By Sean Caswell
I got into the data management and analysis business almost by accident. After I left the Navy in 2003, I was working as a power plant operator for General Electric (GE), doing what I was trained to do in the Navy: operating and maintaining power generation equipment. It was a great, well-‐paying career, that is, if you don’t mind doing the same thing for thirty years.
My role as a shift supervisor and lead operator was the highest position I was likely to attain at GE. With more than twenty-‐five years left until I expected to retire, I found this unacceptable.I understood my primary limitation; I didn’t have a college degree.
Rather than attend college after high school, I chose to join and serve in the Navy. I had taken a few classes at Lansing Community College and Grand Rapids Community College here and there, but the amount of tuition assistance available never quite allowed me to leave my job and go to school full time.
This all changed in 2009 thanks to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill allowed me to leave my career in power generation and return to school. It made it not only possible,but also made it almost foolish not to return to academia and obtain my degree.This time, I wasn’t limited to community college. I could attend a Big Ten university and get enough assistance to cover living expenses while doing so.
It was a life-‐changer.
My original intent was to obtain an engineering degree,as that was what most of my training and experience had been. Stationed on the ballistic missile submarine, the USS MAINE, I served in the Auxiliary Division as a Machinist Mate 2nd Class. I operated and maintained the atmosphere control equipment, hydraulic sand diesel engine, to name a few responsibilities. The MAINE was home for me during seven strategic deterrent patrols spanning from 1998 to 2003, after which I was honorably discharged.
While choosing which engineering program to pursue at Michigan State University, despite my GE and Navy experiences, I found myself leaning away from mechanical and electrical engineering and more toward applied engineering. I had started to think more in terms of the operation of a business, and less in terms of actual design work. The program I had my eyes on combined mechanical engineering and business.
The program solved an issue that many standard degree programs ignore: engineers do not always understand business and business people do not always understand engineering. MSU’s Applied Engineering Sciences (AES) trains students in both. The program also satisfied another interest of mine: statistics. As essential and “buzzwordy” as it is, few people fully understand the usefulness of statistics, yet every successful company uses them on a daily basis.
In talking with some like-‐minded people at MSU about internship opportunities, I found that many of them had been doing analytics for a local company, Jackson National Life Insurance. Through the encouragement of my peers, I applied fora new internship position at Jackson and subsequently accepted the offer to join the team.
At Jackson, I learned a great deal about how the operations of an insurance company are run and analyzed. I found that the executives were relying more and more on the data streaming into the company from various sources. The problem was finding people who could manipulate that data. Extracting useful pieces from an ocean of information can be a daunting task, but to someone who enjoys computers, programming and making sense of gigantic piles of nonsense, it can actually be quite fun. As you can imagine, those people are not that common and I began to see a much larger need for this new skill I was honing.
A long-time friend and occasional co-worker and I chatted frequently about those skills I was sharpening at Jackson. He had just started a data management business, Superior Data Strategies. Our conversations flowed organically into the potential business prospects for our combined skills and soon enough, Aaron approached me with an opportunity to help him grow his business. I accepted and have thoroughly enjoyed working with Superior Data Strategies ever since. I have never had a job that I consider more fun or exciting than my time at SDS.
My training and abilities to visualize, analyze and maintain extremely complicated systems have come in handy when working in large, complex data systems. I was only able to make the leap from power generation to data analysis and administration because of my background and the opportunities that both the G.I. Bill and MSU afforded me. Sometimes fate intervenes, but life gives us the tools we need to take advantage of when it does.
About the Author
Former Machinist Mate 2nd Class Sean Caswell (Auxiliary Division, USS MAINE) recently joined Superior Data Strategies in Lansing, Michigan, after obtaining an Applied Engineering Degree from Michigan State University thanks to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. His story offers inspiration to transitioning and former military who are considering a career change.