When it comes to helping members of the Armed Forces, Microsoft is leading from the front

“I think we’re at the start of a journey,” says Sarah Finlay, a Customer Success Manager at Microsoft and a proud member of the Army Reserves. She was part of a group of staff at the technology company who welcomed the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to their headquarters in Reading recently to sign the Armed Forces Covenant. The event, which was also attended by Microsoft UK Chief Executive Cindy Rose, saw Microsoft become one of the biggest companies in the UK to agree to uphold the promises laid out in the document.

By signing the covenant, a collaborative national promise that those who serve or have served in the Naval Service, the Army and the Royal Air Force will be treated fairly, Microsoft has publicly signalled its support for the Armed Forces. But how does this translate to its staff working on the ground?

“Our Armed Forces do a tremendous job in protecting our country and our citizens from threats emanating from new areas of an uncertain world, including increasingly from cyberspace,” says Hugh Milward, Director of Corporate, External and Legal Affairs at Microsoft. “We are proud to support the many reservists and veterans who work for our company. Signing the Armed Forces Covenant was an important step in helping those who serve their country to continue doing what they love, both inside and outside Microsoft.”

For veterans like Mark Mackay, a former Force Protection Specialist in support of Medivac in the RAF Regiment, that support has come in the form of training and skills after leaving the forces. Mackay, who was invited to Buckingham Palace after receiving a commendation for bravery, is working on his Microsoft Certified Professional Exams, which validates IT professional and developer technical expertise through industry-recognised exams. He joined website management company Cortex – a Microsoft partner – as an apprentice and has already completed three Microsoft Technical Assessments.

“It’s been really great,” he says. “I trained with an apprenticeship company called YouTrain, which had Microsoft-certified instructors, in Stirling. There were also a lot of online resources I found very useful, such as Microsoft Virtual Academy and Microsoft content on YouTube. It’s been baby steps, to get up to a decent level.”

By helping to retrain hardworking veterans such as Mackay, Microsoft is not only fulfilling its commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant but is helping to fill the well-documented digital skills gap with untapped talent. “Microsoft is offering digital skills training to veterans, to prepare them for the jobs of the future and fulfil their potential,” explains Milward.

Cindy Rose, Chief Executive of Microsoft UK, and Mark Lancaster MP, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, sign the Armed Forces Covenant

Microsoft has also pledged its backing to employees serving in the Army, Navy and RAF Reserves, who provide support for the Armed Forces at home and abroad. Reservists are trained to a deployable standard and are put through a range of tough mental and physical tests before they can join. For the Army, they also have to go through basic soldier and officer training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. After they are fully commissioned, they are asked to carry out at least 19 days of service a year. In short, it’s a serious but worthwhile commitment. To foster this, Microsoft has announced that Army reservists at the company will get two weeks paid leave a year, to help them fulfil their duties.

“Microsoft has been very supportive,” says Jeff Tremaine, Chief Technology Officer for UK Defence at Microsoft and an Army reservist, who also served in the RAF for two decades. “The company has never stopped me from doing anything that I want to do.”

Veterans and reservists working for Microsoft will have built up experience in different areas of the Armed Forces. Some, such as Tremaine, who works in cyber defence for the Army, are also able to take invaluable expertise they have developed at Microsoft into a forces role. This is increasingly valuable for the Army in an era when our national security is at risk, not just from “land, sea and air”, but in cyberspace, too. Other reservists work in fields that complement, but which aren’t necessarily directly related to, their Microsoft careers. Finlay, for example, works for a specialist unit in the Intelligence Corps, looking at social media around major events.

But the Army reserves are flexible, and many people choose to serve in an area that’s different from their career. “If you join the Reserves as a Microsoft person, most people assume that you’d do something IT related,” says Tremaine. “But you don’t have to. You can be a Paratrooper, a lorry driver…something completely unrelated, and a lot of people do that.”

However Microsoft employees might choose to serve, their life tends to become a delicate, but ultimately worthwhile, balancing act. The Army Reserves encourage their members to put their families first, their civilian work second and their Reserves career third; but it’s still a big commitment, which is why the corporate support of Microsoft is so important.

“I’m a single parent, I’ve got childcare commitments every other weekend, so I have to plan around that and that’s a challenge for me,” says Tremaine. “The Army is pretty good at setting out a programme of events well in advance, but sometimes things come up out of the blue and you just have to be flexible.”

“You sometimes sacrifice weddings, barbecues and whatever else,” agrees Finlay, “But you get a lot back as well. It’s not a hobby; it’s almost like a second career sometimes.”

