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Tips for Navigating Your Post-Military Career

Podcast featuring Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.Lt. Col (retired), U.S. Marine Corps; Program Director, School of Business and
Alan Lau, U.S. Marine Corps veteran

Figuring out your career path after the military can be overwhelming. In this episode, AMU’s Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr. talks to USMC veteran Alan Lau about his experience transitioning into his civilian career. Learn why he recommends servicemembers spend time reflecting on their military career while also considering what kind of lifestyle they want as a civilian. Also learn why it’s so important for veterans to learn how to actively advocate for themselves in the corporate world, and realize their strengths of adaptability and flexibility as they navigate a post-military career.

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Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr. Today, we’re going to talk with a great friend of mine. I actually served with this man in the Marine Corps back around the 2008-2010 timeframe in Camp Pendleton, California. And in our podcast The Veteran Edge, we’re going to discuss some of the unique experiences individuals have in their military transition to become highly successful veterans and in some cases, entrepreneurs.

My guest today, Alan Lau, Alan is a Marine Corps veteran. As I said, we served together. He transitioned from active duty to reserve, found himself in a number of positions during that time and now he is serving as a customer service or a success manager with DocuSign and we’ve had opportunity to actually work together here recently.

I couldn’t be more excited to get this veteran’s experience on what he did to become a success and different than some, he moved away from doing things directly back on base as some do and come back as a contractor. What drove him to go out and do something corporate a little bit different? So, Alan, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

Alan Lau: Hey, Larry, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here and I’m happy to share my experience with you and your audience.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Yeah, I appreciate it, brother. Thank you. So let’s start our conversation by talking about how things developed. And as I said, The Veteran Edge, we’re really going to get down to whether or not you feel that your experience helped give you an edge in life after service.

Let’s get back to giving everyone context. Context is everything. So first, I want to thank you for your service, and then how did you come to serve? Where did this come from? You decided to join the Marine Corps of all things.

Alan Lau: Yeah. So just to provide some context of why I served, I’m a son of a Chinese immigrant family. So I’m first-generation American and often referred to as American-born Chinese or ABC in the Asian-American community. And I was born and raised in the D.C. metro area, just in Maryland.

And for me, joining the military service, it probably started as early as middle school. And I was influenced by multiple factors. Coming from an immigrant family, especially the stereotype that comes from Asian-American families is that we’re pushed to pursue one of three occupations or fields, whether it’s in medicine, engineering or computer science. And I really didn’t want to do any of those.

Of course, there was the pressure from my family to pursue one of those fields, but I just really wasn’t interested. Luckily I had some extended family members who had started their careers initially in the U.S. military. And I think because of having that proximity with some extended family members and knowing there were some other options, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to get that direct leadership experience early on in my career. I didn’t really have an idea where I want to start, but I just knew it was a unique experience that would provide a solid foundation when starting my career.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Okay. And thank you because actually you’re teaching me right from the beginning what another conversation that we will have. It is incredible to learn some of the things that you saw about ABC and things of that nature, because I speak on diversity and we’re going to have you back on for our conversation on that another time. But why the Marine Corps? We talk about different services, but why that one?

Alan Lau: My extended family was mostly in the Navy and the Air Force right then. I don’t know. I think maybe the teenager in me saw those old commercials of the Marine slaying a dragon and just being part of the few and the proud, just really appealed to me and that’s really what stood out. And, of course, when you look at the Marines compared to every other service branch, I mean, they’re just so much more pop and flared that I was like, “You know what? I want to be part of that group.”

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: OoRah. Now, the Military Occupational Specialty, MOS, that we all know, what drove you down that road? And you can explain to people a little bit more what that is.

Alan Lau: Yeah, sure. So I was an economics major at Maryland in undergrad and I didn’t know if the military was going to be a long-term career path for me, but I thought, “What’s an occupation that I could leverage to complement what I studied in undergrad?” And that led me into land a position as a ground supply officer with the Military Occupational Code of 3002.

In that role, you’re managing budgets, you’re doing procurement, you’re managing the maintenance and you’re working really closely with the logistics department for the military, depending on what unit and you might be supporting. And of course, for those of you who have served or know what the military is like, any officer or really just any senior Marine, you’re going to be slapped on with other jobs. There’s collateral duties that you are responsible for. I was lucky enough to deploy with the 13th Marine expeditionary unit.

