Vets in Tech: Chris Cortez & Microsoft's MSSA



Chris Cortez, Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps (ret), is Microsoft's Vice President of Military Affairs and advocate for the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA), which is one of few industry programs that trains active-duty U.S. service members for IT jobs and is a cornerstone of the DoD Skillbridge program.

Since its launch in November 2013 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) with the support of the VOW to Hire Heroes, the program has been recognized as an industry leader in training active duty service members for STEM careers at Microsoft and elsewhere in the IT industry. Highlights include graduates working for over 171 different companies, including Dell, Amazon, Microsoft, Accenture PLC, Department of Defense, Capgemini, with graduates receiving an average salary over $70,000.

Chris shares his insights about the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA), why veterans are a good fit for the program and IT, Microsoft's commitment to train and hire service members and veterans in the IT industry, and what the future holds for MSSA.


Can you tell us a little bit about your military background?

I served over 33 years in the Marines. My last job, I headed up all recruiting (recruited more than 75,000 men and women). The one before that, I was Director for Operations in the U.S. Pacific Command (oversaw operations for 300,000 military personnel). I was an infantry guy, so I was a unit leader at the platoon, which is about 40 Marines; Company, 180; Battalion, Regiment, and then Assistant Division Commander. So that’s kind of in a nutshell my military background.

And I think the Marine Corps recruiting really, really maps directly to so much of what we're doing in the company with this program for our military that are transitioning into civilian jobs.


(Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Chris Cortez, now vice president of Microsoft Military Affairs, served in the Marine Corps for more than 33 years, including during Operation Desert Storm).

So why are military veterans ideal candidates for MSSA and IT work in general? What's your feeling on that?

You know Microsoft is trying to evolve the IT industry from traditional thinking, you know four year degree, and start focusing on addressing the skills, the huge gap there is in the IT workforce. And to be specific, we're looking at 200,000 military people that get out of the service every year and every year 500,000 open IT jobs. So you know we need to start looking at where we can go to find people to get into the industry.

And military people are fantastic. They bring a diverse and inclusive workforce. They work together. I mean if you just look at our military population they come from all over the country, all different ethnic backgrounds, and they know how to lead, they know how to follow, they're problem solvers, they're creative. They really are an amazing workforce and they very much have a place in the IT industry. And more and more we're seeing the fruits of this labor because they're knocking it out of the park.

And then there's also the economic gap. That’s important to Microsoft. And you know we're trying to create opportunity. And here you have military folks that are having a great career, but they have an opportunity for another great career.

And I would share with you a story when I was talking to a group, a cohort that we had at Camp Pendleton Military Base in California. It's been about a year or so. And I was talking about the fact that the average national salary for the graduates of this MSSA program, when they get into the IT industry, is $70,000. And this young Marine raised his hand and said, sir, that’s four times what I make, because I live in the barracks on the base and I eat in the mess hall on the base, so I only get $18,000 a year. And it was just a great example of the opportunity that this program provides our military.

And I think all of that talks to why our military makes great candidates for this program, the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy, MSSA Program, and why they're so good for the IT industry.


(Thirty-five service members at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) celebrated the completion of MSSA).

What are your thoughts on military transition? Any particular veteran needs that MSSA is addressing?

You know the reality is that transition for our military is tough. And you know for so long our military has been leaving active duty and then there's a wall they have to break through to try to get a civilian job. And you know through this program Microsoft is trying to create opportunity and it's trying to give transitioning military personnel an opportunity through learning to prepare them for, in this case, the IT industry, which has so many open jobs.

So examples of some of the things we do in addition to simply offering this 18 week course, we have our own mentors from the company. Some of them had served in the military, some of them never did serve in the military, but they believe in the program and they’ve become mentors to each of these cohorts. Remember, it's 18 weeks, so once a week they're either on a Skype exchange or they're there in person. And they talk about what it's like to work in the IT industry, they talk about what it's like to work in Microsoft, they answer their questions and the students get a real firsthand opportunity to talk to somebody that works in an area that they're intending to go into.

And then in addition to that, we provide resume writing because we know each one of these folks are going to need to have a good resume and get that interview.

And then finally we do mock interview drills every week. The program is designed to prepare them for an entry level position in the IT industry. Some may already have a very strong background, but they don’t have to. We have truck drivers, cooks, medics, we have everybody. As long as they have the aptitude and the passion to get into the program, we're gonna put them through this course and by the time they're done they're really good. They're really good at their interviews.

And you know it's like anything else. When you first start a program, you're really crawling, but that was over three years ago and now I mean the success rate is just really, really impressive.


(Group of MSSA Participants at Saint Martin's University).

Along with the success rate, what are the mistakes you see veterans make that go into the MSSA Program? Anything they should be prepared for?

Well, our objective is to create conditions for success. And we want them to have a positive experience, so it all maps back to the very beginning. You know they have to go through interviews and procedures with their base education office, with their base transition office, and then we get involved with trying to get them some online training and pass a few initial tests, if you will, in IT.

So by the time we say, okay, you're good to go, you're in this course, we believe that they’ve got what it takes to succeed. And well over 90 percent that have gone through this over the last three years have made it through the program.