For veterans and reservists alike, it can be tough adjusting from the Armed Forces to office life. While many leaving the forces experience difficulties, Mackay found the process reasonably straightforward – not least because he had already identified his ambition to work at Microsoft before he made his military exit.

“I took it in stages readjusting to becoming a civilian again,” he says. “It was OK; there are things I miss about it.”

Nowadays, the memories of the demanding and sometimes dangerous environments Mackay used to work in put any suggestion of office pressure into sharp perspective. “Some of it was intense, some of it was difficult,” he says. Over three tours of Afghanistan and one of Iraq, his role involved treating casualties and extracting them from the battlefield. He won his AOC commendation after he formed a defensive line to protect American casualties during an ambush.

“I don’t think I’ve been stressed once since I’ve been in the office,” he says. “I can get fidgety, and I have to go for a big walk at lunchtime. On the whole though, it’s a lot more relaxed. Nobody shouts at you.”

Overcoming problems, teamwork, leadership, decision making, seeing things through. These are all important characteristics for any company

For reservists such as Tremaine, there can also be environmental extremes to get used to. As a reservist, he has served in Afghanistan for seven fortnight-long stints, working on cyber security.

“It’s a really weird experience to be at Microsoft one week, and then the following week you’re literally on the front line,” he explains. “I’ve had rockets fired at me and stuff like that. You can see where mortars have exploded, and the shrapnel damage. The most traumatic thing I did was work in the hospital helping to fix the IT systems at Camp Bastion [a well-fortified British-run base in the desert, in southern Afghanistan, the size of Reading], seeing people rushed in in a bad way. It is a little bit strange going from that and transitioning back into office life. It’s a great leveller, to be honest, because the things that people get upset about in normal daily life, well, if you compare that to being in a war zone…”

Even for those reservists who aren’t deployed overseas, making the switch between life in the office and the Armed Forces can require some mental adjustment. “To fit straight into that military society, you have to step quite heavily into command and control,” says Finlay, who spends at least one evening a week working with the Intelligence Corps. “That can be a bit difficult sometimes. But you’ve got to fit into certain parameters, otherwise you can’t call yourself the British Army.”

While Microsoft employees can be an attractive proposition for the Armed Forces because of their skills and experience, it works both ways. Microsoft is proud of its staff, both past and present, who serve in the military but by employing such individuals, the company bolsters its workforce in important ways. Those working in Microsoft Defence, for example, such as Tremaine and Finlay, have an insight and empathy into the defence sector that is truly invaluable.

Those who serve, or have served, in the Armed Forces can also display certain traits that make them brilliant employees. “Being punctual,” says Mackay, when asked to describe the qualities he’s brought to Microsoft from his Army career. “Overcoming problems, teamwork, leadership, decision making, seeing things through. These are all important characteristics for any company.”

Jeff Tremaine, far left, and Sarah Finlay, far right

As a technology company, Microsoft’s decision to sign the Armed Forces Covenant signals its commitment to corporate responsibility, and dedication to empowering every person to achieve more. “Our corporate responsibility is massive now,” says Finlay. “Everybody wants to do this, everybody’s on board.”

On an individual level, Microsoft employees serving in the forces also tend to see it as a way to give something back to their country. Employees make the commitment to join the Army Reserves because they enjoy the camaraderie, the social aspect, the chance to challenge themselves and the opportunities to take part in travel and adventure training. Yet the ultimate reason they sign up is because it’s a chance to do something meaningful. “Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more, and our staff who serve their country are important in helping us reach this goal,” says Milward.

“I know it sounds like a cliché, but the main reason for me joining the Reserves was to give something back,” says Finlay. “We work very much in a corporate world. Although we get paid to be in the reserves, it doesn’t amount to much, so it’s more about the chance to give something back to society and help nurture my soldiers.”

“I definitely feel like I’m giving something back,” agrees Tremaine. “When I was a regular, I got a lot out of the Armed Forces, a lot of experiences. I think I’ve reached a stage of life now where it’s nice to put something back into the system. And the Army do see it like that, too.”

Microsoft will mark Armed Forces Day on June 30, giving its employees the chance to find out more about opportunities in the Army Reserves. “It’s really good, a big step forward,” says Mackay. “Microsoft is leading the way, and a lot of other companies should follow suit. Opening up to the Armed Forces is definitely a great thing.”

Sarah Finlay, a Customer Success Manager at Microsoft and member of the Army Reserves