“67% of veterans have the aptitude strengths to be a software developer, and to be a great one.”
Business Leader sat down for a conversation with Tom Moore. Tom is an ex-platoon commander and has founded a talent incubator to help war veterans break into the tech sector. WithYouWithMe has now expanded to finding work for neurodivergent and gender diverse communities, military spouses, and indigenous populations.
I would love to find out more about your background and your upbringing. What was that like? Where did you grow up?
My life is sort of always shifting between two stages — overwhelming catastrophe and an absolute drive to fight injustice. My family is actually from York originally and served for about 300 years in the military — 150 years in the British military and 150 years in the Australian military.
Everyone in my family has had to be a soldier, a rifleman, or a basic combat soldier. On my mum’s side, we’ve never really done anything other than being warriors. I grew up in a place in Sydney, Australia that was pretty similar to the East End of London, and I did some pretty stupid things growing up.
When I did a basic skills test when I was nine years old, I got the bottom quarter percent of the state and they told me there was something wrong with me. Ever since then, I realised that I don’t really fit in too much and that I shouldn’t really pay attention to what anyone says. I found myself getting really, really obsessed with this concept of ‘injustice’, so I also found myself beating up bullies.
By the time I was 18, I realised that I was a bit of a monster and I’m a big person with a big mouth. I thought I should just join the army like the rest of my family have done for 300 years. I was significantly injured and at 26 I found myself without a job. Nobody wanted to hire me, and I went back home with nowhere to go. So, I would say that was my second catastrophic failure.
You say that when you were younger you didn’t feel like you fit into society. Was that a part of the reason you wanted to join the army? Or was it because you have a family history of warriors?
When people tell you for a long time that there’s something wrong with you, you stop listening to what’s right with you as well — in order to deal with insults, you can’t take compliments and your ability to receive negative emotions is directly correlated to positive emotion. So, if you just turn that off, you find yourself quite isolated from society.
I remember every Christmas growing up when I was twelve, and seeing how different it was for the veterans in my family that had served in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and then their sons that were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq — seeing how much closer they were than everyone else.
So for me, joining the army gave me a path that was historic, that took people like me, that weren’t perfect, and fundamentally allowed me to enter an esoteric society, which puts mission and other people before my own gain. I was a bit rough around the edges and I like to fight, I could join a club but also keep fighting, which is the only thing I seemed to be good at. It wasn’t just a way to get out, it was a way to join my own family’s tribe, as well as the one that existed in uniform.
How did your family feel when you did join the army?
Well, my dad didn’t talk to me for two years. My mom was the only one in the family who hadn’t served and she’d seen how traumatic her brother’s lives were after service. They ended up becoming entrepreneurs, which is quite interesting. But no, people didn’t want me to do it. I remember I had an opportunity to go to Google Australia or at the end of my degree go to the army. Google Australia’s salary was maybe about 100,000 USD and Duntroon was probably 35,000 USD.
My father had grown up in poverty and used to sell cigarettes door-to-door, used to run a Pizza Hut and KFC at the same time, and never finished school or university, but he ended up making a company billions of dollars by the time I was 18.
He was fundamentally annoyed because he had done all these things to get his family out of poverty and his son was just going to fight wars and be like his uncles. I’m not really someone that ever listens when someone tells them to do something. I’m a fundamental believer in choice, so it didn’t stop me. But yeah, they weren’t supportive at all.
What was your experience like in the army? Did you enjoy it?
I suffer from dyslexia. So, the way the army teaches you is they show you how to do something, then you’ve got to do it. That’s a kinaesthetic learning style and it’s what makes athletes really good. Around 72% of people that join the army have a kinesthetic learning style. I do not. I have to talk about things in order to understand how they work because I can’t read them and my brain doesn’t want to do that.
I really struggled to get through the initial recruit training. I was what we call a ‘heat seeker’, asking for trouble all the time. But by the time I got into the ‘warrior stage’ of the training, where you’d learn how to live off the land, learn how to stay alive, and understand how to hunt people, I was extremely good at it. Because the things that made my brain have really high, abstract reasoning, or really high, fluid intelligence that don’t benefit from a learning model of ‘we’ll show you how to do something then you got to do it’, are extremely valuable when you’re hunting someone.
So, the ability to see things differently, and the understanding of how things connect across systems, all of these things are very, very valuable in a modern military environment. I went on to lead 60 young men and women in Afghanistan at 22. Most of them were older than me and it was the best job I’ve ever had. But I would tell you that I’m an average soldier and an average officer, and I was very lucky to have a very capable team in Afghanistan that outran that potential.
Are there particular attributes from being in the army that transcend to working in tech?
What we know is that 67% of veterans have the aptitude strengths to be a software developer, and to be a great one. So, that was really interesting. The ability to connect underlying logic is called ‘fluid intelligence’. A lot of people would describe it as ‘street smarts’. This is the most sought-after strength in great cloud engineers, data engineers and cybersecurity engineers. The reason is that when you do those things, you’re relying on third-party applications, third-party data centres, legacy systems, legacy applications, and then new ones that you’re building. So, it actually is really complex.
It’s not a workflow. It’s a logical workflow. So, that is the most sought-after trait. And veterans have one standard deviation higher than those that are in a computer science degree. And the reason is a lot of veterans come from poverty areas, which there’s obviously a need for a lot of street smarts. But also, they’ve spent the majority of their life between 18 to 21 being told to solve complex problems with little training, whereas everyone else has got the chance to go through university, get educated, and learn it theoretically first.
Do mental health issues still impact your life?
Last year, I was diagnosed with severe depression, and effectively my body doesn’t produce enough serotonin anymore. That’s got nothing to do with trauma. My body produces absurd amounts of dopamine and that then switches to cortisol, which then goes into fat. And eventually, that happened too many times over seven years that I started to get neurotic and wake up and my hands would be shaking, and I wouldn’t feel any stress but my body was in a stress state. It took me a long time to understand that.
I see a therapist once a week, I have things that improve my serotonin, and I have a very strict regimen. One thing I do in my company is let everyone see my treatment plan. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, I’ve never really ever wanted that. If the CEO can be diagnosed with severe depression and it’s okay, and he can keep his job, hopefully, that creates an environment where you can tell me if something’s up, and we can give you the time to sort it out or make work more flexible, so it improves mental fitness.
What is the power of being transparent about your mental health as a CEO?
It allows me to not be the CEO. Last year, 70% of our staff had ordinary shares. Now it’s 64%. By June this year, it’ll be 100%. You can’t touch business, you can’t look at it, you can’t feel anything, and there’s no smell to it. Whereas in the army, there are a lot of things that you can touch. You probably shouldn’t lick things, but there’s a lot of history and a lot of camaraderie. And as a CEO, your job is to allocate people, work and money. That’s it.
That’s really boring to me. So, the strength of my being transparent about everything is everyone in our company gets to see cash flow numbers and shareholder reports. Everyone can see everything – every management meeting and video. It allows me to feel like I’m not in charge.
Is this transparency good for your team?
Very much so, but transparency around everything. Every six weeks we run a ‘be transparent’ session and the company gets together and you write who you are proud of, who has the most fears, and who let you down. Once we get all that out of the way, we work out if there’s an actual problem like if we haven’t trained a skill, or we’re missing a process, or we’re not allocating resources effectively.
We took that from combat in the military, where, after we patrol, we would figure out what we could do better. Because you can have all this equipment, but if they’re smarter than you and move faster than you, you won’t survive. Pretty intense, but if you take the time to adapt to it, it can really help you out on your potential.