Newark boasts a large – and growing – tech force. Brainwalk, an occasional series, will introduce you to some of its rising stars.

Standing near his office on the tenth floor of the glass skyscraper housing Panasonic’s North American headquarters in Newark, Tyrell Cotten is distant -- about 6,500 miles -- from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, where he once served as part of U.S. forces. 

Yet, in his mind, the knowledge gained from his service as a sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard forms a direct connection to his current post as an Information Technology program specialist for the technology giant.

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The gleaming, modernistic structure that he now considers his professional home has themed floors devoted to discovery. Cotten, 32, works on the Albert Einstein floor. In the National Guard, he worked as a satellite systems operator. “I chose something in the tech space,” he said.“I wanted to do something where I was using more strategy, at least from a technical perspective.”

Trained in sports management with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Seton Hall University, Cotten lacked the IT background needed for his work in Afghanistan. But the Queens, N.Y.-born Cotten learned. 

In his six-year stint with the National Guard, he served in Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013. Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan, was the first to fall to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Though it was considered safer than some other spots in Afghanistan, American troops still had to deal with hostile forces. 

“We were told that Afghani were firing on military personnel on the base,” Cotten said. “We had to walk everywhere with our rifles.”

Cotten managed a “help desk” serving U.S. Special Forces. 

“We had to make sure they had communications,” Cotten said. “If they were out on a mission and needed to reach their tactical operations center on base, we had to make sure that lines weren’t down, that they could radio in and that their laptops worked. Things could go wrong at 1 in the morning. It didn’t matter. It was a 24-hour operation and we made sure that everything was up and running.”

He learned that, under pressure, there was no allowance for failure. There was always a way to “get it done,” he said. And it was better if he could find a way to do it sooner, rather than later. Being on time always meant being 15 minutes early, he said. “Be ready and be early because you never know when you are going to be needed,” he said.

Before he was in the Guard, Cotton had worked as a video production trainee for the National Basketball Association in Secaucus. In Afghanistan, he had to learn more about communications technology. “I was crimping wires and creating cables,” he said. “It was really interesting.”

Cotten rose in the ranks in the Guard, becoming a sergeant, and choosing, despite his college degree, the path as a non-commissioned officer. “I had a great time with my soldiers and I still speak with them today,” he said.

When Cotten finished his tour of service with the Guard, he was placed into a program run by the non-profit Workforce Opportunity Services (WOS). Founded in 2005, the organization partners with businesses and assists veterans and those in underserved communities to fine-tune work skills so as to align them with industry. 

The WOS program he was in, located at Rutgers University – Newark was funded by companies that included Prudential and Panasonic. Participants receive training in technical and interpersonal skills as well as advice in boosting self-confidence.

Cotten had received top marks for skills developed in the service, so he decided to continue in IT.

“I realized I was pretty good at it and that I should keep going on this track,” Cotten said.

He came to Panasonic as a contract employee in the spring of 2014 through the WOS program and learned about project management. By October, company officials brought him on full-time.

In his current position, he employs a “soft skills” approach where he works with project managers and other members of the company’s business units and assists them in completing their tasks by making sure proper resources are aligned to do so.  Specialists in an array of software products must interact with business units and any changes in software codes need to be approved, tracked, and documented.

Cotten is also responsible for making sure all documentation of any changes is kept for review by auditors. It’s a varied portfolio, including constant communications with different in-house teams, quantifying work efforts, allocating resources, and maintaining intricate documentation systems.

His experience in the service helped him learn about the importance of communications. But he finds he is evolving.

“In the military, if I needed to get something done, I was the high-ranking NCO there, so they were going to do it and get it done,” Cotton said. “Now, I need to lead by influence, by give-and-take. You are speaking to people, not to convince them to do what you say, but to work with them. You are developing relationships and creating something.”

Kitta MacPherson is an award-winning science writer who previously worked for The Star-Ledger. She teaches journalism at St. Benedicts Prep.

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