How my military background helps companies innovate

If you were to stumble across my biography on Studio Science’s website, you may be confused. It mentions how I’m just getting started in my design career, yet the gray hairs in my photo suggest I’m not exactly a recent college grad. My career path has been one that some may call unconventional, or nontraditional if you must. It’s true. I’ve been in the military. Twice. I speak Arabic and I like to make art. I’m an analytical thinker who loves to be creative. But it’s my unique background that prepared me perfectly for a career in design-thinking and my current role as a senior strategist at Studio Science.

You may be wondering what led me to the military (twice). While I’m a big fan of freedom, I’m not your typical patriot. The truth is, the first time around it was simply because I didn’t think I had anywhere else to go, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was a young kid from Roswell, New Mexico with little to no visible options.

During my first tour, I worked as an Arabic linguist. Basically, I listened to conversations while sitting in an airplane – high above the action – and assessed the real meaning behind all of the words that came through my headsets. It was fascinating for a while, but I will say–you don’t truly understand freedom until you’ve had yours taken away from you for a few years.

So after five years, the artist in me requested some freedom. I returned to school to get my BFA in painting and drawing. Not long after that, the part of my brain that had devoted so much to learning a foreign language asked me to not forget about it. I went to grad school where I continued to study Arabic, spent a summer in Beirut, Lebanon, and learned more about the Middle East. And then, the interpreter in me spoke up again, asking for a little less freedom. I spent a couple more years in the Air Force, this time as an officer, and several more in the Defense Department, as a civilian imagery analyst.

I would be lying if I said being an imagery analyst wasn’t a very cool experience. Similar to my role as a translator, it was a very analytical job. I would look, interpret what I saw on the ground, and relay my thoughts to the right people. But I didn’t get to determine what actions to take based on what I knew – that was for policymakers to decide. And that was the creative part that was missing for me (again).

In terms of my education and my career choices, my life has been marked by two states: having information that I can’t act on, and being creative for creativity’s sake. It’s not always bad, but it is something I’ve felt the need to reconcile professionally. Call it “creativity you can act on.” Since returning to school to learn about design thinking, and finding a place at Studio Science, I think I’ve finally struck a balance.

The analysis work I was doing in the military isn’t much different from the work I do now (though lives aren’t necessarily on the line now). Those were qualitative analytical exercises where I listened to a lot of people or looked at a lot of images and thought about what it meant. What was the bigger picture? What was important, and what wasn’t? Instead of just counting tanks on the ground and relaying they were there, I would get to the deeper meaning behind their presence. At Studio Science, I talk to clients and conduct similar qualitative research. But the difference between what I did then and what I do now, is that I can set policy; I can help come up with creative solutions to the “problems” we uncover with our clients. For the longest time, I couldn’t reconcile high speed soldier Rob with laidback, creative Rob. Until now.

In the military, you get to see a lot of stuff you’d never normally see. For better or worse. I was able to travel to and live in a lot of different places and see a lot of different things. These types of experiences have a way of providing you with a broader perspective, instilling a level of curiosity, and undeniably help open your mind. In my work now, I find that perspective and curiosity is invaluable. When I work with clients, I need to be able to frame their problem, which means being able to articulate it appropriately. You can’t come up with a solution until you know the problem, but you can’t always frame it properly until you can take a step back and change your perspective. I ask a lot of questions, and listen intently to the answers, because I think people know their own problems better than anyone else. Sometimes, they just need a little help uncovering them. And unlike my time in the military, now I get to help them create meaningful solutions.

While I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and it wasn’t without its challenges, I’ll always be grateful for those years I spent in the military. It opened up the world to this kid from small town USA, while broadening my perspective, and expanding how I think in a way I never knew possible. It also led me to where I am today. 

Not everyone’s path is the same, but I believe it’s my varied experiences that enable me to better understand the experiences of others. And while my biography may tell you I’m just getting started in my design career, the truth is, the ingredients have always been there. But now, everything has come together. For my clients, I listen, I look, I assess, and I create better experiences. That’s the heart of design thinking, and that’s what we do at Studio Science. I hope we’ll get a chance to work together.

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