10 November 2015

How basic military training prepared Me to be a tech start-up CEO

Most people I work with don't know I served in the army - that's me with a Carl Gustav 84mm rifle at the CFB Suffield Range in 1988. Unfortunately, this is one of the only photos I have of me in uniform, it was an era or two before selfies and digital cameras.

I don't hide the fact I was in the military, but I don't go out of my way to promote it either. It's not that I'm not proud of my service, because I am, I just know a lot of folks that served more than I have, and have given more than I have. My service pales by comparison.

Everyone who has ever served in the military all start out the same way: Basic Military Training (BMT). My basic training began in the spring of 86 and what started as a hair cut, looking snappy in a uniform and learning how to march up and down the square, quickly became a very intensive test of mind and body.

There are plenty of movies that depict the typical screaming Drill Seargent, demeaning the troops and calling them useless worms or maggots. While some of these fictional accounts of this character and his expletive-laced encouragements are slightly exaggerated, most are not. I was called both a worm and a maggot, sometimes on the same march. We were beaten down by Master Corporals, who took turns in making every waking moment an exercise in endurance and resilience.

Basic Military Training is a grueling experience, it is nothing like the twice-a-week boot camps you can pay for to showcase your yoga pants, those give actual boot camp a bad name. BMT is physically hard and mentally challenging. There is a mix of class room time, parade square time and field time and it escalates, in every sense. Just when you think you are getting the hang of something, they up the ante and whatever you're learning becomes more difficult. I cannot stress the fact that it is an ass-whooping both mentally and physically. But, there were other factors that contributed to life during BMT in the 80's as well, the world outside of CFB Currie was a very different place.

Keep in mind, this was almost 30 years ago and some of my memories may be a bit faded, no more faded than the old gear we received as new recruits. I swear some of the gear we got was from the 50's. In fact, I know that our weapons were. We were issued FNC1 battle rifles and I remember what I said the first time I held it, "how old is this thing?". It had a wooden butt, stock and forestock and it had a bayonet stub. ...for a bayonet. A bayonet?? Are we getting geared up for the Crimean War? Don't get me wrong, everything was in fine working order and well maintained but it felt like we were going back in time.

In the mid-80's there was a number of war movies in popular culture - think First Blood, Red Dawn and the like. The cold war was still on and most civilians didn't care too much for army folk. I would go so far to say that we were shunned both by civilians and by the ruling government. This made it easy for the government to cut funding to the forces, because there was no real public support for the military and over the previous 20 years, Canada had established itself in the role of 'peacekeeper' internationally. This was a role I was happy to fill by the way, but one that didn't necessarily require the latest in equipment as far as the politicians were concerned. As a result, the Canadian Forces were the punchline in many jokes back then. Not a great time to join the forces.

What we faced off the base, would best be described as awkward interactions with the public. We would go for lunch occasionally to a local McDonald's in our combat uniforms - people would almost look down at us, as if we had no place to be there. This feeling was common in public, we felt at home on the base but like outsiders amongst the people we enlisted to protect and serve. It is so different nowadays, there is a huge sentimental attachment to military, the public is very supportive and with that, the dollars to adequately fund the troops with newish rifles, Mercedes trucks and actual camouflage uniforms. Military personnel today would have a real tough time understanding exactly how it was in the 80's.

In the army, in BMT, there is no forgiveness, no leeway, no alternatives to what you have been told to do. If you are told to stand at attention for 10 minutes, then that's what you do, it's what the entire unit did. If you didn't last, you would drop and do 20 push ups and the clock restarted. If someone in the unit breaks the hold, it happens again, until everyone completes the 10 minutes at attention. Now 10 minutes does not sound like a long time, but stand still, heels together, arms at your side, chin up... now hold that for 10 minutes and tell me 10 minutes isn't an eternity. This may seem like a trivial assignment, and it is, and it's not even that hard when you do it yourself, but get a group to do this and see where things begin to fall apart. While concentrating on this menial task, each minute contains so many thoughts, mostly about who is going to move and cause everyone to do push ups again but also about how much longer is this going to take and why are we even doing this. The thing is, it didn't matter if you were at attention and didn't flinch, if one of the other recruits flinched, you all paid. The meant your actions were paid for by everyone. This could go on for an entire day. There's a lot of things go through your mind when you're standing rigid as a post for 5 minutes, like 'I'm gonna kill the next person who makes us start over again.'

The most push ups I did in one of these exercises was 120 in a row - it was a small cocky group of us that were unassigned for work one summer at CFB Dundurn, we were mostly trying to show the master corporal that we could go all day playing his game. Was a stupid way to protest, but we were 18 and didn't really think things all the way through. I am told that they are not allowed to make recruits do pushups anymore, or call them maggots. Or worms.

While standing at attention appears to be a pointless task, the repeated punishment and do overs until it has been completed in unison forms a bond that all soldiers eventually share; teamwork. Everyone in your unit was your team. Never, ever let your buddy down. This was instilled in many other ways and all methods of instilling this were as draining and with impact and result. This has worked for eons in training troops for battle and is something you never forget.

I remember being excited for our first field exercise, we got to carry our rifles and rucksacks and headed out into the woods for a few nights. Hell, who doesn't like camping? This is where we learned how to make a bivouac. Not much use when you're on a continuous march for 2 days and 2 nights so although we stopped to make a bivouac, it was just to learn how to make one, not to actually use it. The march was designed to teach us map reading in the dark with no sleep, while under the threat of assault from enemies. We walked up and down hills, through plains and woods in silence for over 24 hours with no sleep. We would stop sporadically for moments at a time and I would fall asleep while taking a knee, the muzzle of a rifle in my back was my wake up call and we were marching again. Got my 15 seconds of sleep in, I was good for a few more kilometers. It was in these marches that you really noticed the difference in temperatures between the valleys and the hilltops, you notice the subtleties of things when your senses are heightened through sleep deprivation. Being mentally alert was key to keep going, you needed not only to be able to push your body, but push your mind - you couldn't let your unit down.

When your mind and body are tired, it becomes hard to function. Like anything though, conditional training over time and repeated exposure to the same conditions results in being able to operate under duress, stress and fatigue. With enough practice, you can actually become pretty good at it.

Sure, we learned a lot of things in basic training a lot of things I will never use again, like how to get out of a building filled with tear gas, how to dismantle, clean and assemble an SMG, how to march up and down the square, how to dress a sucking chest wound, how to build a bivouac and how to follow orders. I was a good soldier and for an anti-establishment, anti-authority type person, I managed to finish second out of about 40 original recruits, under 30 actually completed the course.

I look back at those days with great fondness, there isn't anything I wouldn't do for any one of the guys (and gals) in my unit, even after all these years. I am proud I got to stand still for 10 minutes many, many times beside each of them. But mostly, I am thankful for what I learned, because the skills I learned so many years ago have proven to be of high value over and over again as a start up CEO.

The army prepared my body and my mind for battle, to be mentally and physically tough. Each day in a tech start up is a battle, a fight to make your idea come to fruition. Being the CEO in a tech start up requires a mental toughness and resilience like no other job. There are mental challenges and physical stresses beyond that of any other thing I've done. And, there are times when it feels like every possible force is working against what you are working towards and it's times like those when you know it's easy to give up, a lot of folks do, ...but not when you're trained to fight.

"We shall never surrender." - Sir Winston Churchill

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