I think that was the deployment just after you Larry with the 11th MEU, and even though my job was a ground supply officer that people will joke we’re the box kickers. But in a lot of ways, I didn’t realize how soon relevant the job was in how that plays into my current role as a customer success manager, because in supply, we are pretty much supporting all of the other units. Obviously, we’re all directly supporting the infantry, but depending on whatever organization you’re in, you’re supporting all of your cross-functional departments.

In a lot of ways, you have to be that customer-service oriented mindset with how you field their maintenance requests or their equipment needs, and it’s really a unique opportunity because on the MEU, I also was a noncombatant evacuation officer. So I got to do a lot of planning for global contingencies during the Arab Spring of 2011. Luckily, we didn’t have to execute that mission, but it was really distinct opportunity just to get a big picture when it comes to the overall MAGTF planning in the Marine Air Ground Task Force.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: I appreciate that. And full disclosure to the audience, I was a supply officer as well. And I concur that you learn early on and you’re thrown into the fire because a lot of others are doing training and yet, as Alan said, we’re put to task right from the very beginning because you’re supplying whether you’re in Garrison or back-end stateside or you’re full work. So I appreciate that.

You’re a part of the service now and you’re going through your career, and of course, with us being supported by a university, I want to emphasize education. So as you’re going through your career, did you find yourself wanting to go back to school? I looked at your impressive resume. When and how did you decide to further your education?

Alan Lau: Yeah, that’s a good point. For me, going and pursuing higher education was always something I knew I was going to do. I just didn’t know what that was going to be, whether that was going to be law or another master’s program or a business school.

And to be honest, when I first transitioned, I thought, “Oh, you know what? I’m really going to go pursue law school. I think this law school route is what I want to go pursue.” And of course, I had to take that time to self-reflect and really think a lot about why I wanted to pursue law school. And as much as I thought about it, I didn’t go down that path. I decided to go and find work into my transition or what was going to pay the bills and keep the lights on, but I ended up going for a master’s of public policy and that was, I thought, a good complement for my experience working as a supply officer. But then also my education previously so that I could transition into public-sector consulting.

And that’s what helped me actually position well for working at one of the big four firms, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and it was a unique opportunity because I got a chance to work in various job functions. Meaning I got to be a project manager, I got to work with software implementations, financial reporting, and then when it came to a point where I was doing all these different job functions, I realized, “There’s something else missing. I feel like I need to get something else as an edge.” And that’s when I decided I was going to go pursue business school.

And I recently completed and I knew that consulting really wasn’t where I wanted to be long-term and just with technology and so many things changing so quickly, I really wanted to go into tech and that’s what led me to DocuSign as customer success manager, because I had to figure out a way to take all of my experiences and package that into the customer success industry.

Alan Lau: Of the cloud service, like what we call SaaS, software as a service. And getting all of those experiences from the time of my Marine Corps experience, working as a consultant and getting the education, it really put a complete package and story. They’re all building blocks that helped me get to where I am today.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: And again, giving further context, there was a lot of moves there. How long were you in the service? And just to be clear, did you start some of that education while you were on service or you waited until you transitioned completely?

Alan Lau: Yeah. I did five years of active duty and then when I transitioned out of active duty, I continued on with the Select Marine Corps Reserve, that’s the weekend warrior time up until about 2018. And when I think back about the transition, I actually didn’t go directly into the SMCR, the Select Marine Corps Reserve. I was in the inactive reserve and then I picked up the active reserves later on.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Hey Alan, that was great. And as we think about how long you were in the service and you started your transition, how did that all come about? How did that work for you?

Alan Lau: Yeah, yeah. Right when you’re right in active duty timeframe, when you’re in the FMF, the Fleet Marine Force, it’s tough to manage school and get ready in pre-deployment status. So school was definitely not in the picture during that time. Of course, I know some servicemembers to go on to school, complete school later on in their service career, but I didn’t go on to finish higher ed until after I separated from active duty.

