Leaving Government for the Private Sector – Part 1

Laura Thomas is a former CIA operations officer. Reading how she moved in 2021 from CIA ops into a quantum technology company offered insightful career transition advice for those leaving her agency. Most of her lessons were applicable to any government employee venturing out to the private sector.
Below is the first of her three-part series.


At least a few times a month, people looking to jump ask about my transition, which has led to me consolidating my answers below. To be up front, some of what I write will be controversial and all of it is biased. Due to length, I’ve broken it up into a three-part series.

Is it really a big jump to the private sector? It wasn’t a big jump. At the Agency, 85% of my time was spent navigating bureaucracy and equities, arguing for resources and permission for operations, and dealing with the bottom rung of employees, all while making decisions with little data or data overload. Only 15% of my time was doing the more exciting operations. Though that 15% – along with the camaraderie of some of my colleagues – made the work deeply meaningful.

Industry is similar. Human nature is human nature, and I deal with many of the same challenges and pull many of the same levers of satisfaction. The difference is my decisions now aren’t life or death.

Another large difference is the greater level of autonomy I now have. Making decisions on the fly in operations is an extreme example of autonomy, of course, but there is always a back-end overhead. Depending on company culture, decision-making can be driven dramatically down with less overhead. As an example, I can make direct recommendations to Congress with no oversight, no internal reporting requirements, and with the trust of the CEO and Board.

Do you miss it? Yes. Nothing beats the rush of bumping a target who agrees to meet with you again or landing in a foreign country for the first time. I no longer know the stories behind the headlines, and I’m not the person making those stories happen. Aside from close friends, I am now treated as an “outsider” by former colleagues.

Fortunately, I still work with smart people solving hard problems every day. And there is still meaning in what I do. Raising tens of millions of dollars from investors to advance a technology faster than the Chinese Communist Party uses the same skillset. Learning how M&A deals are structured gives me the same thrill as first learning the mechanics of a surveillance detection route. It’s the excitement of being a beginner again, but one with deep and profound experiences, which blunts the downs and enhances the ups that you will face post-Agency.

Today, I get to move our national security mission in emerging technologies farther and faster in ways that I could not in government. And while there is some level of self-justification in these statements, there is nonlinearity in industry. You can move at exponential speed.

How do you transfer your old skills to your current role? Driving decisions, organizational change, and operations in a deep tech company presents many of the same challenges and opportunities as my time in government. Leading and managing people amid uncertainty, high degrees of change, and making decisions remain my day-to-day functions. My current role as a Chief of Staff is in many ways like a DCOS (deputy chief of station) or a traditional Chief of Staff in government. I work behind the scenes, and sometimes out front, to shape our company vision, strategy and then execute, measure, and refine. (Rather than giving away bags of cash in my old job, I now ask for money from investors.)

Relationship dynamics are the same, minus the burden of extreme secrecy. All the things that most of the outside world doesn’t understand as being critical to a handler-asset relationship are just as critical to relationships in industry. Judgment remains paramount.

In the Agency I dealt with a few difficult personalities focused on empire-building and metrics rather than running sound operations. You likely will still deal with this in industry, though there are far fewer layers and entrenched interests to deal with. Knowing how to navigate various stakeholders and interests, avoid landmines, and bring people together is an extremely useful skill in industry. If you’ve been a “doer” who knows how to communicate, work, and gain buy-in across an enterprise that is geographically dispersed, as well as with and against external third parties who are frenemies (or outright hostile), this will serve you well in industry. Talk about it when you’re seeking jobs and interviewing.

Did you make any resume missteps? Most often your resume is not what will get you a job, and submitting one to a recruiter or resume bank is not the right move. Odds are your resume is almost certainly written in government-speak, and probably more terrible than you realize. It likely talks about all the jobs you held (to the degree you can share) and the dates and maybe the general locations but says nothing about what you actually accomplished or how it specifically relates to industry. You probably won’t even get beyond the AI filter.

Having a resume that says you served in country X and wrote reports that went to policymakers, and “the President,” might get you a curiosity interview, but won’t get you a job. Unless you can translate how your skills provide commercial value, you won’t get hired.

For starters, first figure out which industry you want to work in, narrow it down, and work hard to get intros at the senior levels to a handful of companies (Board of Directors member, Advisory Board member, member of the C-suite (CEO, CTO, CFO, etc), and/or investor.) You have to do a lot of networking to create your list and build your network. Find a way to meet and captivate them with a story of what you did, and how your skills can transfer this to industry and add value to their company.

An early learning point for me came as I was speaking with a prospective VC about a job. He flat-out told me he didn’t understand my value to the company. He asked point blank, “How much money did you net the U.S. Government over your career, what exactly did you do in order to get those results, and how would you bring me those same returns?”

You will get asked a question like this.

My suggestion is to say something along these lines: “It’s exponentially harder to be hired by the Agency than it is to get into Harvard, and not only was I hired based on an assessment of my judgment and the ability to operate in ambiguous situations, I then was trained to do just that, and then did it for years.

I was entrusted to create and carry out some of the most sensitive and most important missions that the U.S. Government conducts, often with little direction. Not only did I have to plan and do them, I had to do so in secret, with lives on the line, which is hard to put a price tag on.

You can give me your toughest problem, and I will figure out how to solve it in record time with buy-in from those whom you rarely get buy-in, and position you for multiple shots on goal for future opportunities because I will have your company and sector wired. I can do for you what I did for our country: evaluate opportunity, mitigate risk, and make quick and smart decisions that attack problems differently than a typical insider would. I’ll turn my salary into millions of dollars in returns or investments within two years – not singlehandedly – but in a cooperative way that leverages many parts of the company. We’ll row in unison and we’ll row in the right direction.”

How did you get your current job? I networked nonstop and ran a full targeting campaign for multiple companies to get to their CEOs. I didn’t have a resume when I was looking for jobs. I had to find senior people who had left the agency who would vouch for me.

For my current company Infleqtion, I was introduced to a former senior Intelligence Community official who previously served on a board with the CEO, who made an introduction. When we met I asked the CEO his challenges and outlined how I might be able to help. Five months later, the CEO called and said he may have a job for me and invited me to visit and speak with others in the company for their input. I received an offer shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, three years before I left the Agency I had done a cold outreach on LinkedIn to the person I suspected was the hiring manager for a job advertisement for a company that I liked. The person told me they wanted someone with more business experience for the role, but then came calling three years later when another role opened that they thought would be a good fit. Ultimately, I met each layer up in that company including the CEO.

This all came in handy when negotiating salary, title, and function. From the many, many hours of networking hustle, I received two job offers, which happened in parallel, and I negotiated around the same title and compensation levels. Throughout the entire process, I forwarded them relevant articles and commentary on opportunities to demonstrate my value. Ultimately, I chose Infleqtion because of its mission, its people, and its reputation amid US Government circles.

Action: A) If you’re an A-player, stay in government. B) If you’re an A-player and leave, do great things on the outside and return to government service at some point.

Coming up next:

•  Part II – what are the criteria for choosing your next role, the most common types of business roles that formers go into, and how to think about big vs small company risks and current markets.

•  Part III  – title, compensation (salary + equity + bonuses) and resources you can use.

Read the rest of Laura’s blogs at https://www.lauraethomas.com/

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