Yeah, that’s pretty impressive. And 95 percent of those that have been through this program are employed and 84 percent of those 95 percent are working in the IT industry. And that’s what this whole thing is all about. You know we're not gonna boil the ocean. We're focusing on the IT industry. And you know to have 84 percent of that 95 percent that are employed in the IT industry, that’s really good. And might as well say that with the average starting salary of over $70,000, that’s also good.

And you know we're including all four branches of the Armed Forces, they’ve all participated in this program. We have graduated nearly 400. Again, we're still crawling, but we're gonna grow. And in Microsoft alone we've hired nearly 100. And 170 companies, now let me say that again, 170 companies, including Dell, Amazon, Accenture, the Department of Defense, Capgemini, and the list goes on, have hired from our graduates.


Do you recommend that veterans enter the MSSA program right away or should they decompress after their service ends?

You know when you wear a military uniform, that’s a very individual -- it's a very special life experience and you don’t just take a cookie cutter approach, everyone will "X" or whatever. Each individual has to do it the way that it's best for them.

All we're doing here is the ones that want to get into the -- first of all, have made their decision to leave the military and that want to get in the IT industry and take advantage of this program. We, like I said earlier, set the conditions for their success and we're there for them. So there's really not an answer that applies to every military member. Most are going to want to get into an occupation sooner rather than later, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.

After interviewing Mark Switzer (MSSA graduate & current Software Engineer at Microsoft), he said that the specializations for each cohort are always predetermined based on need. Is that something that may change in the future, so veterans can choose their specialization?

Well, you’ve got to consider that our objective is to get people into the IT industry. And what's one way you can do that is to give them a relevant syllabus that’s gonna map right to jobs that are hot today. And the only thing that’s constant in IT is change. And so as cloud administration, security administration, cyber, as all these things continue to evolve, we have to adjust and we have to give these students a shot and give them a good bit of training that’s going to get them a good opportunity for a successful experience in the interview and get a job. So we have to continue to evolve the coursework and we have to continue to make it relevant to what's happening in the IT industry. So that’s going to stay a constant. We're gonna keep adapting as time goes on.


(Mark Switzer, MSSA graduate and Software Engineer at Microsoft).

What about follow-up training? Is there some type of program where people can come back and train a little more or are they just pretty much ready to go at that point and everything else is dependent on them down the road?

We prepare them to the point where they can get in to an IT job and have enough knowledge that they can contribute from the very beginning. But in any IT job, I mean myself included when I first came to Microsoft, I mean you grow fast, you learn fast.

And you know part of what they do as students in a cohort, I mean they stay after class, right, and they go over stuff that might be hard. One of the students may be more familiar with the other, they share. Before they go home, they’ve learned quite a bit and they're ready to go back the next day. And that’s the same way in the IT industry. They're ready to go, but they're gonna learn and they're gonna learn fast and I mean they're so creative. I mean we have so many quotes from managers of graduates from this course that they just can't say enough good things about the employees that came from the military.

Any advice for those looking to enter the program, just in general what you would tell them to be prepared for?

Yeah. You know ask questions when you go through the base education office, the transition office, and when you start talking about preparatory training that you can do to get ready, some of the online training, ask as many questions as you can. The more you prepare the higher your chances for a really good experience.

Beth Jarvis, right, base engagment manager for Microsoft, discusses the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy with Soldiers Aug. 3 at the Soldier for Life Center.

(Photograph from Benning News. Caption reads: "Beth Jarvis, right, base engagement manager for Microsoft, discusses the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy with Soldiers Aug. 3 at the Soldier for Life Center. Photos by Danielle Davis).

What is the long-term view or goal of the MSSA program?

Well, there's quite a bit going on. I said that we were crawling. So we've stood up five bases now. You know the test bed was Joint Base Lewis-McChord 3 1/2 years ago and then from there we went to Pendleton, Fort Campbell, Benning, and Fort Bragg. We're on five military bases and it's west coast/east coast.

Over the next 12 months we're going to land to a point where 14 bases across the country are going to have access to this program. We'll be in nine regions in a couple of places, like in San Diego and Florida. In San Diego there are going to be three bases near a location.

We work with Embry-Riddle and St. Martin's University. St. Martin's University is our education partner of choice. In the State of Washington, they're fabulous. In all other states, it's going to be Embry-Riddle and they're outstanding as well.

So Embry-Riddle has a place down near San Diego where the Marines from Miramar Air Station, the sailors from Navy Base 32nd Street, and the sailors from the Naval Air Station in Coronado, so three different bases are going to have access to one location to go through this training. In Florida it's going to be the Jacksonville Naval Air Station and the Mayport Navy Base that are gonna both have access to a classroom. It's in a civilian environment there in Florida.

So we're gonna go to a point where we're gonna serve 14 bases, we've graduated nearly 400 students right now, but when we grow, let's say 2020, by 2020 we're gonna have over 3000 graduates. And keep in mind that the success rate continues to be over 90 percent of them are gonna be employed with a national starting salary of $70,000. And if you look out even further we fully intend by approximately 2022 to be in over 20 locations, to include a few bases in Asia and in Europe where our military are serving.

So I think that’s a look way out into the future for you, and if nothing else, it should demonstrate the fact that this is not a quick thing and then go home. This is a long-term effort, a sincere effort, an impactful effort by Microsoft for our military.


For more veteran job tips and resources, check out these pages on

Veteran Job Search

Upcoming Veteran Job Fairs

Military Skills Translator

Employers Seeking Veteran Talent

Story Continues