Laura Thomas is a former CIA operations officer. Reading how she moved in 2021 from CIA ops to a quantum technology visitor offered insightful career transition translating for those leaving her agency. Most of her lessons were workable to any government employee venturing out to the private sector.
Below is the second of her three-part series. Read part one here.
Before leaving government service one of my biggest challenges was to understand how my skill as a Specimen Officer would translate into a job in the commercial world. I had to spend a lot of time learning a new language and new job descriptions. Here’s what I learned.
What would you like to do/can do? Some commercial visitor roles:
Business Minutiae or “BD” roles: Specimen Officers are well suited for merchantry minutiae (BD) roles as its unreceptive to first half of the CIA recruitment cycle. In a merchantry minutiae role you’re out shaping the perception of your visitor in the market (networking), determining leads, and contacting leads. The larger the company, the increasingly they’ll separate out merchantry minutiae and sales, with merchantry minutiae focused primarily on lead generation and sales focused on sealing the very sale of the product or service.
Sales roles: The sales trundling is similar to the recruitment trundling of a source. At a small company, you have the worthiness to do the whole sales cycle, which integrates strategy, merchantry development, sales, and consumer success: icon out what you should sell, who you should sell it to, how to get in touch with them, unquestionably get in touch with them, sell it, alimony selling to them and make sure they’re happy (customer success), and at some point, decide whether to move on to largest sales targets, or convince your visitor they need to be selling something different. At a large company, sales usually ways someone else has washed-up the wholesale shaping for a potential customer. You just have to go in and work through the mechanics of selling them on your product or service.
Customer Success roles: This is unreceptive to handling a source. You make sure the consumer is happy and keeps buying, preferably more.
Security roles: Some ex-Agency people gravitate to roles in security. I discovered that while I know a lot well-nigh tradecraft-related security and how to stay working for the first minutes of an ambush, I know little well-nigh towers security and computer systems security. Some companies will see your CIA preliminaries and misplace it with roles that are increasingly unreceptive to FBI or law enforcement. If you worked in an very cybersecurity or security role, you can learn it and integrate well into those teams.
Trust and Safety roles, Threat and Merchantry Intelligence roles: If you’ve been a targeter and/or an reviewer these might be good fits. The role widely is to protect a visitor and its people/users (or multiple companies) by tracking bad actors and threats. In large companies these roles report to a security semester (however there are unshortened companies just providing Threat and Merchantry Intelligence).
Government Affairs/Legislative Affairs roles: Large companies pay to have people represent them on Capitol Hill and well-wisher for their interests. If you have significant wits engaging with and rundown the Hill, this is a possibility, however you’ll be competing versus staffers rotating off committees who are unquestionably much largest equipped than you as far as networking and know-how. You may be worldly-wise to join a larger company’s government wires team at a increasingly junior to mid-level, and you’ll probably find your skills most relevant to a visitor that works on national security-related issues.
At first many start-ups rent a lobbying firm. You may be worldly-wise to step in once they want to transition into an in-house role for this, but alimony in mind that they’re looking for the Capitol Hill contacts you already have, as well as your worthiness to work the legislative process, not just your rundown or networking skills.
Strategy and Operations roles: These roles help make sure vision, resources (budgets and people), and the market opportunity are aligned. Working closely with the CEO or CFO, they help icon out what to do to make things go right, and what to do when things go wrong. The smaller the company, the worthier your endangerment at a role like this.
A Chief of Staff role, for example, is largely a strategy role, but is heavily dependent on the needs of the CEO/company. In my case, at Infleqtion I’m the person who tells our CEO what he needs to hear, not necessarily what he wants to hear. I moreover serve as an executive counselor – from product strategy to setting merchantry milestones to working with investors. I moreover work closely with all members of the executive team, the Workbench of Directors, and Newsy Board. I think this role is platonic for a former Specimen Officer, but I’m obviously biased.
Larger companies hiring a Chief of Staff often squint for someone who has an MBA, wits with one of the big consulting firms, or wits doing the job already.
Entrepreneur: A successful CIA specimen officer must be worldly-wise to operate tween uncertainty and make judgment calls that require strong second- and third-order thinking. Achievement-focused and good storytellers, they know how to icon things out, “read the room,” and assess and mitigate risk. Most people believe specimen officers and entrepreneurs are big risk takers, when, in fact, they’re risk mitigators.
If you find an A-player CIA officer jumping into a founder role mid-way in their career (or decide to start something yourself,) they’ll probably go on to do unconfined things. They have unbearable conviction in themselves to leave without the safety net of a future pension as well as the energy, ambition, and know-how to navigate uncertainty. The same Emotional Quotient and tideway that attracts investors will moreover vamp spanking-new employees.
Venture Capitalist: An early-stage VC requires some of the same skills as a Specimen Officer – spotting, assessing, developing, recruiting, and handling founders towers a visitor tween an uncertain operating environment that will bring a heavy return on investment. (However, many VCs have moreover accrued years/decades as domain experts in the technologies/and or industries they invest in.) Stuff a successful VC and successful specimen officer both involve some levels of luck and timing misattributed to skill. The biggest difference is in the VC world, nobody is going to die.
