Thousands of Veterans Want to Learn to Code — But Can’t

David Molina launched Operation Code with a single goal: Modernize the outdated GI Bill so veterans can land tech jobs.

David Molina was stationed at Dover Air Force Base, 100 miles outside Baltimore, when he started trying to become a coder. After 12 years of service, his time in the army was almost up, and he needed a new career. “My dream has always been to create something in my head,” says the 38-year-old Molina. So in his spare time, he tried to build iPhone apps and learn some basic programming. He even took Mattan Griffel’s One Month Rails course on Skillshare.

He wasn’t very successful. “It just didn’t click. I couldn’t deploy anything.” Molina started hunting for help in Baltimore, where he quickly fell into B’more on Rails, a longstanding Ruby on Rails Meetup in the city. “People taught me about open source. There was pizza, there was beer,” he recalls. “They made me feel like I was at home.”But after he left the army in 2013, Molina and his family moved back to his native Oregon. As he weighed his options, he decided that a code school was his best bet to keep learning. He needed an immersive program, but on a faster timeline than college could offer — he had a wife and three daughters to support. But he couldn’t afford the programs on his own, and the military didn’t recognize code schools as legitimate enterprises.

“I could not use my GI Bill to go to code school. That was the number one roadblock,” Molina says.

He could have used those funds to become an HVAC technician, a trucker, a fire fighter, or many other kinds of skilled specialists, like thousands of veterans before him. But the profession that was being hyped as the new cool thing to do was closed to him. Even the US government, his former employer, knew that programming was the wave of the future. When the White House launched its TechHire initiative in 2015 — to get 100,000 people working in the tech industry by 2020—President Obama extolled the virtue of training the “workers of tomorrow” in coding and other IT skills to lead them to middle-class careers.

“When these tech jobs go unfilled, it’s a missed opportunity for the workers, but it’s also a missed opportunity for your city, your community, your county, your state, and our nation,” Obama said that March, adding that “the good news is these workers may emerge from the unlikeliest places.”

Molina is one of thousands of vets who return home from tours of duty eager to reinvent themselves as software engineers. They’re not gunning for jobs at Google or Facebook. They just want stable gigs in livable parts of the country, becoming one of the 92 percent of technical workers who don’t live in the valley. But many of them struggle to find their way in.

“We joined the service to fight and win our wars,” Molina says. “And here we are, getting out, and we’re not taken care of.”

It was October 2012 when technology entrepreneur (and prolific tweeter) Anil Dash wrote the opening page of what he argued should be a new chapter for the tech industry. In a blog post, Dash called for efforts to teach “mid-level programming as a skilled trade.”

“[T]he tech sector,” he wrote, “has to acknowledge and accept that a broad swath of jobs in the middle of our industry require skills but need not be predicated on a full liberal arts education at a high-end university.” He called this sort of person, the one who learns to code but isn’t a Stanford computer science grad, the blue-collar coder.

The word programmer often evokes an image of uber-caffeinated youthfulness: the flip-flopped, probably male recent college grad high on Red Bull and a million app ideas. He’s ready to crush some Python code at a weekend hackathon and then whip up a pitch deck to chase venture capitalists’ dollars. That misperception leaves out — among many other techie demographic groups — the multitude of IT workers who maintain the security network at a local bank, say, or provide web support for a law firm, both of which are “solid, respectable jobs that are as key to our economy as a 22-year-old trying to pivot and iterate their way into an acqui-hire,” to borrow Dash’s phrasing.

The idea of the blue-collar coder is catching on. It’s what Obama’s White House recognized in starting up the TechHire initiative: There are roughly 500,000 jobs in IT currently open, and the average tech worker makes $83,000 a year. It’s what Clive Thompson wrote about, with a nod to Dash, in a Wired column at the end of 2016: “What if we regarded code not as a high-stakes, sexy affair, but the equivalent of skilled work at a Chrysler plant?”

The growing recognition of coding as a stable, middle-class job has fueled the rise of coding bootcamps—crash courses, usually lasting three to six months, designed to turn motivated enrollees into entry-level web developers and software engineers. Over the last four years, the number of graduates from bootcamps has more than doubled, according to numberscompiled by Course Report, a company that reviews and studies attendance at nearly 100 code schools in the US and Canada. In 2013, 2,178 people graduated from coding bootcamps. In 2016, the number was close to 18,000.

As the schools have matured, so have the success rates of many of the top ones. Per Course Report: Nearly half of all students who attend coding bootcamps made something between $25,000 and $50,000 in their previous jobs. Average code school graduates, now working as software engineers or web developers, see their salaries jump by $26,000. And even those who attend a code school can end up with a Silicon Valley career at companies like Facebook and Google.

Molina speaks at a congressional briefing on veterans and tech in November 2016. (Courtesy of Operation Code)

“The average boot camper has a bachelor’s degree and six or seven years of work experience. They’re not exactly looking to take a four-year hiatus before they change careers,” says Course Report cofounder Liz Eggleston. “That’s probably similar for a veteran trying to reenter the workforce.”

