How the Army Prepared Me for Life in Solar

By: Keyes Metcalf

This past May, after 25 years of wearing the uniform of the United States Army, I embarked on one of my more terrifying missions, finding a career outside of the military. I don’t make that statement lightly. I was born and raised in rural Vermont to a family of veterans. My grandfather served in WWII, my dad during Vietnam, and my brother still serves today.  

I grew up knowing that after college I wanted to serve my country and be a part of something bigger than myself. So, after school, I committed to eight years, which was such a tremendous experience that I elected to continue my service. During that time, I joined the Special Forces as a “Green Beret” and traveled the world, which was something I had always dreamed about. After 25 years, I finally felt like I had accomplished everything I had set out to achieve and decided it was time to pursue a new mission in civilian life. 

Keyes Metcalf is a Project Director at Silicon Ranch

On the surface a career in Army Special Forces as a “Green Beret” is radically different from overseeing the development of solar plants in the private sector. While the missions are dissimilar, I have found the skills and attributes gained over 25 years of service are invaluable to the energy industry. In my current role I serve as a Project Director for a Tennessee-based full-service solar and carbon solutions company. In its simplest terms this entails working with a cross-functional team to accomplish a difficult goal on a prescribed schedule. All of this must be done while tightly managing resources and monitoring costs.   

If you want to hear more from veterans who have made the transition from serving in the Armed Forces to solar, listen to our special Veteran’s Day podcast where host Nick de Vries invites Daizjah Morris and Chris Frobuccino on the show to discuss their journey between ending their time in service and finding their next mission in civilian life. 

Problem Solving Framework

There are very few days where I don’t encounter an issue that requires a well thought out solution. Some are time-sensitive while others do not demand the same level of urgency. Most require sifting through various amounts of data to find the key pieces of information necessary to reach a decision. Recently we found a sinkhole at one of my projects. This was a scenario we did not expect and it required a quick solution. In the end it fundamentally changed how we approached the project, the types of innovations and technology we leveraged and the way we brought the project to completion.  

The military spent years teaching me how to frame a problem, identify viable options, and then select the one with the best chance of success—from overcoming recruiting obstacles to working with groups from entirely different backgrounds to achieve a common goal. The military’s methodology has helped me overcome challenges of all types and sizes in the defense industry and is just as fundamental in my new professional journey.  

Learning From Mistakes

There is a subtle difference between a lesson observed and a lesson learned. The former is simply acknowledged for its impact while the latter changes behavior. This was drilled into me during countless training evolutions and numerous deployments to all corners of the globe. In my new role I routinely work with a team to discuss what happened on our projects, how to avoid repetitive mistakes and most importantly how to implement sustainable change in our pursuit of excellence. Without this self-reflection we would never get better. 

Early in my military career I was leading a training mission consisting of a simulated raid on an enemy objective. This operation required extensive coordination and surgical precision to achieve surprise. Soon after the mission began, things started to unravel. One of our units wasn’t where they were supposed to be, our timing was off, and the outcome of the mission hung in the balance. Despite the setback we adapted and ultimately prevailed. Following the mission, we discovered that one of our leaders had not synchronized his watch with the group. His failure almost jeopardized the outcome. This formative lesson stuck with me, and illustrated how a seemingly small oversight can have an oversized impact. A mistake I never allowed to repeat itself.  

Proactive vs Reactive Approach

Being able to anticipate future challenges and developing a plan to address them is fundamental. It differentiates between waiting for things to happen versus shaping the outcome. In my previous career we had to read the terrain, understand causal relationships, and effectively communicate to stay ahead of future challenges. This is equally true in the solar industry where overseeing the development of solar projects is inherently complex. It all starts with understanding the ground and selecting the right piece of land. Where you build matters.  

Countless scenarios can de-rail an entire project and threaten success. Investing in key relationships early helps create a reliable network before the inevitable crisis emerges. Following an effective communication strategy ensures all stakeholders have a shared understanding of the forthcoming challenges as well as opportunities. In the military, we refer to this as a common sight picture, meaning when you are looking at a situation, you want to make sure everyone else understands all the contributing factors. 

In solar construction certain items are fundamental to project success. Some of these are in high demand and consequently have long procurement lead times. During my time in the military my interaction with medium voltage transformers was limited. In my new career I spend inordinate amounts of time meticulously tracking the status of these “critical path” items, monitoring their production and delivery schedule. This proactive approach is required because if the transformer doesn’t show up on time the entire schedule can be put at risk.  

My time in the United States military was incredibly rewarding. It allowed me to see the world, embark on unique adventures and work with incredible people from all walks of life. Most importantly it allowed me to be part of something bigger than myself. As I approached the end of my military service, I was skeptical my skills would translate into my next journey. Fortunately, they have, and I am grateful to have found a fit in the solar industry, an industry that had previously not been on my radar. I work for an incredible company, leveraging skills learned along the way, all while still being part of something larger than myself. The doors of which were opened to me largely because of the skills I had gained in the military. 

A thought I would leave a transitioning veteran interested in the energy space is to know that you can succeed. Do not be afraid of the unknown. Be hungry to learn while knowing that you already have many of the attributes necessary to do well in whatever industry you choose to enter. 

About the Author

Keyes Metcalf is a Project Director at Silicon Ranch. He joined the company in May 2023 after completing a prestigious SOTF Fellowship that prepared him for a successful transition from the military to the civilian sector. With 20+ years of experience as a Special Forces Officer (Green Beret) in the United States Army, Keyes has honed his skills in strategic planning, global operations, logistics coordination, project management, relationship building, organizational leadership, and talent development. He has led and coached high-performance teams in delivering multimillion-dollar projects in challenging and complex environments across three continents. He has also facilitated the development of the Malawian Defense College and launched the Army’s first new Special Forces Battalion in over 20 years.

Keyes Metcalf during his 25 years in the military

Learn more about opportunities for U.S. Military Veterans in solar at our Veteran Landing Zone.

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