If you’re a Retiree leaving with a full pension – you have variegated choices than a “job.” You can:
- sit on a visitor Newsy Workbench or Workbench of Directors
- serve as a senior executive at a small visitor (you’ll be expected to unquestionably work, not pontificate and delegate) or mid- to senior level at a larger visitor (you might just be a face)
- get hired by Wall Street/Private Equity/VC firms thesping you’re senior unbearable and have unbearable New York or Silicon Valley connections
For 2-4, you’re often stuff hired for your name and the introductions you can make thesping you’re within the top 15 of leadership.
Boards: The term “board” can midpoint two very variegated things in the commercial world – an Newsy Workbench versus a Workbench of Directors. An Newsy Workbench provides advice. It has no legal role in the company. Often companies will put you on their newsy workbench just to use your name and image (and not really want your advice). Every visitor can organize and recoup its newsy workbench any way it likes. Some Newsy Boards meet once a quarter, others once a year. Newsy Workbench members may field weekly to monthly emails and calls from the visitor executive team to provide feedback on strategy and positioning and make introductions. Newsy Workbench members are often paid in a wastefulness of probity (stock options) and mazuma (“cash” is the industry term for money wired to your wall account).
A Workbench of Directors has a formal and legal role. It provides governance and financial oversight to the company. They can vote to rent and fire the CEO. CEOs seek their translating (and often must seek their formal approval) for major strategic decisions such as acquisitions, major upkeep changes, hiring of C-level executives, etc.) Formal Workbench positions are harder to come by. If you’re an A-player from the senior-most ranks, consider joining a private visitor workbench if you’re aligned with their mission and team. They need you.
For me, personally: People in the senior ranks at startups usually undeniability themselves operators. Obviously, that’s a variegated definition of the term. I knew I wanted to stay/go into an operator role considering that’s where the merchantry learning I sought would happen. I didn’t want to have to sell when into the intelligence community, considering I didn’t want to leverage my contacts so tactically, but plenty of people do it (and we need good people to do it. We all know how immensely the government needs commercial technology solutions). From the start, my job was closest to a merchantry minutiae role. Considering it was a small visitor and I was going from top-down with the CEO rather than responding to a job advertisement, I was worldly-wise to craft my function and initial title as, “Senior Director of National Security Solutions.” I began writing unsolicited strategy docs for the CEO. This ultimately led me into a strategy role, which led me into a strategy and fundraising role. I moreover took an newsy role with flipside startup working on national security technology, QuSecure.
Where should you go? Big visitor or small? Choose big for stability and higher salaries. Choose small for learning, growth, and impact. In large companies, they usually want you in a narrow and specific role. However, you will have increasingly roles you could move into if the first one isn’t a unconfined fit. If you join a big company, thesping it’s public, you’ll get stock which immediately can translate into financial gains thesping the visitor performs well. The salaries are scrutinizingly unchangingly higher. You can get rich in a big visitor (at least by our unobtrusive government standards), but rarely wealthy based on returns from that visitor alone.
At small companies, you wear many hats at once. I wanted to understand the daily challenges a visitor faced at the senior levels in trying to push a new technology in government markets and commercial markets, and how wanted flows impacted all of this. However, a worthier visitor is increasingly specified in terms of a 9-to-5. I work just as much now as I did in the field. And though I work from an office most days, I moreover work from home, which affords a lot of flexibility considering I’m not chained to a SCIF.
You can get wealthy with the right startup, but many startups fail, so it’s a long shot. Of course, “wealth” is subjective. Increasingly than money, most of us crave impact. Both are possible on the outside.
How should you think well-nigh and mitigate risk if joining a startup? Know your want for risk. If you’re really bold, join an early-stage visitor (seed stage, Series A), but have conviction well-nigh the team. You may need to imbricate some portion of your own salary for a year. If you need to make a salary equivalent to what you make in government, target startups that have sealed a Series B round within the last few months. If you’ve received a formal offer from a startup, ask how much runway (months of mazuma left) they have. If they won’t discuss any aspects of runway or value of the probity package they’re offering, squint elsewhere.
Look surpassing you leap. Talk with multiple employees at the company. Try to talk with an investor in the company. Research their Workbench of Directors and Newsy Workbench members and contact some of them. Squint for people on LinkedIn who used to work at the company, reach out to them and ask why they left.
Being part of a “failed” startup is not a token of dishonor. Most startups fail, expressly those in the early stages. So long as you and the visitor weren’t operating unethically and illegally, it’s not a red flag on your resume. In fact, this sort of wits matters far increasingly to the next prospective tech startup employer than the decade that you put in at the Agency.
A) If you’re an A-player, stay in government.
B) If you’re an A-player and leave, do unconfined things on the outside and return to government service at some point.
Coming up next:
- Part III – title, bounty (salary probity bonuses) and resources you can use.
Read the rest of Laura’s blogs at https://www.lauraethomas.com/