For vets — who return home at a rate of 550 a day, ready to launch new careers — the programs seem to make a lot of sense. Like other forms of vocational training, code schools are meant to equip students quickly with hands-on skills. What students miss out on in terms of key topics learned in a traditional four-year computer science degree, such as computer architecture, they gain in less financial debt and a shortened timeline. What’s more, the emphasis at the end of a bootcamp is job placement. The latest survey from Course Report shows that two thirds of code school graduates found a job within three months of graduating.

Still, the programs aren’t cheap. Many cost more than $10,000. And for the 200,000 vets who leave the military every year intending to learn a new career — typically using GI Bill benefits—that’s a huge problem.

One year after Dash penned his paean to blue-collar coding, David Molina headed to Washington, D.C. to attend a veterans’ conference. He found that many of his peers harbored the same programming aspirations he did — and all of them had encountered his same problem. They couldn’t pay for code school. Needing to provide financially for their families, some had already ditched their dreams of a more lucrative career in software and instead taken other jobs. With no job and seemingly no pathway forward, Molina decided that they should band together. So in 2014 he launched Operation Code.

Molina targeted his nonprofit to helping veterans who want to get into programming but don’t know how to start. It offers vets many kinds of support, but its main goal is to get the GI Bill to cover code schools. As it’s grown, Operation Code has morphed into a massive Slack group with more than 1,200 members and about 60 channels, divided by subjects of interest. All members are military veterans, says Molina, who makes no money from running the nonprofit. His all-volunteer crew takes on various tasks, such as asking organizers of developer conferences to waive attendance fees for a few vets and recruiting employees from companies like GitHub to serve as mentors inside the Slack group.

For Will Criss, a 30-year-old vet who left the military in 2012 and immediately began using his GI Bill benefits to pursue a degree in computer science from the University of Phoenix online, Operation Code was pivotal. By late 2016, Criss was beginning to panic. He was one semester away from graduating, but he still had no practical programming experience. He hunted for junior Java programming positions using job boards like Dice, Monster, and Indeed, but got nowhere. Internships in his tiny north Florida town weren’t plentiful, either. Because his education had been online, he hadn’t built up a network of mentors or other engineers who could help him get noticed by employers.

Criss decided that a code school was the quickest route to solving those problems — except for the staggering tuition costs. On one late winter day, he was chatting in the Operation Code Slack group when he heard about Uncommon Coders, a three-month bootcamp specifically for veterans, in northern Virginia. Better still, it was offering full-ride scholarships.

Criss applied, got in, and moved up to the D.C. area in late January. An affable man who, like any good programmer, runs on caffeine, he credited the Operation Code network for breaking him out of his cycle of frustration. “I would’ve never at all heard of Uncommon Coders if not for them,” he says.

Operation Code’s volunteer staff in DC, from left to right Conrad Hollomon (OC Chief of Staff/Operations), Michael Bell (OC Director of Public Policy), Ian Lenny (OC Director of Code School Technical Assistance), and Molina. (Courtesy of Operation Code)

Programs like Uncommon Coders are rare. In early March, Molina was back on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. So far he hasn’t had any success in getting the GI Bill expanded to make it easier to find a bootcamp that accepts its financing.

Some code schools do accept GI Bill benefits — longer-standing ones that have made it through State Approving Agencies, which work on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs to decide which programs can use GI Bill money. By Operation Code’s unofficial count, only nine schools fall in this category. One of them is the Denver, Colorado-based Turing School, which only began accepting GI Bill benefits last fall. Jeff Casimir, its founder, notes that the GI Bill’s financing is built around traditional university education, which a code school is not. “So vets will have a maximum allotment per semester, but we don’t have semesters,” he says. “We had to do a lot of explaining about how the structure of the program goes.”

Recently, Molina’s cause has been gaining momentum. In early April, House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy introduced a bill that would provide $75 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs to start a pilot program of accelerated courses across a gamut of technology topics, including programming. Though the VET-TEC Act doesn’t expand GI Bill benefits so that they cover code schools, it does expand the TechHire Initiative started by President Obama in 2015.

On April 28th, Criss graduated from Uncommon Coders. When he and I talked about a week before his graduation, he sounded cheerful. The reason why: He said he’s currently interviewing with a few potential employers.

“The fact that I’m making it to in-person interviews is a lot different than where I was last year, when I wouldn’t even get a response,” Criss told me. “I feel confident that within the next month I will be working in some position where I am excited about the work.”

As for Molina, he believes the VET-TEC Act is a step in the right direction. He even got an email from McCarthy’s office last August to submit his “wish list” for any new legislation that would help veterans get jobs in the tech industry. The successes are bittersweet. To support his family, Molina ended up putting his own coding ambitions on hold, turning instead to landscaping and carpentry. His day job now is running an excavator, loading dirt into dump trucks. Any coding Molina does is mainly for, and through, the Operation Code website, which he built using Ruby on Rails.

He says that at this point he struggles with the idea of stepping back from his nonprofit and heading off to code school himself. In part, Molina says, it’s because he can’t forget one particular vet, who struggled to become a programmer and contemplated suicide before he found out about Operation Code.

“He was so depressed because he couldn’t do what he loved,” Molina says. “He had no idea that there was a community of vets trying to get into the tech industry.”

Today, Molina tells me, that same vet is a project manager at a web development agency. He made it. For Molina, those wins might matter more than any app launch ever could.

by Andrew Zaleski

Thousands of Veterans Want to Learn to Code — But Can’t