Kylee Durant “It was really powerful to see somebody from Mozilla who didn't just think about a great idea — but how to actually turn that idea into action.”

Kylee Durant is Vice President of Transition Technology & Innovation Programs for the United Service Organizations (USO). Previoulsy, she was Chief Operating Officer for RallyPoint/6 (which has now become part of the USO as RP/6 and will scale nationally), providing internal leadership and overseeing operations, communications, partnerships, and programs. RP/6 focuses on connecting service members, veterans, and their families with resources and services to develop a clear plan for their post-military livelihoods. In August 2016, Mozilla and RP/6 joined forces to create a workshop geared towards technology-related careers for participants transitioning from military service and adjusting to civilian life.


Kylee’s story

Could start by telling me a bit about your work?

My name is Kylee Durant. I am the chief operating officer at a nonprofit organization called RallyPoint/6. Our mission is to guide service members, veterans and their families to their next objective after military service. Really helping them find their new community, their new home town, after they have served in the United States military. Any branch, any era. Also the family, since it’s not just a challenge for service members, but often times for the family members.

My husband is actually still active duty. He is a soldier right now, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. I am a military spouse, and this is our fourth duty station, and we’ve lived all over the world. We lived in Germany for two and a half years, and we’ve really been embedded in the culture.

He also deployed to Iraq for a full year so we have lived the turbulent life of military families over the past 15 years since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started.

Our mission in the work that we’re doing here is to help folks translate all those amazing skills and abilities, the soft and hard skills that they gather in their military career, and translate them into a civilian career.

What we’re finding is there are gaps on both sides. There are gaps on the employer side being ready to receive somebody who served in the military and to truly understand what they did and all of the incredible experience they’re bringing to the table.

The gap on the service member or military family side is usually a lack in civilian credentials. For example a combat lifesaver certificate doesn’t translate directly to an EMT. It’s not the same and what the world requires now is for things to match. It’s not OK for you to have that skill without that specific certification. There’s this translation gap.

For a military spouse, it’s often times a really turbulent life. I was out of the workforce for six years — not by choice but because we moved three times in five years, including overseas. No one would hire me for a year.

Here I am. I have this incredible skill set and I want to do good things and no one would give me the opportunity. Very similar to women who exit the workforce to raise their children and raise their families and then try to re-enter. There are a lot of challenges re-entering the workforce.

So, for service members the challenge is that they’ve worked but they haven’t worked in the civilian workforce — they lack civilian credentials. For spouses, the challenge is that they’ve been removed from the workforce completely — and now they need to re-enter. Our goal provide a holistic approach to ease this transition. Whether they need employment, education, VA benefits, legal help, finance, housing, family support, volunteerism, or health and wellness — we have a one-stop-shop approach and wrap around additional services so that the transition is easier.

It doesn’t make it 100 percent easy but it makes it a lot easier. Just understanding that transition is multi-dimensional helps. Generally what we see is that people come in with a minimum of three needs. It’s not just about getting a job. It’s usually about getting a job, having a safe place to live, and maybe challenges with transportation or even family support.

How do I get my kids enrolled in this school on this town that I’ve never lived in? Where do I go to shop for food because I’ve always shopped on base at the commissary and I don’t really know how to navigate a civilian community? This is why a holistic approach — and really truly understanding that each family is an individual — and so all their needs are individualized.

It’s a direct human services approach to transition and making sure that there are culturally competent people helping these families navigate the sea of resources and programs in their new civilian community.

I’m hearing some parallels with the needs of new immigrants, whose skills from their country of origin may not translate. And the need for support from someone who is culturally aware of both contexts.

Yes. We’ve learned a lot from looking at other approaches — you’re right. The broad challenges of the military population are not unique. Same with military spouses, who face the same challenges as a stay-at-home mom who decides to re-enter the workforce after 10 years.

Our society is not built to accept the non-status quo. There are a lot of norms and values that don’t permit that translation whether it be immigrants, or it’s military, or it’s women, and then specific industries too. I’m a woman in tech, I’m a software developer. But no one takes me seriously when I walk into a room.

When I walk into a room and I’m the only woman, and they think that I’m the secretary instead of the software developer, that’s a problem. It’s the same thing when a service member walks into a room and sits down. If he has any indication of looking like he was in the military, a lot of times the first thought is, “Oh, he must have PTSD.”

