Warren Neal storms through a door, swings his gun left, right, then signals “all clear” before securing a radio signal. Four years later, his brother David soars above Iraq, retrofitting a helicopter with advanced communication technology. Today, Warren and David are on a new mission: building on their experience in the U.S. Army with Cisco Networking Academy courses and learning to thrive in the civilian workforce.
Its 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in Saginaw, Michigan, and most NetSource One employees are just rolling out of bed. Not Warren and David. They’re in the office, eager to configure advanced routers and switches under the guidance of NetSource One CIO Ed French.
“When we first got the job, we worked with Ed every morning,” Warren said. “He designed labs based off of our skills to give us real-world experience.” As military veterans who worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, Warren and David knew that success would not come easy. “We were willing to put in the time for the knowledge,” David said, even if that meant waking up 5 days a week before sunrise.
Warren and David didn’t start learning about cabling and routers in a classroom or at NetSource One; their first hands-on experience came as networking specialists in Iraq.
Warren joined the military in 2004 hoping to become an infantryman, but went in a different direction after failing a colorblindness test. “My choice of jobs went from 200 to 5,” Warren said. “Radio communications operator was one of them, and that’s what I chose.”
On his first 12-month deployment in 2005, Warren served on the battalion commander’s personal security team, handling radio communications for 4 Humvees traveling from base to base. “The radios stayed up for 6 months,” he said. “I never let a radio go down.” The impressive feat earned Warren letters of recommendation, and he was assigned to a rapid-response team for 6 months as the communications lead.
During his second deployment, from 2007 to 2008, Warren maintained phone systems and networks for a technology control center. Located in the midst of the battlefield, the center was constantly under attack and often forced into radio silence. “We were always changing antennas because they were getting shot by insurgents,” Warren said. “I was told by the brigade commander when to go into blackout mode” to protect the base from attackers.
David, inspired by his older brother, shipped off to Iraq only 3 months after graduating high school. There, he was immediately drawn to the Black Hawks, the Army’s front-line combat helicopters. He began installing communication systems onboard, providing commanding generals the ability to relay strategies across the war-torn battlefield in real-time. “I flew around with different generals, saw their missions, and held various types of communications with the entire country,” David said.
Both Warren and David joined the military to serve their country, but knew they would need to pursue a career in the civilian world once their tours were over. When they returned to American soil, Davenport University instructors trained to work with military personnel were waiting for them with open arms in Michigan.
It's 7 p.m. at Davenport, and Warren and David are hyper-focused on their Cisco Networking Advanced Routing course. It’s just one of the many Cisco Networking Academy courses that Davenport offers at campuses across the state to help veterans transition to the civilian workforce. Aphrodite Jones, associate dean for the College of Technology, values the knowledge and experience that veterans offer upon returning from duty.
“We’re known for the support that we provide military veterans,” Aphrodite said. “One immediate benefit is that we can provide them transfer credits for work they’ve already done while in the military.”
Because both Warren and David had been network specialists in Iraq, they started their Davenport education with more than 15 credits, representing more than a semester’s worth of work. With such a strong base of knowledge, the brothers immediately caught the eye of their professor Lonnie Decker, department chair of Networking Technology and Information Assurance.
“They stand out because they’re professional,” Lonnie said. “They come into class, listen to the lecture, and apply themselves every day.” The brothers are currently in their third and final year at Davenport, taking advantage of Cisco Networking Academy courses that will prepare them to succeed in the information and communications technology (ICT) field.
Veterans often have trouble adjusting to civilian life after returning to the U.S. Many have a hard time translating their military experience to something that will resonate with hiring managers, but Davenport is making it easier for students like Warren and David. As one of Military Times’ 30 most military-friendly schools in the United States, Davenport was the perfect destination for the brothers.
Department advisors and counselors have been trained to work with service members, and some also have served in the military. Through programs like the “Buddy to Buddy” system, veterans already on campus help new students transition into the program. In the classroom and labs, Cisco curriculum is helping students like Warren and David learn the ICT skills that will help them succeed in the new economy.
“Cisco has provided a really good curriculum that equips students with foundational knowledge,” Aphrodite said. “There’s no shortage of technology to learn and if they know Cisco, we can get them in and out as quickly as possible.”
After about 8 months at Davenport, David attended a career fair on campus. There, he met Stacy Kulhanek and Andy Skrzypczak, of NetSource One, along with the company’s service manager and president. This turned into a second interview with CIO Ed French, a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE).
“After we talked, we wanted to bring on David,” Ed said. “He had a good presence, he was confident, and he had the ability to learn the things we needed him to learn.” NetSource One is a technology solution company that provides cabling, data center solutions, managed services, VoIP, and networking to hundreds of clients in Michigan. Six months later, Warren also interviewed with Ed and was hired to join his brother at NetSource One.
“The courses at Davenport are good for giving you the base knowledge,” Warren said. “When I got the job, I put those same skills to use and everything started clicking.” At NetSource One, Warren is a communications engineer and cable team lead, where he oversees everything from installing the proper hardware to working directly with clients onsite. David is also a communications engineer, working on router and switch configuration, onsite installation, and firewall protection. The brothers are completing their bachelor’s degree coursework with Davenport at night while working full time.
Like his brother, David recognizes the value in the Cisco courses he’s taken at Davenport. “In the Cisco labs, you learn a lot of theory and understand the concepts,” he said. “When I go to work, I touch 5 to 15 networks a day and have the base knowledge to fix the equipment myself.”
A U.S. Air Force veteran himself, Ed understands the value of giving veterans the tools to succeed in the workforce. About 20 percent of NetSource One’s workforce is veterans, including 8 who took Davenport’s Networking Academy coursework. “We look for veterans because they’re more dedicated, more reliable, and they handle adverse situations better. If a network fails during a call, David and Warren have the ability to work under pressure and get the job done.”
From the beginning, Warren and David have almost been inseparable. “I can’t believe I get to work with my brother,” David said. “We understand how each other works and what we know.”
“We spend a good bit of time together,” Warren said. “Being apart for 6 years while we were in the military brought us closer.”
In the military, the brothers hardly had “off days.” Warren was on patrol 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, and little has changed. Today, if he is not installing routers at one of NetSource One’s 1000 client locations, he is in a classroom, with David by his side.
And when they wake up the next day, they’ll be back at work by 6:30 a.m., inspiring each other to succeed at NetSource One and beyond. “There’s always something you can learn from someone else, and we’re willing to put in the time for that knowledge,” Warren said.