Now that’s one path. It’s not the only path. There’s obviously servicemembers we know that they go on and do a full year or however many years they serve, they can go on for, take on various billets, whether it’s in congressional fellowships or business fellowships, seminars, like in that regard for senior military servicemembers. But for me, I realized that for the lifestyle that I wanted, I decided to separate from active duty after that initial five years and then pursued graduate school part-time on the weekends and evenings.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: And I appreciate you emphasizing that you didn’t have to. Some stress that, “Okay, I had to take these classes while I was in,” and we always hear these great success stories of, “Oh, well, I completed this and that during my enlistment or my commission.” But one thing that I want our audience to recognize is that you had an overall plan that drove you in a general direction, but it sounded as if you were open to modifying your path to get to your ultimate goal. That’s where some of the different jobs came into play. So would you agree that flexibility also plays a big part of success transitioning out?

Alan Lau: Yeah, absolutely. Having flexibility or just having the mindset, and I think it’s part of having a growth mindset, right? And now when I think about it, when it comes to the overall transition, I mean, I really didn’t have a plan to be honest. I just knew, “All right. I’m going to get out of active duty. I’ll figure out what my next job is going to be once I get out completely.”

But I could have been doing that even when I was active duty, right? Because figuring out what’s next, it is basically like a part-time job. I mean, you need to spend the time to self-reflect, do your own research of the specific industries or job functions that might be of interest, where you want to pursue, your next path, and that takes time.

And I learned the hard way. I just went through the TAPS. I think a lot of service members can say that the TAPS program really isn’t that helpful. And when you think about it, it might be revamped now, but I can’t say it’s of any value really, because it’s just simple like, “Hey, here’s a resume,” but figuring out how to navigate your transition, figuring out your next career, there’s just so many other resources that are offered from private corporations and nonprofit organizations I think that are available today that I wish I had access to.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Yeah. Although they’ve improved somethings, I will say I’ve told many individuals I wish there was a refresher, like a requirement, even after you get out that even if, I know we don’t want any more requirements, but brought us back in and now you can go over what you don’t know.

So that’s interesting. I appreciate you being very transparent about your experience. So if you had a do over and you had other veterans or other Marines, as we always want to take care of our junior Marines, if you had one thing that you could have told them, what would you have said? Right now, if they’re looking to get out in a year or two years, what would be a nugget that you would leave with them?

Alan Lau: Yeah. Depending on where you are in your career, your life circumstances, I think it’s necessary to plan your next move six months to a year out and take advantage of the resources that are available online publicly.

LinkedIn is the first start of getting a profile and creating your online presence. Activating your network, whether it was from your high school, your alma mater, you attended college, undergrad, graduate school, your community. Start tapping into your network to do that research to understand the different career paths or options.

And if going into a civilian career isn’t the next step, tap into the school resources. If you’re thinking about school, there’s a lot of veteran student resource groups that you can ask questions, right? That you wouldn’t normally ask an admissions officer, because you don’t want to be perceived as that guy. But honestly, I think the best thing a servicemember could do is really just to take the time to self-reflect and start activating their network.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Oh, that’s key. I appreciate that one. I’m taking that one down as one of those nuggets I want to leave them with. Now we’re coming full circle. You talked about everyone’s sentiment when you were joining the service and now you’re a veteran. You’re getting out. Can you talk a little bit about now that you’ve served, what was your family’s or the neighborhood’s thoughts on you getting a job, those types of things? Now that you’re a veteran.

Alan Lau: Yeah, of course for me, I can only speak from my experience, but even just before joining the military, my family wasn’t receptive to the idea of me joining the service only because joining the military to them, or for some immigrant families, it’s a foreign idea. And I think also the fact that we’re in a time of conflict with Iraq and Afghanistan, when I think about it, I think a lot of those concerns were really just out of their own fear that if I were to get deployed, they might not get their son back and having to sacrifice their own life of leaving and then starting a new life in a new country and having their son or daughter to go deploy and then potentially not come back, I think that’s definitely very scary. But, of course, I think that’s just the lack of information for them and lack of education.

But going back to your point about the transition or coming out as a servicemember, as a veteran, into the corporate world, I think it’s really interesting because for me, when I look at certain managers or people in leadership in the corporate environment, you almost bring that from the military thing, “Oh, they’re a leader. So they should know basic leadership skills and people management.” But I was very surprised that in the corporate world, all that really means is it’s just your pay band, your title, right? It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have leadership experience. If you want to be a leader, you got to really seek it on your own and in the corporate environment you can be an individual contributor over five, 10 years, and then you’re excellent at your job, then they’re going to help you grow. You’re going to increase your responsibilities and doing your job, but then they’re also going to give you additional people, but they’re not going to really train you like we do in the military, right?