Social stigma and the way that society has been shaped are challenges that no one ever talks about. They just assume that you’re going to just be fine; you’re just going to go and you’re going to do great things.

Our role is not just help the individual with their own action plan, but to also create those larger conversations around, “No, not everybody in the military has PTSD.” Or, “This is the value proposition for hiring a service member who’s transitioning from the military and that military spouse. This is why you should do it. This is why it matters and this is the greater societal impact it’s going to have.” We have to transform our way of thinking.

Looking back at the work that you’ve been doing with RallyPoint/6, can you tell me about one specific time where you’ve really felt a sense of success?

I would say the Mozilla workshop we hosted here. It was August 5th and 6th of this 2016, in the summer. We put on a 21st-Century Literacy Leaders workshop. The biggest thing for service members and their families, and especially for us here locally, is we live in the backyard of the Big Three: Google, Microsoft, Amazon.

Chad Sansing facilitating the RP/6-Mozilla workshop.

They’re right up the road, and yet there’s this hesitation and/or lack of confidence in service members and spouses that they could actually work in the tech field. Everybody assumes that you have to be a software developer or coder to work in tech, when actually a majority of jobs in tech are not developer-based jobs.

There’s a gap, and that’s where we see success. A gap between service members and spouses understanding what it takes to do something, seeing what’s possible, or just gaining an understanding of what it’s like to work in technology.

Then there’s the technology organization that doesn’t know how to communicate to this population. This workshop brought the two together and it was incredible. It was over 50 people, service members and spouses. The Mozilla team flew in from all over the country. Chicago, Virginia…

It was two days of breaking down what 21st-century literacy looks like. Reading, writing and participating on the web. It is no longer reading, writing and participating on paper and reading books. Those are the skills that you need now to launch into a solid career. Then understanding that tech is accessible to pretty much anybody.

What the workshop really did was it decoded all of the gray around what technology is. It empowered people to view technology in a way that was meaningful to them — maybe not just necessarily a potential career — but personally. How are they interacting with technology? How does it impact their life? How can they participate in a way that will positively affect the person sitting next to them or their broader community?

We did an anonymous feedback survey afterward and the response was incredible. People were so thankful for the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of not just technology but also the technology industry, and then just asking questions about how doing things really does affect them and they don’t realize it.

That’s also where we see challenges — when people don’t understand that the choices that they’re making have a larger effect, not just on them but on the people around them.

The post you just put on social media has not just an effect on you, but it has an effect on a larger ecosystem of people, so maybe thinking a little more thoughtfully about those choices and the impact that our new normal of inter-connectivity has on the broader world.

I feel like that workshop dispelled all of that and provided a lot of clarity. Some walked away saying, “I’m really driven now to the tech field. I understand I don’t have to be a coder to do it. I see more opportunity.”

Some people just gained a better understanding of how to utilize technology in an everyday life, having more positive effect on not just them but on people surrounding them. It was great to see all those light bulbs light up in the room. It was really inspiring.

There were military kids of every age, there were spouses. There were soldiers of every era. There were Vietnam veterans, there were post-9/11 guys still on active duty.

It was just great to see no matter your age, no matter your background, no matter your gender. That technology affects all of us in how can we come together as a larger society. To make sure that it is being used in the right way and that we truly understand what it is. That helps to shape and impact people’s world views, which I believe are ever evolving.

How about an example of a challenge?

I would say a big challenge that we see is generational. The older veterans, the Vietnam era, the Persian Gulf era veterans. Even trickling in to some of the older post-9/11 generations because technology wasn’t something that they were born into or raised with.

There is a definite gap in the understanding how it works. Actually not a gap but a fear. Fear is translated in a lot of different ways. Some people’s fear is they just refuse to do it. The refusal is a manifestation of the fear they have inside because they don’t understand it.

Some people make excuses, so it’s not an all-out, “I’m not going to do it.” It’s a, “Well, I wasn’t able to register for that class because the computer wasn’t working.” When really they didn’t click the right button. That is a manifestation of fear in a different way.

The fear of not understanding is an incredible challenge, because in our society today, all the programs we’re connecting to — even the Local Department of Health and Human Services — require some sort of connectivity to the internet and the ability to understand how to use a web form or submit information through the web.

