When Tom Thomas was preparing to separate from the United States Air Force in his late 20s, he wasn’t sure how to start a career as a civilian. With 10 years under his belt as a decorated military combat veteran, he knew how to fix fighter jets, but he didn’t know how that knowledge would translate into a business skill.
Then he found computer science.
“I loved computers, and I enjoyed fixing things and learning how they work,” Thomas says. “Computer science held an interest for me, and frankly, I enjoyed it, which I think is often an underrated thing. You spend the majority of your waking hours working, so you have to make sure it’s something you enjoy.”
Thomas went on to build a robust career in information technology. He authored 12 books, including OSPF Network Design Solutions, a definitive resource for routing design and solutions. He also worked for technology conglomerate Cisco Systems, where he earned the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification and discovered his passion for teaching.
Thomas is now a computer science professor in the Information Technology program at Tulane University School of Professional Advancement (SoPA). As an educator, he pulls from his experience in the military and IT to guide students in building their careers.
The Military’s Lifelong Impact
Thomas earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science while stationed in England with the U.S. Air Force. After repairing planes every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., he would race home, see his wife and daughter, grab a bite to eat, and head to class on the base until 10 p.m.
“I recall many days studying while the jets launched,” Thomas says. “I wanted to improve myself and make a better home for my family. If I graduated, I would be one of the first in my family.”
Thomas went on to earn a Master of Science in Network Architectures. Still, he was unsure how to enter the civilian workforce after military retirement — until he received some unexpected help. At one job interview, a Navy veteran used his experience to help Thomas adjust his resume to fit the market.
“I’ll never forget this guy,” Thomas says. “This was a big ‘pay it forward’ moment for me. That one event really started my journey in wanting to help people with technology.”
Looking back, Thomas now sees how his military experience armed him with many of the skills he needed to succeed in his career.
“The military really laid a foundation for me — in my work ethic and values, as well as teaching me how to work in a team and accomplish difficult goals,” Thomas says. “At the time, I didn’t realize the lifelong impact it would have.”
An IT Career With Cisco, Nike, and Disney
Thomas’ first job in IT was at a help desk. Companies were starting to lay fiber cables and build their network capabilities, and he assisted with troubleshooting and implementation.
“No one likes to do it,” he says, “but pretty much that’s where most people start.”
When Thomas eventually went on to work for Cisco, he became the first Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), authoring technical documents and delivering presentations to partner organizations. He also designed and developed training courses, which sparked his enthusiasm for teaching.
“I was working with teachers and seeing what they did on a daily basis,” Thomas says. “That’s when I got that bug. I just really loved seeing the lights come on — being able to help somebody resolve a real-world problem and seeing that light come on in their head. That was a pretty powerful emotion to witness.”
Thomas went through the training and exam process to become a Cisco Certified Systems Instructor (CCSI). Though he enjoyed it, the demanding travel schedule began to take a toll on him and his family, so he shifted roles, becoming a solutions architect.
Over time, Thomas held a range of titles, including senior network manager at AT&T, director of data center cloud services at The Walt Disney Company, and director of operations at Nike. In each of these roles, he continued to pull from his military and IT experience.
Thomas recalls one crucial moment when his military background kicked into gear. He and his team were conducting a network redesign for a company in the middle of the night when they discovered a detrimental bug in the code.
“I ended up having to stop, not panic, reassess, get the facts together, and then start digging,” he says. “The result was that we had to change everything on the fly because we didn't have the luxury to roll back.”
Thomas was able to muster the discipline needed to face adversity and come through the other side.
“It’s like I tell my kids: Being brave doesn’t mean that you’re not scared,” he says. “It just means you do it anyway, even though you are afraid.”
Teaching and Designing Courses at Tulane
Thomas started working at Tulane University when an old friend reached out for help. He needed someone to redesign a course on network architecture to incorporate newer technologies into the curriculum. Thomas jumped in, developed the course, and taught it.
He continues to enjoy the opportunity to educate students about technology and see those lightbulbs come on.
“It’s the ability to help people and coach them along the way — that’s the thing that really gets me now,” Thomas says. “When I was younger, it was about learning new technology, and that was exciting. But quite honestly, the more complex puzzle is dealing with people.”
He also urges students to find balance while navigating the ever-changing field of IT and to use their college experience as a launchpad for the rest of their careers.
“Completing college is not the end,” Thomas says. “It is the beginning of a lifelong journey and the basis for you to build on going forward. Take risks when you can, embrace stability when needed, and above all, love what you do.”
Build Your Career in Information Technology
Tulane University School of Professional Advancement (SoPA) offers several online IT degree programs that prepare students for advanced careers in fields such as information technology management, cybersecurity, and technology architecture. Students develop problem-solving skills, business acumen, and practical applications for real-world technology solutions.