Corporate Social Responsibility

Impact Story: U.S. Veteran Matt Heffler

From Helicopter Mechanic to Systems Engineer

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When Matt Heffler enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2004, he was 17 and the nation was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Matt is among the veterans hired by Cisco as part of the 100,000 Jobs Mission, a coalition of U.S. businesses committed to hiring 100,000 veterans by 2020.

Matt HefflerHe was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, became a helicopter mechanic, and deployed to Iraq for 6 months. During his service, he injured both knees and required surgery, underscoring the physical rigors of his job. He was honorably discharged for medical reasons in 2007 and began considering what his civilian career would be.

“Being a helicopter mechanic didn’t really translate well into the real world,” Matt explains. “I was working on tac recon [tactical reconnaissance] helicopters in 24-hour, 7-day-a-week mission critical-type deployments, and I don’t know how to translate that back to civilian life, so I decided it was time to change my career.”

Quite quickly, his thoughts turned toward the technology industry.

“Like everybody else, I just liked gadgets,” he says. “After having two reasonably sized knee surgeries I thought it was time to transition to something I liked doing in my own free time, and that happened to be building computers, building out networks and making things communicating with one another.”

But while Matt found these subjects interesting, he lacked formal training or a deep foundational understanding of them. So he began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information technology (IT) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, one of the nation’s top schools for engineering and math.

Where Theory and Practice Collide

In his sophomore year at RPI, Matt began taking the Cisco Networking Academycourses offered there and developed an affinity for network engineering. 

“It became very interesting very quickly, and I based my whole curriculum around it,” he says. “All of my computer science classes were network based. I realized the next step was to become a [Cisco] CCIE or an expert-level network engineer, and the Networking Academy really put me in a good position.”

Matt says the Networking Academy courses also provided the “practical implementation and real world deployment that you don’t really see when studying for your bachelor’s degree” and was a “perfect complement to my theoretical courses.”

During his last semester at RPI, Matt began his job search and found that many companies were interested in the combination of theoretical and hands-on experience he possessed.

“Cisco Networking Academy prepares anyone to build a solid life in a high growth career, and [for returning veterans like me] it provides extra opportunity to those that need it the most,” he says.

He received several offers but accepted a spot in a one-year “pre-sales” program at Cisco designed to complement his technical knowledge with business acumen. He rotated through several different areas, learning about different Cisco technologies, equipment, services, and solutions.

Persistence Pay Off

After the yearlong program was over, Cisco hired Matt as a virtual systems engineer focused on routing and switching. Working out of Cisco’s Research Triangle Park, North Carolina office, he provides support to customers, partners, and field sales teams worldwide who need help designing, building, and maintaining network architectures.

Matt is among dozens of veterans hired at Cisco in recent months as part of the company’s participation in the 100,000 Jobs Mission, a coalition of U.S. businesses committed to hiring 100,000 veterans by 2020.

At Cisco, Matt has found a welcoming environment for veterans. “Everybody is willing to help and there is a large veteran community,” he says. “I got on the phone with a vice president the other day just because I wanted to get some insight. He is a veteran, we share an alma mater, and I asked him for 30 minutes of his time to tell me where he thought technology was going and how I could contribute.”

He advises other veterans who are trying to find a foothold in the civilian workforce to be self-reliant, persistent, and to think ahead. 

“I think a lot of people start to feel apathetic after dealing with the discharge paperwork and then trying to get veterans benefits to go back to school, or maybe the job-finding process isn’t as smooth as you thought it would be. Just keep moving. Never accept substandard quality in anything you are doing.”

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“Cisco Networking Academy prepares anyone to build a solid life in a high growth career, and [for returning veterans like me] it provides extra opportunity to those that need it the most."
— Matt Heffler