That gap — that fear which is just not understanding because they were not raised with it — can be a very big challenge to getting somebody enrolled in something or started on the right next step.

This is where we try to create the solution. Case managers will sit down with somebody and help them fill it out. We will explain things. We also approach it with a deep sense of empathy. Putting ourselves in their shoes and understanding that for that generation — or those generations or individual persons — the lack of use or knowledge or exposure to technology can be very difficult.

Their reaction — especially if it’s the “I couldn’t do that” — is not anger, it’s actually fear. Being able to understand that is really important and helping us overcome the challenge.

To address this challenge, I understand that you’re sitting down with the folks you work with, cultivating a deep sense of empathy, putting yourself in their shoes, and understanding that fear manifests itself in many different ways — fear can show up as anger or avoidance. Did I understand correctly? Anything you’d like to add?

It is a very high-touch approach. That would be something to add. Us physically sitting down with somebody. If needed, we literally go to the computer lab and walk them through it. But yes, that sums up how we focus on empathy so our communication style is one of warmth, encouragement, and empowerment.

Really what we want to do is not do it for them, we want to empower them to realize that they can do it for themselves. I think that is the difference with our approach to helping people get to that next phase of their life. To getting them on that path forward, and really creating an action plan that is individualized and works for them.

It’s not us doing the action plan. It is them doing the action plan. It is us being a champion. If they have a question they can call us knowing we are always going to be there by their side during their entire journey. But it’s them doing the journey. To us, as the difference maker, it is a very progressive way of doing case management.

Honestly, I think it’s helping them get over the fear in a real way. Not just addressing critical needs and getting quick answers, but creating a long-term sustainable path to empowerment and success.

Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, which is keeping the internet open and free. What for you is the open internet?

The open internet is the access to information regardless of your individual situation or experience. I should still be able to access information, the internet, and in all of those things regardless of my income. Let’s say I can’t afford internet or I can’t afford the most expensive package to even get me online.

The things that are happening in some of the service industries providing access are really troubling to me. That is the first way that people, especially low income and vulnerable populations, are excluded from access.

I also think that any sort of attempt to censor information on the internet is a very slippery slope. Even if it is for the best of intentions. Just understanding that censoring of any in information — whether it’s in print or it’s in a digital format — has the same implications.

I do understand the risk, because information moves a lot faster than it did with print or paper. But we still consume the information in the same way and can make same choices, whether we receive it slow or fast.

I think that the open web also means that the importance of it is creating an opportunity for people to discover the world and explore things in their own way, rather than being force fed certain content or pushed down a certain road of thought.

I found that the point where my world view was most significantly shaped was actually when I left home and went to college and I was able to explore the world in my own way, versus in my parents way. I found out that in some ways I thought differently than my parents.

Taking away the openness of the web, or accessibility to it — even if you don’t go to college, even if you are a hard-working person and you’re working a decent job — if you take that away it will create pockets of people that don’t have that opportunity.

Can you tell me a time where this openness and accessibility has been important to you, personally?

That’s a great question. For me, I would say it would be building my career. As a military spouse who was at home for six years because I couldn’t work, without the openness of the web I would not have been able to explore around my specialty in software development.

Being able to get on and GitHub and seeing all these amazing code packages and seeing people who are willing to share what they made, rather than monetize and sell it. It really helped me get from a low level of understanding — of my skill and ability — to rapidly developing my career.

It created economic opportunity for me because I was able to get hired in a virtual fashion. I was able to jump the hump of understanding because of the openness of the web. Especially within that realm of my industry specifically.

People were willing to post formula codes on the web. People were willing to share how they experienced a problem and solved it from start to finish. Being able to discover that, was a way for me to discover my own way of thinking and learning so that I could apply that to my future success.

I would spend hours watching YouTube videos. And reading. And going to all these blogs. And going on GitHub. It literally took my brain from one level to the next — and at that new level people were willing to overlook my lack of “one to three years of experience” and give me an opportunity.

All I was asking for was for somebody to just give me an opportunity. I promised I would show the heck out of them that I could do this. It without that openness that would not have happened.

I’m going to go off script here, because I’m curious. When you were on GitHub or Stack Overflow or sites like that, could people tell your gender?