In the military, going back to the education piece, right? When you think about the education in the military, everyone at every rank has the PME, the Professional Military Education that they need to complete, whether you’re enlisted or officer, right? They go through corporals course to staff NCO Academy and then officers, it’s the Expeditionary Warfare School, the command and staff, et cetera. Every three or four years or so, you’re expected to go on and continue education.

That sometimes doesn’t really apply in the corporate environment. You have to be your own advocate and own your journey. And I think that to me was really a big distinction because in the military, we’re mission-oriented and we only want to do what’s best for the group. But as a civilian, you have to realize you need to learn how to tell your story and communicate what your success is and what is important to you and your core values and how you want to grow and develop in your own career.

Because we don’t have Uncle Sam telling us like, “Hey, you’re going to move here next three years.” In corporate America, you have to be your own advocate and you have to map out what is important to you and that’s where the relationship building happens, a lot of the networking. There’s a lot of subtle things that you figure out within that first year to just joining a new organization as a civilian.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: I appreciate that. And if we could just keep going along that line of thought, sometimes we laugh about them after we’ve gotten out and things that corporate America or civilians think of us, what were some of the other most common and inaccurate stereotypes you ran into?

Alan Lau: Yeah. I think it’s always funny because a lot of my civilian peers, they always think, “Well in the military, people just got to do what you’re told. Right?” They think we’re robots, but of course, we all know that in the military, although there are specific orders, there’s obviously debate, right? Of course, there’s that tact of having it in private close quarters and not in front of the troops or whatever, but even in civilian corporate world, people take orders from their boss. They’re still taking orders. Of course, they just don’t have the field exercises or deployment schedule those kinds of strains on their life. But in a lot of ways, when it comes to your day-to-day job, whatever your boss asks of you, you get it done.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Yeah. That’s interesting. It’s like a lot of the same desires, but just different approaches to get there. We’ve talked about your transition and your path, and I always like to get my guests’ take on the typical four immediate categories that individuals typically leave in. And I framed them up as student, government contractor—we all know that we worked beside some individuals—corporate, which I would say is more or less what you were describing. And then the entrepreneur, that individual that’s doing our own business now. Did I miss a category? Would you say that pretty much captures most?

Alan Lau: I think what you described in those four categories is pretty accurate. It just depends on when a servicemember has joined and how many years they’ve completed in the service, whether they were enlisted or an officer. I think there’s a lot of common paths that show up, right? Generally when you see someone who just completed their initial enlistment, they might often go back to school or they might just transition back home and work within their local community. Or they decide they’re going to continue on and they’ve developed a little bit more experience. So all of us have security clearances and once you have that bachelor’s degree, they might fall in the realm of working as a government contractor, supporting the military installations. So I think it really just depends on where a servicemember is in their career path.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Okay. And as I think back to you and as I look at our conversation, I really appreciate everything that you’ve shared and you have been, I will just tell you from my perspective, looking in on what you’re saying, highly successful in your transition and I’m wishing you the best.

And now this is where we get to the deep moment. You described where you went and you talked about what people may have going on in their life. Of those different things that I talked about, typically categories that people fall into, if you could just touch on it just a little bit more, why did you choose your route? If you could have went back as a government contractor or you just didn’t get out and start your own business as some, why did you choose your route to success?

Alan Lau: Even if, like I said, for me, I learned the hard way in my transition. My path definitely took a lot of different roads from the very beginning when I first transitioned. And for me, what was important, you got to take stock into where do you want to be geographically? The location matters too, because you got to think about what’s the industry, the local economy there?

And for me, I want it to be back home in the D.C. metro area and what was important for me was just trying to land a job in a Fortune 500 company. And given that I was a econ major and I had some budget experience as a supply officer, I was fortunate enough that I got an offer from a place like HP working as a financial analyst. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I thought it was a first job that I could accept as just a starting place. But once you get there, then you have the time to try and figure out, “Okay, what’s next?”

