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Alistair’s journey from the Her Majesty’s Navy to Microsoft: the skills that were surprisingly transferable for the corporate world

When he was a little boy, Alistair Stratford wanted nothing more than to see the world.

“My granddad had been in Her Majesty’s Army,” remembers Microsoft Australia’s One Commercial Partner Territory Channel Manager. “As a young kid, there was nothing better than hearing his tales of India and all the other cool places he’d been.”

Alistair lived in Winford, a sleepy village nestled in the valleys of Somerset in England. With just a few hundred residents, Winford had one pub, one post office and not much else. “It was very picturesque,” he remembers. “But nobody ever left.”

Despite his burning desire to see the big wide world, Alistair had a happy childhood. But unfortunately, after suffering a series of tragic family losses in his college years, he realised he wanted more. So, he decided to sign up for the British Royal Navy and sail around the world.

In his time in the navy, Alistair travelled to 30 countries. He led teams through complex minesweeping activities. He managed lifesaving equipment and oversaw the use of firearms and explosives. And the day after September 11, he was on the first British ship to enter the Suez Canal.

After five years of adventure and danger, Alistair decided he’d had enough. He knew he wanted to leave the navy and join the corporate world – he just wasn’t sure where to start.

“Blowing up mines and fixing sonar aren’t really transferable skills,” he laughs.

But when Alistair started work at a software company back in England, it was the culture shock that unsettled him more than anything else. “Coming from such a close-knit team on a ship, you get used to having that camaraderie,” he says. “An office is very different. People are spread out, you don’t know everybody, and you don’t know what everybody’s trying to achieve. And that can be really difficult.”

Corporate life also demanded a different approach to problem solving.

In the armed forces, you have to do things in a very particular way. It can be quite a closed mindset. But when I started working in tech, I had to let myself go a bit, and get out of my comfort zone.

Despite these challenges, it didn’t take long for Alistair to realise that quite a few lessons he’d learned in the navy applied to the corporate world too. “Teamwork and leadership were important, and so was time management,” he says. “In the navy, you could never be late.” But of all the skills Alistair gained in the navy, he says resilience was the most crucial by far.

“In the corporate world, things are changing all the time and you do make mistakes. But if you can pick yourself up and brush yourself down, it’s all going to be okay.”

And it was okay. Over the next decade, Alistair met more and more success as a business development and client manager in a range of tech firms. Until one Sunday evening in 2015, when the travel bug struck again.

“It’s an ordinary night and I’m sitting down with my beautiful wife Sarah Jane,” he recalls. “And she turns to me and says, ‘Do you fancy moving to Australia?’”

Alistair reached out to his contacts and soon secured a sales executive role at Microsoft Australia. Within three months he, Sarah Jane and their children arrived in Melbourne. “It was eye-opening,” he says. “In my first few weeks at Microsoft, the information was coming thick and fast. The pace of change was extraordinary. But I loved it – I have no intention of going back.”

While Alistair had previously worked for companies that talked the talk on inclusion, it wasn’t until he joined Microsoft that he saw it in action. “Coming through this unconventional pathway, and not necessarily starting with the most traditional set of skills, it’s been absolutely brilliant to work for a company leading the way in diversity and inclusion,” he says. “It’s not surface stuff, either. When you look at the actions Microsoft’s taking to drive change, it’s awesome.”

Soon after coming to Microsoft, Alistair joined the Military at Microsoft Employee Resource Group. While he wanted to share his experiences and hear other people’s stories, his motivation was deeper than that.

“Some people can have a hard time moving over from the military into the corporate world,” he says. “I thought that if I could share my experience with them, they’d see that it improves. You can learn about data, you can learn about tech – all these skills come in time. The only thing you need to focus on is being open and looking for help. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

While Alistair couldn’t be happier in his new career and his new home, he recognises that his time in the navy was precious. This week, he will take time to acknowledge his former comrades. “Every Remembrance Day, I remember the fallen service people who died protecting our freedom,” he says. “That freedom gives us the opportunity to make the world a better place, to be more inclusive … They gave their lives so that we could live ours.”

To find out more about Microsoft’s veteran and military communities and read more stories like Alistair’s, head to Microsoft’s Military Affairs hub.