That’s a good question. Probably not. I’m always Kaderan or Keifia so probably no. I don’t think so.

So do you think reaching out online took the gender piece out of the equation?

I definitely feel that we work in a man’s world. Yet within the openness of the web I found groups of people who were like me. I found an organization called GirlForce, which empowers women in technology.

I wouldn’t have been able to have access to that peer support group without the openness of the web, which helped encourage me and make me feel that I was worth something. I’m worth that opportunity. I’m worth investing in and this is how I can share my story with others as well. To encourage other women who are potentially having the same challenge as me. I’m not the only one.

Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them? You mentioned the RP/6-Mozilla workshop as an example of success, but maybe go into a bit more detail around what experience?

I was actually introduced to An-Me Chung [Director of Partnerships at the Mozilla Foundation]. Our CEO and Founder, Anne Sprute, was a part of the inaugural class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, which was sponsored by President Bush and President Clinton in the LBJ Libraries.

An-Me and Ann were together in that class and An-Me just loved what we were doing. She loved what our organization was doing and she wanted to see more. She actually flew out here and we were able to give her a tour of RallyPoint/6 and she was able to see the work we’re doing and how we use a very human centered design approach.

An-Me saw synergies with her work at Mozilla and how she could bring some of that value to the military and veteran population. As the chief operating officer, I took over from there — building out a program with her, a programmatic approach to blending those two things together and that’s when we came up with the 21st-Century Skills Web Literacy Workshop. Doing that here and trying to build a train-the-trainer module.

Our next iteration of that will be looking at building out Web Literacy Leader Fellowship Program, where somebody goes through this program and after six months it’s something that they could put on their resume.

They can train other locations. They can do these workshops everywhere, so we’re spreading this lightbulb moment that we saw in the first workshop. Not just here, but all across the country at our other locations, at other military installations.

That is how I got connected to Mozilla more deeply — other than just being a user and understanding Mozilla from a techy point of view and being really excited about it. It was really powerful to see somebody from Mozilla who just didn’t think about a great idea, but actually turn that idea into action.

The entire Mozilla team that came out was so dedicated to the work that they were doing with us and were so thoughtful — and that was reflected in the responses we received by the participants. They were blown away by the amount of care and passion and the understanding that the Mozilla team had toward their individual challenges and opportunities.

From my experience, there’s this undertone of social justice and empathy at Mozilla that translates to learning to listen and care for people.

Yes. It was incredible. Afterwards, An-Me and her team shared that they learned just as much from the group as the group learned from them. That’s always a success. There was a sense of bridging — of a common understanding — and being able to exchange empathy with each other.

Like you said, the social justice aspect and being able to understand. I think one thing the Mozilla team was able to bring to our population is that some of the challenges and opportunities that we mentioned earlier aren’t unique.

They’re experienced by other populations in the world. They’re experienced by inner city youth. They’re experienced by immigrants. They’re experienced by women. The more that our society can come together and see those common threads — the more that we have conversations and common understating — is where things really start to happen.

I think that’s what was powerful about An-Me and being introduced to her. Our conversation created that thread of common understanding and then we were like, “Well, we’re not going to just waste it by leaving it as a thought. We’re actually going to do something about it.” We put that into action.

What’s been the impact of this? What’s different either with your organization, with yourself, or with your work since this interaction?

For our organization, it really opened up the realm of possibility and broke outside of the idea that we simply need to do a workshop to give somebody a certification or a resume review. We started asking: How we can also help people in their transition from military to civilian life by creating opportunities where they can have a deeper understanding of something?

That’s what they were able to do in this workshop. It provided a deeper understanding of 21st-century skills, how they can help them, and how they can groom those skills as they transition into the civilian sector. That’s exactly what it did for the folks that we’re serving. It created a deeper understanding. So, again, there’s context to everything that they’re doing.

There’s value added to the layers of their action plan. It’s not just writing my resume, now it’s writing my resume and I’m going to think about some of those skills that they mentioned. I’m going to think about how I can showcase that I actually have a deeper understanding about this area because they taught me about how important that is in today’s world — and how I need to communicate that better.

They were better able to translate their military service experience to what’s needed for employers now?

