Billy Dewalt
Billy Dewalt
Senior IT Project Manager

People often focus on what a person with a disability can’t do. I’ve witnessed a man with no arms swing a kettlebell. I’ve watched a blind Marine shoot a rifle at a range, consistently hitting a steel target with only minimal help from a safety officer. I’m humbled by a community of differently abled people doing amazing things — people who keep their focus on possibilities.

I served in the US Army for most of my early adult life, and I am part of the majority of service members who get injured in training. When I served at Fort Bragg, I experienced a number of concussion injuries, three of which were from jumping out of airplanes. In 2002, while working 16-18 hour days in Germany and Turkey, I started experiencing absence seizures that were caused by my previous head injuries and exacerbated by sleep deprivation.

When I saw a neurologist, it was determined that I was having partial complex seizures. I had scar tissue in my right frontal lobe as a result of head trauma. I was put on a bunch of medications aimed at controlling the seizures and stayed on those medications long after I left the military.

In 2013, untreated herniated discs in my back ruptured and caused cauda equina syndrome, which required emergency surgery. After my surgery, I was put on a number of antidepressants, which upped my total medication count to 14. All of those medications together became a slippery slope. Between the antidepressants and the medications for my back, I began having suicidal thoughts as a side effect. I ended up in the hospital again from a suicide attempt.

At that point, I talked to my doctor and figured out a plan to stop medicating entirely. That’s when I found adaptive CrossFit, where people with all different conditions compete. I actively replaced my medications with going to the gym every day and participating in CrossFit competitions. At the same time, I also began building my support network, which equally helped as much as the exercise.

My service dog Quinn, however, has been my biggest help these past few years. She takes a lot of weight off my shoulders by helping to mitigate my seizure disorder, PTSD, and anxiety.

Billy De Walt Podium with Service Dog
Billy De Walt Service Dog Quinn
Billy and his service dog Quinn

I didn’t truly answer the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” until I finished serving in the Army. The possibilities weren’t clear to me until I began researching post-service career options. I noticed an abundance of Project Management jobs, so I took a deeper dive into the field. I learned that the key traits of a project manager aligned with the soft skills I gained in the military.

The primary reason I chose Project Management was because I was told I wouldn’t be good at it. When I finished my service, I spent an entire day taking career aptitude tests as part of a career counseling transition program. The test administrator told me that based on my test scores, I should look for something involving manual labor. One of the worst things you can tell a serviceperson is that they can't do something. Of course, that lights a fire and motivates us!

What those tests don’t show is that the military relies heavily on project management — people lead projects and contribute to projects every day. The military takes a risk-based approach to project management. We go through a project and discuss everything from timelines to what can go wrong. Often, we sit around a “sand table” and build a model of what we want to achieve. That way, we lay out a path from point A to point B, locate high ground, and see any values or choke points. After that, we rehearse with our project team until the process becomes second nature. Project management in the civilian sector deals with the same concepts. We try to sequence events and figure out who does what, when, and how. Then, we assess any possible risks.

I chose Project Management to complement my injuries. That influenced me to follow my own career path and carve out my own possibilities, rather than being told what I could or couldn’t do. But when I first jumped into the field, I had no concept of placing value on or monetizing soft skills. I was scared of people when I left the military. I didn't want to interact.

*****

In 2008, I began my professional career at Allscripts. But despite my professional goals being within reach, the civilian landscape was still foreign to me. I grew up in a military family and lived on army bases my whole life. I can tell you firsthand that the military is an encapsulated community. Anything and everything that could go wrong is taken care of by a faceless entity. The military as an organization makes sure you're taken care of so you can deploy to faraway lands and do your job effectively.

In the military, if I walk into a room wearing my Sergeant’s uniform, my interactions are solely based on the rank on my shoulder. Trying to navigate that in the civilian world is much different — the rank structure and hierarchies are less visible. This dilemma often creates an identity crisis for military folks. Our identities are completely wrapped up in our last name, rank, and badges. Once you leave the military, that doesn't exist anymore. In fact, since I had lived on military bases my whole life, I never experienced life as a true civilian growing up. It was like living in a bubble.

At Allscripts, I had great mentors in Marie Finnegan and Stephen Aleksza, who recognized my struggles in the civilian world. They countered my struggles by helping me hone my project management skillset and learn how to prioritize tasks. I worked my way up the ladder, starting as the support structure of my product line. Eventually, I became an Implementation Consultant and finally an Associate Project Manager. In 2015, I earned my PMP certification. I stood in front of countless customers on a daily basis, which helped me commercialize my soft skills. Now, I love interacting and being in front of people. I thrive with typically high-stress projects and clients. These skills only became stronger as I went on to work for companies like Siemens Healthcare, Cerner Healthcare, and Bioclinica.

*****

From the moment I started at PRA, they looked past the things I couldn’t do or perform as well. PRA has a specific division that purposefully seeks out and recruits servicepeople who are transitioning from the military to civilian world. That's the best program of that kind I've seen to date — it replicates many of the processes I experienced in the military, as well as harnesses the strengths I gained from my service.

In my role as a Project Manager, I don’t have a different set of standards — I’m required to do the same things as any PM on my team. My managers develop performance plans for me to focus on where I can improve and check in to ensure I’m working towards those goals. They are all-stars — they take an active role in learning about my disabilities and how to assist me in my daily functions at PRA.

I’m also part of PRA’s first and only service dog team on the roster. Misty King, who is one of the HR business partners at PRA, worked hard with me to make my transition to my day one with Quinn smooth. She was instrumental in having conversations with me during onboarding. She also conversed with leadership, PMO, and IT teams about my onboarding in order to make it as smooth as possible. She set up communications with people to let them know there would be a service dog in the office, instructing them on how to interact with Quinn. Misty has also kept in touch over the past few years to check in and make sure Quinn and I are still enjoying our time at PRA.

From my other professional experiences, I can tell you that this is somewhat abnormal. I had two other jobs with Quinn before coming to PRA, and each transition was difficult. I was treated like my skill set was less than it is as a Project Manager — like I was a fragile, weak person.

At PRA, this has never been the case. Throughout my time here, I’ve continued to build my skills and work towards my professional goals effectively and comfortably. I believe PRA is the gold standard for helping individuals become their best professional selves, and always looks to the possible instead of the impossible.

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