When barbed wire, ammo cans, and dirt get you to Microsoft

May 10, 2018   |  

Britney O’Dell came to Microsoft sprinkled with a fine layer of dirt.

Call it grit.

It first blew over her in the deserts of southern Arizona, where she could have easily lost her way as the lone person who believed she could climb out of her no-exit town.

She collected more when, on her first day of Marine Corps boot camp, her drill instructor, in a stern voice, proclaimed to everyone that she would be the first to quit.

She lined her pockets with more grit when, just after landing her dream job at Microsoft, there was a reorg and her job was eliminated.

Never one to give up, each time O’Dell dusted herself off, always leaning on her military training and her hardy soul.

“We were trained to prepare for the unexpected,” she says. “You never know what you’re going to face on the battlefield. I feel like that’s a metaphor you can apply to your life—you have to treat life like it’s a battlefield. When something happens to you, you can’t dwell on it. You have to find clarity somewhere in there and keep pushing.”

That early attention at boot camp?

“If anything, I just got stronger at a faster rate,” she says. “I was getting used to intensity.”

Each step of the way, she held true to a promise she made to herself when she was very young—no matter what, she was going to get an education and make something of herself. It was her ticket to happiness.

Charting her path

O’Dell grew up in sand-blown Casa Grande, Arizona, lodged in the desert halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. Everyone who knew her knew she had a lot of potential and they didn’t want her to make a mistake that would jeopardize her future. Like the landscape, her family was broken.

“My father was never in the picture, and my mom would come and go. I know she wanted what was best for me and did her best to make that happen,” O’Dell says. “Thankfully, I had my amazing grandparents who were able to step in and help with the parental guidance.”

Strong role models were in short supply.

“I was learning from all the mistakes I noticed from those around me,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want my life to take a turn in the wrong direction, not ever making something of my life.”

College was the way out, but how? Money was scarce, and so was help.

Powered by a strong work ethic and a love of math, she enrolled in community college. She paid her way with scholarships and her job as a bookkeeper at her local grocer, where she started working when she was 16. She moved out on her own at age 18, working eight hours each morning and taking classes each afternoon.

O’Dell got her associate degree, but she soon ran out of money and classes to take without moving away and enrolling at a university. With credit card debt mounting, she had to do something. Fearing she was about to dead-end, she made a pivotal decision that would guide the rest of her life, including her journey to Microsoft.

“The only way I could think of making it out of where I grew up was to join the military,” she says. “I would get help earning a college degree, and what better way to do it than serve my country?”

Sharpness of focus and the ability to deal with ambiguity make veterans like O’Dell great Microsoft employees, says Carol Hedly, program director for a Microsoft program that trains and helps place military service members and veterans in technology jobs at companies like Microsoft.

“They have high-level learning ability,” Hedly says. “Growth mindset is in their DNA. They are constantly training, constantly learning, constantly looking to improve things. They’re also great collaborators. They are taught to look left, look right. They are taught to deal with ambiguity. They are relentless in the persistence to identify solutions and create opportunities.”

When Microsoft says it wants to hire people with a diverse array of backgrounds, it’s so it can bring people like O’Dell here, says James Gagnon, who hired O’Dell to her second Microsoft job.

“It’s got to be her focus and determination,” says Gagnon, a senior software engineering lead. “She’s relentlessly thorough. She wants to understand what success looks like and the impact that she’s having. She’s very proactive at making sure her work is complete and making sure she meets expectations.”

Britney O'Dell in military fatigues
Britney O’Dell served in the Marine Corps for four years, rising to the rank of sergeant and leading a unit of 12 Marines. Training runs like this were one of the many ways she was challenged to improve herself.

Booting boot camp

If you’re going to sign on the dotted line, O’Dell remembers thinking, if you’re going to test your mettle in the armed services, you might as well go big. You might as well sign up for the Marine Corps.

She knew she was going to be pushed to the limit. She knew boot camp was going to be hard. But still, the harshness of it shocked her.

“The senior drill instructor sat us down,” she says. “I remember her looking at me, asking me to stand up. She had everyone look at me. ‘Remember her face,’ she said. ‘She’s not going to make it. She’s the first one who’s going to fail.’”

O’Dell bore the brunt of the instructors’ wrath for two weeks, until they grudgingly let up and life normalized into rugged training—running, lugging 45-pound ammo cans across gritty fields, low crawling under barbwire, carrying “wounded” fellow Marines on her back while under simulated enemy fire, and more running. She was also learning to make decisions under pressure, training on a specialty (for O’Dell it was managing the complicated supply chain that kept her military base working), learning how to read people, and many other life skills.

O’Dell quickly established herself, rising to the rank of sergeant, and was leading a unit of 12 Marines by the time her four-year commitment to the Marines finished. Her officers wanted her to stay in, but she had promised herself that she would use her time in the military as stepping stone toward getting her engineering degree in college.

Along the way, she got wind of the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy (MSSA), an 18-week program designed to help transitioning service members and veterans prepare for careers in technology. More information on MSSA is available at http://military.microsoft.com/mssa. O’Dell signed up, taking a series of courses to prep her for working at a company like Microsoft.

O’Dell’s class was trained in cloud server and system administration. She excelled in the program, turning it into a job interview at Microsoft, which in turn led to her landing a job as a service manager for the company’s supply chain process.

“When I joined, it was challenging,” O’Dell says. “It wasn’t the first time I started a job I didn’t know anything about. I thought the military had a lot of acronyms, Microsoft had way more. Learning the new terminology and finding the right place to jump in, build a foundation, and build upon that was the toughest part. It felt like everyone around me was running when I was still learning how to walk.”

Her job was to ensure that the processes behind delivering Microsoft products to customers was seamless.

“If something ever disrupted that process, I would gather all the details behind what went wrong and make sure the issue was mitigated or a permanent fix was implemented, getting the confirmation that the customer was no longer impacted,” she says.

When the job got difficult, she fell back the leadership skills she honed leading teams of diverse people and personalities in the Marines.

“I wasn’t afraid to ask questions,” she says.

Going in a different direction

Three months in, the supply chain group was reorganized, and her role was eliminated. An unexpected meeting, getting called into a room, and being told, “we’re going a different direction, here’s your severance package.”

“That was a little scary,” O’Dell says, but not something she couldn’t handle. “I’m not mad about it. I know it’s life—it could happen at any job.”

Thankfully, there was a robust process for helping her find a new job at Microsoft. She reached out to her community at MSSA, where a mentor helped her get interviews for other Microsoft roles.

“A former Marine veteran I met while working in my first job reached out to me and mentored me during the search for a new role,” O’Dell says. “There were other individuals who stepped in and helped with the job search as well—each played a small part that got me closer and closer to the position I have today. I’m grateful to everyone who helped.”

She ended up getting a job in Core Services Engineering and Operations, a software engineering role that she had applied for after graduating from the MSSA program. It’s a security role that she still holds today, helping make the Microsoft payee management system secure.

“It’s actually pretty cool,” she says. “I’ve made an important impact and learned new skills I didn’t think would come this soon—focusing on security has taken my career in a direction I didn’t see coming.”

Getting out of her small town, being underestimated in boot camp, and having her first job taken out from under her hasn’t held O’Dell back. She has paid off all her debts, she is working in a field that she loves, and most importantly, she’s fulfilling her promise to herself to get her education.

She’s taking courses at Bellevue College on her way to getting her degree. “I’m acing the courses,” she says. “I don’t plan to stop.”