Back to Article
Suzanne Choneywritten by
Suzanne Choney
Taking charge

You could call him “General.” Thousands of Marines did during his 33 years in the Corps. But Chris Cortez, true to his roots – the son of a father who picked fruit in the fields of Northern California, and whose devoted mother could not read or write – does not put on airs. It is not his way.

Calling him Chris is just fine.

His appearance is neat, tidy, spare. His hair and physique are still military style: trim and no-nonsense.

Within minutes of meeting him, you know this isn’t a guy who suffers fools gladly. He’s polite and pleasant, and genuinely likable, but direct and firm in the no-uncertain-terms way of a Marine.

It’s also quickly evident that he is a man with a fierce sense of duty to veterans, and a deep passion for education.

“In the months and years ahead, we’re going to have tens of thousands of veterans leaving the military” because of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, he said. Getting those vets trained and hired, he said, is simply “critical” to helping them transition back to life post-service.

It’s also quickly evident that he is a man with a fierce sense of duty to veterans, and a deep passion for education.

Now, as Microsoft’s vice president of military affairs, a new position, Cortez will work to expand education and hiring efforts for vets, and be an advocate for new and existing Microsoft employees who have served in the military.

He knows well how difficult the transition can be, going from the military to the private sector. When he retired from the Marine Corps in 2004, Cortez had been leading the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico, Virginia, recruiting more than 75,000 men and women.

Before that, he was director of operations for the United States Pacific Command – overseeing 300,000 U.S. military personnel – and he previously commanded Marines at the platoon, company, battalion and regimental levels, including during Operation Desert Storm.

Chris in Saudi Arabia

Chris Cortez, in Saudi Arabia in January 1991, a few weeks before the start of Operation Desert Storm. (Photo provided by Chris Cortez)

Cortez was the highest-ranking Hispanic-American in the Corps when he retired. It had been his life. And being a Marine never ends for those in this branch of the service.

If you’ve ever had a Marine in your family or your circle of friends, you know to never say, “So-and-so is an ex-Marine.”

“[That’s] an acceptable term for a Marine who is not currently serving, but make no mistake, that person is a Marine and always will be a Marine,” explains, an unofficial online dictionary of slang terms used within the United States Marine Corps.p

After he retired, Cortez interviewed with various companies before joining Microsoft in 2006 as an executive, traveling around the U.S. and the world to meet with Microsoft’s military and governmental customers. He remembers how stressful the job hunt was, entering this new, civilian territory after so many years in the service. “In the military, you walk into a room and you look at people in uniform, and you know exactly who they are, and they know exactly who you are,” he said. “But in industry, it’s much different. There is no uniform. Making that transition, that’s a major change that a military person has to navigate through. Obviously, there are many that have been there and done it quite nicely, and there are some that have really struggled with it.”

That’s a fight he cannot stand to see veterans lose. It’s the only time during the interview that Cortez pauses for just a moment, frowns, inhales, slowly exhales, then resumes speaking.

What better community in our country to serve than the veterans who have given so much?

“These young people go off, and they don’t know if they’re going to come back,” he continued. “And sometimes when they come back, they’re changed, they’re wounded and other things. So – what better community in our country to serve than the veterans who have given so much?”

Cortez has no doubt he is at the right company at the right time to do just that.

“Microsoft is a great company – it has a big heart,” he said. “In our annual Employee Giving Campaign, we give to nonprofits and charitable organizations, and we recently reached the $1 billion mark – from the employees and from the company. It’s a company that wants to do the right thing. And I firmly believe it deserves credit for what it’s doing for the military.”

High on Cortez’s to-do list in his new role is to add other companies into Microsoft’s efforts. “Why not partner with other companies?” he said. “Let’s say we spend a million dollars and another company spends a million, and another and another? We can reach more vets through partnerships.”

  • Microsoft Software & Systems Academy

    Microsoft Software & Systems Academy is a full-time, 16-week information technology job skills training program for active-duty U.S. military members who have received their separation dates. The program operates on military bases, letting active-duty service members get training during the final stage of their military service. When they successfully complete the academy, they’re given the opportunity to interview for a full-time job at Microsoft, or with one of the company’s participating partners.

