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One man’s journey from the U.S. Army to Morgan Stanley’s big data chief

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Many military veterans have found success working in banking and other areas of financial services.

The transition from serving in the military to civilian life is always challenging, as is establishing a financial services career after working in a completely different area. That said, some of the skills and experience that soldiers and military officers gain translate quite well into finance careers.

Case in point is Army veteran Jeff McMillan, the chief analytics and data officer of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. His mandate is to drive the division’s growth by using the latest technology, including analytical, machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms. But is path to Wall Street wasn’t the typical one.

After graduating with a B.S. in economics from the United States Military Academy at West Point, McMillan served on active duty as an Army armor officer and scout platoon leader in South Korea and Fort Knox, Kentucky.

The challenges of transitioning from military service to civilian life

McMillan’s said he struggled to make the transition from the Army to the civilian world, like most veterans do.

“I got out in ’92, and it was a scary experience, to be honest with you,” McMillan said. “The military culture is unique – it’s like no other culture in the world in terms of its ethos, how it manages its people, how it awards and promotes its personnel and its intensity.

“Moving into the civilian world poses significant challenges,” he said.

When McMillan decided that he wanted to move into financial services, he called or sent letters to more than 100 former military people who worked in the industry.

“That was my network – I met for coffee, lunch, dinner or drinks with lots of different people,” McMillan said. “Part of the problem is you don’t even know what to ask at first – you don’t know what skills you have that are differentiated because you’ve been living in a bubble.

“Even though I was an economics major and had that background, I had no practical experience, so I had to spend time learning about what a financial services career was all about, learn the vocabulary and which positions would be a fit for me and which wouldn’t be,” he said. “I spent many months doing that before I got my first job in financial services.”

His first employer in the industry was Chancellor Capital Management, a small asset management firm where he worked in an operational role, which eventually took on a relationship management capacity.

“My boss was a former military guy, which helped with the transition, and I was able to use my skills from the military, such as planning, managing projects, working within a structure and organization, while shifting into a different domain.”

From the buy side to the sell side

McMillan joined Morgan Stanley in 1996 to take on a similar operations role, tasked with redesigning the bank’s customer information database.

After a stint in the research division at Merrill Lynch, he returned to Morgan Stanley in 2009, where his roles included head of advisor platforms, head of product platforms,m and the COO of the investment strategy group.

In his current role as the chief analytics and data officer for wealth management, McMillan leads various desks, including the decision-sciences team, which conducts sophisticated analysis of client and adviser behaviors relative to market conditions.

“We take a quant approach to what clients want and don’t want, using data analytics to improve the products and services that we offer and deliver better solutions to the field,” McMillan said.

The data visualization team also reports to McMillan, And he heads up the artificial intelligence (AI) desk, which is experimenting with natural language processing with the goal of helping advisers to access information using a virtual assistant solution.

Advice for military veterans who want to work in financial services

McMillan recently hired a veteran, and he is looking forward to serving as a mentor for that person. He says there are certain keys to success when transitioning from the military to financial services.

“You have to figure out what it is you want to do, and the only way to do so you have to have lots and lots of conversations – the best group of people to reach out to is your military network, which is a very tight network that is very open to giving back to its own,” McMillan said. “I highly encourage [veterans looking for work] to make 50 or 100-plus phone calls, reach out to everyone you know, friends, family or your spouse’s family and friends, to see what opportunities are out there, what jobs would be a good fit for your career and of interest to you.”

McMillan urges veterans to translate their resume into a narrative that the civilian population can understand.

“Explain what you did, not the specific missions you went on, but the skills that you developed –bring out your strengths, the skills that the military develops well, including leadership, planning, coordination and discipline,” McMillan said.

Try to get as much intelligence as you can about that opportunity so you’re well positioned when you walk in the door, he said.

“Learn the lingo of the part of the industry where you want to work, and spend time talking to people in similar roles, jotting down notes,” McMillan said. “Treat your job search like a mission – come up with a plan, outline measurable outcomes, make a checklist, stay organized and exploit your network until you find something that makes sense for your career.”

Photo credit: fstop123/GettyImages

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