Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we catch up with 2012 Tillman Scholar Dennis James who graduated with an MBA from Columbia Business School and is currently employed at Google. An avid runner and former Army Infantry Officer, Dennis is proof that networking for your career aspirations pays off.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE SERVICE?
“I was inspired by the types of things my family did while I was growing up in the fact they were very service-oriented. Both of my parents were teachers, my father was a volunteer firefighter/paramedic and eventually elected as a Chief. Throughout my younger years, I was always around my dad and his volunteer firefighter friends and have always valued and respected others who serve their community.
The military provided that same natural sense of service and it helped that West Point was a well-respected institution. The thing that pushed me over the edge to join was that boyish image of playing army like we did when we were kids. With my favorite TV shows and movies like ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Top Gun’, I didn’t truly understand the important concepts of leadership and being an officer. Joining for me was a combination of the environment in which I was raised and boyish immaturity that got me into that place and it just fit.”
DO YOU HAVE OTHER FAMILY MEMBERS THAT SERVED AND WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE DURING YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE?
“Both of my grandparents enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor attack, one in the Navy and one in the Army, my uncle served in Vietnam and my sister is still an active duty Marine Corps officer.
I served as an infantry officer during my time in the service, deploying once on December 7, 2007 out of Hawaii (interesting with the ties to Pearl Harbor Day), and returned at the end of February 2009. I was stationed in Western Baghdad, based out of Camp Liberty.” While deployed, I was the head logistics officer for my battalion (the S4). At the time, there was a big push to improve stability and security by moving our units off larger bases (FOBs) and into smaller combat outposts that were embedded within the local population. Consequently I spent most of my time building, improving, and resupplying those smaller outposts in addition to a myriad of other responsibilities and tasks.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF DURING YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE AND THROUGHOUT YOUR DEPLOYMENT?
“From the deployment in general I feel very grateful for that experience – as grateful as you can be for deploying to a combat zone. Overall it taught me the value of perspective – you can’t help but be impacted by what it’s like to be in a place like Iraq and then think about that experience and apply it to the rest of your life. One very specific thing that I learned was that the world is very complicated. Being deployed taught me that most of life and the world is not so black or white and that the context matters.”
HOW DO YOU CARRY FORWARD THE PRINCIPLES THAT YOU LEARNED IN THE MILITARY TO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE?
“In everyday life I’m not quick to rush to judgment. I’m much more cognizant of what I’m thinking and why. As the father of two four-year-olds (they’re twins), I want them to consider an alternate perspective before they formulate an opinion.”
HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GET OUT?
“I served as an active duty infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division from 2004 to late 2009 and then two years in the Army Reserves in a military intelligence unit based out of Ft. Meade from 2009 to 2011.
I got out because I just wanted to do something different. I wanted to start focusing on things I was and still am very passionate about, like technology. I never had a grand plan to end up at Google but I knew what I wanted to do in the long term did not entail being in the Army – it just wasn’t me to make a career out of the military, though I have the utmost respect for those that do.”
HOW HONORED WERE YOU TO BE SELECTED AS A TILLMAN SCHOLAR AND WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL?
“While in the reserves I worked for two years as a strategy consultant and while also researching potential careers in the technology industry and discovered an MBA would help. I became aware of the Tillman Scholarship after the deadline had already passed. I then started my first year at Columbia where I met a fellow Tillman Scholar (Rudy Rickner). He encouraged me to apply not just for the financial assistance, but to also be part of something bigger and more important. The community aspect was very intriguing to me so I applied but didn’t remotely think I would have a chance at being selected.”
HAVING BEEN SELECTED AS A TILLMAN SCHOLAR, IS IT EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE AND WHAT HAS IT PROVIDED FOR YOU THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO?
“The Pat Tillman Foundation said early on that, ‘we’re making an investment in you’, which I thought was very unique. There’s an immediate sense that you need to pay that forward somehow. When you talk to other Tillman Scholars and hear what they’re up to, they always seem to be doing interesting and helpful things to benefit other folks. All of the scholars I’ve interacted with have one thing in common – service.
Aside from supporting me financially, being associated with the Tillman Scholar community has benefited me career-wise. For example, when I started as an MBA intern for Google, people knew who I was almost immediately because another senior Googler was actually a member of the Tillman Scholar selection committee which was obviously valuable. The way it’s helped me the most though is it’s made me be very aware and thankful for what I have and the opportunities I’ve been given. It made me think, ‘what am I doing to give back?’ When others reach out, I feel the sense of duty and obligation to help those people transitioning out of the military.”
WHAT IS LIKE BEING A DAD TO FOUR-YEAR-OLD TWINS AND HOW DO YOU COMPARE PARENTHOOD TO BEING IN IRAQ?
“They were born the first semester of my first year at Columbia and were born the day before my mid-terms so it was pretty stressful.
When you’re deployed, sometimes there’s hours of boredom and monotony and then a small bursts of craziness. As a parent, it’s 24-7 you’re always on and you learn why you’re fatigued at the end of every day – you’re just exhausted. I am directly responsible for how my kids turn out and can’t just rely on one of my squad leaders to take care of it.”
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR AT A PRESTIGIOUS COMPANY LIKE GOOGLE?
“I feel my story is a slam dunk example of the importance of networking and keeping in touch with people. When I was deployed in Iraq in 2008, I had the realization that I wanted to do something besides the military. There was a service academy directory I went on and searched for alumni that were at technology companies I thought were interesting and I just cold-called them. I made a call around 3:00 a.m. (Iraq time) to Dan Greene at Google, who I didn’t know at the time was an executive there. He picked up the phone and I opened the conversation with, ‘Hi, you don’t know me but I’m calling from Iraq please don’t hang up…’ We ended up talking, staying in contact and he was one of the people who became an important mentor and advocate for me.
Even after leaving active duty in 2009, I kept in touch with Dan throughout the 3-4 year period. In 2012 I applied for an internship at Google, was hired, and eventually received a full time offer in 2013. Dan referred me to Google as an intern and they called me back. I actually asked the recruiter, ‘why me?’ and she told me I was referred by a well-respected Googler (Dan). I still had to go through the rigorous interview process but getting my resume a little higher up on the pile clearly helped.”
WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AT GOOGLE AND IS THIS YOUR DREAM JOB?
“I’m on the Google For Work team and focus on Google Apps which is a product within the Google For Work family. I’m on our Field Operations team, which works externally with strategic partners who sell and distribute our products alongside their own. I manage a team of Googlers who share that same mission. Our goal is to ensure our partners are successful which in turn will make us (Google) successful.
Even though there’s over 50,000 employees at Google, it still has the culture of a startup that also happens to have tremendous resources due to its previous successes. . It’s hard for me to imagine not being here. I really love the technology industry and it’s particularly cool to see my own company in the news almost everyday. . I get to work in a place that’s always challenging convention and really wants to change the world but also has a fantastic culture. I have aspirations to advance, just as anyone would, but I’m focusing on doing my job and being a useful teammate and manager. If I continue to work hard, I feel the rest will just work itself out.”