By: Tay Nishimura (Co-Founder) & Kunal Jha (Co-Founder)
On Febuary 18th 2017, I took a Metro North train from Grand Central station to attend the 100th Night Celebration held at the United States Military Academy at West Point. When I arrived at the beautiful gray castle on the Hudson within which West Point Cadets go through a rigorous four year program to become Officers, the values of “Duty, Honor, Country” were emblazoned on every granite entranceway. During the dinner, speaker after speaker mentioned the value of sacrifice, emphasizing the class motto “So Others May Dream.” The evening ended with the 100th Night Show which followed the lives of the Cadets through their training from freshman to senior year. They eloquently sang about the isolation of not getting to see friends and family, having little to no sleep, having too many assignments to ever finish on time, and being pushed to the limits physically.
At the time, I was falling out of love with my career in software. I felt that I was not cut out for it, and I was experiencing severe imposter syndrome as the only woman on my team of eleven. Despite being proud of the team I was on, I had a lot of excuses lined up about why I was not set up to succeed, why I just could not do it anymore. The energy in that exquisite mess hall rejuvenated my attitude on what I can accomplish.
I became obsessed with developing even a fraction of the grit these Cadets needed to graduate. That spring, my curiosity pushed me to apply to the New York Police Department’s Auxiliary Unit, a fully volunteer force that conducts unarmed patrols and assists in managing community events such as parades and street fairs. To become an auxiliary, I went through a three month training program in self-defense, criminal law, and radio calls. Many of the members of this program have served or went on to serve in the military, and I often noticed how professional, collected, and articulate they were. My unit pushed me to exhibit more professional bearing, situational awareness, and decisiveness. The confidence and communication skills I built in the program accelerated my development as a technologist by enabling me to focus on my self-development. I have since overcome my self-doubts about a career in technology, and spend a majority of my free time learning about computer networking, infrastructure, and reliability engineering.
I met Kunal that summer, one week before he departed for his first duty station: Camp Casey, South Korea. From the American perspective, Korea had been relatively peaceful over the last half a century. However, as 2017 progressed, North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests more frequently and closer in proximity to neighboring countries and even the United States. Conversations of wills, potential last words to loved ones, and weeks on end outdoors in the harsh Korean winter became the norm. He was learning to “shoot, scoot, and communicate” because the moment his unit fires, the heat signals would expose his location to North Korean forces.
The news does not always convey to us the challenges our service members experience overseas. While I overlooked Central Park, developing financial software and tracking the geolocations of 80,000 cargo ships around the world using big data pipelines, Kunal was awake all night transporting convoys across the Korean peninsula, coordinating personnel movements, and overcoming logistical shortages.
Throughout that difficult winter, Kunal and I frequently discussed his future possibilities, the societal constructs that increasingly divide civilian and military communities, and the economic trends towards technology jobs which he felt unequipped to keep up with from the field. Whether it be vocational aspects such as promotions, evaluations, and training or more subtle cultural aspects such as ceremonies, preferred humor, and addressing one another by title and last name, his entire day looks different.
I spent my college days and first few years in industry coding. Kunal spent it ensuring his soldiers were eating first when supplies were delayed and working through personal finances with them between field training exercises. As a result, service members do not enter the job market with the same preparation as the civilian population. Technology is difficult for anyone to break into; those who volunteer to serve should not lose out on opportunities to reach their potential in these emerging fields. Many veterans end up rejoining the military because the transition is professionally and socially disorienting. However, veterans offer a lot culturally to an organization as they understand mission-focused collaboration, respect, resilience to pressure, and accountability.
We founded Project Reclass to provide service members more tools and networks to explore civilian careers. We are starting within prisons because of an influential experience Kunal had as a Cadet. In order to make our vision a reality, we are recruiting engineers, graphic designers, content writers, marketing experts, educators, and financial consultants to join our team. This mission resonated with others; many of us have a military affiliation of their own and many more do not. I see no distinction between the users of our Learning Platform and the individuals building it. Each of us is trying to obtain new skills, and we are determined to make a positive impact on our community along the way. As we finish the curriculum together, our team will open source it to the world so anyone can use it to start their journey into technology.
Tay Nishimura is a Site Reliability Engineer in New York City with five years of industry experience as a software engineer at cutting-edge technology firms. A believer in grassroots efforts, Tay also serves as an officer for NYPD Auxiliary unit and a mentor for American Corporate Partners.
Kunal Jha is an Active Duty Army Officer and United States Military Academy graduate currently stationed in Augusta Georgia, working within the Cyber Center of Excellence. Committed to finding pathways to success for Veterans transitioning out of prison.