From the Air Force to Autonomous Vehicles: A Veteran Describes Making the Move Into Tech
From overseeing teams of technicians working on some of the most advanced fighter aircraft ever made, to helping test cutting-edge self-driving technology on city streets, Bret Dorman’s career has taken him on an unforgettable journey.
So how did the 38-year-old, Air Force Captain end up moving on from his 9-year career in the U.S. military and into the private technology sector, and how did he decide that Argo AI, a leading self-driving tech company, was where he wanted to work?
“I was aware Argo existed. I’d seen the cars,” around the Detroit metropolitan area where he lived, Dorman recalls. “I knew that they were self-driving.”
While he was impressed with the technology he’d seen, Dorman wasn’t sure if he would be a good fit for a company that focused on automotives rather than aerospace, his former specialty.
“I was not planning on getting out,” of the Air Force, Dorman says.
At least, not until he saw on LinkedIn that a fellow veteran Matt Holstege, whom Dorman met through a Masters of Business Administration program at Michigan State University, was also working for Argo.
Intrigued, Dorman sent Holstege a LinkedIn message and the two began discussing the many opportunities for veterans at Argo across departments.
During their conversations, Dorman realized that some of the skills he’d honed as an Air Force Maintenance Officer — managing skilled tradespeople, motivating them to perform at their highest level, understanding complex electromechanical systems that carry people, and how to maintain and repair them to keep them operating safely — were all critical to the job of Autonomous Vehicle Systems Operations Manager.
“I’m not a technician, I’m a manager of people,” Dorman says. “But I can conceptualize in my head how a system works, what the desired output is, and why it is or is not functioning.”
In the Air Force, Dorman spent nearly a decade as an Active Duty Aircraft Maintenance Officer. During that time, he was deployed to South Korea, served as an advisor to senior Iraqi Air Force leaders in Baghdad, and spent the last two years of his active duty as an ROTC instructor at Michigan State University. He continues his service in the Michigan Air National Guard as an Aircraft Maintenance Officer, working on the A-10 Warthog.
At Argo, Dorman works on the Argo Self-Driving System (SDS), the combination of hardware and software that autonomously drives a growing fleet of vehicles being tested on public roads in eight cities around the world and references data from a suite of over 30 onboard sensors, including cameras, radar, and lidar.
Dorman saw an immediate similarity to something he’d worked on at the Air Force: the Automatic Ground-Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS) developed by the military in partnership with NASA and Lockheed Martin. The advanced software detects and helps fighter aircraft avoid crashing into the ground and other grounded objects, even if a pilot is rendered unconscious or disoriented by the extremities of supersonic flight missions.
However, that system is designed to be used only in emergencies, not consistently like the Argo SDS.
While the Argo SDS is quite different from the F-16 and F-35 fighter jets Dorman maintained, the actual day-to-day job is “remarkably similar” to his role in the Air Force, Dorman says.
“The core responsibilities as an Aircraft Maintenance Officer, are to ensure your people are trained and equipped properly, in order to keep our fighter aircraft in the air and doing the work that our nation needs to do. It’s managing a lot of people, managing a lot of aircraft and associated support equipment and facilities.”
At Argo, Dorman is in charge of a team of Autonomous Vehicle Test Specialists in Detroit who operate autonomous test cars on city streets. Their job includes monitoring the performance of the Argo SDS as it moves through traffic, annotating parts of the journey for Argo software engineers to help improve the driving experience, and also, most importantly, maintaining an alert and focused awareness of the entire roadway environment. They take manual control of the driving task for brief intervals according to their extensive training program. All of these tasks help ensure that the self-driving software is developed, tested and deployed safely in the communities in which it operates.
“It’s the blending of people and machine,” Dorman says. “Making sure you have the right people in the right places is critical.”
Dorman cites the business management book Good to Great by Jim Collins, which he says helped him better understand his own role as a technical manager. “In Chapter Two, he talks about the bus. Any organization is a bus — whether its Argo or the Air Force — and the challenge is to get the right people on the bus, but also, to get them in the right seats,” that is, the right roles for them to make the greatest impact to the team with their skills.
It’s something Dorman takes pride in doing when helping to hire and screen for his own teams.
Dorman sees further similarities in the manner in which the military and Argo maintain the safety of their vehicles, and establish a culture that promotes safety throughout every step of their process.
“Argo’s view on safety and the Air Force’s view on flight safety are astonishingly similar,” Dorman says. “When I read the Safety Report that Argo publishes in preparation for my interview, that was one of the things that stood out to me: the safety-first mindset is the same, even if the vehicles are different.”
While serving in the Air Force, instructors imparted that safety focus on Dorman by consistently reminding him that not only was he working on expensive and powerful equipment but that the highly skilled pilots and ground crew were trusting him and the other technicians working on the aircraft to keep them all safe, no matter what happened to the equipment.
At Argo, Dorman sees a similar safety focus through each member of the company’s ability to escalate safety concerns, and Argo’s willingness to enact Operational Advisories that guide on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles or their use of autonomous driving mode whenever any member of the team makes a request to do so.
“At the end of the day, you have to remember we are transporting human beings in these vehicles,” Dorman says of both organizations.
Dorman was so thrilled to land the job at Argo, he wrote a detailed post on LinkedIn describing strategies for other veterans to use when pursuing new opportunities in the private sector.
And in conversation with Ground Truth, he elaborated further on some of his advice. Here are some of his top recommendations:
- Use your network: don’t be afraid to reach out to and ask questions of your former colleagues who have moved on to other jobs. They may know of new opportunities that could be a good fit for you.
- Study up: before he interviewed at Argo, Dorman not only informally discussed the company and the roles that might be a good fit for him with an employee, but he also read Argo’s Safety Report in advance.
- Be open to being uncomfortable: At the Air Force, Dorman was rewarded for his commitment and attention to detail by being given “more difficult roles relative to my experience and rank.” When he did well at those, he was put on the Air Force’s most important fighter jet project: standing up the Air Force’s first F-35 combat unit. At Argo, he sees a similar parallel to being asked to understand a huge amount of technical and organizational information in a short amount of time. Those who excel at this will do well in the application process and the job.
Dorman’s journey from the Air Force to Argo wasn’t one he could have ever predicted when he first earned his commission back in 2012.
But the skills he learned leading teams of aircraft technicians turned out to be a perfect fit for his new role leading teams testing autonomous vehicles on the streets of the Detroit metropolitan area, and he hopes that his own transition from the military to the tech industry can serve as an example to other veterans who want to follow a similar path. After all, Argo is actively hiring for plenty of roles across the U.S. and Germany.