From Australian Army Officer and artist to Automation Business Practice Lead, Scott Stephens explains how his time at UNSW Canberra helped set him up for a post-Defence career. Now a Senior Manager at Canberra-based agency, Synergy, Scott specialises in automation services that help government and Defence work more efficiently.

What did you study at UNSW Canberra and what skills did you gain here that helped you build your career? 

I studied nothing to do with business, I was an artist. I went through ADFA and did a Bachelor of Arts from 2004 to 2006, so I’m the example “Army artist” joke! Then I circled back and commenced the Master of Business program many years later, before flipping shortly after commencing, and completed a Graduate Diploma in Education. The skills I gained at UNSW were less coursework focused and more generalised skills and exposure, particularly communication skills, writing, and speaking well at a high level. The wider extra co-curricular activities were what helped me build on my organisational, leadership and social skills.

I was into performing arts and that’s where I had the most autonomy and managerial requirements as an emerging junior leader. It gave me the experience of organising small teams and having a budget to work to. So, for me, the real value add was in these co-curricular activities. The military and academic program are very streamlined, but it’s the extras that you opt into that really help you build foundational professional skills. 

What advice would you give to UNSW Canberra students or recent graduates?

Take the time to look into the extracurricular activities and do as much as you can to diversify your experience base – that’s what helps you become more widely employable.

Specialty skills are great, but if you’ve got a good range of skill sets that complement each other, that’s even better because you can never predict how those things will then blend together later in life.

In my experience, having a very heavy instructional military background led to a teaching qualification from my own personal interest, then blended with current work in the automation field. This diversity of skills results in a specialised capability, where I became a niche provider of automation training to government and Defence, as an example. That was only possible by having general knowledge in those three fields, rather than specialised knowledge in one in particular.

Do you have any advice for those making the transition from the military to the civilian workforce?

It’s a challenging road – not because anyone is specifically trying to make it difficult –but because it’s unknown.

Structure and stability are benefits of a military career, but with that reinforced structure, it becomes highly inflexible, and that’s why it becomes so difficult to transition away. You exist within a structure with its own language and own identified skill sets, and as much as the military talks about skills transference to the civilian sector, the skills aren’t understood properly.

People know that military personnel are highly skilled, but they don’t understand the skill sets that are being articulated. It’s important to find a way to translate those skills in a civilian context; because they are valid, and they do have civilian counterparts.

Try not to focus too much on the specific skills and qualifications required in civilian jobs, because those can always be learned and gained. A lot of the more universal traits that you gained as a service member, like resilience, adaptability, work ethic and the way that you communicate are the important foundation.

Tell us about the Synergy Next Steps Program

Synergy’s veteran career program was created for two purposes: to benefit our veterans, and professional services.

Synergy had serving personnel that had come on board, and the collective observation was that they were very happy with what we were bringing to the table as a cohort – not just the specific qualification areas that we came from, but also our trustworthiness and reliability, and resilience within the organisation.

Synergy wanted to support serving personnel in their transition to the private sector when they’re ready – and so Next Steps came to be. The program itself is an entire day of activity, and at the end of the day, we set aside time for veteran-focused sessions, where we have an off-the-record chat, and our candidates can ask any sticky questions they normally can’t ask… like how to negotiate pay. All to assist in the transition from service to the private sector, understanding transferrable skills and discovering the opportunities that lie ahead – no matter what stage of your career.  

As is the nature of the program, some find opportunities with us at Synergy, but those that don’t get a specific offer from us we endeavour to refer to other organisations, assist in understanding their transferable skills and how to articulate these at interview time. They also get put into our wider recruitment and personal management system, as well as a very detailed debrief to enable them as strongly as possible for their next engagement.

What are you most proud of about your time with Synergy? 

When I came on, I was the first external person employed to start our Digital and Automation practices. Automation as a market segment in government was only just starting, and we now have a team that is a primary automation services provider to a range of government departments. I’m also proud of our incredibly rapid growth – when I started four years ago, we had 170 people working for us, and we now are at 500. We’ve done fantastically well considering our size and the massive scope of our work.