  • Military2Microsoft

    Military2Microsoft is designed for vets and those serving in the National Guard and Reserves who want to find jobs at Microsoft. On the program’s site, transitioning military members can directly connect with Microsoft employees who are veterans, including via a chat room on the site. It also features the Microsoft Military Job Decoder tool, created by Microsoft employees who are veterans. “This tool lays out every job that Microsoft has and maps it to a similar job in the military,” Cortez said. “So, if you’re from the military, and you do logistics, select that occupational field and it directs you to the Supply Chain roles on our Careers site – even showing what job openings are available.”

  • Elevate America

    Elevate America was a multi-year, $12 million program to help veterans transition from the military to civilian employment through training and certification, career counseling, child care, transportation and housing.

Leigh Elizabeth Otey was 23 when she first set eyes on Chris Cortez at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 1973.

“This handsome lieutenant walked into the Officers’ Club … and that was all she wrote,” she said. “We got married the next year.” The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this month. They have two children: Christopher, 34, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who has served as a U.S. foreign exchange officer and taught at the Brazilian Naval Academy; and Virginia, 32, who also works at Microsoft, as a recruiter for the Cloud and Enterprise Marketing team.

When Cortez met his wife-to-be, she was in her first of what would turn out to be 25 years as a schoolteacher.

Education was, and remains, important to both of them. “Education was how my husband made his way from the very beginning to the Marine Corps,” Leigh Cortez said. “His father always told him, ‘Work with your brain, get as much education as you can,’” something Cortez’ parents did not have.

A picture of Chris

His father, Juan, and his mother, Dolores, were from Almeria, Spain. The fifth of seven children, Chris Cortez was the first of his siblings to be born in the United States, in Vacaville, California. It’s a city about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, with a climate well suited for many crops, including walnuts, tomatoes, grapes, almonds and sunflowers.

Juan Cortez, for many years, worked on the area’s farms, as did Chris and his siblings “on weekends, during summers and vacations” – whenever they were not in school.

Dolores Cortez had a job cutting onions at a canning company. She did not know how to read or to write. Chris Cortez and his brothers and sisters took turns reading to her, whether it was family letters sent from Spain “or just something she wanted to know more about.”

“As poor as they were, the values my parents had, the love that they had, what they gave to us – it was priceless,” Cortez said.

As poor as they were, the values my parents had, the love that they had, what they gave to us – it was priceless.

He enlisted in the Marines because he liked what they stood for, and because the military would give him the support he needed to go to college, something he very much wanted.

He graduated from Marietta College in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, then earned a master’s degree in business management. He also fulfilled a long-held dream to see his family’s native land when he studied at the University of Madrid for a year.

Chris in Saudi Arabia

Chris Cortez with his wife, Leigh, and their children, Christopher and Virginia at the 1st Marine Division USMC Birthday Ball in 1997. (Photo provided by Chris Cortez)

Cortez is adamant not only about education, but about mentoring others. It’s something he did in the Marine Corps and has continued to do at Microsoft.

“Regardless of your profession, someone with experience within an organization should spend time with a person with less experience and help them through the learning process,” he said.

He took on yet another unofficial role soon after he came to Microsoft. Word got around that a respected, retired Marine Corps general was in the house, and Cortez was asked to become executive sponsor of an informal organization of Microsoft employees who have served in the military, or who are still serving in the reserves or the National Guard.

In a short but moving video about vets who have gone from the military to Microsoft, Cortez’s modesty and patriotism are evident.

“Hi, my name is Chris Cortez and I retired from the United States Marine Corps …” he said proudly, then adding quickly, and more quietly, “as a major general,” as if it is the least important part of what he is saying. “Currently, I am general manager for strategic operations in the U.S. public sector.”

Then he slows down, but his voice positively booms here: “And I still serve.”

Originally published on 7/30/2014 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft except where noted.
Back to Article