Navy Veteran Goes from Radars to Servers with Certs

by Matthew Stern | Nov 10, 2015

ADonga2Andrew Donga, network engineer at National Government Services (NGS), spends his days either at one of three remote offices in the Baltimore, Maryland-area or two farther north, or traveling between all five. Donga handles routing and switching for NGS, a position that demands the utmost of his time and his IT skills. But he is happy to be busy and loves working in IT.

He has hobbies outside of his profession – he’s a vinyl record collector firmly dedicated to the idea that albums by Led Zeppelin and the Beatles can be best appreciated on a high-quality stereo in their original format, and he likes to go to stay healthy, jogging and working out in his scant time off. But he is tangibly excited about the work he does, and about continuing to build his IT skills. IT, it seems, is a perfect career match for Donga, a veteran of the U.S. Navy. And he stumbled upon the industry by accident.

“I just kind of fell into it based on how my career progressed in the Navy,” Donga said. “When I joined the Navy I had no intention of staying in tech work at all. I had a knack for it, and when I started studying IT I fell in love with it.”

Donga joined the service in 2008 at the age of 23. His reasons for joining were, by his own account, not far from the top ten reasons most people join the service – he wanted to see the world and build some skills along the way. He was living in New Mexico in the midst of the global economic crisis, and though he was in college studying business administration, he was not overly confident about the job opportunities available to him in-state. So he joined and was not disappointed.

While on active duty he began working on radars, direction-finding antennae and other military communication tools. Working on a hodgepodge of systems and machinery, including some equipment dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, Donga saw the historical roots of communication technology and the interconnectivity between systems. But his job was still for the most part an electrical engineering role – without the command lines or TCP/IP protocols of the contemporary networking landscape.

Donga knew, getting out of the service in 2012, that while he had learned a lot, he had only scratched the surface of networked communications. He continued to work on radars as a military contractor in Iraq, but knew that to take the next step, getting CompTIA certified was a necessity. He took his G.I. Bill to one of the most well-known and proven certification training resources out there – New Horizons.

At the training center’s Southern California location in San Diego, Donga met Tiffany David, senior education consultant, whose personal investment in helping veterans thrive in IT careers was a huge boost to Donga’s civilian career.

David has spent the last seven years at New Horizons making sure that veterans like Donga can take the next step after getting out of the service. The veteran community in San Diego is considerable; the employment challenges it faces, unique. Many who come out of the Navy are technically skilled, but are often be generalists who have dabbled in many areas. The system of ranks and daily tasks performed doesn’t translate directly into civilian job roles. Because of this, veterans constitute a huge swath of job seekers who are highly-skilled but unemployed or underemployed.

“I meet with individuals [who] are interested in increasing their marketability,” David said. “It could be a guy who used to be a network administrator while he was in the military and now he’s flipping burgers because he doesn’t necessarily have the right credentials to get him to the next level.”

Helping veterans pull themselves out of these scenarios and get back on top of their careers is what David does, and she puts her whole heart into it. Getting veterans CompTIA certified is a big part of the process.

David lets prospective New Horizons students know that while certifications are a definite career booster, they’re not to be taken lightly. She doesn’t put aspiring IT professionals into certification training courses blindly. Rather, she meets with them, talks to them, discusses realistic career goals and timelines and works with them on translating their resumes from military lingo into terms that makes sense in the civilian world. She also encourages and facilitates mentorships between aspiring IT pros and those veterans already working in the IT field.

“I meet with them and I assess them,” David said. “I talk with them about what they need to get where they need to go, and I help them design a game plan to get there. I teach them how to hunt.”

Once a student signs on for the learning and the legwork, New Horizons allows for a great deal of flexibility to suit the learning style and schedule of people who may already be employed full time, have families or be otherwise committed.

When Donga walked into David’s office, her no-nonsense career advice resonated with him, and the flexibility New Horizons offered allowed him to study at his own pace. She pointed him towards Network+, and he succeeded. He is now a holder of Network+ and Security+. He has been back to New Horizons numerous times to pursue new certifications, and has never failed a certification exam.

Donga’s first-try success may owe something to a perspective shared by both him and New Horizons. For both, certification is about more than just passing a test – it’s about learning. Certifications validate knowledge and ability. While the credentialing element is invaluable career-wise, Donga said that the knowledge is the most beneficial part of being certified.

Donga has plenty on his plate work-wise at the moment, but he sees more certifications in his future. He is working on networks now, but whatever track of IT he decides to continue down, both the knack for technology he discovered in the Navy and the skills his certification confirm will come in handy.

“One thing I like about IT is if you get tired of what you are doing, you can change and keep all that work experience,” Donga said. “So if I do change [and] want to develop skills in other areas, I’ll definitely start with a CompTIA cert.”

Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and other various topics and industries.

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