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Helping Veterans Who Code

5 min read

Roughly 10%* of all job postings in the military require technical skills (like crypto technician). Yet, the military doesn’t offer a clear transition path into software engineering roles.

When Jon Deng was deployed as a field artillery captain in Baghdad, part of his job at the tactical operations center was managing critical intelligence reports.

“I had to consolidate information on one Excel spreadsheet, which was constantly updated in real-time by multiple people,” Deng says. “It was tedious…not very automated at all.”

It was precisely at this moment when his inner hacker started growing restless. Today, as Jon prepares to transition out of the military, he is using his self taught programming skills to look for a web development job.

Jon is one of 250,000 veterans who will leave the military this year; 3-5% of which have the technical skills to jump into technology roles directly after the military. This is according Mike Slagh, founder of  VetTechTrek, a nonprofit that connects veterans with tech companies through regular tours. Slagh, a veteran and serial entrepreneur, says companies can hire roughly 12,000 skilled veterans for technical roles, and thousands more for operations and customer-facing positions.

Currently, Mike is helping vets like Jon find job opportunities in tech. But his operation is very manual. “I was giving one-on-one advice to over 1,000 veterans,” Slagh says, “and I wanted a way to scale, automate and credentialize the vetting process to help veterans find careers in software engineering.”

Take someone like Jon, for instance, who has exceptional coding skills, is driven and an all-around strong candidate. “When we connect him to tech companies, how can we prove to companies like Uber or Facebook—who have a very high hiring bar—that Jon can in fact code well?” Slagh says.

Today HackerRank is proud to announce that we’re partnering with VetTechTrek to help Mike Slagh grow his operation with HackerRank’s standard credentialing system. VetTechTrek will be using HackerRank to evaluate all veterans’ coding skills, enabling veterans to prove they are qualified for software engineering roles. We’ll work together to create more opportunities for companies to hire skilled veterans in the near future.

We sat down with both Mike and Jon to learn more about the state of hiring for veterans today, and how this partnership can help veterans who code:

Jon, tell us about how you learned how to code while in the military

I started on Code Academy. But it was pretty overwhelming. There are all these languages, but what am I supposed to be learning? We were working 7 days a week, 12 hour days. There was some time to study, but I was tired a lot. I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to.

I was all over the place because I was interested in a lot of different things, and I wasn’t sure what to focus on. I became interested in web development, so focused there. Then, I got into Hack Reactor. I have a very understanding boss who allowed me to join the program while I transition out of the service.

Is it becoming more common to learn how to code while in the military?

Generally, I’d say it’s becoming more common. In the beginning, I felt like I was on my own. Nobody in the Army had any idea of the stuff I was doing. People were asking, “Are you playing video games all the time?” It was hard to explain why I was getting so little sleep. There’s a gap in understanding technology.

How did you get involved with VetTechTrek?

I felt sort of alone, what am I doing? I discovered this universe of vet transition services organizations. It’s hard when you don’t have a sense of direction. I applied for a “trek,” which is a tech company tour, but didn’t get in. I kept in touch with Mike from VetTechTrek.

I also got involved with Operation Code, an open-source volunteering skill training program on GitHub for military and families.

Did you apply your coding skills on the job in the Army?

There’s an intensive leadership course in the Army called Ranger School. We were sending a lot of people to go to Ranger School, but people were failing very quickly. Some were failing as early as the second day. My boss had to report on what we could do to solve this.

I was able to use my Python skills to do an analysis to understand what the likely indicators or attributes are that make someone likely to graduate. I had this idiosyncratic spreadsheet of where people were from and what their job was in the Army in order to do an analysis of which people had the highest likelihood to graduate and which organizations had good preparation for the Ranger School.

How does the transition really work?

In the military, everything is deeply tied to your career progression. And there’s usually a credential associated with what you do. The Department of Labor matches jobs to other jobs that seem similar in civilian sector instead of matching skills to abilities. For instance, Mike was a bomb disposal officer in the Navy, so he’d be matched to become a supervisor at a chemical plant or nuclear plant. It doesn’t quite make sense because it doesn’t factor in Mike’s current skills.

If you’re in the military, and you’re looking to transition into a software engineering job, what do you do?

I looked into it. And to be honest, there’s not a whole lot of resources specifically for software engineering training. There are courses for, say, managers of a tech distribution center, tech salesman or database administrator, but nothing specifically for software engineering. But on the upside, there are a lot of online resources.

What do you think about VetTechTrek’s plan of using coding assessments?

Being able to show an objective score of your technical skill is one big part of the solution. Going from the military to software engineering is a pretty big career switch, so it’s helpful to have an objective evaluation. The other critical aspect is the network. I’ve found that developing a connection, and knowing someone in your target community, allows you to get higher.

That’s why organizations like HackerRank and VetTechTrek are going to be critical in making the transition to software engineering.

For more details, here’s a Medium post I wrote on how I learned to code in the military.

 

*10% is based on an analysis done by Mike Slagh, founder of VetTechTrek

 

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