze decisions, to weigh the pros and cons, and to minimize risk as much as possible before making a decision. In one of my NCO courses, I was taught to use a 75% solution to make rapid decisions —this means to gather as much information and details until you have at least 75% of the data, at which point use experience, intuition, and expertise to fill out the other ~25%. Sometimes waiting for all the information to make the “perfect” decision results in action happening too late. Whether you’re weighing a job offer or trying to decide on the right hardware vendor, gather as much information as possible and make a decision. If you wait too long to decide, that opportunity may have disappeared.

Problem Solving / Strategic Thinking

Traditionally the Marine Corps has suffered from a systemic lack of resources because it is the smallest branch of the military and has to compete for funding with the Department of the Navy. This spartan lifestyle helped my team and I develop unique and ingenious ways to get what we needed…whether it was “acquiring” office supplies from mysterious places or finding a way to feed the troops during Thanksgiving, there was always a display of initiative and entrepreneurial spirit amongst my Marines. Being exposed to that kind of culture taught me to try new things and to challenge the status quo which has served me well in my entrepreneurial journey thus far. As a leader in tech, co-workers and customers alike will look to you to solve problems and help the business grow. In order to do that, you have to know about more than just the underlying technology. You also need to understand customer needs, the market, the competition, etc. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone to solve the problem at hand.

Create a Collaborative Environment 

Strong collaboration skills allow you to work with others to exploit synergies and be able to deliver way more than you would be able to deliver if you were working solo. It’s easier to work with people when you have a warm, working relationship rather than just dropping in when it’s only in your interest. It’s not necessarily about being everyone’s friend. It’s about building trust and respect. If you’re in a leadership role, listen to the team…you’re not the only one with great ideas. As a leader, you’re a servant first. You exist for the good of the team, to ensure that the teams succeeds. Empower and give your collaborators the tools they need for success; it’s a two-way street.

Continue to Learn and Grow

I know, there’s always a fire to put out or a deadline to meet. Many of us don’t have an abundance or spare time. However, professional development and continued growth are the only surefire ways to ensure you’re not left behind in this ever evolving tech world. Whether it’s technical skills or business skills, you have to continue to seek self-improvement. I know someone who puts one hour for studying into his calendar each work day. Do what you need to do but find the time to improve yourself.

On that note, the worst is pretending to know something that you have no clue about. It will come back to bite you, or even worse, your entire team. Some may think it’s a sign of weakness to say ‘I don’t know,’ but I disagree. I think more people will respect you for your self-awareness and your desire to learn. No matter what your job is, there’s something you don’t know. Everyone needs a mentor, find one. Listening and asking questions are not signs of weakness.

It’s OK to Fail (But Never Give Up)

It doesn’t take much effort to find numerous example of Marines enduring seemingly impossible circumstances —from Iwo Jima to Fallujah —heroes like John Basilone or Chesty Puller, there is never a shortage of amazing acts of courage and tenacity. I remember running miles in full combat gear and thinking that I couldn’t make it each time my feet hit the ground…but somehow I always did.

I had never failed anything in my life until I took my first VCP. I had been up all night working and then went straight to the test center on no sleep and took the exam. I failed, barely, but I failed. That was the first time I’d experienced the feeling of failure —I was gutted. I questioned my entire life,  questioned whether I should even be in tech or not. I felt like an idiot. I had never failed in my life so I never had anyone tell me that it’s OK to fail. The important thing is what you do from that point thereafter. I had to figure that out on my own; it was a tough road. There have been many times when I’ve felt like quitting tech or some project or certification I’m chasing, but I have to stop and remind myself of how much harder things could be (even when the circumstances seem insurmountable) or how much worse they’ve been in the past. These little reality checks help me keep moving forward. Giving up is not an option.

Sense of Humor

Sometimes we all take life a little too seriously. It’s important to loosen up sometimes when circumstances seem to be dire. I often think of my five years in the Marine Corps as the best and worst time of my life. I remember being a part of Operation Tomodachi after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in mainland Japan. Some of us were working 18-19 hour days, 7 days a week, for two months straight. Despite being exhausted, we never stopped making jokes. It was as if my unit’s credo was to keep things lighthearted. We’d be slap happy, highly caffeinated, just laughing our asses off while working. It made time go faster and made the long hours not seem so bad. Sometimes things suck, we have crazy deadlines and we work long hours…that doesn’t mean that you can’t make the best out of a bad situation. Go ahead and send that funny meme to your co-worker.

3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From My Time in the Marine Corps

  1. […] The danger here is that a leader may lean too heavily on experts while ignoring good solutions from others. In tech, we tend to experience this where we rely on the experts and ignore the generalists – even though the generalist may have the winning answer. Additionally, the leader may experience analysis paralysis. This is where I recommend using the 75% method detailed here. […]


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