And I had to go figure out who those mentors, my sponsors were. And there’s this recent book that I actually read by Carla Harris. She’s the vice chairman of Morgan Stanley. And she wrote this book called “Expect to Win” back in 2009 or 2010. And I just read through this and I’m like, “Wow, how come I didn’t get this book earlier in my career?”

Because she shares so many great nuggets about just navigating our career and I think every service member should consider picking it up as they think about what’s important to them because she gives practical advice. And I realized that I did this too, along the way, I just naturally picked it up. But understanding what is a lifestyle you want to have? Do you want to be in a fast-paced environment? Is money important? And when you think about the choices you have, it’s like picking up your MOS or your duty station, what’s important, right? Are you going to be in the East Coast in Camp Lejeune? Or do you want to be out in Camp Pendleton, California with San Diego, the best place, the Marine Corps, in my opinion?

But thinking about those kinds of decisions and the lifestyle that comes with the territory of the job itself, right? If you’re going to be in the infantry, if you’re going to be in support, what does that look like?

When I think about my transition, I had to really think about all those decisions of what was important to me and my own values, and I think that’s unique to every servicemember, right? We all have our own values. If you want to create your own business, that’s great, and you’re right, but really think about what that’s going to look like and how you can do it. How are you going to scale a business? Or if you want to go in investment banking, you’re aspiring to go in investment banking, what does that require? So just really taking the time to reflect, I think helps narrow down those choices.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Okay. Well, keeping considerate of time, I’m going to hit these last two points more in a lightning round, if you will, because I want to get to that point of The Veteran Edge. So inspiring our audience of veterans or soon to be veterans, and you can hit these last two in quick succession, what would you tell them? Now that you’ve been successful on the outside, what did your service, or what would you like to let them know? What is the edge that they have as being a veteran?

Alan Lau: Yeah. If I could tell any servicemember that’s transitioning, “Hey, continue to dream big, always keep your options open or what is possible. Don’t settle for anything less than what you want, and target those reach opportunities.” Whether it’s a school, employer, business idea, because veterans, we’re naturally adaptable. We’ve been groomed to be very flexible and agile and, of course, we’re just natural people leaders just given the nature of the organization.

We work with people from all walks of life, race, gender, political leanings, faith, socioeconomic status, that I think really provides veterans an edge on our civilian counterparts, because one, you left your own zip code, your own area code of where you grew up and you get forced into this machine of the U.S. military and you have to adapt. You have to let go of everything from what you were comfortable with and you adjust. And I think that’s really what veterans have as an edge over our civilian counterparts is just the adaptability and being comfortable in unfamiliar territory.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, I appreciate it. You actually spoke to the next question I was going to ask you. Speaking to the actual employers themselves, but if they’re listening now in the audience, Alan just spoke right to that adaptability, those skills, those things that they bring.

So, Alan, this has been great. One thing that I want to share with individuals is that Alan is phenomenal. He may not want me to pump him up so much, but when I served, I was senior to Alan. I was executive officer for the, we can almost say the sister unit, the one that’s we’re in the same headquarters building, but since we’ve reconnected, he continues to inspire and actually educate me because not only that book, but actually every time Alan and I link up, he’s sharing something that he’s come across.

So I don’t want him to beat me up too bad, but what I would tell you, professionally, and I say professionally, because you can find them out at LinkedIn or whatever else that he has, but I know a phenomenal leader, a person that is very insightful on things that are going on when it comes to leadership. in general. He may not mind you just reaching out professionally on LinkedIn and maybe connecting. So, Alan, thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Alan Lau: Well, thank you, Larry. It’s been a pleasure and I really appreciate you inviting me to join this conversation. Happy to connect with any servicemember that might be in their transition. I will say I recommend for anyone on LinkedIn, when you reach out to someone, make sure it’s a thoughtful message. Don’t just add them, right? You want to send a thoughtful written message because otherwise, most people just forget about it and if you really want to have a sticking point to be remembered, you want to make sure you’ve done your research and you’ve actually made a well thought out message to whoever you might be reaching out to.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: And that’s great. So you got that extra one for free. So, hey, again, thanks so much for sharing your expertise today for this episode, and to our listeners, thank you for joining us. Be well and stay safe.

Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr., currently serves as the Department Chair of Transportation and Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management with the School of Business. He serves as an adjunct faculty for various universities around the world.

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