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The things you’ll see: Unusual military career leads sales exec to Microsoft

He was a Navy supply officer who ran his own department on an attack submarine as an ensign. He was a logistics officer supporting the submarine fleet from the nation’s capital. He was an aide-de-camp to an Army general in Afghanistan. He was decorated for his service. And today, he’s a sales executive at Microsoft.

When he joined the Navy in 2005, Tyler Branham knew he eventually wanted to wind up in business. Trouble was, he’d never studied business, and never even worked in the private sector.

“So I became a supply corps officer,” Branham says, “The guys who do all the business management, logistics and supply-chain functions of the Navy.”

Not content with the idea of supporting a large supply department as a junior officer, Branham says he then chose the most challenging role he could find: submarine duty, where he would be a department head as a young ensign.

Assigned to a Los Angeles-class, nuclear-powered “fast attack” submarine based in San Diego, Branham found himself at sea, or under it, for six months at a time, serving 140 sailors as the ship’s supply and food service officer, while also spending six hours a day on watch.

“I was the only department head that was an ensign,” says Branham. “The rest of the officers were much more senior. You have to learn how to swing a big stick to hold your own when you’re two ranks below everyone else at the table.”

They’ve got a great support network in the Navy. You’ve got a ton of people looking out for your best interests.

Tyler Branham

At sea a submarine operates on an 18-hour day divided into three six-hour shifts. In his first shift, as an officer on watch, Branham worked in the control room operating the submarine — managing the contacts, taking observations through the periscope and generally helping to make sure the sub didn’t run into anything.

“The next six hours are spent doing your actual job,” he says. “As a supply officer I’d be down in the supply shack.”

That would be his office, which was about four feet by four feet, and outfitted for three people. There he’d review requisitions from the different divisions on the ship, look over the budget and run both the supply and mess departments.

In typical, generous Navy fashion, the next six hours are yours. Most guys eat, exercise and try and get some sleep. “And then you’re on watch again,” says Branham, who completed two deployments.

After his second tour, Branham spent three years supporting submarine logistics shoreside before he was deployed again, this time to Afghanistan to support the Army. He went there to coordinate customs and other processes required to get new equipment to the Afghans, but on his first day there, his CO threw him a curve ball.

“He said, ‘there’s a new general on base who needs an aide, and you’re going to go interview,’” Branham says. “The general interviewed 10 other junior officers and ended up picking me.”

It turned out to be one of the more interesting assignments a young officer could have, flying all over the country in a helicopter, supporting a flag officer in his strategic, political and diplomatic duties.

“I got to do all kinds of things a Navy supply officer would never normally get to do,” he says. “So I had a blast doing that.”

After six months, the general returned to the States, allowing Branham to choose a small base in Kabul for the rest of his one-year deployment. In his seven years and five months of active service, Branham logged more than 150 combat missions and 5,000 miles of convoy duty, earning the prestigious Bronze Star Medal and Combat Action Ribbon.

With memories of military service in his rear-view mirror, Branham began the process of returning to civilian life, joining his wife in his hometown of Seattle. But like a lot of active-duty personnel contemplating the move to life as a vet, he was concerned about the transition.

“They’ve got a great support network in the Navy,” he says. “You’ve got a ton of people looking out for your best interests. So I was really nervous about leaving that behind.”

As a way to ease back into civilian life at home, Branham enrolled in the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business in a two-year MBA program. It was there he started to really envision what he wanted out of his career.

“I started to look at which companies best fit my style,” he says. “I want to work on a team. I want to work on products that are changing the world. I want to work on the cutting-edge stuff that the Navy offered, but sleep in my own bed at night. Microsoft offers all that.”

Today Branham works in sales, responsible for selling Microsoft Project into the company’s largest North American enterprise accounts. He’s also a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves who did his latest two-week stint at Pearl Harbor.

Despite the contrasts between his military and civilian roles, Branham says what he likes about them both boils down to one principle: Connecting people with the tools they need to get the job done.

“Translating my military experience to the private sector, it occurred to me that sales mapped pretty closely to the things I liked about being in the Navy: Working with people to solve problems,” he says. He also cites other skills developed in his unusual military career — attention to detail, diplomacy and customer service — as assets that are helping him be more successful today.

As for those common concerns that all service members have when transitioning to private life, Branham says Microsoft’s support for its people in general and veterans in particular has allowed him to simply focus on his job and enjoy life as a civilian and reservist.

“The fears I had about the private sector don’t really exist here at Microsoft,” he says. “People are focused on their own careers, but they’re also here to make sure I succeed and back me up. I’ve got a great network here.”

And he gets to sleep in his own bed at night, too.