Exactly. And what are some of the things that you do at your job that you don’t even think about? Especially for today’s civilian world. A military person will say, “I managed a $2 million budget of assets and goods.” Yet for a civilian it’s, “I was able to utilize software.” Because they did — they utilized software in the army. “I was able to utilize software to do X, Y, and Z.”

So we’re teasing out the 21st-century skills. You used QuickBooks Online to manage your inventory. It’s not just about managing the inventory — you could be doing that on paper and pencil — that’s not what employers demand today. They demand understanding of software tools.

It was really powerful for a lot of people to understand how to better communicate their experience and tease out those things that they actually do, but weren’t saying they did.

For me it created a deeper understanding of the importance of providing opportunities for service members and their families to attend workshops like this — and how important those translation skills are.

That was a gap that we had. We weren’t sitting down with somebody and looking at their resume like that. We taking a more traditional approach. This experience broke the traditional way of thinking.

For us it was challenging to have a broader, more robust way of approaching somebody’s transition as it relates to 21st-century skills. If we don’t understand the importance of that then that’s not going to trickle down to the people that we’re serving either.

It was very powerful in a very well-rounded way. Then for me it was very rewarding. It was really rewarding to take an idea from concept to reality. To be able to say we actually did it. We did it well, we did it successfully. There was actual impact that came out of it.

Mozilla wouldn’t be the typical partner that we work with. It was just such a cool idea and I was really passionate about working with them. I think it just goes to show that really cool ideas can cross sectors. Really cool ideas don’t have to have limits. What it proved to me is that I can continue to challenge myself to think bigger and more creatively on ways to serve people better. I shouldn’t put boundaries around that.

It’s like when me and my kids watch Alice Through The Looking Glass, and she says, “Nothing is impossible.” That is her motto throughout the whole story. Nothing is impossible. That’s the theme I took away. That nothing is impossible when you have two groups of people who are committed to working through or solving problems or challenges, and providing real solutions for real people.

Any instances where you felt there were gaps? Any feedback that you might have as Mozilla continues to do its work?

The challenge that we’re always going to face is scalability. How do we recreate this opportunity? Another challenge is resources, since we’re a non-profit and so is the Mozilla Foundation.

We always have to be thinking “OK, who can we bring to the table that’s willing to help us scale this? Make it bigger? Do it more? Who can we have a conversation with that will see the value in this?”

So a challenge, too, is story telling. How do we tell the story about our the impact? How do we trigger somebody to say, “That’s really great and I’m willing to invest in that in order to make it happen for more people.” That’s always the challenge for non-profit organizations: Telling a story in a way that people will want to put skin in the game. I think that we’ll continue to have that challenge. Again it’s a world view. How many people think this is actually viable?

That’s something that touches all sorts of things. It touches social norms, it touches opinions, it touches ways of thinking. You know, to be totally embraced by people who have a strong sense of social justice and empathy. But I would argue that that is not the majority of our world today, so that’s going to be a challenge — the environment we operate in.

How might the stories we’re collecting be useful to you, if at all?

That’s a great question. The more we share stories — not just like this story, but stories that other people are experiencing today — then the more we are going to gain that sense of common understanding. It’s not always going to be a face to face conversation.

The way that we consume information today is on the web. It is the place where we go to gather information. To create opinions, to make decisions. The more that we have opportunities for people to experience information like in Story Engine, the more they are going to be exposed to those stories of common understanding.

I think that this type of storytelling is incredibly impactful. I hope that I come across as a real person. People are going to identify with real people. They can see parts of themselves in that person and that’s where we start to gain that common understanding, that’s where the thread starts.

I think that it is incredibly important that our world, which is the web today, is filled with these types of conversations and stories. The access is openly available to people to read and understand them.

Is there anything more you want to tell me or ask me?

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share the story. I think that’s important. When you are working so deeply connected to something that is so important to you oftentimes you feel that sharing your story is bragging — or that it might come across that way.

Sharing your story is creating that sense of understanding. It is really important. I wish more people who were doing the really tough work in the world would share their story so that others could hear it and understand that they are not alone.

There are common threads to all of these stories. The work I am doing here today — there is somebody maybe halfway around the world doing very similar work. Maybe not serving the military population, but serving another population.

That sense of solidarity and camaraderie — crossing sectors, crossing industries, crossing populations — is really powerful. That’s how we build common understanding in our world.